Cassandra the Seer

—after the 1895 marble bust by Max Klinger, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

i. Within my ears the bells of the universe toll the deaths
of all I know—my city, my brothers, my own.
The bells announce our lives, from birth to passing,
fabric woven from sound,
warp and weft resonating into the future.

Within my ears is past and yet to come—
cracking walls, fires, soldiers bent on brutality, my city
into antiquity, to be re-found in a later century
I cannot imagine—

as treasure uncovered spoonful by spoonful,
revealing our walls, golden urns, the masks of our
Nowhere will be found a lyre, tuned
to the key of the heavens that sounded only for me.

ii. My marble eyes cloaked,
a hood of clay that protects me.
I was cursed to walk a corridor set with many windows
onto eternal night, cursed to know—
when I breathed in the light
from the temple garden for the last time,
when I stood above my city, upraised arms ignored,
when I said what must be said despite
the deafness all around,
when I told the death-hours
before they were rung.

Apollo’s vengeance—his temple snakes curled against me,
found my neck, my armpit,
then both ears, slithering tongues
clearing out all static, all the resonances-yet-come
amplifying in my head like clappered bells.

It drove me mad. So the soothsayers claimed, ousted
from their spot at the Trojan royal table,
usurped by the King’s red-haired sprig
with voices in her head. It was they who sowed the seed
of stigma, rumouring Apollo’s favour—granted, then denied
as I denied him my body—a woman’s prerogative,
yes, but a god’s revenge—to know, to be heard, but disbelieved.

iii. I heard Death before it came to Hector, the sword’s hiss
as it opened my brother to the dogs,
the pop of tendons severed,
the drag and dust as Achilles hauled his corpse.

Enough to keep me in the world of madness,
in the rape of war. Beware of horses I said.
Madness they answered she’s mad,
just look at her eyes.
It took no insurgent Trojan Horse,
no fires, no falling walls,
to crack the glazed clay of my eyes.

My own death, I already knew—rape in Athena’s temple,
a half-life as slave, concubine, and in a far-off land, I will die,
seeing the axe-blade fall before it
fells me.
All-seeing eyes, ears that hear, o treacherous tongue,
unbelieved. My world, spinning to its end,
and no one listening.

iv. How many words for pain? for loss? death? suffering?
Draw your lines up after you, bind your wounds—
peace is a foreign land worth visiting.
War comes, I tell you this, I tell you.

How many? Numbers beyond counting,
bodies of babies drowned in the sea, lost women, ravaged men.
Razing of a jungle, bombing of a town. Death
by radiation, by orange fire blossoms, by insensate drones.
War comes! Bind up your wounds. Bind them,
and bind yourself to the mast, again we sail toward war
and again, no one attends to my words.

Draw up your lines. Listen! Do you hear me?
Within my head, the raging voices,
temples fallen upon me, snakes sinister,
and none to listen. Bind up your dead, bind up
the jaws of Hector. Peace is a foreign—none shall heed.

v. Lost among other warnings,
another small brown girl,
solitary in her tent, looks into the dead faces
of her parents, seeing only sky
where war rides on the backs of drones,

only her own irises reflected, alone
in her fear of what lurks outside the walls—the road to Death
entirely imaginable. The warnings,
nightly on the six o’clock news, repeated at ten. Peace is—
and still you don’t heed me.

Questions and Answers

How/where do you find inspiration today?

Often outdoors, during a walk or run. Often after reading other writers’ poetry that speaks to me. Sometimes, as with this particular poem, as ekphrasis, from another art-form – in this case, a poem and a 19th century bronze sculpture in a French museum. I always carry a notepad and pencil because ideas are fickle, short-lived things that fade into the ether before I get home.

As a published writer, what are your tips or words of motivation for the aspiring poet?

Practise patience and slow down your process. Put things away to cool before revising for as long as you can stand so you forget the words, the ideas, the rhythms. Then you can start to polish the shape and language when it’s lost its charge. Capturing ideas and shaping/polishing them are two separate functions that utilize different parts of your conscious and unconscious.
Try writing a first draft in prose, without line breaks, rhyme, rhythm, meter. Just tell the story, capture its imagery. Then find the line breaks, then the stanzas. Then put it away.
Read. Read. Read.

What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?

I’d seen the bronze statue of Cassandra by Max Klinger in Paris years ago, and it haunted me. After reading Don McKay’s poem “Fates Worse Than Death” in 2014, I remembered that statue of Cassandra and realized that she’d suffered a fate much worse than death. I’ve been fascinated for most of my life by the Greek and Roman legends and histories, and by outsiders in many eras and cultures. Cassandra of Troy, although she was born to privilege, became an outsider – after she rejected a god as a lover, she was cursed with knowing the future and never being believed. After witnessing the fall of her city-state and the death of her family and her culture, she ended up a slave, and murdered. Then there’s the nightly news of our times, filled with endless and appalling images of wars, racism, lost and dying children, mistreated women treated terribly, migrants fleeing murder. The parallel to our times – our society’s ignoring the facts of pollution, war, abuse of women and children, knowing what awaits us and not taking action – felt like ideal bombshell material for a poem in a non-didactic form.

How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit and refine it?

I looked for images of the statue online and read many accounts of Cassandra’s life and death. My first draft was prose, as I often write to start a poem, then I carved out five separate poems that marked watershed moments of her life, all in first person; the fifth poem was loaded with imagery and details of modern warfare. Then I shifted the work into second person, but it felt too impersonal, so back to first. Then I realized it was all one poem, not five. Next was to whittle out all the extraneous – like working with marble, which Klinger’s first statue of Cassandra was carved from – to find the poem. I dialled back the intensity, and a lot of the war imagery came out, along with a totally misguided scene of myself as a child huddled outside my parents’ door. [I did grow up during the Cold War, but even so, it wasn’t the right tone or degree of awful.] I played with line breaks and stanza breaks, ditched lines and words that didn’t work even though I loved them. It was a long, slow process that involved showing it to my partner, who is also a poet, and to my writing group, workshopping it, sleeping on it, walking with it, putting it away until it cooled for me, then looking at it with dispassionate eyes to chisel away the uneven bits of stone that weren’t part of the sculpture. It took three years – about as long as it takes to create a marble sculpture.

What did you find particularly challenging in writing this poem?

Cassandra’s voice, for one. I had to capture some of that fire and anger and despair she must have felt without letting the poem turn into a rant.
Another challenge was balance: specifically, finding the right amount and type of modern warfare horrors to balance the wartime horrors of Cassandra’s era. That was a horrifying experience, to read about the many ways we have found to kill and maim and destroy.”

This poem “Cassandra the Seer” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 51-53.

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