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When he left the palace, the streets were nearly emptySave for the women wailing at the altar, rending airWith sobs and litanies, the smoke from their incense potsThick and fragrant, perfuming the shrouded dead.Above the city walls, bearded vultures circledAnd, one by one, unfurled their talons to drop lamb bonesOn the ossuaries. Old men huddled in drystone doorways,While children, who had not yet fallen ill, clicked their tonguesAs they led the oxcarts, heavy with clay pots, to distant wellsWhere the water had not yet soured. Dogs dismembered a stillborn child,While in the temple, the priests of Apollo argued among themselvesOver whom to blame for the night air blown in from Ethiopia.The affair with the Sphinx declined to afterthought, her broken wingsAnd shattered body merely an omen for the surge of weltering bloodAnd unbearable longing for the world that had been: fields lushWith ripening grain, the easy commerce of touch and talk and laughter.The gods had never been so angry, and though the childrenOf Cadmus lit olive branches, filleted with wool, and chantedSupplications to appease the god of war, nothing would salveThe fever of dying Pericles, drowning in his own blood.So there the proud man stood beneath the temple columns,His anger mounting at the sight of so much pain, vowingTo find the cause no matter the cost—just hours from the sceneOf the hanged Jocasta and the truth that would devour him.
Copyright 2021 Robert B. Hass
Robert Bernard Hass (born 1962) is an American poet, literary critic, and professor at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania.
Oedipus and Antigone, or the Plague of Thebes, by Charles Jalabert, 1843, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille
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