If you had asked her - no one ever did -
she was their thing to use, and had no name,
no tale of interest- but if you had asked,
she'd say her only memory was fire
of choking smoke. No mother and no home
-they burned and she was taken by the wrist
so hard she broke and never mended straight,
The iron collar chafed her neck to scars.
Drunk soldiers cheapened what they meant to sell.
They starved her on the road. Her courses stopped
she was so hungry. So she lost the child.
The one who thought it his, whipped her for that
and scarred her long thin back in manly spite
The dust of roads, the stones where there were none,
she had no shoes. Feet harden over time
-sores festered but the maggots ate them clean.
He beat her if she limped or slowed him down.
Blue sky, bright sun, and singing of new birds;
cold stream she lapped at, crunch of millet bread
these were her friends among her enemies.
Dry eyes cast down, and never said a word.
He never wanted her to look at him
Yet beat her that she did not. On the ship
he flung her down when sailors gave him coin.
Bilge-sodden straw the bed they took her to.
She kept her silence as they ravened her
as hungry as the rats that chittered there.
Woke choking salt slime, rising where she lay
wood creaking round her, shouts above her head
lines cracked like whips, rain lashing broken sails.
Laughed in the darkness at an end of things
shrugged at the sudden calm, and slept again.
Thirsty and starved and filthed
dreamed of cold lapping and the song of birds
until they came to Alexandria.
She caught the name, as they flung her ashore
with rotten straw and broken watercasks
spat at her filth and strutted to new whores.
The noise, the smells, the throng - she lay there dazed
inched upright. Slouching, limped along the shore
away from quays and men. The sea would take
her pain; its salt would burn clean to her bones
she fell to its embrace and watched blue sky
recede above her. Someone dragged her hair
back to the sky to gasp her way to life.
no tears among the salt tracks on her face.
Twisting her arm, he claimed his salvage rights.
The sun was brighter and the sky more blue.
He jabbered at her, struck her with his hand.
but fed her sweet and sticky with a stone,
steamed grains she did not know, and sometimes fish.
And poured wine down her throat to make her tame
and took her rags, and wrapped her in a sheet,
and wrapped a flowered scarf around her neck
and gave her to his friends, She lay as dead
and shut her eyes and thought of sky or storm
or drowning, or the soft wet stinking fur
of rats that nuzzled her and did not bite
cruel as sailors.
And for all she tried
his jabber grew to words and then to sense
his friends grew names and sometimes patted her
or called her girl. She grew into a slave
who had been thing, but kept her eyes away
kept silent. Kindness was an enemy
trapped into life. And flesh an enemy
lost its hard angles she had starved into
lost sores from filth. One day he looked at her
and gave her oil to rub into her hair
and butter for her skin. One day, she gazed
Into his eyes, and what he saw there broke
Kindness a little. Looked at her in fear
and sorrow. and one day he sold her on.
The house was cool, cool in the summer heat,
a fountain played. And there were cooing doves.
Laughter of girls who saw her as a girl.
She had forgotten that she was not old.
Had years of life to trudge. They combed her hair
braided and ribboned; painted round her eyes
and covered her scarred throat with necklaces
and rubbed her hardened feet with pumice stone.
She'd never met the men who came to her
men soft with her but used to be obeyed,
who'd pull her face to them. She'd look away
and they would laugh, and stroke her cheek again.
Even their taking her had gentleness
that was a trap. And if she scratched and bit
they'd call her wild thing, savage; if she lay
dead, call her statue that would come to life.
speak poetry she did not understand.
and laugh at her, but not as at a slave
though slave she was.
And she grew comforted
against her will. She kept the girls away
who snuggled tender through long days of ease
waiting for night. They giggled, teased her, stroked
her sleeping head or tickled til she woke,
who was awake, she thought, as they were not.
Slaves all, pretending, They were treated well
valued and bought and paid for. If a man
wanted to bite or cut or beat or break
he'd have to pay more coin. Broken or maimed
or dead, some girl would not be there next day.
and they would snuggle round the vacancy
forget her, stroke a new girl when she came.
A woman joined them and a silence fell.
The woman looked at them and clapped her hands
and called them to her feet, and stroked their hair
but not as sister. If she were a man
she'd speak them so; but played among the girls
as girl, but owning them. And soon was joined
by him she wanted this to entertain
to take her as a whore. Flute music played
above their coupling; cymbals clashed around.
After they left, one said it was the queen
and he her Roman, called Mark Anthony.
Girls went to court, and some of them returned
jewels in their hair, but not the sulky one.
Some said the queen was jealous of her hair
or frightened by the scars upon her throat
reminding her great beauty will still die
or of the way she looked and never smiled
or that she brought misfortune with her eye
who did not need to, knew what was to come.
Wild joy thin layer of trap over despair.
Word came of battles; suddenly the house
was masterless, and some girls ran away
into unquiet night where there were screams
and marching feet and sudden trumpet calls
which some avoided, found some other house
or fucked men under bridges against walls.
She stayed for what came next, and brushed her hair
and stripped her naked throat of diadems.
Painted her eyes, as she had heard the queen
had waited for her fate, in dignity.
knew all slaves' freedom, how and when to die.
When drunken Romans burst into the house,
she called the girls about her, in their tears
and screaming, stroked their hair and stared them down
to share despair their safest refuge now
stared at the Romans as she took the oil
that lit the lamps, and scattered it around
and brought a torch and set it to her gown
and walked free into the fire and choking smoke
unbroken. and they followed her in line.
Their smoke rose up like birdsong in blue sky.
Oddly, this is something I meant to write years ago, when I read Andrea Dworkin'a not entirely accurate account of the origins of pornography - The word pornography, derived from the ancient Greek porné and graphos, means 'writing about whores'. Porné means 'whore', specifically and exclusively the lowest class of whore, which in ancient Greece was the brothel slut available to all male citizens. The porné was the cheapest (in the literal sense), least regarded, least protected of all women, including slaves. She was, simply and clearly and absolutely, a sexual slave. Graphos means 'writing, etching, or drawing.' The word pornography does not mean 'writing about sex' or 'depictions of the erotic' or 'depictions of sexual acts' or depictions of nude bodies' or 'sexual representations' or any such euphemism. It means the graphic depiction of women as vile whores. In ancient Greece, not all prostitutes were considered vile: only the porneia. And even then I thought, there has to be some way of writing about the position of such women in the classical world that reflects the complexity of experience and gives them back something. And I don't know whether I've done that, but it was interesting to try.