Shades Of Conquest

A king of Ur despaired to think
he would never rule the earth as he ought,
brooding atop his tower, at the brink
of madness, his mind a maelstrom of thought.

He said, “My might unequaled, my wealth vast,
yet I cannot chain the whole of the earth.
Surely I am greater than all rulers past,
much greater than others of mortal birth.”

His priests worried about their king
and sought help from the most revered of sibyls
whose inner Eye could see everything—
from the wars of gods to neighborhood quibbles.

They brought her to the tallest ziggurat
and she lit a flame that spewed strange mushroom plumes,
peering into its fragrant smoke until she caught
sight of his destiny among mystic fumes.

The priests brought their king to see the seer
and bid him listen to what she had to say,
but he vowed, then and there, to never free her
if she proffered no good prophecies that day.

“My lord,” she said, “you seek at Nanna’s altar
the whole of the earth and its many vast lands,
but you must kill your wife, your son, your daughter
as sacrifices to satisfy Marduk’s demands.”

The king paled to think what must be done,
pitted in soul against his lordly desires
and love of his wife, his daughter, his son,
his ambitions fueled by funeral pyres.

“To defeat your greatest foe,” the prophetess said,
“and conquer this world, land to land, sea to sea,
your own heart must die, your bloodline must be bled,
otherwise you will never conquer all that be.”

The king weighed his pride against his love
and found one more wanting than the other
and so invoked the Sumerian gods above
before sending for his children and their mother.

Beautiful wife, so dark of hair and soft of skin,
her bosom becoming love’s tender labors
whereon she nursed his two beloved children,
blooming with milk, soon to suckle sabers.

And this daughter, as the mother made small,
yet so radiant in her little lovely smiling face
as to outshine the Gods in their heavenly hall,
destined now to dim soon in a shadow-drenched place.

And this son, with a gaze like that of his father,
reaching out over the slow curve of the broad horizon
to seek the edge of the land, and beyond the water,
and yet beyond, still—how like father the son.

The king kissed each of them that ambitious night
and assured them of his enduring love for all three
before the priests took them to the shrine, out of sight,
and sacrificed them to the Sumerian trinity.

The sibyl, smirking to herself, left while the king wept
and descended in moonlight the steep ziggurat stairs,
knowing the king’s senses had been so badly overleapt
by his pride that he now lived the worst of nightmares.

The deed now done, the priests returned
speaking of the king’s plans to begin his conquest,
but the king only sobbed and away from them turned,
suddenly crying out and clutching at his breast.

“See them there?!” he cried, pointing with a palsied finger.
“See those forlorn Shades, having crawled up from Kur?
Can you not see how sadly they look as they linger,
watching me with their familiar eyes, all together?”

The priests looked, but saw nothing beyond,
and then helped the king retire to his bed,
but all the while he gawped in horror, his bond
to the Shades relentless in his trembling head.

The next day the priests came, speaking of a flood
that overran the city with many drownings and devastation,
receding as soon as it came, bringing thick mud
that buried the living alongside the dead of that nation.

“What are floods to me?!” the king loudly exclaimed.
“Can you not see that they remain? The Shades! There!
The Shades of…oh, but they cannot…cannot be named!”
He then shivered in the balmy Euphrates air.

The priests tried that day to give peace to their king,
bringing him concubines, jewels, gifts from afar,
but he cared for little of it, shivering and swearing
“I would not care if you brought me the breasts of Ishtar!”

And so their king cared for nothing whatsoever,
and began to waste and wither, taking neither drink nor food,
but willfully abstaining, as if he intended to sever
himself from life, giving himself wholly to a morbid mood.

Despairing, the priests sent once again for the crone,
yet no one seemed to know where she had gone,
finding only a message etched in dusty limestone,
its cuneiform symbols heckling on and on.

“Your king received what he thought he wanted,”
it read, “for he has conquered the world, and himself, at last,
all joys and pains unfelt as he lives hereafter haunted
unto the end of his days, the Shades thus cast.”

Ad(d)verse

In Kentucky they look with bland indifference
upon poets, sneering with Skoal-edged disdain,
thinking poets possessed of little, if any, sense,
like rainmakers dancing without a drop of rain.
They think we cannot do needful jobs
like carpentry, plumbing, trucking, and welding,
and so dismiss us as useless, unemployed slobs,
“poet” being a byword for a feckless gelding.
And many think of poetry as little more than rites,
if even that, the meat of it unfit even for tallow
to feed candles for their flickering lights,
or like a field unsown, bare and fallow.
And I know it is true, being a man of mind
enough to know the waste of his potential,
like fruit forsaken in its profligate rind,
or anything that is not practical or provincial.
Being an atheist atop that, my brain is a schism
of myth and science, fancy and reason,
smirking at rosaries, hijabs, and catechism,
yet flown away with pagan spirits of each season.
I feel, at times, a psychologist in his chair
listening to myself as I lay upon the couch,
knowing each diagnosis a waste of air—
whether it actually helps, I cannot avouch.
But like gravity it is what I am compelled to obey,
whether it is a mania, an indulgence, or a curse;
when Life adorns itself with a revelation each day
I testify with my meager means the universe.

Selene II

As a gift he sang a shepherd’s tune
intent to see her pallor blush,
but it was a song praising gilded noon
and she bid him cease, be still, to hush.
That gossamer goddess with starry eyes
and crowned with the twin-horned crescent moon
resented his love of sunny skies,
yet offered him a godly boon.
She said, “Lay your head here in my arms
and be at peace upon my breast
and you shall know beguiling charms
that will open the most precious chest.”
And so he laid and learned the songs
that would open a woman’s heart,
but her revenge against his petty wrongs
was her love, for he could never depart.

War And Love, Love And War

The ancient Greeks knew,
and the Romans did recognize,
that the two Hellenic gods who
mattered most were not the most wise,
for their union was a great affair
of Love and War, and a War of Love,
and Love of War, the illicit pair
raising hell below and above.
Ares and Aphrodite,
Mars and Venus,
how they beset the mighty
to unite, or come between us.
It was no secret why their son
praised and feared as Eros and Cupid
shot arrows to pierce hearts to run
and bleed, lovers raving and stupid
as within the lift of a war rally
that raised one’s passions to a fire,
whether by kiss or by sally
for that marriage and funeral pyre.
Nor were Greeks or Romans alone
in the wisdom of this human folly,
for the dichotomous dynamic was sown
in the minds of Saxon, Mongol, and Bengali.
Hindus knew what was true
for they worshiped Kali, the beautiful,
and dreaded her, too, for she slew
and loved, being so mutable
with her dark side, and her light,
a creature of duality who inspired
worshipers with joy and fright
so they would not be mired
in samsara, so as to ascend
the lower realms with their weights,
spurring them to make amends
until moksha liberates.
And Inanna-Ishtar was, as one,
War and Love together
in the mind of many a Sumerian,
praised from Babylon to Assur to Ur,
and rejected by Gilgamesh, which cost
him his friend, Enkidu, Love and War
together waging battle with him, star-crossed
as she was in all of her lovers’ lore.
The Nords had Freya, an ice giantess
at war with Odin, and yet bound to him
by love, and marriage, a pliant tress
entwined always— root and stem—
with her husband, with whom
she shared the spoils of war,
half and half, beloved in scarlet bloom
if sprung from battle’s Valkyrian score.
How she loved those born anew
with thrusting spear and swinging sword,
spilling their love of her like crimson dew
for the Njord goddess they adored!
Nor is Life, stripped of myths,
denuded of such insights
when we see its iterative tiffs,
changing the world with lovers’ fights.
What is Evolution’s constant battle
of environment, myriad creatures,
and sexual selection, but love’s spat till
we change in habits and in features?
To fight for territory is to fight for mates,
this being the modus operandi
of all animals whose quotas in fertility rates
are met when wars are won and victors are randy.
Myth and Science thus agree
that Love and War conjoin
in a congress of Fate, a destiny
like two sides of the proverbial coin.
And all is fair in Love and War,
nor anything worthier for the strife—
what else is there, what is there more
than what begins, and ends, a life?

The Little Mermaid

Hans exaggerated when he had written
that she threw herself into the sea
after her beloved prince became smitten
with a more talkative beauty.

She did not, in fact, become a bubbly spirit
nor simply die in the tossing sea foam,
nor go up to heaven, or anywhere near it,
nor beg the sea witch to let her return home.

Rather, she went wandering away from Denmark
and became lost in Germany, and then France.
Homeless, she was found starving in a park
by a kindly woman, who saw her by chance.

The woman happened to be a teacher of ballet
who owned her own school in Paris
and she felt pity for the girl, asking her valet
to stop and invite her to lunch on the terrace.

As the woman watched the girl eat she bethought
that the lithe, pretty thing had a certain essence
which could be transformed, if only trained and taught
to dance; she had a certain stage presence.

While the girl could not talk, she could nod
and so when asked if she would like to live with her
she answered “Yes” and the woman said, “Then, by God,
we will have you dancing hence thither!”

Because her tongue had been cut out to pay
the witch so she could walk on land
she could not talk and gossip and flirt everyday
like the other girls under the old woman’s guiding hand.

Undistracted, she practiced with her human legs
to finely tune their muscles and sinews
until she could dance unfaltering along pointy pegs
only on her toeballs, and without ballerina shoes.

Pain, too, was an apt teacher for her
as the spell’s knives cut her in her swirls
and so her acrobatics were airy, yet surer
than any of the other ballerina girls.

Such a deft foot when she danced!
Each step was cautious of the spell’s sharp bite
so while she spun and leapt and pranced
she did so soft as a falling feather, and just as light.

She could also tip-toe in perfect rhythm
to the most chaotic, jazziest piano tempo
and, while in a group, pirouette in harmony with them,
her arms arced above her head, or akimbo.

In time she unburdened her heavy heart
of that old barnacled anchor that was Love
and excelled at every single dancing art,
so weightless of form she seemed to float up above.

Famous, yet nameless, she was dubbed “Ariel”
for she danced as if upon the very air
and was as powerful as Shakespeare’s fairy thrall
in stirring tempests in hearts everywhere.

For her dance was of the air and of the sea
united between the two, as a swirling hurricane
that comes ashore, a terrifying beauty
whose expression was joy and sorrow and pain.

She danced only once in her prince’s palace,
unrecognized in her ballerina outfit
as her prince peered lazily over his chalice—
his dark eye indifferent about it.

He had grown tired of his new wife, and her prattle,
and “Ariel” smiled to know she escaped a fate so fraught
as being bound to one who viewed people as chattel
and could not care less what his wife thought.

She left his palace with the rest of her troupe
and looked out upon the sea, where diamonds burn,
watching in the shallows an array of fins in a group
that waited for their princess’s return.

Bitter Harvest Moon

The moon loomed large and livid
like the full orange breast
of a demoness, vivid
above the blackening crest
of a benighted knob,
feeding dreamers from her milk
the dreams of Lilith, a mob
of her children, such ilk
to haunt farmers in their beds
with their hidden desires
and their unspoken dreads,
lighting the crops unto fires.
And Lilith gazed, with her glow,
and laughed with spiteful mirth,
saying “You reap what you sow
upon this wide, fertile earth.”
Each farmer tossed and turned,
seeding their secret sin,
lusting for beauty that burned
in them to beget children
who whithered fields and crops
and polluted fishing ponds
and embittered beer hops
and dissolved family bonds.
And Lilith looked upon all
the sons of Man down below
and she reigned over that Fall,
saying, “You will know my woe
with reddening of the leaf,
the hardening of the soil,
the doubting of belief,
and the ruin of so much toil,
for I, too, was fertile land
thought too fallow for seed
and, cast aside, out of hand,
I wasted in want of need.”

The Bridle Bride

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King Roswald was a ruler thought both fine and fair,
ruling with a gentle voice, wise laws, and firm hands.
He had guided his kingdom through turmoil with care
until it had become the happiest realm in the Northlands.

Roswald had three sons, all likewise full of virtue,
and they were good to their widower father and king,
and moreover were dedicated to their people, too,
seeing to their needs in every trifling thing.

But then came a day when Roswald was not himself
and his sons watched him with chagrined dismay
as their father nodded his head, as if to some unseen elf;
his usually keen mind simply drifting away.

Roswald’s eyes were puffy and wreathed in dark rings
as his bearded chin hung low upon his robed chest.
Soon he began to snore, and all three lordlings
became concerned with their father’s want of rest.

“Father,” said his eldest son, after court had ended,
“What is the matter? Are you yet well?”
His father only chuckled. “I am merely winded,”
he said, “but for reasons I cannot tell.”

This was passing strange to his sons
and so they pressed their reticent king,
insisting their father give further reasons
as to why he should believe such a thing.

“Alas, nay,” his father said with a sigh.
“It is not a proper thing to share among others.”
When they insisted again, the king gave reply,
“It is no matter to you, or any others.”

They tried to think no more of it that day,
concluding that it was likely an aberration
and that their father deserved his secrets, anyway,
since he was otherwise forthright when ruling their nation.

But the next morning the king nodded and slumped
upon his throne like a puppet unstrung of strings
or a straw-gutted scarecrow unceremoniously dumped
before the people who awaited his rulings.

They adjourned court early, the king thereafter retiring
to his lonely bedchamber, for much needed sleep.
Meanwhile, his sons met together, concerned and conspiring
to safeguard their father in his fortress keep.

“He needs rest,” the eldest, Ferdinand, said,
and his two younger brothers agreed.
“No one should bother him as he lay abed
or we will have them promptly pilloried.”

So they set guards at every level of the king’s tower—
two to a story, and ten at the bottom floor—
and the brothers themselves stayed up every hour
just outside their father’s bedchamber door.

It was in the witching hours that there stirred
noises from the other side of the door,
echoes abounding wherein there could be heard
high pitched laughter, thunderous hooves, and more.

“Something assails father!” the brothers cried,
pushing upon the door to shove it hence,
but the door was heavy, swinging slowly aside
to reveal a bedchamber fallen to silence.

The bedchamber was empty, the king gone,
and the only clues they had, had been the din
of a horse and a woman whose cackles echoed on
in the brothers’ heads, like an eerie song of sin.

“A witch has taken him!” said Adalbert, the youngest son.
“She used black magic to spirit him to her grotto.
We must rescue him ere she boil him in her cauldron!”
He then said, “Save one, save all!”, the family motto.

Knights were sent forth anon, and also squires,
and all who could look for their abducted king.
Hounds sniffed through woods, fields, and mires,
searching near every standing stone, cave, and fairy ring.

They searched all night and day for their lord,
from sunup to sundown, nary an eye idling
as the whole kingdom feared something untoward
had befallen their most beloved idol king.

But it was the maid, who, tidying the king’s room,
was startled unto fright as she began to sort his bed
and suddenly found a form laying in the evening gloom
with a slanted crown upon his disheveled head.

Her scream rallied the searchers to the tower
for it was a clarion call to wake the very dead,
and so it woke the king, too, who at that late hour
rose with a smile and a yawn and asked to be fed.

“It is not worth so much fuss,” he said lightly
as his sons berated him in a private interview.
“I just so happen to be given to walks, nightly,
and must have escaped notice passing through.”

“We did not see nor hear you open the door once!”
said Adalbert in dismay. “We were awake all night!”
“That is wholly true,” said Ferdinand, whose forbearance
was giving way to his youngest brother’s fright.

The two brothers were distraught by their sire,
but Raginald, the middle son, was more like his mother
and, so, was wise in remembering lessons taught by her
before she had died giving birth to his younger brother.

“Truth,” he said, “is as the chimera in hiding.
To glimpse only one part is to misperceive the sum.”
He then bid his two brothers to the castle’s side wing
and up another tower, overlooking the atrium.

That night the brothers stood upon the tower,
watching the king’s balcony for any malfeasent.
Then, beneath the moon and at nearly the same hour
as yesterday’s abduction, they heard her descent.

It was a witch floating across the air,
laughing wildly as she straddled her broom
with a cackle that froze the blood, her hair
floating all around her in a silver bloom.

To the brothers’ surprise, their father beckoned
as she floated toward him, raising his arms
out to her as if in welcome, which they all reckoned
to be an effect of her spells,and so raised the alarms.

But they were powerless to stop her that night
and she again transformed their beloved father
into a horse, a stallion with a coat so pale white
that it shone like foam upon the tidal water.

She threw over him a bridle and mounted his back,
then took hold of his reins, kicking his flanks.
He neighed and reared and bolted— clackity clackity clack—
across the stone balcony and up the airy banks.

The witch and the king rode across the starlit night,
she laughing and he snorting, moving with such speed
that they soon twinkled, like a star, and passed from sight,
the three brothers feeling at a loss and in great need.

“Steel weapons will not do against a sorceress,”
Ferdinand said. “For they exist like dreaming mists
untouched by blade or arrow, their flesh more or less
invincible with the aid of their magical catalysts.”

So the brothers sought the help of wizards ,
stationing them around their father’s tower.
When the witch came, the wizards wove
into a spell of protection to repel the witch’s power.

The witch was undeterred, passing easily through
their barrier as if it was nought but clear air,
thereupon transforming King Roswald anew
into a stallion which she rode away from there.

Adalbert cried out. “Why torment our father so?!
He is a justly ruler who has done well by everyone!”
Ferdinand shook his head and said, “I do not know,
but we will need stronger aid to defeat this witch, anon.”

They sent a formal message to Midland
upon the midnight wings of their fastest raven,
seeking the help of the Apprentice, Edmund,
who was heir to the powers of the Allmaster, Avon.

Edmund arrived later that day,
opening a portal directly to the castle
and stepping through without pomp or display,
wanting neither hullabaloo or hassle.

Edmund had brown hair hardly fetching
and a rose-embroidered tunic that hung slackly.
He was not impressive, this young man retching
as he stepped through a portal that shimmered blackly.

More surprising than Edmund’s underwhelming presence
was the goblin girl that accompanied him from the South;
green like plant shoots, hair white like plant roots, a nose whence
like a long taproot hung over her sharp-toothed mouth.

The brothers greeted Edmund in hopeful gratitude,
promising riches and glory and so much more,
but he waved away such things with a friendly attitude,
saying aid was reward itself enough in this chore.

“Master Avon has always been proud of your line,”
Edmund said, “and particularly proud of your king.
If it saves this goodly kingdom, then the duty is mine
to save your father.” Forthwith, he began planning.

Edmund was shown to the king, the latter
being yet asleep from a long night of riding.
It seemed to Edmund that this magical matter
was strange for reasons that the king was hiding.

“I sense no magic worked upon him,” Edmund said.
He turned toward Tangleroot, motioning her to his side
to sense what she could from the Northland King in his bed.
The elf grinned. “He seems happy after his wild ride.”

Edmund nodded. “There is more to this than it seems.
And less to it, too. I cannot say the proportion, at this time,
but we will stay here and guard the king as he dreams
and catch this witch when she once again attempts her crime.”

“Some horses like the bit and the bridle,” Tangleroot said,
cackling loudly. Her impudence irritated the youngest son.
Adalbert clenched his fist as his face brightened red.
“If you would mock him, then I would ask you to have done!”

Tangleroot was unconcerned, as all goblins were
when threatened by a human of any standing or rank.
She grinned her sharp-toothed grin in answer,
thorns growing from her green skin; nose to toes, flank to flank.

“That is enough!” Edmund said, interceding in the spat.
“Tangleroot, please behave yourself, abide, surcease,
or a whole kingdom could be thrown to turmoil, and that
is not why we are here. Master Avon entrusted us. Please!”

Tangleroot only laughed harder, hugging her thorny self
while Adalbert’s scowl darkened like a thunderhead
at the impish behavior of the Unseelie elf.
“This is no way to speak of the Northland King,” he said.

Edmund frowned in thought, his brow lined
with confusion. “Why is it that he refused to tell
anyone of his curse?” he asked. Ferdinand opined,
“We thought it perchance an effect of the spell.”

That night Edmund and Tangleroot kept watch together
within the King’s tower, alongside the brothers three,
and it was a silent night, starry and bright, the weather
clear as the witch’s laughter once again rang wild and free.

King Roswald, hitherto reposed in his deep sleep,
suddenly rose from his bed, as if at command by
the Witch’s laugh as she approached his towering keep—
he welcomed her as she descended from the sky.

“Sweet Hepsiba!” the King called. “Beware!”
The Witch was undeterred, waving her hands
and flaring flames in a roaring circle to scare
the band of people trying to stop her commands.

But before the Witch could transform the King,
Edmund wove a spell of binding, encirling her brow
with laced hemlock-and-hawthorn, that red-and-white ring
stopping the flow of the All Ways through her somehow.

“Enough!” Roswald bellowed. “Let her go! Now!”
Dumbstruck though the guards were, they obeyed,
unbinding the witch from her chains and freeing her brow
from the circlet of holly, just as their King bade.

They then hurried away from her, fearing they, too,
would be transformed into animals for a night,
or, worse, cooked in her cauldron as a stew
to be served to her coven beneath the moonlight.

The Witch freed, King Roswald addressed his heirs,
about his relationship with Hepsiba, from the start.
He spoke to them with open and honest fatherly airs
so they knew he was speaking from the heart.

“She helps me forget who I must daily be,
what I must do, for a time,” he said with a sigh,
“helping free me from my shackles of duty
and giving me some respite, ere I die.”

“I have had nothing but power my entire life,” the King said,
“and while I have always borne it as my duty and birthright
I sometimes feel its keen weight upon my wearied head.”
He motioned for the witch and she joined him at his side.

“I met Hepsiba while out on a restive walk,
looking to escape from the discomfort of my throne.
I saw her picking herbs, and, so, I stopped to talk.”
His voice assumed a very light, pleasant tone.

“As it so happened, she was not my subject— not at all!
She was a sorceress who owed no one her loyalty,
and, so, being her own queen, she invited me into her hall
where she treated me as a guest, but not as royalty.”

“But the transformations!” Ferdinand exclaimed.
“Father, you cannot insist that you were not under her spell!”
His father shook his head. “The spell she cast cannot be named—
it is different than love, and lust; it is neither, but just as well.”

“What we do is our own concern,” he continued.
“I do not expect any of you to really understand,
but, in time, Ferdinand, you will when you have been imbued
with the powers, and the shackles, of this land.”

“Since your mother died, I have devoted myself to rule—
rule of the kingdom, of myself, of all that I can see,
and sometimes I have to indulge my inner fool
or die of this weight which I bear incessantly.

“And so my mistress Hepsiba takes my reins
and frees me by taking control as my bridle bride.
Nor does she care for power or other earthly gains,
only taking pleasure, together, in our nightly ride.”

“But father!” exclaimed Raginald, “this is humiliating!
We cannot abide it” His father fixed upon him a knowing stare,
neither dismissive nor sympathetic, for a while waiting
before speaking. “Humiliating to me or to you, my heir?”

“I feel no shame in the pact we have,” he explained.
“If you do, then that is your own problem to amend.
For in all other things I am a dutiful king, and greatly pained,
and ask for little but privacy until my eventual end.”

Tangleroot grinned sharply and nudged Edmund
who, realizing he was not needed in this situation,
opened a portal and left, the brothers still stunned
that their father should continue, despite his station.

As for King Roswald and Hepsibah, the bridle bride,
they carried on until their final days came, hot to trot
in this strange, but satisfying way, each night’s ride
something done without caring of what others thought.