When they crashed through the palace
the iron chests were empty.
It was all fatal illusion,
words, only words – the small
bronze-age fortress far from Mycenae
grown huge through tales told;
betrayal, greed, prideful ambition
enlarged by rhetoric,
tall gods and goddesses
gliding disguised through battle
deflecting spears, guiding them,
shedding bright ichor for
chosen-up sides. Plunder
soon scattered in quarrels
and blood-soaked revenge.
Where are the phoenix-faced breastplate,
the greaves clasped with silver,
those thickets of ash shafts,
the horsetail-plumed helmet
that Hector once wore?
Where the thousand black ships,
the throngs of wandering dead?
What floats in our air
from that long, mythic decade –
plague, rage, endless siege –
are scenes set in mental stained glass:
The lithe joyful daughter, lured
by promise of marriage, limp
on an altar in Aulis so her father
might sail. An aged king, fifty sons
shades or soon to be, come cloaked
alone to seek his heir’s
mangled body for burial.
Achilles and Patroclus
each other’s doomed flesh.
Perhaps that’s the moral:
love, just love, for all its fraught twists
and sad endings, is the sole
godlike strand of us – transcendent
in passion or comradeship
conserving what honor
flawed selves may possess.
Version first published in What Rough Beast. March 13, 2020