Juvenilia – The House of Laius (2005)

I wrote this while studying Greek tragedy. Antigone was the daughter of Oedipus. In Sophocles’ play of the same name, she returns from Athens where she has accompanied her father through his exile and to his death. During her absence, her brothers Etocles and Polyneices kill each other in a bid for the throne of Thebes. Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law and uncle, becomes the new king and decrees that Polyneices should not be buried as he led an army against his own city. Antigone feels compelled to give her brother his death rites and throws a symbolic handful of earth over his dead body. She is caught in the act by Creon and sentenced to be locked in a tomb until she dies. Antigone calls on her beautiful sister, Ismene, to also stand up for their dead brother, but Ismene does not have the courage.

The poem is set just as Antigone leaves the stage for the last time and plays on the tension between the excruciating fidelity Antigone feels to her family and her envy at Ismene’s ability to acquiesce to the spirit of the time. As a result, Antigone comes to see herself as the last descendent of Oedipus, effectively disowning her sister.

Antigone means “against birth” and I make use of this in the poem. I also rely on a quote from Sophocles: “Not to have been born is best.”

The House of Laius

Do not call it stage

Or Altar

It is neither

But life refined

And exploded to giant-size.

 

Here is the crown your father wore

And heirloom necklet set

With the apple of his eye –

Daughter sister, mother bride.

 

Here is the rag your father wears

And these are                              that were his eyes.

Here, that was his light,

Antigone-

Will against life.

 

Not to have been-

Better.

Oh, to not have been better

More committed and

Marked.

An ear too long in the wheatgrass

And a glint in the scythe.

 

Ismene

 

And the unknotting of fibres

 

Ismene

 

The breaking of blood

 

Ismene

 

My flesh is gone

 

Ismene

 

My father’s keeper, Ismene

 

No reaper for lovely Ismene

Whose hair is the colour of corn

No threshing floor for Ismene

Where limb and love are torn

No stone for pillow

Or  marbled marriage bed.

The wind shall still tousle your swinging locks

And play kisses about your head

Ismene.

 

The living and the dead

Are separated by earth.

It was a fistful of earth that buried your brother

Opened the door for him and one more.

So much weight on a single skinny arm

So many fates

In a fistful.

 

Husbandless, sisterless, fatherless

Undone. Yet going as none have gone

Alive, as none have gone

Willing

Through the narrow door.

 

What father, what brother could ask more than

 

Antigone

 

Do not call it stage

 

Antigone

 

A fall from giant-height into

 

Antigone

 

That was never all the Antigone

I was.

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