Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"The Artist Knows—" by Helen Bascand

how Leda must sit: how she will pick
feathers from her breast: how
the frame of an hour waits for more –
a soft whistle, chill of shadow, dark kite –
he comes.

Sky wraps itself in the wing-span of storm-
brilliance. And the cold whirr of myth turns her hot.
Smell of grass and mute desire, trap her under
rough wings, grasping for the soft down of his belly.
Even a Sun turns aside.

The artist knows the hard ground they lie on: how
a god wraps lust in beautiful places, how trees bend,
flowers lend fragrance. And how she will fool herself,
whisper phrases for him – he will peck
the words from her throat.
Who can deny a god?

Leda un-twines his neck, her legs, his wings. He sleeps
as she holds him, and she clutches crushed
tenderness in a raw cleft, beneath an arched sky –
She’s a woman –
a sackcloth of afterwards – hanging her
crumpled garments like plucked purple skins, broken
eggshells already spilling.
At the river,
his shadow dips, the bony keel
of disguise shrinks, the bastard wing becomes
a god’s hand, raised to bless the empty
hollow where he took her. Feathers
take a last spiral flight –

and he is gone.
Lust remains.


Leda lies
back in the marital bed
under the soiled covers – a haze
of white rain falling, sinking
into soft easy ground.

                                      Editor: Joanna Preston

Helen Bascand is a Christchurch poet, and stalwart of the Canterbury haiku scene. Her first collection, Windows on the Morning Side, was published by Sudden Valley Press in 2001. Her second, Into the Vanishing Point, was published by Steele Roberts in 2007.

Plenty of poets have written about Leda and the swan, with varying levels of success and/or misogyny (surely I’m not the only one who wants to slap Yeats for the “feathered glory” line?). What I love about Helen’s poem is that we see Leda as Leda, not just victim, or vessel, or mother-to-be (of Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux). She is a woman and a wife, and someone with thoughts and desires of her very own.

I love the way this poem opens up the question of what Leda did afterwards, how she went back to her husband, literally as well as metaphorically. (Just imagine the conversation – ‘so, my love, what did you do today while I was out Kinging?’) And I love the ambiguity of the first two lines in the last stanza, and the way that last line could be simple factual description, or a hint of how and why the wife of a king might take a little walk on the wild side …

“The Artist Knows—” is published on Tuesday Poem with Helen’s permission.

Joanna Preston is a poet, editor and freelance creative writing tutor from New Zealand. Her first collection, The Summer King, won both the 2009 Kathleen Grattan Award and the 2010 Mary Gilmore Award. Visit her Tuesday Poem at A Dark Feathered Art and the other Tuesday Poets using our blog list.


Elizabeth Welsh said...

It's often so intimidating to re-visit territory that has been written about many times, but this poem seems so fresh, so unique. I agree that the choice of recording the moment afterwards pulls out a new dimension to the poem. REALLY enjoyed it!

Joanna said...

Glad you liked it. She’s an underrated poet.

susan t. landry said...

for me, this has always been one of the more intensely powerful mythic encounters. the lack of grandiose language broadens what we feel, what we know instinctively, about male and female coupling when boundaries are crossed.
thank you.