A meditation on Cassandra,
inspired by the poems of C. P. Cavafy
She looks out west
from up high on the cyclopean stones walls of the city,
past the dusty plain of Ilium,
littered with cracked helmets, broken spears,
dogs sniffing through the debris of battle
to crack marrow out of bones.
She looks beyond the thousand cooking fires of the Achaeans
stretching in a long broken line
fringing the ragged edge of the plain at the sea,
and down below, the dazzling white beach
she had last seen nine years ago
is now blackened by a row of ships, hauled out, hull to hull,
the standards of the tribes snapping in the wind at mast tops.
Beyond is the Aegean,
wine-dark in the light of the dying sun,
and beyond that lay the strange land of the invaders,
of brutal, energetic men
bent on the glory of power
and the power of possession.
Many had already poured their blood
and sunk their bones into the dusty plain,
in sacrifice to their ambition,
having lunged beyond their vision,
stepping out from the light of day into the eternal shade.
And in this was the only bond developed between them,
Trojans and Achaeans,
for both here in Ilium and in the land of the Hellenes
nearly a decade of widowhood had been grown;
there were no spoils and glory for the children of the dead.
Whom the gods would destroy
they first make mad,
and whom they would madden
they fill with a proud ambition.
Death alone is not a tragedy – sorrowful as it may be –
but death at the end of the destruction of all hope.
Then, it is a merciful release, and in that is the tragedy.
Cassandra looked west, out past the wine-dark sea,
past the unseen lands of the Achaeans,
and past the tragedy of her death.
How else could one continue?
Phoebus, the jealous god,
had robbed her gift of prophesy of any credibility
because she refused to give herself to him,
remaining steadfast in her purity
in devotion to religion.
Oh, how cruel these jealous gods, bitten in their vanity,
for spite they wither our gifts into afflictions,
useless now her power of vision, her great beauty and allure.
For none believed in her prophesies,
none listened to her speech,
all were captivated by her beauty
and fixed on her their desires;
she was insane
with the unrelieved frustration of mute clairvoyance.
She walked in from the parapet,
took off her gold thread pearl earrings,
handing them to a servant,
and also her golden webbed necklace,
unclasped her belt of gold chains
with studs of amber and lapis lazuli,
and dropped her tunic.
She gathered her raven’s hair, coiled it high on her head,
pinning it with a turtle-shell comb and golden needle.
She walked into the scented pool,
strewn with the petals of flowers,
and stroked virgin oil across her honeyed virgin skin.
The flute girl played a slow sweet song of evening,
and a servant rubbed warm oil
with slow deep strokes into her back.
Cassandra thought of all who wanted her body,
from the stable-boys and captains of Ilium,
to the guardian women of the king’s harem,
and even to the Sun-god himself;
and she thought of the man who would rape her
at the foot of the altar of Athena,
after killing her father,
as if seeking to yank the flower and cut the root
of the House of Priam
in one fit of hubris on that terrible night
when the slaughter of Ilium’s manhood
would pour out of the belly of a wooden horse –
false gift of treachery and delusion.
Out of her defilement would come the seed of their destruction,
for a multitude would perish – even their chief, Agamemnon.
Athena’s wrath demanded expiation,
to cleanse insult from the sanctity of her temples.
But Cassandra was already dead,
for she knew that her hopes were doomed –
one does not escape the wrath of the gods.
As Cassandra caressed her exquisite body
that servant girls spoke of amongst themselves
and Ilium’s men dreamed of as they took their wives,
she thought of that hot, sweaty, bearded, bloody Little Ajax
who was destined to rip her tunic off
and force her to the ground,
and she wondered what Phoebus thought
of being put off the prize
in favor of this heartless, dirty, little brute.
It was the god’s will that she should suffer so,
and for that she refined her breathless beauty
and timeless grace
so that even in his godly aloofness
Phoebus would feel the sting of his own spite,
the bitter taste of jealousy’s vengeance.
They all thought her mad, none would listen,
it was best not to repeat the coming story,
it only made them frightened, wild, resentful.
No, she had to see the truth and swallow it,
so as not to add misery to the lives of doomed people
during the little time remaining to them.
She drew the scented bath along her arm,
across her breasts,
up her neck and along the line of her jaw,
holding her head back, closing her eyes,
smiling, luxuriating in sensation,
as the flute song hung in the air
and floated with the slightest breeze
out over the walls into the night sky.
She would be taken as a prize for Agamemnon himself,
in the division of the spoils,
and Little Ajax would be swallowed by Poseidon’s waves.
Among the Trojan women – destined for slavery –
there would begin dawning an inkling of Cassandra’s plight,
but there could be little comfort from hearts
so overwhelmed by sorrow, so devastated by loss,
exhausted of love, broken.
For the mad ageless priestess child
who had loved them and suffered for them
in contained delirious transparent isolation,
it would be a small comfort,
this brief, sad time together at the ruins of Troy,
bonded by grief, with sisters and mothers,
before being dispersed to lives of slavery
across the wine-dark sea.
And for Cassandra, at journey’s end,
the bittersweet vengeance – and terror –
of seeing the end of Agamemnon – sacker of Troy –
cut down by his wife Clytemnestra,
mad with grief for the loss of Iphigenia, her daughter
sacrificed by Agamemnon to secure his command
and gain the gods’ favor of fair winds to Troy.
And at this moment Cassandra, too, will meet her end,
an orphan, a dead king’s child-trophy, cut down
by a vengeance forged over a decade from a mother’s grief.
“My bones will be cast out for the dogs”
Cassandra whispers with a smile.
The flute girl and bath attendant meet glances without pause,
“Mad Cassandra,” they nod to each other,
as Cassandra lays back, eyes closed,
bathed in moonlight and music,
so beautiful, so beautiful,
maintaining her grace,
thinking of her release.
29 April 2002
It’s probably only a coincidence that you offer a poem about another European War on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest encounter of WWI: 1.2 million dead, disappeared or wounded in five months, of which a half million British, as many Germans and about 175,000 French. (France had already been bled white at Verdun.) Given to useless speculation as I am, I wonder how long it will take to turn our own wars into painless myth. Two thousand years? Because we’re so forward looking, we may just skip the mythologizing and forget about our wars completely. That was then, as what you call “today’s culture” might say. We don’t want Vietnam and the Bush family’s implanting of democracy in the Middle East to get in the way of our future endeavors along the same lines.
I liked your fling with Cassandra, but didn’t care much for your introduction to it. Why apologize because so many readers aren’t interested in work of substance? That defines them, not you. Solid work by a twenty-year old would get no more clicks than you do. For some time now there has been only a slim minority taste for serious poetry. It’s mainly read by other poets. At the end of his life, G.B. Shaw said that, anyway, he’d had his say. You, dear Manuel, should be concerned with having yours. There now, I’ve had mine.
Thank you Peter, I always enjoy your comments. I agree with your first paragraph, nicely put (about the catastrophes past, present and future). I see your point in the second paragraph, and realize you are right. So thanks for that gentle kick in the pants. A note to others: the “introduction” Peter mentions is in an e-mail announcement I sent out, about this blog posting. Yes, Peter, we’ll keep having our say.
Yves Bonnefoy, a great French poet, has handed in his statement. He died on July 1st at 93. A translator of Shakespeare, he was close to the spirit of Arthur Rimbaud, telling us:
“A poem ought to deepen our experience of the world, not simply review or make a lesson
of what the poet has lived.”
(“Le poème n’est pas une activité didactique, il n’a pas à expliquer l’expérience du monde qu’il cherche à approfondir.”)