In this poem I was thinking about the story of this Sybil, punished for resisting the god’s advance. But I was also imagining different kinds of power. The emperor has one kind, that of the autocrats who have to bolster and defend, and may always fear the loss of power. Then there’s the Sybil, made fearless and wise with age. Finally there are the peasants who have a power that comes from making and growing things, being close to the earth. These last two I hope can sustain us all.
Betsy Sholl, Poetry Editor
Because she spurned the god, Apollo
granted her as many years as grains of sand.
But not youth. So, wizened bird in a cage⎯
the housewives take pity and put her outside
on warm days. Passing schoolboys taunt,
“Sybil, what do you want?”
Dry twig of a voice, “I want to die.”
Still, she can’t help, afternoons
when cadets clear the road, hand out flags
for the people to wave as the emperor
rides out on a plumed, high-stepping horse⎯
can’t stop her burr of a voice rasping,
vanity…, treachery…, a tick sticking
in the emperor’s ear.
Awful as it is to be a grape gone to raisin,
ruin makes her fearless.
What she sees from where she hangs
in the mulberry tree, she says.
And the emperor grows querulous.
Treachery? Vanity? Who can he trust?
Send the barbers away! Make the tasters
test every dish! Advisers exchange glances.
“What are you thinking?” he demands.
Meanwhile, she sits on her perch,
little slip of a swing. Peasants pass,
sweat-soaked shirts, manure in their treads.
They give her grain to peck, herself barely
a speck, wisp of a voice.
And what do they hear, coming from the fields,
pouches empty, having sown their seed?
Image at top: Cumaean Sybil, unknown artist