A vision of a moment in time. Of what might have been. John Looker’s poems capture a moment of the past, give us a glimpse, a vision. Enchanted by this approach, I thought I would translate one of his poems into Italian. I didn’t get very far though because it set me wondering if I couldn’t attempt to capture that moment in a vision of my own. In my own words. I had chosen a poem, a moment, that was more familiar to me, having to do with the Greek epic of Ulysses and the Aeneid. There were other poems on the pages of his book, including Captain Cook’s voyage around the world but I had never been to New Zealand or the Pacific Islands.
Helen on her way to Troy. What was it like? What was she like? The opposite perhaps of Penelope, although like Penelope she would have worked at the loom, leaving more manual labor to her handmaidens. Thinking of Homer, I gave her an epithet, Helen of the milk-white arms. And wondered if Menelaus had not been past his prime when he became her husband. A young virile lover was what she chose.
So I made an attempt, inspired by John Looker’s poem. Here you have both his and mine.
Poem by John Looker, in the collection Shimmering Horizons, 2021, published by Bennison Books
The Escape to Troy
Rising to her feet, Helen of the plump white arms
was well aware of the eyes,
from the helmsman behind her to the officers at their stations
and all the men at their oars.
She had turned her back on Sparta,
the provincial court which once seemed full of promise,
the undistinguished dwellings, the husband
with his hearty companions and predictable habits.
She was silhouetted against the evening sun:
that head to eclipse men’s wives,
those hips that could found a dynasty
rocking to the rhythm of the waves.
Beneath her the keel of the ship leapt suddenly. She swayed
bountifully under the gaze of those eyes,
turning towards her chosen abductor,
placing a manicured hand on his hairless arm.
Behind her, she knew, all was confusion, dismay
and slaves would be beaten to see what they knew of her plans.
But the ship sprang forward like a discus hurled in the games,
sailing wherever the gods – or she – might please.
The land ahead lay pink with almond groves
and green with rows of the vine. There were boys
tending goats. And there on a hill – now gold
in the setting sun – were the walls and the towers of Troy.
Helen of the milk-white arms
She stood there in the prow, a figurehead,
swaying slightly as the wind swept her chiton to one side
offering a glimpse of milk-white arms
to the sailors straining at the oars.
She had no regrets for Sparta with its provincial court
where she had ruled as queen, with its undistinguished dwellings
and a husband no longer in his prime
devoted more to wine than to his bride.
Her eyes made men forget their wives,
her flanks would harbor future kings.
The sun wrapped her in a halo of gold
as it slowly sank into the sea.
There was turmoil in the world no longer hers,
slaves, knowing nothing of her plans, were thrashed.
The ship sprang forward, sensing home.
Her dimpled fingers grasped her abductor’s smooth hairless arm.
Helen of the milk-white arms stood proud at the prow,
in obeisance to the gods – and to her own desires.
The future of them all was intertwined with hers,
the grapevine supported by the tree. There was no turning back.
Land came into sight: pale pink drifts of almond blossoms,
brown vines, still bare, scrolling up grass-green slopes.
Up on the hill boys not yet men were tending goats.
And there – gold in the dying light – the walls and towers of Troy.