We had a drink and got in bed. That’s when the boat in my mouth set sail, my fingers drifting in the shallows of your buzz cut. And in the sound of your eye a skiff coasted—boarding it I found all the bric-a-brac of your attic gloom, the knives from that other island trip, the poison suckleroot lifted from God-knows-where. O, all your ill-begotten loot—and yes, somewhere, the words you never actually spoke, the woven rope tethering me to this rotting joint. Touch me, and the boat and the city burn like whiskey going down the throat. Or so it goes, our love-wheedling myth, excessively baroque.
"Troy" from Halflife by Meghan O’Rourke. Copyright © 2007 by Meghan O'Rourke. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
The world is full of women
who'd tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they'd say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I've a choice
of how, and I'll take the money.
I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it's all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything's for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can't. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape's been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there's only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it's the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can't hear them.
And I can't, because I'm after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don't let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I'll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That's what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.
Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They'd like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look--my feet don't hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I'm rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I'm not a goddess?
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you'll burn.
From Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1995 by Margaret Atwood. Published in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Co., published in Canada by McClelland and Stewart, Inc.
Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers, others call a fleet the most beautiful of sights the dark earth offers, but I say it's what- ever you love best. And it's easy to make this understood by everyone, for she who surpassed all human kind in beauty, Helen, abandoning her husband—that best of men—went sailing off to the shores of Troy and never spent a thought on her child or loving parents: when the goddess seduced her wits and left her to wander, she forgot them all, she could not remember anything but longing, and lightly straying aside, lost her way. But that reminds me now: Anactória, she's not here, and I'd rather see her lovely step, her sparkling glance and her face than gaze on all the troops in Lydia in their chariots and glittering armor.
From The Poetry of Sappho (Oxford University Press 2007), translated by Jim Powell. Copyright © 2007 by Jim Powell. Reprinted by permission of the author.
|On the under-mothered world in crisis,|
|the omens agree. A Come here||follows for reader & hero through|
|the named winds as spirits are|
|lifted through the ragged colorful o’s on||butterflies called fritillarics, tortoise shells &|
|blues till their vacation settles under|
|the vein of an aspen leaf||like a compass needle stopped in|
|an avalanche. The students are moving.|
|You look outside the classroom where||construction trucks find little Troys. Dust|
|rises: part pagan, part looping. Try|
|to describe the world, you tell||them—but what is a description?|
|For centuries people carried the epic|
|inside themselves. (Past the old weather||stripping, a breeze is making some|
|6th-vowel sounds yyyyyy that will side|
|with you on the subject of syntax||as into the word wind they|
|go. A flicker passes by: air|
|let out of a Corvette tire.)||Side stories leaked into the epic,|
|told by its lover, the world.|
|The line structure changed. Voices grew||to the right of all that.|
|The epic is carried into school|
|then to scoopedout chairs. Scratchy holes||in acoustic tiles pull whwhoo— from|
|paperbacks. There’s a type of thought|
|between trance & logic where teachers||rest & the mistake you make|
|when you’re not tired is no breathing.|
|The class is shuffling, something an||island drink might cure or a|
|citrus goddess. They were mostly raised|
|in tanklike SUVs called Caravan or||Quest; winds rarely visited them. Their|
|president says global warming doesn’t exist.|
|Some winds seem warmer here. Some.||Warriors are extra light, perhaps from|
|ponies galloping across the plains.|
|Iphigenia waits for winds to start.|
|Winds stowed in goatskins were meant||to be released by wise men:|
|gusts & siroccos, chinooks, hamsins, whooshes,|
|blisses, katabatics, Santa Anas, & foehns.||Egyptian birds were thought to be|
|impregnated by winds. The Chinese god|
|of wind has a red-&-blue cap||like a Red Sox fan. Students|
|dislike even thinking about Agamemnon. You|
|love the human species when you||see them, even when they load|
|their backpacks early & check the|
|tiny screens embedded in their phones.||A ponytail hodler switches with light,|
|beguiled. Iphigenia waits for the good.|
|Calphas & her father have mistaken the||forms of air: Zephyr, Borcas, Eurus|
|the grouchy east breeze & Notos|
|bringer of rains. Maybe she can||see bones in the butterfly wings|
|before they invent the X-ray. Her|
|father could have removed the sails||& rowed to Troy. Nothing makes|
|sense in war, you say. Throw|
|away the hunger & the war’s||all gone. There’s a section between|
|the between of joy & terror|
|where the sailors know they shouldn’t||open the sack of winds. It|
|gives the gods more credit. An|
|oracle is just another nature. There’s||a space between the two beeps|
|of the dump truck where the|
|voice can rest. Their vowels join||the names of winds in white|
|acoustic tiles. A rabbit flies across|
|the field with Zephyr right behind.||Wind comes when warm air descends.|
|The imagined comes from the imargined.|
Brenda Hillman, “Air in the Epic,” from Pieces of Air in the Epic, © 2005 by Brenda Hillman. Used by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
My dear Telemachus, The Trojan War is over now; I don't recall who won it. The Greeks, no doubt, for only they would leave so many dead so far from their own homeland. But still, my homeward way has proved too long. While we were wasting time there, old Poseidon, it almost seems, stretched and extended space. I don't know where I am or what this place can be. It would appear some filthy island, with bushes, buildings, and great grunting pigs. A garden choked with weeds; some queen or other. Grass and huge stones . . . Telemachus, my son! To a wanderer the faces of all islands resemble one another. And the mind trips, numbering waves; eyes, sore from sea horizons, run; and the flesh of water stuffs the ears. I can't remember how the war came out; even how old you are--I can't remember. Grow up, then, my Telemachus, grow strong. Only the gods know if we'll see each other again. You've long since ceased to be that babe before whom I reined in the plowing bullocks. Had it not been for Palamedes' trick we two would still be living in one household. But maybe he was right; away from me you are quite safe from all Oedipal passions, and your dreams, my Telemachus, are blameless.
From A Part of Speech by Joseph Brodsky. Translation copyright © 1980 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.
For weeks, I breathe his body in the sheet and pillow. I lift a blanket to my face. There’s bitter incense paired with something sweet, like sandalwood left sitting in the heat or cardamom rubbed on a piece of lace. For weeks, I breathe his body. In the sheet I smell anise, the musk that we secrete with longing, leather and moss. I find a trace of bitter incense paired with something sweet. Am I imagining the wet scent of peat and cedar, oud, impossible to erase? For weeks, I breathe his body in the sheet— crushed pepper—although perhaps discreet, difficult for someone else to place. There’s bitter incense paired with something sweet. With each deployment I become an aesthete of smoke and oak. Patchouli fills the space for weeks. I breathe his body in the sheet until he starts to fade, made incomplete, a bottle almost empty in its case. There’s bitter incense paired with something sweet. And then he’s gone. Not even the conceit of him remains, not the resinous base. For weeks, I breathed his body in the sheet. He was bitter incense paired with something sweet.
Poseidon was easier than most. He calls himself a god, but he fell beneath my fingers with more shaking than any mortal. He wept when my robe fell from my shoulders. I made him bend his back for me, listened to his screams break like waves. We defiled that temple the way it should be defiled, screaming and bucking our way from corner to corner. The bitch goddess probably got a real kick out of that. I'm sure I'll be hearing from her. She'll give me nightmares for a week or so; that I can handle. Or she'll turn the water in my well into blood; I'll scream when I see it, and that will be that. Maybe my first child will be born with the head of a fish. I'm not even sure it was worth it, Poseidon pounding away at me, a madman, losing his immortal mind because of the way my copper skin swells in moonlight. Now my arms smoke and itch. Hard scales cover my wrists like armour. C'mon Athena, he was only another lay, and not a particularly good one at that, even though he can spit steam from his fingers. Won't touch him again. Promise. And we didn't mean to drop to our knees in your temple, but our bodies were so hot and misaligned. It's not every day a gal gets to sample a god, you know that. Why are you being so rough on me? I feel my eyes twisting, the lids crusting over and boiling, the pupils glowing red with heat. Athena, woman to woman, could you have resisted him? Would you have been able to wait for the proper place, the right moment, to jump those immortal bones? Now my feet are tangled with hair, my ears are gone. My back is curving and my lips have grown numb. My garden boy just shattered at my feet. Dammit, Athena, take away my father's gold. Send me away to live with lepers. Give me a pimple or two. But my face. To have men never again be able to gaze at my face, growing stupid in anticipation of that first touch, how can any woman live like that? How will I be able to watch their warm bodies turn to rock when their only sin was desiring me? All they want is to see me sweat. They only want to touch my face and run their fingers through my . . . my hair is it moving?
© 1992 by Patricia Smith, from Big Towns, Big Talk, published by Zoland Books (Cambridge, MA). Used with permission. All rights reserved.