Cassandra Smokes in Bed

[I decided to stick with the theme of modern mythic retellings for a bit. Further thoughts on Cassandra after the jump.]

cassandra_le dormeur by picasso
Pablo Picasso. “The Sleeper.” Provincial Museum of Fine Arts. Málaga.

Cassandra Smokes in Bed

Beside me, limbs tangled in the purple sheets,
Agamemnon sleeps.
His naked back rises and falls gently in slumber
and in no way resembles the bludgeoned calf
I already see him become.

He thinks thrusting into another king’s daughter
will purge him of the memories: his own child on the altar,
the plunge of the blade in his hand.
When he shuddered between my thighs,
I felt her butchered screams pass into me.

I will make room for her amid my madness.
In these generations of death,
what difference comes of yet one more.

As the stickiness of his seed oozes out of me,
I take a long slow drag on my cigarette
and watch the smoke of a dozen burning cities
roll off its embered tip.



I have long been haunted by the figure of Cassandra, the prophet forever ignored, misheard, disbelieved. Cursed for denying her body to a god who wanted it and doomed to spend ten long years pacing the high walls of Troy shrieking how her city will fall, is falling. Has already long since fell. 

In the first play of the Oresteia, Aeschylus tells a version of Agamemnon’s homecoming in which Clytemnestra convinces her husband to enter their palace by walking across a purple (sometimes translated as red) tapestry—an act he initially resists as it could indicate hubris. The first time I saw the play performed, this red cloth reappeared later in the staging as the bloody shroud wrapped around Agamemnon’s murdered corpse.

What has remained with me as an even stronger image, though, is that of Cassandra—now turned war booty—as she too hesitates to enter the building where she knows the queen is about to kill them both. Listening to her describe this foreknowledge to the mystified chorus, before finally submitting to fate and following him in, is chilling.

12 thoughts on “Cassandra Smokes in Bed

  1. Have you read Christa Wolf’s Kassandra? It’s in German, but there are translations floating around. It does interesting things with the interplay between memory and foreknowledge. She also writes in an East German voice, which gives the political part of the story a twist.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes!! Great poem. Cassandra is a wonderfully rich figure, and the Agamemnon is my second-favorite bit of ancient poetry (after Homer). It’s so wildly creepy and vivid – the image of children’s corpses squatting on the rooftop (that comes up somewhere in Cassandra’s ravings) haunts me. Ted Hughes’ excellent translation includes the simile of pity being like a butterfly crushed in a fish. That first chorus is so difficult and intense and unlike anything else in Greek lit – come to think of it, it kind of echoes Cassandra herself, who seems driven mad by it all too.


    1. Haven’t read the Hughes translation, though I’ll definitely put it on my GET THIS IN MY LIBRARY list, now that I know it exists. Aeschylus (in translation, as ‘ancient Greek =/= my skill set’ ) has always been my favorite of the playwrights; the whole Oresteia has such dark divinity woven throughout. Euripedes is a close second, though, and Sophocles I can take or leave.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. *ahem* FIST not fish. (sigh) But you took my point 😉 And I think you’ll find a lot to think on the Hughes translation – it’s the one I use when I teach the plays in translation, and I think it finds a great balance between readable and true-to-the-original


      1. Ha! I’m almost disappointed you corrected that, because I was just rolling with your expertise on the whole “butterflies are sometimes crushed by fish” issue!

        Though I will admit, the less Dada version does sound more likely if you’re Aeschylus. Ted Hughes, too.


  3. I developed an interest in mythology over the years and find this modern rendering so interesting.

    Cassandra also makes me think of the ears that can’t hear scientific “prophecies” of climate change.


    1. Ooh, that’s a parallel I hadn’t thought of! But yes, absolutely.

      I’ve been obsessed with the range and variation of how classical mythology has been reimagined by writers throughout history, off and on since high school. (This was the central thrust of all my undergraduate studies, for instance.)

      Also apropos Cassandra/fall of Troy, have you ever heard of Jean Giraudoux? French playwright who achieved greatest prominence between the two World Wars. A number of his works retold Greek mythology (very funny stuff, but you have to be highly knowledgeable in the classics to get the jokes); my favorite of this is The Trojan War Will Not Take Place. Which has all the characters reassuring themselves, in numerous ways, that they are invincible, that their city can never be taken by the enemy.

      The poignant thing about it, though: Giraudoux wrote it in 1935, when he also worked a day job as a mid-level paper-pusher in the French government. A lot of the jokes (and it was a sell-out play at the time) are directed at characters who come across as French-style state officials–all swearing how there is not possibly a great war about to happen! The whole thing comes across far less funny and far more tragic today…


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