Penthesilea by R. Bratten Weiss

After I had killed them, they reported that I ate him,

but this was a lie.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. I could have torn his

golden body with my teeth, savored the salt metallic

tang of a warrior’s blood, but these are human teeth,

green with lichen and brown with wine, rattling in a

mortal skull, and his was the body of a god.

What I am now, skin like old parchment, bloom of

death bursting forth like hideous roses on hand and

brow, is what I always was, under the armor of flesh

that I wore when even when I rode bare-breasted,

sword burnished like a mirror so at the battle’s end

when we sat cleaning our weapons and counting

our kills, I could squint sideways and see the beauty

that I’d carried with me to the murder fields.

Gods, it makes no difference now, none of it happened,

all has faded like the rain and I am no longer a sword,

I am bent like grass, shuffling in my ruined tower,

all the shields and armor on the walls mute, refusing to

tell me what we both remember. Once we were young

and some things were glorious, but what I am now is

my fault only. I should have found my immortality,

feasted on the body of the god.

When I descend into the land of shadows and the

pool of blood unlocks my fastened tongue, and he comes

to me, what will I say?

That I never had the choice he had. Never had the

teeth to bite through fate’s iron thread. All I have ever

known is to tear the soil, clutch the earth in bloodied

fists, queen among the breathless dead.


R. Bratten Weiss writes: I am a freelance academic and organic grower residing in rural Ohio. My creative work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Two Hawks Quarterly, Presence, Connecticut River Review, Shooter, New Ohio Review and The Seventh Wave. My collaborative chapbook Mud Woman, with Joanna Penn Cooper, was published in fall 2018. My chapbook Talking to Snakes was published by Ethel in summer 2020.

Author's note

I thought this poem would work well for Carmina Magazine because it was inspired almost entirely by mythology. The central image, of the warrior woman eating the flesh of the man she's defeated in battle, was inspired by Heinrich Von Kleist's play about the Amazon queen Penthesilea and her violently erotic relationship with the hero Achilles. Sexual desire becomes devouring. The lover literally makes the beloved flesh of her flesh—and destroys him. For a long time I associated this story with the myth of Narcissus. Desire and self-love get all mixed up so you can't tell the difference between the self and the other. Or the self is obliterated in Dionysian ecstasy, a step away from the eros / thanatos drive. But here I was thinking also about the Christian doctrine of the Eucharist. "If you do not eat my body and drink my blood, you shall not have life within you." And I imagined Achilles, a god, still golden and deathless in the underworld. And Penthesilea, grown old, nearing death, even her memories fading. Eating the body of Achilles has not given her immortality with him in the fields of Asphodel. Or immortality at all. I wanted to show her bitterness. That vast sense of loneliness and loss.