Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Helen of Troy

When my volume of poems 'Against the Maelstrom' came out John Weir reviewing it said every first collection should be judged by the potential of its best poem. He said my take on Helen of Troy was that poem


I can’t sleep. Spartan
nights are cool in August.
Illustrious Menelaus roisters
again with his cronies, clattering
around in harsh armour, they boast
of burnt and blackened Troy.

It’s my fate to share this unheroic age.
The gods alone know when some
tall teller of tales will blindly
celebrate that savage raid: Hector’s
corpse mutilated by vain Achilles.
He’ll ignore my beloved Paris,
already the butt, the blamed,

the cause; bootlicking Odysseus
saw to that before he vanished
into the tempestuous sea and
that’s the last we’ll hear of him.
I remember my father Tyndareus
once saying as we collected honey

from smoke-dazed bees, ‘likely lass
they’ll not remember us, fame
is mainly chance.’ My husband
spreads nursery stories, ravishing
great swans, my real self spirited
away for the years, deep-bosomed
goddesses offering gifts – a futile

attempt to save his sweat-stained
reputatation. My rustic maidenhood,
olive harvest frolics, sufficed
the fox-souled son of Atreus,
I could milk ewes, churn soft-white
cheeses, render lard, was comely,

of fertile stock (he wanted sons
so overlooked my meagre dowry).
It was so long ago, grey flecks
now in my raven locks. His family
was always quarreling – witness
the massacre at Mycanae. Those
who malign me forget his cruelty.

He was mean also, counting
quinces for our guests. Those
same ill-tongues claim that Paris
was effeminate. They are wrong.
He was cedarwood and stone, a royal
city, battle-furious when aroused.

When desire (that uninvited stranger)
struck I resisted, in fact we both
resisted for some while, until
Menelaus left us (for boar-hunting
so he claimed). The rest you know.
Such passion demanded obedience.
Now beside the weeping Salamander

fallen masonry beds the fugitive
cyclamen and scarlet poppy;
badgers burrow in the ruins
where we once loved so tightly.
Women curse me; I am the whore
who led their men; sons, lovers,

husbands, direct to that
nonsensical cavern of dark and
lonely Hades. It was not my intent.
Nothing is what it once was.
Released I am captive in my
own country. Even the rain
is different, it falls with much

less force: little affection
or tenderness here. My critics
forget that I also have reason
to weep over my embroidery.
Let it all be said, but also
recall our sturdy ship

cresting the rollers of
the windswept Aegean; for
royal escort diving gannets,
leaping dolphins, the strength
and delight of oak-hearted Paris.
Remembering that brief joy
I do not regret what I have done.

In my blog of 29 March I describe how while at university I fell in love with ancient Greek society. I wrote this poem after my first visit to Greece. On the flight from Istanbul to Athens I’d had a clear view of the Dardanelles. Down there somewhere was the site of ancient Troy. I’d been to the old citadel of Mycanae. For a summer fortnight my first wife and I had an apartment at Paihia, a panoramic view of the Bay of Islands. Some days we explored Northland, even as far as Cape Reinga. Other days we lazed in the sun. Re-reading Homer’s Iliad I had also taken a pile of library books about that old Aegean Society. I worked at the poem evening after evening. I have never polished a poem as much. It is one of my favourites.

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