“A Powerful Corpse”

Poetry by Jacob Klein

A Powerful Corpse

People of Thebes! who walk in the debris

Left by the Seven[1] and mourn

The Dragon who lies in the dust,

His teeth chipped, murmuring

About mothers and sons.

At the feet of your walls kneels the Sister

Who, with a handful of dirt,

(There are teeth in the grave,

And meandering from Delphi

A cow[2] moos at the third gate)

Sows destruction, half-knowing.

(She throws the stone to test the city)[3]

And a woman stands hovering in a corner

And whispers her name,

“antigone.”“Antigone!”[4]

“Antigone.”

“anTIgone?”“ANTIGONE!!!”

“antiGONe.”

“Antigone?”

“Who are you?”

She asks, half-knowing.

In the back of her mind she pictures

Women and looms and atrophied claws.

Chewing words that crunch like tin

She storms through palatial hallways,

Too bright to be mortal,

Too doomed to be divine.

“Antigone”

She calls.

(When the blind are the sighted

Kings bury their crowns

In speeches and honors.)

“I see you.”

She answers, knowing.

(Far off in some unknown mountains

Are the gentle sounds of snip snip snip.

An old woman reads tragedy

With scissors in her hands.

Sometimes an eagle drops at her front gate

And snaps its neck.

She keeps cutting, snip snip snip.)

The too-bright mortal walks through Thebes,

A guard on either side.

The people see her shining so bright

And they whisper,

“Is the well safe yet?”

The too-doomed spirit stands before the king[5]

And they shout in contest.

Antigone prays loudly and dearly,

Rightly and stubbornly.

She prays to the law-giver,

The king above the king.

She wails to Zeus.

He doesn’t answer, but someone else does.

(snip snip snip)

Prayer was her move,

Power is his.

And with no god to hear,

Power silences her.

It tugs at her elbows,

Pulling her through empty streets

Out of Thebes and to the mountains.

(You can hear it loudest here,

snip, snip, snip)

“Antigone!”

The voice calls.

“I know you.”

She whispers.

Power spun the fabric.

Power stretched its length.

She flashes at its end.

(Those born of dragons

Leave many corpses.)

And so the Children of the Teeth, powerful and half-divine,

Fall, each at the other’s hand. King to the daughter

To the husband to the mother to the king.[6]

(A single stone among kingdoms

Shatters it all)

This is the Thebes that Cadmus saw,

Empty and soaked in dragon’s blood,

The people bitten and thirsty.

But this city has greatness yet to come,

For those born of those born of dragons

Build many towers.[7]

Far in the distance, a woman stands,

Her scissors raised, and asks,

“Who stands now, Dragon-Men?

Who stands now?”

(snip, snip, snip)

  1. The Theban Plays of Sophocles consist of three parts: Oedipus Rex, where the infamous king of the dragon-born city of Thebes struggles to come to the realization of his actions, Oedipus at Colonus, where Oedipus abandons Thebes, leaving a power vacuum that results in seven foreign princes assaulting the seven gates of Thebes and ends with all of the princes and both of Oedipus’ sons dead, and Antigone, where Oedipus’ daughter Antigone is punished for deciding to bury her traitorous brother, Polynices, after the new king forbade it

  2. A beautiful Phoenician princess named Europa was once desired by Zeus. To hide his affair from his divine wife, Hera, Zeus transformed himself into a bull and kidnapped Europa, carrying her away to Crete, where she became queen. Not knowing what happened to his daughter, the king sent his two sons to find her, ordering them not to return until they had done so.

    One of these sons was Cadmus. Looking for guidance, he sought out the famed Oracle of Delphi. She told him that his sister would not be found, but that he should follow a cow and build a city where it comes to rest. The miraculous cow led him all the way into Boeotia and, where it finally came to rest out of exhaustion, the city of Thebes rose.

  3. But things never go quite so smoothly in mythology. Cadmus sent men out to fetch water from a local well, but none came back. When he went to investigate, he found a dragon had made the well its home and was devouring the men he sent. So, as one of the first heroes of Greece, Cadmus slew the dragon.

    But the story didn’t end there. Cadmus took the teeth from the dragon and buried them. When he did, men rose from the ground, fully grown and fully armed. Frightened, Cadmus took a stone and threw it into their center. Not knowing who threw the stone, the men began to fight amongst themselves.

    When the battle finally ended, dozens of bodies littered the ground. Only five men remained. For generations to come, the nobles of Thebes would claim descent from these surviving men, the Spartoi, meaning “Sown,” those born of the dragon’s teeth.

  4. Antigone was the daughter of Oedipus, the fateful king who, unwittingly, killed his father, married his mother, and later fled Thebes in shame upon realizing his mistake. In his absence, his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, decided to share the crown, taking the throne on alternate years. However, when the first year ended, Eteocles refused to relinquish his power. When the time came for him to step down, he instead declared himself the sole king of Thebes and exiled his brother.

  5. Eteocles did not leave peacefully. When he returned, it was with an army at his back. As Eteocles and his forces sieged the city, one general from each side fought at each of Thebes’ seven gates. It came to be known as “The Seven Against Thebes.” The fighting was bitter but, in the end, Thebes was the victor. However, the end of the battle also found both brothers dead, each killed at the other’s hand. Thebes once more found itself without a king.

    Fortunately, there was Creon, cousin to the two brothers and next in line to be king. His first decree upon being crowned was to venerate and bury the hero Eteocles and to condemn his brother, the traitorous Polynices. Creon warned that anyone who dared to bury Polynices would be sentenced to death.

    Antigone, the sister, listened in horror as she heard what was to become of her brother’s body. Feeling obligated to honor the body of her failing bloodline, she buried the corpse of Polynices and, making no attempt to hide her actions, was soon found out. Creon demanded that she be killed.

  6. However, Antigone also happened to be the wife of Haemon, the last living son of Creon and his wife Eurydice. Everyone, even Tiresias, the famous blind seer, begged Creon to reconsider. But he was adamant in his decision, thinking that, if he backed down now, he would show himself and his rule to be weak, something a kingdom just coming out of civil war could not afford. He kept good to his word, and Antigone was walled up in a cave. Creon changed his mind after seeing the despair of his family but, before he could free her, she hung herself. Arriving upon the scene, Creon looked on in horror as his son, clinging to his wife’s body, killed himself as well. When the news reached Eurydice, the grief was too much to bear and she, too, took her own life. Looking upon all that he had wrought, Creon wept in despair and gave up the throne. It is never directly stated, but it is quite likely he took his own life soon after.

  7. Despite having suffered so much tragedy, Thebes did not fall. During the times before the Peloponnesian War, at the height of classical Greece, it stood as one of the most powerful of the city states. In fact, Thebes was crucial in the ending of the Peloponnesian War. They even beat the Spartans decisively in a battle where they were significantly outnumbered. Thebes was the mediator to many of the peace talks and likely would have soared to spectacular heights had Phillip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander, not come in and conquered much of Greece. However, Thebes’ elite unit, the Sacred Band of Thebes, a highly trained company composed entirely of pairs of male lovers, were so impressive, choosing to fight to the last man rather than surrender, that Phillip wept over their graves and erected a massive lion as a monument to the brave Thebans, known as the Lion of Chaeronea, which can still be seen to this day.

About the Author

Jacob Klein

Jacob Klein is a recent graduate from New Jersey who graduated with a B.A. in Creative Writing with a History minor from Farleigh Dickinson University. He is an emerging writer currently working on his first novel and has written an unpublished book of poetry based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses.