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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, Patroclus

coolly caressing

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

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