The poem I’m sharing tonight is by one of my favourite writers, Margaret Atwood. Alongside her many other enviable talents, Atwood is adept at taking narratives and characters from the literary canon, especially Greek mythology, and re-telling them in a such a way as to not only magnify and clarify their original context, but also reveal dark truths of our own problematic modern-day society. (I highly recommend her re-telling of Penelope’s story from Homer’s Odyssey in The Penelopiad (2005) and her fabulous meta-style re-retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Hag-Seed (2016). But for now here is Helen as you’ve never seen her before:
(CW: Mention of war, rape and objectification)
Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing
The world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.
I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worst suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or bleary
hopeless love. Seeing rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.
Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look — my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.
Atwood, M. (1995) ‘Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing’ from Morning in the Burned House. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 33-36