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
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,
Will against life.
Not to have been-
Oh, to not have been better
More committed and
An ear too long in the wheatgrass
And a glint in the scythe.
And the unknotting of fibres
The breaking of blood
My flesh is gone
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
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
Through the narrow door.
What father, what brother could ask more than
Do not call it stage
A fall from giant-height into
That was never all the Antigone