It is night.
Lofted above the whalesmoke waves of Ocean,
A gull free-zoning rides the weather east
Above the clouds and cliffs which gate
The shores of a tideless sea.
Many horizons further,
The realms of warrior kings await:
Among them, Troy's dominions,
Land of uplofted cities and goatleg landscapes
Rimmed by a winedark sea.
By darkened rivers, the dreaming cities sleep;
The sea husks inland.
Awake, a Cyclops shepherd counts the stars,
Conjuring their intelligence to constellations.
On land far distant,
Warm shadows thatch a ruling house
Where free-speaking Penelope dreams away her rest.
Trancing on the midnight air, the moth is leisured,
Matching wings to the cadence of flames.
By hearthlight, a mouse dusts past a sleeping cat,
Whiskers past a sleeping king:
Odysseus, of Ithaca.
King of Argos, master of Corinth,
Lord of Mikinai and the lands of Helice,
Troubles from sleep, and blinks.
Restless shadows stir from a honey-wax flame.
His face is heavy - the aftermath of wine -
But stirring now to worry,
Nagged by toothache.
Divorced from his concerns by a separate bed,
Coiffed in perfume, Clytaemnestra sleeps;
Gold burns unsleeping at her throat.
Elsewhere yet again,
Veiled in dreams, young Helen sleeps,
Breasts uplifted by her breathing's ease.
While kingdoms dream to ream her,
She keeps her peace,
A silken girl adrift in a silken bed,
Trapped in the lockspace shadows of a granite palace,
Hilltop home of a warrior king.
That worthy sleeps beside her:
Who owns her thanks to Agamemnon's gold.
Nightly his bearded voice commands her
As he grips her, boards her, shafts her:
And now she sleeps, as always,
Her nipples dreaming of a gilded kiss,
Dead sperm between her thighs.
The world is at ease, with even the gods,
Subdued by embalming clouds of ambrosial sleep.
Yet, while they sleep,
Bronze dreams of war,
Of suns as yet unkindled which will see
The swords of heroes glutted to the hilt:
Bronze blood-glazed, and blade
Sharpened against the living bone.
Soon the world will wake, and the sun will see
Love, lust and murder,
Armies mustered for invasion,
Kings matching strength,
Fire, slaughter, falling towers,
Gaunt ships marauding.
This is the song of those named,
And many not yet called:
Among them, Achilles,
This is the story of Troy, of Ilion,
Priam's six-gated city,
East of Greece, across the Aegean Sea.
Many voices speak, energies shaping,
Gathering strength across three thousand years
To drive a single engine: this
War lacks conceits: death no symbol: instead,
A truth rammed home at swordpoint.
For blood read blood,
And, for destruction, ruin.
His shepherd days behind him, young Paris,
Now heir to the kingdom of Troy,
Decides to dare for the woman
The world's rumour holds to be most beautiful:
He boasts to those who listen, and
(Thinking all ears open)
To those who don't:
"Menelaus won her with Mikinai's gold -
Even that from his own brother.
Now I by my own grace will claim her."
Yet, setting sail, he races no arrow:
Instead, his daysailing ship charms south,
Coasting by easy stages past Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos,
To Rhodes, and then beyond:
Cyprus, Lebanon and Egypt.
The weather of the world remaining fair,
He dares his sail from sight of land,
Venturing north across the fish-infested sea
To come to haven on the shores of Crete,
The sunline's seawashed mountain kingdom.
Idomeneus, the king who holds the island,
Accepts him as a guest,
Tells his story,
Then hears Paris tell one of his own.
"It's Helen you thought to hear of. Yes?
You won't deny it, surely,
A strong young blood like you.
Her home, of course, was Athens.
You know it? No? Well then:
There's pleasure yet.
Athens, yes ...
Olive and citron ...
Athletes oiled and girls in garlands
Trancing their limbs in limber dance
Round sunlit temples skirling into sky ...
But I digress -
Perhaps because my memories of Helen
Are wound-bright still.
From Crete we came: myself and Lycomedes.
Both suitors, and soldiers,
Simples amidst the flattery and wit
Which dolled itself in silver,
And spoke in gold.
I was the oldest -
Too old, too poor -
And yet, I tried.
I tried, and failed.
Ah, Helen ...
Her beauty will survive earth's incognito,
For those who saw remember,
And will tell ...
What's that? Steal her?
Oh, when she was pledged, no doubt hot thoughts
Tempted the hottest loins.
But good sense prevailed,
And treatied us to honour
The choice her father made for her.
By an oath sworn on disjointed blood
We pledged ourselves
To join together in a single cause
To take up arms and wage to war
Should any man dare trespass on our peace.
It was Odysseus who matched us to that oath.
Odysseus? Oh, from Ithaca.
An island, north of us, and west.
Small. Rocky. Barren.
Or so they say -
Not that I've ever been there.
Now let me hold my silence, to quench
Both thirst and curiosity together."
"Myself," says Paris, "Now that's my favourite fancy,
I'll not deny it.
And yet, before I speak myself -
Pray, my lord,
Elucidate the logic of this treaty
Which fates the wise to war
Should any fool concede his will to lust.
It seems a desperate thing for ruling kings
To bind by the doom of solemn oaths
A world entire to automatic war:
And, thus binding all,
To put the death of nations beyond review.
Let's say. Let's say some man -
Let's say young Helen fled, eloping with a lover.
Surely it would be better to concede
Pride, possession and the higher joys of ego
Than to embroil the world in war."
An old campaigner in the war of words,
Idomeneus summons extra wine:
The wine of Lesbos, flavoured by a grape
Hinting of salt and the sea.
To this he adds fresh water,
Then cantilevers out his leg, to ease
The ache he suffers from a scar he got
In battle, fighting pirates in his youth.
And, having thus prepared himself for rhetoric,
He kills a fly for insolence,
Then drinks -
Then starts to speak of war, by way of peace.
Thus says Idomeneus.
Let there be peace, and let the girls in garlands dance!
And let old soldiers drink their wine,
And watch the girls,
And then -
Oh, I could use such peace!
But can we have it?
I think we can -
If we can crop the human race entire
And plant a growth of dandilions instead.
But, as things are,
That as a man has legs, his birth declares him -
And, as a man has arms, his grip
Can fabricate his passions into bronze.
The grip declares the weapon.
The grip declares a measure of capacity
Constant in politics, and not to be ignored.
Erase the weapons and the forges can remake them
Since we have forges, and our neighbours likewise,
We cannot risk that naked peace
Which puts its trust in trust alone
And sleeps unsentinelled, guarded by less than geese.
Instead, we must defer all war by treaty,
And use the day of truce to ready death,
To lay up doom and store up devastation,
Preparing for whatever act of pride, of greed,
Distracting feint or treachery
Sunders our treaty, and sets at odds
Thrones with powers, and powers against dominions.
Make treaty, yes, but know
That treaty will be broken.
Whatever token guard its strength, whatever oath assure it,
Treaty will be broken.
For what can words by treaty bind
That swords cannot asunder?
It follows - does it not? -
That peace is but a name for war in waiting -
And those who will not arm for war
Are but the bloody meat of pirates,
The slaves of tyrants, waiting to be taken.
You talk of peace?
But, while you talk,
Ever the forges beat, and ever
The warlords and the weaponmasters
Gather their strength, perfect the means of slaughter.
Is the truth of weapons:
Is the way of wisdom:
Fear, hate, death, doom:
These certain things
Alone preserve the world.
The wise in our generation, we know
The only peace is that beneath the sword."
So says Idomeneus, but leaves his guest
Quite unconvinced, and baffled by the answer.
Indeed, he thinks the answer quite at odds with question.
If weapons hold our trust: then why make treaty?
If treaty cannot guarantee the peace, then why
Accept its liability?
If bloody oath cannot forestall a war, then why
Make bloody oath to guarantee one?
And yet - young Paris knows
Philosophy is not his suit, nor rigour.
And so he merely says:
"I merely thought -
I merely thought the war to doom the world
Should be against a threat of fate far worse
Than mere surrender of a single woman,
However sweet her flesh or fair her face.
Still - you are wise in your generation,
Wise indeed -
I'll not dispute it."
"Then, setting dispute aside," says his kingly host,
"Pray speak your past."
"They say my birth was difficult.
Still, I was born beautiful:
Beautiful, and strong, and bright:
Bright with the promise of love and laurels.
And that's what counts.
It cost me nothing to be born.
And, since my birth,
It's all been easy.
I'm constantly amazed at how some fellows sweat
For the merest scraping of a slave's existence,
Labouring light to darkness
All so they can wake again to labour.
As for myself,
I was raised a country boy, yet became
Heir to the city and kingdom known as Troy.
Does that sound difficult?
It asked less than wishing.
My mother, you see, was queen to start with.
An ugly name - as ugly as her face.
With me as yet unborn, Hecuba
(Having eaten mushrooms over-much)
And dreamed herself delivered of a firebrand
Which set all Troy in flames.
Such women's nonsense
She conjured into cause for murder.
My father - gods above! - agreed.
I thought so when I heard it, and said as much -
Though that, of course, was later.
At the time, I'd neither ears nor voice.
I, mere mindless appetite,
A fish-kick afloat in her womb.
Anyway, my fate was settled: death.
Keeping the afterbirth, they threw me out,
My squalling flesh abandoned to the frosts,
Left by a slave on a barren hillside
Where the wolf
After that ...
But it's a long story, and the day is hot.
In brief, my fate was good:
Saved by a shepherd of humble hearth,
Marrying, in my season, the nymph Oenone.
Entering Troy at last to fight for a bull,
Wrestling down the heroes.
Recognised by Cassandra, my sister,
Accepted by my father, the lordly Priam -
Dreamsaying incompetent to contend against
A father's love for a young son fresh victorious.
In me, you see, all possibles compete
To grace me with their laurels.
And now ...
Yes, now to Sparta.
Come now -
Even in jest, I'd never dare the half.
I know the dangers.
I wish ... only to see.
To see, that I may know,
And, knowing, speak.
For, if beauty live to rumour,
Then to have seen
Is boast sufficient ...."
Then with Idomeneus, Paris feasts,
And shares a soldier's toast to comrades past
And death in battle -
And having thus been braced against the fates,
The Trojan lovelord dares his future north,
His beaked ship driving through the chancing seas,
Fleeting his hopes to Greece.
As winds from sternward belly out the canvas,
Stands in the bow, cape flecked with foam,
Imagining Helen's milk-white warmth.
Will he be disappointed?
For good, for bad, he's sure he'll know -
For, as he watches,
Blue horizons uplift darker hills.
Sea shallows into shore, and quick gold liberates
A chariot, to north the road in style:
A rush of heat and hills to the gates of Sparta.
Tortured hinges and rheumatic echoes groan
As gates of oak and bronze creak open.
A harsh voice leathers out commands.
A trumpet screams,
An honour guard swings out:
Multiplies its own white-hot intolerance
In metal splinters mortal men dare bear,
Wielding, as if it were some attribute of flesh,
The deathless splendour of the ruling bronze.
With this array drawn up in formal order,
Enter a king:
Menelaus of the golden hair,
King of Sparta and of Lacadaemon,
A king to greet a prince.
"Welcome," says Menelaus.
And then again (and this his stab at eloquence):
Greeted by Menelaus, Paris
Greets Helen with his eyes,
And, to his hope,
Is not ignored, nor yet rebuffed.
Come night, he sits with Menelaus,
And, as with Idomeneus,
Drinks toasts on themes of war:
Though all the war young Paris knows
Is tales of Heracles, and distant Thebes.
Pondering by the waters of the lily pond,
Where dragonflies weave rainbows through the air,
Young Helen - her age is twenty-two -
Thinks of her guest from distant Troy,
The man she fancied in her dreams the night before
Arrayed in golden light, and no cloth coarser.
Paris is young, of course -
Young, and a king's son.
Has a king already:
A palace roof upholds above her stars.
Queen in a king's city,
She bathes herself in petals, and perfects
The balance of a silkworm's weaving.
And yet is bored:
Tired of Sparta and its fatuous obsession with bronze,
Punishing their flesh for living so their battle-death
Will not be cheated by a lust for life.
Somethings, at evening,
Gathering silence around her as the dark dusts down,
She wonders how she can bear it for a lifetime.
Seven years already!
Seven years of marriage, and still her flesh,
Draws no worship from her king.
He's no beatfist monster, yet his dreams
Are armoured against concession.
Not that he neglects her -
Nightly he goes campaigning,
Efficient breathing timed to shove his flesh
Home to habitual conclusions,
Grunting with satisfaction:
The sound the same as when he takes a charging boar,
Weight braced, a cross-brace holding
Widthwise against the death which otherwise
Would gore the spearlength through,
Tusks driving home to end both lives together.
Thus love with Menelaus:
A sullen weight, a laboured rhythm,
Then sleep, for him at least.
While Helen lies awake,
Listening to the tactics of his teeth
Grinding his enemies at close-quarters combat.
It's no surprise that Paris takes her eye.
Light-footed in the dance he wheels,
His grace in balance on the tender air.
Throwing the discus, he declines
To heft the flint as if it were a weight
But wings it forth with ease, as if his skill awoke
Energies of flight within the stone.
Even in pankration he smiles,
Facing a beef-bone hero:
Avoids a kick and ducks a bunch of fives,
Slips sideways, and lets panache deliver
A backhand to the face:
A blow that's half a joke, yet opens
Rage-blinded anger to a killing combination:
The final blow withheld, for this is sport,
And Paris treats it so,
Lightly smiling to accept a victor's laurels,
And so enraging half the youth of Sparta,
Their sullen pride defeated to enhance
A stranger's beauty.
Watching him, young Helen knows
Publication details: a partial draft of this poem "Helen of Troy" was first published in the Twentieth Century unter the title "Troy". It was published in 1987 in Musings, the Massey University Literary Magazine, edited by Ewen Coker. (ISSN 0112-9449). The 1987 poem occupies pages 16-26 and takes us as far as "She knows that he will have her, and knows how". "Helen of Troy" Copyright © 1987, 2002 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.