Cleopatra rides the rails
but never the bus
a foreigner now
as she was in Caesar's city,
workmen shifting her from station
to museum, crated like so many
cans of beans.
She is silent as sand,
stilled limbs leafed in gold, a
treasure always in transit though
black as bitumen now, cat eyes
blind in an empty skull,
everything drawn out
but her dry heart.
She was bread once
and a circus too, lithe
as a lotus stem snaking up
to lay its white flower
on the cheek of Lake Mareotis,
rippling like a pneuma of rain
through the changing houses of Ptah.
Her tongue danced to a dozen
languages. Her mind was a library
of betrayals, each volume a loss
to Alexander's insane epigoni.
Her future was scribed from
the Books of Breathing and
the Books of Breathing and
ambition's killing text:
Caesar's smooth hand
and Antony's sparking eye,
a brief breath of kingdoms, twins
of the sun and moon, all a mirage-
shimmer bright as sanctuary
whose telos was only vast silence
the open mouth of an asp.
and also linked at
a less distinguished follower or imitator of someone...
Books of Breathing: late Egyptian funerary texts simplified from the Book of the Dead
In the Egyptian process of mummification, all internal organs were removed except the heart, which was considered the seat of thought and identity.
The Ptolemaic pharaohs of Egypt, of which Cleopatra was the last, were crowned by the High Priest of Ptah, (creator god who made the world through the power of speech) at his temple in Memphis. They were more Greek than Egyptian, descendants of a general of Alexander the Great after his conquest there, and Cleopatra was the first and only one to learn the Egyptian language. According to Plutarch, she was fluent as well in Greek, Ethiopian, Hebrew, Arabic, Syrian, Median, Parthian, and Latin.
Cleopatra had four known children, including twins with Mark Antony, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene.
The endless list of wars and civil wars which Cleopatra was directly involved in over the tumultuous course of her 39 years is too long to begin to reprise here, but you can read about them and what is known of her complex life in detail here on wikipedia
Images:A posthumous painted portrait of Cleopatra VII of Ptolemaic Egypt from Roman Herculaneum, made during the 1st century AD source here
A raised relief depiction of a woman dated to the early 1st century AD and thought to depict Cleopatra or Cleopatra Selene II, Queen of Mauretania, daughter of Cleopatra VII of Egypt and Mark Antony. source here
My word, what an ambitious and imaginative poem you've come up with here, Joy. The grass Roots once sang "Live for today" and you've driven that idea home here. Cleopatra, with all of her skills, ambition, linguistic ability, fiery love life and undoubtedly vibrant soul, is reduced in the end to "a can of beans." Ay yi yi. It reminds me a bit of Richard Brautigan's "Rommel Drives Deep Into Egypt." in which he reads an old article about the Desert Fox's exploits before noting that Rommel is dead and his tanks have disappeared and winds up with the query, "how's your ass?"ReplyDelete
Of course, you've clothed your poem in regal robes and woven in so much history. I love the mystery and fascination of Egyptian beliefs and customs and you've made them part and parcel of all you've written here. Moreover, what woman's life could be more accomplished, filled with intrigue, and fully lived than hers? And yet, she ends as silent as sand. What a feast, and what a somber message to take in.
Well to be honest, she made some very bad choices, too. Thanks Shay for your generous read, and for giving me the words to work this one up into final form.Delete
Wow, what a tale, splendidly told. I enjoyed your notes too. She crammed a lot in to 39 years. An amazing read.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Sherry. She was an intriguing woman, far more than the cardboard cut-out of the seductress pop culture has made her.Delete
You give the most powerful and memorable woman in the reign of men (though you've made room in her here for a polarity wide as Circe and Helen) her wildest due, her ancient form still ported through our capitals, to display "her dry heart" as evidence enough of her body's majestic myths. Nice rich weave of what we know of how she wished (the notes provide critical ballast). You show what a font Cleopatra remains in our imaginarium, both to the woman who carries her body and the man who dreams of it. History is divinely mysterious in her. (And the names of her twins by Mark Antony are divine!).ReplyDelete
Thanks, B. Another story that just got into my head and had to come out. Meant to link this at earthweal open link also but I slept unusually late this morning--getting on that now. She really wanted to rule Egypt(one of her self given titles was Queen of Kings) and for her line to continue, which alas was not going to happen--her father was an exemplary king, but both he and her grandfather ran up huge debts to Rome, and they were not the bill collectors you wanted to owe that kind of money. There was occupation/war/civil war from the moment of her birth. Later historians painted her as the evil, promiscuous, witchy seductress, but she was a woman of intellect and accomplishment and had only two known lovers, both of whom were obviously meant to shore up her political ambitions. A fascinating but blood-drenched and brief life.Delete
Beautiful, perfectly paced and rendered. Queen of both Nile and Nhil? The last line is, of course, a killer. I love the "like so many cans of beans." And also "She was bread once / and a circus too" what an excellent image to bring her into context.ReplyDelete
Thanks, qbit. Sometimes my rabid love of history foams over into a poem. ;)Delete
One of history's larger than life characters, always interesting to read about and try and understand - her two men and the story of her death. Loved this take.ReplyDelete
I often thought she was woman of strength, yet there is vulnerability in her actions. You masterfully developed a character sketch through your words. You have the makings of a great story-teller as you are able to capture the magic between the recorded history. Smooth hand and sparkling eyes a mirage between sun and moon. I love that last verse...ReplyDelete
Thank you. So glad you liked.Delete
Joy, this is amazing! The picture you paint of Cleopatra is so vivid and honourable, and rightfully reminding us that she was indeed a woman of intellect and not just this siren that everyone reputes her to be. I'm glad you included the notes at the end, as despite her fame, "history is mystery" as you say, and there's so much we don't know about our famous women. I love the whole beautiful thing but especially the third stanza with the image of the lithe lotus stem. Stunning write <3ReplyDelete
Thank you so much, Sunra, for this excellent comment, and for reading and getting it.Delete
Wow - an epic energy flows through your lines and gives life to all the power and intrigue of this ancient queen. I love it!ReplyDelete
I have to confess to knowing very little about our famous Asp woman. I will leave here though, with an image of a cat eyed ghost riding the rails and one who has quite the story to share, if you are ever fortunate enough to ride alongside her of an evening. Beautiful write.ReplyDelete
You weave a tale of ancient intrigue and mystery, capturing the magic of "Cleopatra" -- all that that name conjures -- crystalized in an artifact "leafed in gold" transporting her and us to myth and reality and the magical zone between. What's amazing to me is how you manage to make her a vessel of all of humanity's ambitions and fears, virtues and vices, immediately identifiable whether on the rails or in a history book. Enjoyed this so much, Joy.ReplyDelete
Joy, this is such an in-depth chronicle (many thanks for the notes without which I would have been sorely lost) one of your comments: "story that just got into my head and had to come out" will keep me smiling for quite a while.ReplyDelete
Thank you dear Helen. It's always a good feeling to see you here and see what you take from the poem.Delete
What a way to use a word list. There has always been around Cleopatra. Love the notes you included. I feel Cleopatra sits with you often. It shows in the passion you put into this piece. Brilliant poetry...I can't choose favorite lines. Each one is a treasure.ReplyDelete
I wonder how much of our captivation with her is due to Elizabeth Taylor's portrayal. I don't think I ever viewed her as evil or as a seductress - after all, she was queen, and who else could consort with one of her ilk? The end notes - love them, that detail. It reminds me of the power of stories. ~ReplyDelete