Striking how in myth, it’s always accidents
sending women to hell,
keeping them there:
Persephone waiting to go home with her momma til
whoops no, forgot to read the fine print
’bout don’t eat no Underworld food and suddenly
her juice-stained mouth means no escape from Hades for you young lady,
Eurydice partying at her wedding, steps on a snake —
ne’rmind the groom with his honey-on-fire voice that lulls every beast,
even gonna put Hades’ three-headed guard dog down for a nap
but can’t stop one punkass garden viper.
Too busy showing off for his future father-in-law maybe
(god of music and prophecy give it up for Apollo!)
to think of snakes.
Don’t get me started on that other colossal fuckup as he’s leading her out,
turn around too soon and whoops there goes the wife
back down unto death.
When does an accident beggar the accidental.
Am I really ‘spose to believe that Little Miss My-Other-Name-Is-Snake-Goddess
couldn’t notice one small fanged tendril coiling up her ankle
as she and her nymphs pounded through their vegetable dance?
The true Eleusinian mystery:
what do Eurydice and Persephone whisper to each other
sitting in hell’s stony corners
[Featured image: Nude descending a staircase, Marcel Duchamp.]
Say, is my speech or wild and erring now,
Or doth its arrow cleave the mark indeed?
They called me once, The prophetess of lies, The wandering hag, the pest of every door—
Attest ye now, She knows in very sooth The house’s curse, the storied infamy.
— Aeschylus, Agamemnon
“Between killing and dying, there’s a third way: Live.”
— Christa Wolf , Kassandra
Long before I designed my own undergraduate major around the literature of Greek mythology or wrote my senior thesis on modern adaptations of ancient Greek plays, I was obsessed with the characters. Even before the obligatory grade school units on mythology, complete with afternoon trips to the library where we all colored in our own mimeographed faces of the Olympic gods, I knew all their names and backstories.
I had grown up with them, you see. To me, Greek heroes and gods were the stuff of bedtime stories.
My mother, who had herself majored in classics and kept a copy of Winnie Ille Pu (the Latin translation of A.A. Milne’s classic) on her bedside table, pulled myths from her memories every time I pleaded “tell me a story, mom, please make me a story, make it a good one.” These tales felt like place-markers for invention, filled with lacunae where our own stories could take root. In time I came to know for myself the source materials she drew from — and realized how even the ancients manipulated myth-telling for their own creative purposes.
I haven’t read Aeschylus or Euripedes in decades now. Nor Homer, Plato, or Sophocles. My memories are become gentler, names and details mere flotsam in the wine-dark sea of my mind.
I like it this way. All the easier to tell you stories of my own.
• α • ω •
In ancient Greek theater, the chorus member played not a man but an everyman. He played every Everyman. He hid his own face behind a stylized mask that bore the same expression as every other chorus member, so that collectively they formed a herd. A populace. Defined by this mask, this shell of anonymity, the chorus provided a foil against which the brilliance and hubris of the tragic hero shone.
The hero himself was forged from the divine. Fathered by a god, guarded by nymphs, taunted by the cruel Fates spinning at their wheel. Even his inevitable fall through pride could not diminish such grace. After death, a hero’s body was often flung into the stars, where his face gleams still today in the winking pinpricks of our constellations.
We all know how such tragic myths go. The hero gets the girl, the glory, and finally the agony. The chorus gets not even its own face.
Just a paycheck. It’s steady work, after all, being Chorus Member #4. All you have to do is memorize the same lines as everyone else.
[I decided to stick with the theme of modern mythic retellings for a bit. Further thoughts on Cassandra after the jump.]
Cassandra Smokes in Bed
Beside me, limbs tangled in the purple sheets,
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.
That someone else being Silver Birch Press, which–in addition to being a publishing house based in LA–also runs a poetry blog. Throughout October and November, SBP’s blog has featured poems inspired by fables, fairy tales, and mythology. (Links to some of my favorites from the series to follow.)
(Some of) My Favorite Poems from the Mythic Poetry Series
Interview with Persephone, by Stephanie Barbé Hammer (Persephone’s “final advice” for the audience is poignant and perfect. Also: bonus points for a non-kink-related dig at 50 Shades.)
Sir Gawain Takes Out the Trash, by Fred Voss (Who dares say there is no room left for chivalry and mighty deeds in our much-diminished world? I’m totally on Team Frank.)
Walking with Medusa, by Robin Dawn Hudechek (I never expected to find myself longing for Medusa to find her own happy ending quite so much before.)
The Minotaur in the Labyrinth, by Melanie Knippen (Knippen’s piece grew out of empathy and the question: “Is it the monster’s fault he’s a monster?” I want terribly badly for someone to bring her Minotaur home, to give him love and food and a yard to play in.)