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Robert Bernard Hass: Oedipus in Thebes

When he left the palace, the streets were nearly empty

Save for the women wailing at the altar, rending air

With sobs and litanies, the smoke from their incense pots

Thick and fragrant, perfuming the shrouded dead.

Above the city walls, bearded vultures circled

And, one by one, unfurled their talons to drop lamb bones

On the ossuaries. Old men huddled in drystone doorways,

While children, who had not yet fallen ill, clicked their tongues

As they led the oxcarts, heavy with clay pots, to distant wells

Where the water had not yet soured. Dogs dismembered a stillborn child,

While in the temple, the priests of Apollo argued among themselves

Over whom to blame for the night air blown in from Ethiopia.

The affair with the Sphinx declined to afterthought, her broken wings

And shattered body merely an omen for the surge of weltering blood

And unbearable longing for the world that had been: fields lush

With ripening grain, the easy commerce of touch and talk and laughter.

The gods had never been so angry, and though the children

Of Cadmus lit olive branches, filleted with wool, and chanted

Supplications to appease the god of war, nothing would salve

The 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, vowing

To find the cause no matter the cost—just hours from the scene

Of 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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