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