I confess. I read Homer back in my college days, and the stories have stayed with me ever since. I guess that is why they are considered classics. The following three poems are responses to Homer. They were not written as a set, but putting them together shows how these stories have continued to live in me.
And Thus They Stay
They are always thus, though down we lay the book
And thus they stay within our simple minds.
Achilles sulking in a tent about a slave,
And Hector leading Trojan bands, and Helen
Looking down upon the plains to see what fools men be,
Odysseus and both Ajaxes fighting on
And countless swords that cleave unto
The teeth and spirits tumbling into Hell,
With burning ships and Patroclus disguised–And thus they stay.
I wonder what these noble warriors were
Before, when Helen lay in Menelaus’ bed,
When Telemachus doddled on Odysseus knee,
While Agamemnon tended to his grapes
And Priam walked the Trojan walls, looking out across
The sea and only seabird cries disturbed the peace.
Far better had it stayed that way, and yet,
Then who would make an epic out of this
To last the centuries or haunt the mind long after
Every line is read, the cover closed, and all is put away.
He never spoke of the aftermath when Odysseus, splattered
by the suitor’s blood, stood forth before Penelope.
The rest is poet’s license, the musings of an aging man
who sang snatches of his stanzas to earn a king’s faint praise,
a cup of wine, a wedge of cheese, or a place about the open fire upon a winter’s night.
He never spoke of Penelope who, across the fouling gore
seeing him wave his servants to clean the inconvenient mess,
rose up with flaming eyes, turned words to spears and thoughts to swords
And spoke–“I have resisted better men than you, and sent them home
to moan their failings to their gods–and you, with lesser cause,
sent souls to hell to sate your jealous pride.”
He never told the aftermath, of Telemachus, haunted in his dreams
by those he slayed, until, within his cup he sought but never found
oblivion. At last, when what he was was lost and but a husk remained,
he cast himself away upon a cliff in Ithaca.
He never spoke of hapless days and nights. Alone, Odysseus sat
within his homeless house nursing wounded vanity,
constructing justifications for his deeds, excuses for his tardiness,
rewriting in his mind his dalliances, creating of himself the victim
of abusing gods. And that, at last, gave birth to rage, and one fell night,
he took Penelope by the throat and righted all his wrongs.
He never told the aftermath, how Odysseus again set sail,
spoke bravely to his men, urging ancient arms to renewed feats.
“That which we are, we are,” he said, and was never heard again.
It was enough to please a pompous king with happy endings–to hide
That truth is rarely beautiful, and beauty is rarely truth.
Helen was beautiful, but ten years takes
its toil. Crows eyes split the silky
skin. Grey hair strayed among
the burnished strands. Ten years of bearing
children, cleaning rooms, fire
building, grubbing among the gardens,
making gyros sandwiches and moussake–
all beneath Aegean noons and
Asian winds–the anteing up with sexy
dresses and make up (a little more
each year) so Paris would find the perfect
wife waiting each night when he
left off from a busy day at the office.
No wonder something snapped. She was quite
mad before the moment Menelaus affected
the fabled rescue. A fifteen-years-younger,
veiled, look-a-like was substituted
for public appearances, while Helen was hustled
away to an awaiting villa, far from
the public eye–not unlike what Peter
did, who made do with a pumpkin shell.