Cleopatra

After Pushkin via Louis Martinez

The palace was fire. A choir sang
ringing with flute-sound and lyre.
The Queen’s glance, and her voice
were the soul of a great feast.
All hearts inclined to the throne.
So, golden bowl in hand, the Queen
looked taken by dreams, and drooped
her beautiful head toward the ground –
the royal feast seemed to calm
and the hosts shut up. And the choir.
That’s when, again, she looked up
and said, her face bathed in milky light:
< My love is your sovereign joy. >
< A sovereign joy you can buy… >
< Listen. It’s mine alone to do: >
< give you all one equal opportunity. >
< Who here’s a buyer? My love’s in play >
< I’m putting it up for bids – let’s see >
< who among you is ready to pay >
< with your life for one night spent with me? >
She spoke. Fear took them all,
as a passion stuttered their hearts.
Enduring a muddled rumour which rose
of a face that was icy with pride –
she let run a disgusted look
round her circle of adorers…
Now, someone came from the ranks
soon followed by two others,
their step was daring, their eyes glowing
and the Queen rose, walking to meet them.
The game was set, three nights were bought
and death’s bed was opened to them…

…………

Immediately, blessed by the priests
the three lots, one after another,
were drawn from the fatal urn
in front of the silent guests.
Flavius came first. A robust soldier,
veteran of the Roman legions.
He twitched to see in a woman
so much arrogance and disdain.
He went to her bed’s challenge
like in old days, in his campaigns,
he’d gone to the call of battle.
Then came Crito, a young intellectual
raised in Epicurean groves
Crito, the adept, the poet
of the Graces, of Cypress, of love
whose eyes, and heart, were kind –
flower of a springtime barely begun.
History has forgotten the name
of the third. A short and soft fur
tenderly shadowed his cheeks.
Desire illuminated his eyes –
a hot and clumsy force
boiling in his young heart…
It was on him that rested
the saddened gaze of the Queen.

…………

< I swear, as Queen of pleasures
I will worship them beyond anything tried
and make myself play courtesan
in this game-of-love challenge.
Listen, oh powerful Cyprus
and you, infernal sovereigns
oh gods of fearsome Hades –
I swear to you that before the dawn
I will exhaust their desires,
their burning pleasures, my masters;
I will quench them, opening to them
the mystery of my strokes –
The divine secrets of pleasure –
but as soon as the eternal dawn
shines its morning purple –
this is an oath – their pleased little heads
will bounce under an axe. >

…………

Now the day is blown out,
the moon rises all horny and gold
and a delicious shadow fills
the whole Alexandrian palace –
where spurts of water and lamps glitter –
where a hot smoke of incense rises –
where they ready the gods of the earth
for the smoothest of pleasures.
There, in a dark and luxurious cavern
full of half-miracles of art,
under the shade of purple curtains
waits the gold and royal bed…

1828

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