Florida poet Paul Kiernan gives voice and humanity to one of the most maligned women of classical poetry, Helen of Troy. Paul’s “After the Funeral Rites” is spoken as though we are a friend or listener of a much older and wiser Helen as she recounts her return to Sparta in the company of Menelaus and her stagnated life once there after the beauties and horrors of her ordeal in fallen Troy, all recounted immediately after the funeral rites of her late husband many years after the action depicted in Homer’s The Iliad. “After rereading the Iliad I wondered about Helen’s experiences, what she thought and felt about her fate,” Paul told The Dewdrop. “I wanted to give her words to express it all; we don’t hear much from her side.”
After the Funeral Rites
Well, now they tell me the funeral games
Will be held tomorrow – how satisfying.
I’m being serious, such a relief,
My friend, to get all these proprieties
Behind me. I can talk to you with candor.
The funeral rites were well done I must say.
Performed at a cove by the sea – dramatic,
Picture it: the sky colored like oyster,
Somber, and waves breaking in the caverns
Just below us and the seabirds crying.
It could have been stage crafted for a tragedy.
When the torches touched his pyre up leapt
His smoky flames just like fat offerings
And, bitch that I am, the thought came to me
Never had he seemed so ardent than this
Since we returned from Troy and its disasters.
I hid my smile while others cried their tears.
He had his other women; I went untouched
Since returning, it was never the same.
Was it his wounded manhood? Well he brought
His possession back, triumphal homecoming,
The conqueror no longer the cuckold.
I feel I can confide these things in you,
My new friend, but already my best friend,
And I mean that, really. And wasn’t I glad
To make it back. Think of my situation:
How many of those women lost their men?
I’m sure a few would have seen me in hell.
The city was full of smoke and soldiers
And slaughter in the streets – and I hid, not
From the Achaeans, no, from those women
Who must have felt I brought a world of trouble
To them. I was afraid of their anger
That maybe they would take their vengeance on me.
I’m a realist. I knew I had no friends.
Not like you who I can put my trust in.
And then of course who knew what he would do.
He threatened me with death when we finally
Came face to face. Now listen to what I said,
“This is what the Fates have done, we’re playthings
For the gods and their inscrutable schemes.
Why would I abandon you, my daughter,
My home for an unknown land? What, for Paris,
An underhanded effete pretty boy?
I was used,” I pleaded, “maybe not blameless
But wholly innocent and unwitting.
O, the golden apple Paris gave – what
Suffering it’s caused immortal gods and men”.
I know it sounds over-dramatic now
But I never needed to convince so much.
It was enough to save me on that day.
My dear friend, you can see it, I’m troubled.
I can tell you understand what I’ve been through.
Does it matter why I went with Paris?
Who wouldn’t give up spinning at the loom?
O, the tedium of domesticity!
Passion, so pardonable in the young
It overwhelms completely like a surprise
Wave that catches you unaware at the shore
And carries you away in the current.
Passion has no tolerance for reflection;
Reflection, that comes later and then judgement
The judgement we must pass upon ourselves.
Am I waxing too philosophical?
As for dear old Paris, my romancer,
He proved a disappointment I’m afraid.
Aren’t they all disappointments in the end?
Let’s not laugh, I’m serious.
———————————————So, my friend,
You see why I feel troubled. Reflection.
That time has finally arrived for me.
Why was I destined to be in this story?
And when I ask myself? I should have run
Away while still a young girl to Delos
And joined the worship there had I known this fate.
And lived life freely and unencumbered,
Pure and dedicated to the goddess
Not troubled as I am now by the past
And the people ensnared in that endless war –
I think of them you see because the past
Is always with me now that I am old.
I wonder how many are still alive.
That’s why I look for the strange ships that come.
I always make my way down to the docks
With questions for the sailors and travelers
– Where have they been, what islands have they touched?
Have they any news direct or second hand,
Rumors they may have heard in their voyages
Of the Trojans that escaped the city
Or of the Greek soldiers who never returned –
Lost at sea, I wonder, or marooned somewhere?
Or maybe settled in some new homeland.
I’m anxious to find out those final outcomes,
How did their story end, those who lost
A peaceful life for the hardship that became
Our unavoidable lot. It fills my mind.
Unintended things, offhand words, some sight
Will suddenly bring them back in a rush.
You need to go, I know, but we have so much
To talk about yet, stories from my side.
Yes and we women have a different
Perspective, don’t we – more nuanced as they say.
You are going to the market you said.
I would go with you but not looking like this.
I’m old but I can still make an impression
And frankly I like to set tongues waging.
Be a dear and pick me up some sweet figs.
Paul Kiernan is a Latinist living on the storm battered southwest Gulf Coast of Florida.