PHILOCTETES

by Eric Rosenbloom
copyright 1997



I

There is no one here to build my pyre,
No glorious flame to consume my pain,
Only a slow and dreadful searing,
Every tissue writhing in its lonely fire.

Nine years I’ve borne the curse of all the Greeks,
Abandoned in their cowards’ quest for comfort,
Their blindness to this mark of gods’ displeasure:
Cursed to live, their misery my heart still seeks.

These regal ships that now approach the shore,
So like my own of long ago:
I fear their mission, new betrayal,
Their only aim must be to grieve me more.

Called to war to end the Trojan boast,
Presuming in their wealth to call
The beauty of our gods their own,
We sailed our thousand ships against their coast.

At Chryse, landing for the fabled spring,
We found it blocked by tumbled stone,
And cutting trees to lever it open,
The place’s guardians woke: I felt their sting.

The affliction in my foot, unhealing, well deserved,
Filled the camp with unholy stink,
My cries unceasing, no relief in sleep,
Tormenting you, Greeks, in your greed justly unnerved.

Then sailing on to quiet Lemnos isle
To hunt for meat and gather fruit,
Our noise, my curse, a violation,
Yet to this cave I sought to rest a while.

My arms, Heracles’ gift, laid on the ground:
But without rest, only pain,
Till reason fled before the night
And sleep unknown for weeks I finally found.

I dreamed of arrows falling fast like rain,
Of sacking Troy with Heracles,
Of home, my wife, our children, parents:
Woke, forgetting all in the insistent pain.

Hobbling down to where the ships await
A void was there to greet me:
Vanished like my recent dream,
You Greeks could no more bear, so mocked, my fate.

Odysseus, who planned and broke the Chrysean spring,
Then took our ships from there to Lemnos —
It must be he, returning venomous —
What new madness to torment me does he bring?


II. ODYSSEUS

Nine years we’ve fought the sons of Priam:
Installed by Heracles in love for his sister:
Only the same bow will remove him.

Because he appears to have remained alive
And would not hesitate to kill me,
It is for you, Neoptolemus, to find him.

Tell him of your anger against me
For winning the golden arms given your father,
That you seek the aid of Heracles for vengeance.

If he is mad enough, perhaps
He will ask that you arrange his funeral,
And his arrows of gall, his Scythian bow, shall be yours.

Or if he is in better health and longs for home,
Then grant his wish to spite the rest of us at Troy,
But bring him to our shore of war.

Remember this above all: No glory
For yourself, your father, him, his arms —
Nor home until his arrows fly to Troy again.

The arrows dipped in Hydra’s blood,
The bow Apollo’s gift: his exile
Proves he was not ready.

But now he must have earned some grace
After injuring himself in Chryse,
Cursing us for his ineptitude.

Heracles has no doubt taught him
To respect the death he wields,
To know the poison in every kill.

Then perhaps he has earned the right
And learned the wisdom to carry those arms
With his fellow Greeks against the Trojan tyrant.

It is prophesied that you will destroy Troy,
Your father’s murderers,
But not without Philoctetes’ bow.

Do not force him — I trust your judgement:
Echo his words and he is yours:
I will remain hidden from view.


III. NEOPTOLEMUS

What kind of man is afraid to fight
Yet calls himself a warrior?
What good is claiming what is right
To put in place something sorrier?

It rankles me to serve this man
Yet I bear no hatred for the other:
I’ll use my tongue as best I can,
Approach him as a brother.

Philoctetes, I come beseeching:
In revolt: join with me.
Help me end that odious screeching:
I mean Odysseus, our enemy.

Neoptolemus I am called,
Deidameia my mother, Achilles my father:
His arms were taken by thievery bald,
By sweet-tongued Odysseus, to all a bother.

You say the princes share in his power
And they are as much to blame,
But if we remove the taste that’s sour
Then they may feast again in our fame.

Come with me, come to Troy:
Odysseus keeps his camp apart:
It would not need deceit or ploy:
Attack and stop his devious heart.

Honor restored, we’ll stand at the towers:
The bow of Heracles will end this war,
And riches will again be ours,
And bards will sing of it for ever more.

Why long for home, the coward’s harbor?
Your foot seems well enough to me
To smash through many another arbor —
Why battle against your fate’s decree?

I plead with you: don’t be so hard
On yourself: I find it maddening.
With many men I have fought and sparred,
But with you I find it saddening.

You dream of home, to find your feet
On land that knows you, friendly soil:
Yes, lean on me, we’ll find my fleet
And leave this clash for honest toil.


IV. HERACLES

Strive no more to run, Philoctetes,
Listen: What peace do you hope to find
Without fulfilling my trust in you?
If you don’t heed the call to tear down Troy
The ghost of my spirit will be called from its rest,
And a newer pain at home you will learn to rue.

Dare you mock the honor I have given
In my bow, my quiver of deadly arrows?
The burden of these weapons is to serve,
Yet you retreat, imagining wrongs,
Puffing up your own importance, hobbling
On a healthy foot — true pain is what you deserve.

But heed me: When you go to join the Greeks
In just defense of Helen and all we love,
I’ll see that you are healed, all rancor gone,
And yours will be the arms that deal the blow
To end this war that clouds our minds:
Then, only then the sight of home will dawn.