Thursday, August 06, 2009

Thracian O

(inspired by J.W. Waterhouse's Nymphs finding the Head of Orpheus)

Thracian O
by Caroline Lawrence

My tears are small and bitter and hard to squeeze out.
What do you expect? I’m a raccoon.
I half resent him for making me feel this way…
Half love him, too. I want to rub up against his calf,
To kiss his ankle with my small wet nose.
But something in his manner keeps us at all a distance
Even though his music ensnares and attracts us,
We are held in his Thracian thrall. Gripped by his woodland notes.
Those rainbow chords strummed out on his lyre.
That throbbing net of music that holds me – paralysed – next to
Brother Wolf. (The Grey One will probably gobble me whole
The moment O puts down his lyre. More of embarrassment
Than instinct, I suspect - a desire to eliminate
any creature who witnessed his tears.)
O’s fingers pluck the dried stretched entrails of my pal,
A mountain lynx who perked his tufted ears and came too close
‘Pluck me,’ squeals my dead amigo. ‘Pluck me, baby!’

He fell in love once, our Thracian bard,
But she was one of those ethereal types: too beautiful to last long.
You know the type. Marble skin, laughing eyes, pillowy lips.
The kind of girl the cosmos likes to snuff out
Between its forefinger and thumb?
Brother Snake snacked on her heel one afternoon,
Trading her sweet blood for his poisoned saliva.
Not such a good deal if you ask me.
But she was running barefoot and carefree at the time,
All annoying with her slo-mo flying hair and backward glances,
luring O on, making him put down his lyre, taking him from us.
Serves her right for being all carefree and happy and barefoot.
Besides, he didn’t play as much when he was with her.
They did other things instead. Like get grass stains on their tunics.
Selfish O. Selfish E. We craved his music, like a drug.
But she kept him from us. So she had to go.
Even Brother Wolf hoped that now E was dead and gone
O would get back to his Woodland Tour.

The maenads felt the same way. They really resented E,
That groupie par excellence. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised
To learn that one of them had planted that snake in the grass
Just so he’d come back to us, his fans. But he didn’t come back.
He went away. And the woods were dark and rank
And empty and dank without him. For a long time.
We missed him. Missed his music. How dare he?
We never asked for his lachrymose music. But it was like
A drug. We craved it. He got us hooked. And then to just leave us?
Like a dealer leaves his junkie hanging around?
When we could be getting some useful scavenging done?

We skulked and moped and did some half-hearted foraging
The carnivores forced themselves to swallow a few herbivores.
I tell you: the latter went willingly. The pleasure had gone out of life
For us all. Then one day the trees themselves whispered the rumour
With rejoicing leaves; ‘He’s back! Back from death.
Back from the underworld!’ The aspen shuddered with pleasure.
The oak stood frozen with joy. The trees clapped.
See? Even they love his music. Hell, even the rocks like his music.

And then… Then he does nothing but mope. Come on, O!
Snap out of it! We’re waiting, man. We bought our tickets last year.
We’ve all been waiting. I camped out in line for three days
So I could get this seat near the front.
And now you say you’re retiring? I’m sorry, but no. That won’t do.
The maenads start the rave without him and then he appears
All sulky and in an artistic funk, saying his manager betrayed him.
And he refuses to play! Those crazy nymphs are furious.
Incandescent. One of them starts to beat him
With her thyrsus. The others join in. They just want to be noticed.
They all want a piece of him. Odi et amo, baby. They love him
And they hate him. One of them is kissing him while
Another bites off his toe. One nibbles his ear. Literally.
Then they get carried away and tear him limb from limb.
The fingers that plucked the strings? Scattered and bloody in the grass.
The arms that cradled the lyre? Pulled out of their shoulder sockets
And tossed away. One arm up a tree, the other down a ravine.
It was too hard to pull the legs from the torso.
So they left that. And trust me, there are some bits
You don’t even want to know about. And what about his head?
His beautiful rock-star head that we loved to gaze upon?
Floating down the stream, dude. Floating down the stream.

And then the next day they see his head and they’re like: ‘Ohmygod!
What happened?’ Stupid nymphs. Still, now I can get back to business.

J.W.Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite was on at the Royal Academy in 2009 but it has NOW FINISHED. You can read some of my thoughts about this painting at my blog called Orpheus & Orphée. And you can read my takes on these other paintings by Waterhouse: AriadneHylasAdonisNarcissus and Circe.

[Despite the slightly risqué flavour of this poem, Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]


  1. I love this! Echoes of Moonstruck in there? Hmm?

  2. Huh? Echoes of Moonstruck?

    Snap out of it, girl!


  3. Lovely poem! Did you write this?

  4. Thanks, Gary! Yes, I wrote this in a moment of summer madness! A very strange Muse was whispering in my ear yesterday.