black and white birds flying
Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

Leda by Nina Kossman

She recalled the fear that had overwhelmed her soul,

something had seized her throat so she couldn't cry

out to them, white birds, wild, light, drifting

in the sky which had turned the most remote black.

White birds in black sky, white scream in her throat,

hair splashing the shoulders chased by the awesome bird

hung in lulled air like an ancestor's soul, heavy,

languid, and waiting for an infusion of flesh—

another fill of forgetfulness, heaving,

not hiding her—like a mirror refusing a look

at herself from behind her startled shoulder;

the familiar landscape fleeing from her cry for help,

perhaps at the behest of a god, with his sad immortality,

knowing the images to be thus seized and begotten

from this shivering flesh—wild birds, flying,

no, words, healing...white and fleeting, up in the lightened sky.

She recalled that alone, she of all women, she,

the mother of the nation of mythmakers, the generation of

myth transforming itself into memory—man

of fire, taking her moistened lips; his voice,

chasing her, has become her children's; light,

gentler than her memory still not in her full command,

lighter, with gentler movements, more tact, less mythology,

the singing without the myth within; in the time

allotted for myth-making—her children singing

in the space allotted for healing music; sounds

that she remembered as the very same...

One last time they have seized her throat: wild, black birds, fly...


Nina Kossman is a Moscow-born poet, playwright, writer, painter, and translator of Russian poetry. Her short stories and poems in English have been published in journals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Among her published works are three books of poems in Russian and English, two volumes of translations of Marina Tsvetaeva's poems, two collections of short stories, and a novel. For Oxford University Press, she edited the anthology Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths. Her writing has been translated into Greek, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish, and she is the recipient of a UNESCO/PEN Short Story Award, an NEA translation fellowship, and grants from Foundation for Hellenic Culture, the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, and Fundación Valparaíso. She lives in New York.

Author's note

From Nina Kossman's introduction to Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths (Oxford University Press, 2001): "If we think we now know the answers, it is because the questions were first posed in antiquity. If we now see far, it is because we stand on the shoulders of tradition. Myths belong to us as much or as little as the imagery of our own unconscious: the deeper we dig into our psyches the more likely we are to stumble upon an ancient myth. Our ancestors are us or we are our ancestors: the texture of our bones is passed on, along with the texture of our dreams. And perhaps it is because the myths echo the structure of our unconscious that every new generation of poets finds them an inexhaustible source of inspiration and self-recognition."

"Leda" originally appeared as "The New Leda" in Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths, ed. Nina Kossman (Oxford University Press, 2001).