Thursday, June 28, 2012

After Cumae


The Sibyl, singing out prophecies under her breath, 
inscribed them on sun-hammered oak leaves 
and laid their gold in her open mouth 
for the wind to blow away 
since no one in that place could read, 
and cast aside any syllable she sang. 

She dreamt God asked her what she wished for most. 
With her hand, she held up sand and said, 
‘Let me be a poet and live for as long 
as the number of grains I hold.”  

Those who raised her sought 
more than her silence. It grew harder
to eat or sleep. She withered down 
to nothing in their cave, no more than 
the memory of an oak leaf 
skittering across yellow grass.

They hung her whittled carapace 
in a bottle in the trees, and children 
came to poke her with sticks, screaming: 
“Sibyl, Sibyl, what do you want?” 
“I want to die,” she said.

When those who thought her already dead 
discovered she still had her voice, 
they broke her finger bones one by one 
and made a cunning cricket cage 
which they nailed to the rafters 
and forgot her again, not hearing an outcry,

forgetting too that elsewhere crickets 
are caught and kept exactly for their singing--
in cages set on pillows, they chirp through ivory bars
to comfort emperors’ concubines, 
still awake, behind theirs silken ones.


  1. Dear John, thanks for the compliments, and as always, the respect for my work. This poem, as I reread it, clearly requires some more editing!

    I hadn't thought about whether the emperors' concubines might tire of the crickets's repetitive song, but just now it occurs to me that its 'staid registers and solid key' would be deeply needed by the concubines, in the same way that children love and respond to their nightly lullabies--even if the parents' song is only a tuneless humming that in no way resembles music, its constancy and apparent tenderness are what consoles.

  2. There's something so brittle and fragile about this poem, ending with those crickets and their constant song. There are some beautiful lines in this, and the whole leaves a longlasting impression of loneliness and disconnect and yet a connection to the world and to the self despite all that. Lovely the way you do that with a story in a poem, Melissa. The fifth stanza is gorgeous and terrifying, the way it unfolds as if the torture comes in small incremental steps (one by one)...

  3. Thanks so much, Michelle. Isn't that how torture comes??