Mistaking Nike for Niobe

In the Louvre’s spectral light
seen from a distance
I thought it was you,
stranded perilous

Perched high above the crowd
sight, touch, severed.

Arms now wings
half bird
your body
a beak that pecks
the breakable air.

Numberless your losses.
Your sons and daughters killed.
Gods counted it justice.
Too proud she was
of her many children.
Pride now
the flightless feathers in your wings.

In the Louvre’s dusky light
each day each night
the sound of their feet
running up the pedestal stairs,
tremors triggering
hairline fractures in your heart.

*The sculpture mentioned in this poem is that of Nike,
the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Questions and Answers

What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?

It was a moment, a reaction to a magnificent marble sculpture in the Louvre. It was also a mistake. The Louvre was, as usual, very crowded. I did not get close to the sculpture. I did not need to get close, I felt. The larger-than-life female torso, thrusting forward, immense wings raised high, filled me with awe: here was beauty and strength, a powerful dynamic. But it was also loss and destruction. The head and arms were broken off, the figure halted mid-stride. At its core, the sculpture was, for me, tragic. It brought to mind the Greek goddess Niobe, who was punished by the gods for her overweening pride in her many children.

The sculpture inspired the words:

Arms now wings
half bird
your body
a beak
that pecks the breakable air.

They became the poem’s emotional centre. The rest of the poem flowed from that.

After finishing, I thought I’d better check to make sure I had everything right. I discovered the sculpture was not of Niobe, but of the mighty goddess Nike, the Winged Victory of Samothrace. What now? My poem was wrong, useless. Except I couldn’t let it go. Something held me.

I tried changing the poem into a Nike poem, and also tried including both Niobe and Nike. Nothing worked. Still, something kept pulling. What was it? What linked Niobe and Nike? What had made this mistake possible? Feeling lost, I decided to reach back to that initial spark of feeling, regardless of whom or what the sculpture actually represented.

The poem then took me on a lengthy mental and emotional journey. It led me finally to the realization that my mistake didn’t matter, and that my reaction to the sculpture centred simply on a tragedy—for me, Niobe’s. I understood that this tragedy could resonate outward to the wider one of great pride leading to great loss, which implicitly included Nike.

Once I reached that conclusion and found the central import of my poem, I was able to focus more on technique.

I chose the title because it hinted at the link between Nike and Niobe, a broader context.

I selected adjectives like “spectral” and “dusky” to describe the lighting in the Louvre because they made a blurring of boundaries, and a mistake, seem possible.

I used the image—inspired by the sculpture—of a flightless bird to capture the core tragedy.

I chose the adjective “numberless” to describe the loss of Niobe’s children because it extended the loss beyond her.

I repeated the beginning line (with a slight alteration) to help ground and structure the poem.

Again and again, I said the poem out loud to myself, and in my mind. I listened to sound and rhythm, to where I needed emphasis, short lines, longer ones, a break, a breath.

The ending was difficult. It went through many iterations. Some were cliché, others unclear or melodramatic. With none I felt fully happy. An underlying persisting feeling kept me trying again and again. Until, one day, the words came that said what I needed them to say most truly.

This poem “Mistaking Nike for Niobe” originally appeared in Sensing Different Worlds Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 244 (2021): 123-124.

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