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HEROD

By Stephen Lewis Published in North Atlantic Review, No. 8, 1996

[This poem assumes some knowledge of Herod the Great, and in particular the Biblical story concerning the Slaughter of the Innocents. Click here for background.]

I

They think it is the worms 
that gnaw my guts. 
The fools. 
Always too literal, 
believing I will 
purge the kingdom 
of babes in swaddling. 
They do not understand 
that I seek death 
to snap the chains 
that bind me to my past 
as surely 
as the great anchor cable 
holds the bark 
that else would fly 
before the morning wind 
and ride the outgoing tide. 
But I can sail to no haven, 
find no friend nor kin 
to succor me in my palsied age, 
for I have killed them all-- 
all who had chiseled a place 
in the granite of my heart, 
so many nicks and gouges 
in the adamantine surface. 
leaving it half its size, 
yet insufferably heavy. 
I can almost lift this sliver 
in the shadows at my feet 
and hold, 
again, 
that descendent 
of Hasmonean arrogance, 
my wife, my Mariamne, 
whom I took to my bosom 
to gather unto me 
the ruling house of the Chosen. Stiff-necked in their pride, 
they did not know their house 
was but a gardener's cottage 
on the great Roman estate, 
and that to rule even that garden 
one had to buy the love 
of the decidedly unchosen 
Antony, 
and after him, Augustus. 
I became the chief gardener, 
and I weeded assiduously, 
and what if an innocent blossom, 
or two, 
fell before my hoe? 

II

Was it not enough 
I raised Solomon's temple, 
built a magnificent edifice 
where the blood of dumb beasts 
runs to feed this Yahweh of theirs? 
I would not defile 
their holiest of holies 
with pagan feet that have trod 
the marble floors 
of Caesar's palace. 
Instead, 
I trained the clumsy hands 
of their priests 
to mix mortar 
and set the stones 
of their sanctuary. 
Now, in the evening, 
with a shepherd's rude cloak 
muffled about my face, 
drawn tight 
so that only I 
inhale my fetid breath, 
I walk about the outer walls 
of the temple I built 
to seek this God 
whose people 
I cannot please. 

III

It is Mariamne 
I mostly regret 
when the evening breeze steals 
into my chamber 
with a rustle of tapestries, 
as once she did 
when she found in my body 
balm sufficient to soothe her pride, 
her legs locked around my hips 
in her delicate passion, 
until the warmth left her eyes 
and she recalled 
her birth, 
and mine, 
and with just a curl of a smile 
she would take her leave. 
Among the hills of Idumea 
where I was born 
I would not have learned 
such scorn, 
a woman riding a man, 
as unthinkable 
as a cow tupping a bull. 
But for love I tamed my heart, 
and like a wild boar pacified 
in the net of her hair 
and the tether of her hips. 
I held my rage 
until she turned, 
or seemed 
to turn, 
her hand 
to my throne. 
And so she, too, 
had to die, 
or seemed to, 
for still I hear the whisper 
of her gown 
between her thighs 
lifted among the leaves 
of the pomegranate trees, 
most in the early morning 
when all 
is still. 

IV

My sword has become 
too heavy. 
I hold its hilt 
in my right hand 
and run my thumb 
over the blade. 
I press harder 
and slice the flesh. 
It is good to see the blood 
trickle down my wrist. 
Many times I have killed, 
thrust my point 
into a man's chest 
to find his heart 
in a spray of red. 
Once I blunted the tip 
on a thick rib bone 
that cracked, 
reluctantly, 
before yielding the flesh. 
I raised the skewered man 
as though he were a hollow seed 
caught on my blade, 
and let him 
dangle 
until he breathed no more. 
Now, I cannot lift the weapon. 
I shall have others do it for me. 
There comes news of a pretender, 
a babe born, 
or about to be born, 
who will be king, 
or so the rabble say. 
I shall be dead long before 
this king can wear my crown. 
I caress the hilt. 
With both hands 
I can swing 
the heavy blade 
over my head 
to menace the empty air 
before it is armed with shadows. 
The sword trembles, 
presses me down to my knees 
as though I would pray. 
I find no words. 
I lay the sword down 
and fall mute 
into the hollow of my throne, 
safe beneath the flow 
of distant constellations. 
I rest, 
at last, 
at peace. 
Or so it seems.