Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Second Slaughter

This poem by Lucia Perillo is from the September issue of Poetry magazine. Normally I like most of what's in Poetry, but apart from a beautifully written essay on baseball and poetry (I know!) by Fernando Perez, the only piece that really caught my eye this month was Perillo's The Second Slaughter.

All poets have a thing for Homer - not all of them could tell you why, but they do - it's that whole godfather of poetry thing, gets 'em every time. Christopher Logue does the best re-imagining of the Iliad going, but allusions to the blind bard crop up absolutely everywhere. What I like about this particular poem is that Perillo has managed to take an episode so well known from Homer and turn it into something completely fresh. More than that, the poem doesn't just provide a new way of looking at an old text, but it allows an old text to cast new light on a contemporary problem. It's a beautifully layered statement on differing responses to grief and suffering - the old world's way of demonstrating grief now becomes a source of grief in and of itself in the modern world. And the last stanza is absolutely marvellous - the play on links between inhumanity and the animal world are subtle and surprising. Too tired to make more sense (haven't slept in nearly 48 hours!), but it really is a wonderful piece of writing.

Achilles slays the man who slayed his friend, pierces the corpse
behind the heels and drags it
behind his chariot like the cans that trail
a bride and groom. Then he lays out
a banquet for his men, oxen and goats
and pigs and sheep; the soldiers eat
until a greasy moonbeam lights their beards.

The first slaughter is for victory, but the second slaughter is for grief—
in the morning more animals must be killed
for burning with the body of the friend. But Achilles finds
no consolation in the hiss and crackle of their fat;
not even heaving four stallions on the pyre
can lift the ballast of his sorrow.

And here I turn my back on the epic hero—the one who slits
the throats of his friend’s dogs,
killing what the loved one loved
to reverse the polarity of grief. Let him repent
by vanishing from my concern
after he throws the dogs onto the fire.
The singed fur makes the air too difficult to breathe.

When the oil wells of Persia burned I did not weep
until I heard about the birds, the long-legged ones especially
which I imagined to be scarlet, with crests like egrets
and tails like peacocks, covered in tar
weighting the feathers they dragged through black shallows
at the rim of the marsh. But once

I told this to a man who said I was inhuman, for giving animals
my first lament. So now I guard
my inhumanity like the jackal
who appears behind the army base at dusk,
come there for scraps with his head lowered
in a posture that looks like appeasement,
though it is not.


J. Harker said...


I quite liked that poem.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Oh God, another dog lover. What about all the horses, cattle and sheep he sacrificed? And the humans?
I know a good cures for insomnia if you're interested.

Anonymous said...

Is it less than nice to comment on the misinterpretations of the post-modern peeps, or can anyone just 'interpret' everything the way they want? 'Cause by Jove that was a load of rubbish! Reader response, I thank you.

June said...

This is a fantastic poem! Thanks for bringing it to my attention again.