Jennifer Horne is the author of a collection of poems, Bottle Tree (2010), the editor of Working the Dirt: An Anthology of Southern Poets (2003), and co-editor, with Wendy Reed, of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (2006) and Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (2012).
She has received an Alabama State Council on the Arts Literature Fellowship and has been a Seaside Institute “Escape to Create” artist in residence. She currently teaches in the University of Alabama Honors College.
Please visit Jennifer Horne’s website: jennifer-horne.blogspot.com
by Jennifer Horne
I never imagined I’d lose you to God.
My frivolous cousin, the stranger who visited from the next village,
the widow who asked you too many times for a favor—
these I was prepared to do battle against.
But now I am defeated before I begin.
The whole village whispers about your decision.
Like the sound of dry grasses rustled by the wind,
it follows me, stopping suddenly when I turn.
Why didn’t you just take a knife and rip me open,
throat to belly? We must sacrifice, you say, for the Lord.
Here I lie, your sacrifice, your lamb—
yet you walk ever higher up that rocky path,
never looking back, eyes set on the company of old men.
The Damnatio Memoriae of Julia Mamaea
Dead, and fallen out of favor. Two blows.
My name to be removed from all records,
court histories, monuments, poems, letters—
my memory damned, my presence on earth erased.
Well. A queen must expect such things,
and the fleshly immortality of my son
and grandchildren is some bar against complete departure.
I’m sure it was that wretched second-under-something
who began all this. I should have let him into my bed, that once.
I was both beautiful and regal, and this last—
smashing my face in every statue, every likeness,
hurts. I should have liked to think that men—and women, if they liked,
long after my death, might still admire my comely visage.
The Priestess at Delphi Speaks to Pausanias
Hush! The priests will hear you, and they’ll be pissed.
The younger one has a temper, but the old one is worse,
taking his job so seriously you’d think he was Zeus himself.
I’ve got a little time before they call me, so tell me—
what do you think of us now? Have your travels prepared you?
Forget about the show. This is the Omphalos,
and you don’t mess with mystery. I’m just a vessel.
Afterwards, I always get such a damn headache,
can’t remember what passed, though I’m assured it was good.
Frankly, I’d rather be gathering horta on the hillside,
but when they said I was the one, what could I do?
Mind my words—mine, not the gods—and listen.
Even a disbeliever hears things he will remember all his life.
It’s a whisper of cloth, a breath born on a breeze,
white, embroidered by me in tiny, careful stitches.
Colorful, as a dragonfly or windflower is colorful,
and bright, dried always in the baking Maniot sun.
It was a little thing, a touch, not even of me, but of the whisper,
the white handkerchief I held in my hand and flicked
at a boy who’d tried all night to catch my eye,
like catching a fish quickly with his hands, but I’m quick too.
I was dancing—we were all dancing—with my betrothed,
and a little bored, and the boy had such frank eyes.
So when he grabbed at the cloth I didn’t pull it away at first,
and now this wisp, this puff, is a point of honor. Soaked red,
my pretty little cloth, soaked red, and all about, men killing in my name.
The Spartan Wife
Historians will say of us that we were a warlike people.
No. Our men are warriors, our women fierce and used to sacrifice.
But on those rare evenings when a cool breeze rises from the plain
and the men are released from camp for the night,
what joy! We kill and roast the best meat we have,
send the children to gather more sticks for the fire,
for tonight we blaze, though our flames be seen for miles.
The children asleep, my man at my side, we wrestle like two opponents
meeting suddenly in battle. Muscle for muscle, will for will, we struggle,
roll over, meet in sweetest combat, both defeated, both victorious.
Historians will say of us that we were a warlike people.
They might note, somewhere, that the men camped no farther
Than the distance they could hear their children’s laughter.
Reasons Theseus Might Have Left Me Among Strangers
1. He means to return soon and couldn’t bear to say goodbye.
2. His anchor broke in the night and now his ship’s adrift.
3. He’s been kidnapped by brigands and can’t get word to me.
4. An urgent message reached him and he flew to respond.
5. Something has bewitched him so he’s not in his right mind.
6. He’s dying and wishes to spare me the sight of it.
7. He did leave me a message but it failed to reach me.
8. Proud man, he must conquer the maze alone, without me.
9. Some kind of test, or prank, to see how strong my love is.
10. He’s gone off with his mates and didn’t wish to lose face.
11. He’s gone to find something lovely, that will surprise me.
12. He loves me so much he fears his passion may overtake him.
13. He hasn’t left at all and this is just a bad dream.
Queen Berenice to the Court Astronomer
I laid my shorn hair on the altar of the goddess,
thanksgiving for my husband home safe from war.
And now you wake us from our first night together
to tell us that the hair has been stolen by a god,
placed in the heavens like a shining net?
Tell me, Conon, where did you learn to lie, and why?
The Court Astronomer to His Queen
Your Highness, I never. It’s the only explanation.
If, for instance, an admirer of your beauty
had, not stolen, but saved your lovely hair
from being blown into the bushes by the high winds tonight,
wouldn’t I tell you? Don’t you think I know,
Your Highness, that lying’s worth my humble life?
My name is Anna Komnena, and I am a princess.
Let others write of battles, soldiers, brave deeds—
I, migrant at heart, track the shepherds and their flocks.
On my travels, I see them in summer, in the mountains.
Their feet trample the wild herbs, scent of thyme and chamomile released.
Winter, I travel less, but wrapped in my thick rug
or gazing from my high window, I see them scattered on the plain,
small fires hoarded like flickering gold, shining brighter than any necklace.
My mother wrinkles her nose at the mere mention of sheep,
and shepherds—well, you’d think they lay down with their flocks, she says.
Perhaps they do. Perhaps I would, too, in winter’s grip.
I know my blue wool blanket has the power both to comfort and to warm.
My name is Anna Komnena, and I am a princess.
Sappho on Lefkádha
I have been standing here, so long, so long. The wind
plays a game, enemy, then friend, pushing my breast
toward land one moment, gusting at my back the next.
Pretty pretty island. Pretty pretty cliffs. The waves
seem to send up little sprays of delight as they splash against
the patient rocks, who endure this all day without complaint.
I am a tower crumbling. I am a hollowed shell,
I am alone, trapped in my impermeable skin, and I desire
only to be shattered, to scatter my stone fragments as widely,
as far apart as hearts who cease to love may wander.
I think I have never been more completely here, was never
so earthbound as on this thin edge of earth. Beneath my bare feet
is warm, solid dirt, before me the soft breath of sky.
The Deaf-Mutes Approach with a Bowstring to Strangle Me
In the traditional manner. I see them in the mirror
hung on the harem wall. How many times,
preparing for a visit from the Sultan, have I brushed my long hair
in its reflective gaze, admired the small blue tiles in mosaic
that frame it, pondered whose hands put those tiles in place, just so?
This death is rumored to be painful but quick, and the less
one struggles—beyond the instinctive—the easier.
How very long ago I was Kosem of Corfu, chosen
by the Turks for the children’s tax. I should have seen
how many would resent my power, favorite of Ahmed,
mother of Sultans, but still a foreigner, not one of us.
I am uncertain which god or gods might help me now,
the new or the old? My hands tremble, and I must not let them see it.
“Every Ill That Flesh Is Heir To”: A Pilgrim at Epidaurus
I am accustomed to telling my thoughts before sleep to my husband,
but he has returned to Argos, and I am here trying to sleep
among strangers—admittedly strangers who are pilgrims—
and some of them much worse off than myself.
I arrived in time for the purifying bath, then the chanting,
then a long wait to see the priests of Asclepius.
The truth is, it’s only been a year since we were married
and my mother says babies often wait, arriving later.
My husband says the other men joke behind his back
that I am barren—or worse, that he doesn’t rule our bed.
I don’t know. I just hope the snakes don’t come tonight.
Sacred or not, they scare me. I saw one just last week,
suspended in the high grass. It shocked me so I dropped a jar of water.
Letter from an Athenian Wife
“The less heard of women in male company the better, whether for
good or for ill.”
Dear Mother, dear shade, you left me early, unprepared
for the company of men, their expectations and desires.
My lovely girlhood—its peace, laughter, comfort, our shared pains—
now seems like a trick of the eye, a shimmer I move toward
but never reach. Illogical! You don’t reach forward to the past,
the men would say. Where did she learn to think? (Laughter.)
My husband is a good man, as reckoned in our city.
Respected, a father, doesn’t beat me when I’m careless.
But Mother, the solitude! My servants have a better life,
meeting to chatter as they fill the water jugs, helping
one another in childbirth and sickness. You would be pleased to see
my boys are sweet and handsome, but I will lose them soon, I know.
They look at me lately with changed eyes, eager to join the world of men.
Athens Gets Her Say
No, cities don’t often speak—not in a single voice. The everpresent
noise drives my thoughts straight into the sea.
But I’ve watched them—my citizens—from infancy to dotage,
seen the beautiful young become the serene—or bickering—old,
and I know the secret of humans: to be beautiful and young
is to believe you are the first to walk with proud steps
over these stones, to think your laugh, your white teeth,
your bare throat, have never been seen, are not simply
one turn of the world’s head, in a thousand thousand turnings. This is why
the young never visit museums—they fail to see themselves
cast in marble, white and cool to the touch,
as though in death, which they cannot imagine, which is
the kind of thing that happens to other people, somewhere else.
Notes to the poems
“Metéora”: Metéora is the site of numerous monastic communities built on strange vertical formations in north-central Greece. Beginning in the tenth century, the earliest hermits began to live in caves among the rocky peaks on which monasteries were eventually built, perched precariously over high cliffs.
“The Damnatio Memoriae of Julia Mamaea”: The defaced statue of Julia Mamaea, a Roman, is in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. When a “damnation memoriae” was issued for a disgraced person, all images of and references to that person were destroyed.
“The Priestess at Delphi Speaks to Pausanias”: Delphi was an ancient site of worship and prophecy. Pausanias was one of the earliest travel writers; he wrote a guide book to Greece in the second century A.D. The Rough Guide to Greece (2002) states that the priestess “was a simple and devout village woman of fifty or more years in age, [who] would chant her prophecies from a tripod positioned over the oracular chasm. Crucially, an attendant priest would then ‘interpret’ her utterances and relay them to the enquirer in hexameter verse” (p. 318). Recent findings suggest that gases issuing from the earth may have caused the priestesses’ visions and chanting.
“Mani Girl”: The Mani is a peninsula in the southern Peloponnese. It is a rocky, wild area punctuated by towns with towers built for security during the many feuds among warring Mani clans over a period of about five hundred years, ending in the nineteenth century. One feud began when a girl betrothed to a young man allowed another young man to touch the handkerchief she held in her hand during a dance.
“The Spartan Wife”: Almost no ruins survive in modern Sparta because the ancient Spartans, fierce fighters, felt no need for protective city walls. Military training dominated the lives of Spartan men, and, “although women were not expected to fight, girls did undergo rigorous physical exercise along with the boys” (A Traveller’s History of Greece, pp. 18-19). Men and boys spent much of their time in training camps away from their households.
“Reasons Theseus Might Have Left Me Among Strangers”: Greek legend has it that the Cretan monster known as the Minotaur required the sacrifice from Athens of seven young men and seven young women. With the help of King Minos’ daughter Ariadne, the Athenian hero Theseus was able to kill the Minotaur and navigate the maze in which it lived. He then sailed away for Athens with Ariadne and his companions, only to abandon her on the island of Naxos. (His excuse was that Minerva had appeared in a dream and told him to.) Upon his return to Athens, Theseus was supposed to raise a white sail to show that he had killed the Minotaur, but he forgot. Seeing a black sail and assuming that his son had been killed, Theseus’ grief-stricken father, King Aegeus, threw himself into the sea (from Bulfinch’s Mythology).
“Queen Berenice to the Court Astronomer”: The story of how Queen Berenice’s hair became the constellation Coma Berenices is recounted in The World’s Great Nature Myths¸ by Gary Ferguson. When her husband returned home alive from war with the Assyrians, she kept her promise to the goddess Aphrodite that she would offer her beautiful hair as a thanksgiving, and cut her tresses off, laying them at the altar of the goddess. In the morning, her hair had been stolen, and both the king and the queen were appalled at the theft and vowed vengeance, were the thief caught. One night, the court astronomer came to them and beckoned them to look into the sky, where they saw the constellation; the astronomer reasoned that Jupiter must have taken up her hair and put it into the sky, where it would shine with beauty forever.
“Byzantine Dreams”: Anna Komnena was a Byzantine princess and a historian of the eleventh century. She wrote about the Vlach shepherds who grazed their flocks on the plains in the winter and in the mountains in the summer (Traveller’s History of Greece).
“Sappho on Lefkádha”: Lefkádha is one of the Ionian Islands, west of the Peloponnese. Ancient legend said that you could cure yourself of unrequited love by leaping into the waters at the south end of the island by Cape Lefkátas. Although the poet Sappho is generally associated with the island of Lesbos, her birthplace in the seventh century B.C., she is said to have leapt into the waters here and died. The place is identified in guidebooks, variously, as “Sappho’s Leap” (Akra Dhoukato) and “Lady’s Cape” (Kávos tís Kyrás).
“The Deaf-Mutes Approach with a Bowstring to Strangle Me”: In the early days of the Ottoman Empire’s four-century rule of Greece, a devshirme or “children’s tax” was imposed on the conquered peoples to bring Christian children into the Empire, convert them to Islam, and train them in administration or war. As adults, they often held high positions within the Empire. One such child convert, Kosem, “was sent to the Harem after abduction from her home in Corfu [and] became one of the most powerful and fascinating women in the history of the Ottoman Empire; for decades, as the favourite of Sultan Ahmed and the mother of Sultans Murad IV and Ibrahim (the Mad), she . . . virtually ruled the Empire. In 1652 she too fell victim to the bowstring, bringing to an end the period known as the ‘Rule of Women’” (A Traveller’s History of Greece, pp. 141-143).
“‘Every Ill That Flesh Is Heir To’: A Pilgrim at Epidaurus”: Epidaurus, on the Peloponnesian peninsula, has a long history both as a center of healing and as a theatre. In the fourth century, a temple and other buildings were established at Epidaurus, associated with the healing god Asclepius. At night, the sacred snakes of Asclepius were said to lick the patients who had come there to be healed, as they slept and dreamed of the god. This information, and the phrase “every ill that flesh is heir to” comes from Paul MacKendrick’s The Greek Stones Speak: The Story of Archaeology in Greek Lands. (pp. 278-281)
“Letter from an Athenian Wife”: The quotation from Pericles comes from Hellas: A Short History of Ancient Greece, by C. E. Robinson (p 130). Robinson notes that a law passed in 451 B.C. decreed that the children resulting from marriages with “alien” (non-Greek) women would no longer be citizens, making such wives essentially courtesans. These women continued to go out into society, among men, but legitimate upper-class wives could now no longer mingle with these other women respectably. Thus, for propriety’s sake, “the respectable lady’s position was henceforth to be that of the ‘haus-frau’ pure and simple. In the female quarters of her home—well away from the front door—she lived a life of almost oriental seclusion. It was not even thought decent for her to be seen out shopping. If she ventured into the streets, she must have an attendant.” (p. 130)
“Athens Gets Her Say”: The site of the city of Athens has been inhabited for more than seven thousand years, first as a prehistoric settlement, then by the Mycenaeans, Dorians, and Phoenicians. It is most famously known as a Greek city-state in the Classical period of the fifth century B.C., renowned as a military, artistic, commercial, and governmental power. Later came Romans, Franks, Catalans, Florentines, Venetians, and Turks. After the Greeks’ War of Independence from the Turks, first Nafplio and then Athens, in 1834, was named the country’s capital. It grew slowly until the end of the Greek-Turkish War in 1923, when one and a half million Greeks from Turkish territories in Asia Minor resettled in Greece, about half of them in Athens. Approximately one-third of Greece’s total population of ten million now lives in and around Athens.
Bulfinch’s Mythology, by Thomas Bulfinch.
The Eyewitness Travel Guide to Greece: Athens and the Mainland, 1997.
The Greek Stones Speak: The Story of Archaeology in Greek Lands, by Paul MacKendrick. Published in New York by W. W. Norton, 1979.
Hellas: A Short History of Ancient Greece, by C. E. Robinson. Published in Boston by Beacon Press, 1948.
The Insight Guide to Greece, 1998.
The Rough Guide to Greece, 2002.
A Traveller’s History of Greece, by Timothy Boatswain & Colin Nicolson. Published in Greece by the Efstathiadis Group, 1991.
The World’s Great Nature Myths, by Gary Ferguson. Published in Helena, Montana by Falcon Publishing, 1996.
All poems and text on this post: © Jennifer Horne
Published with the permission of Jennifer Horne