Orpheus

Hades, lord of the underworld sat askew on a roughly-hewn throne. His silent wife, Persephone stood, as she always did. Just behind him. She looked at the floor and said nothing. The cavern was ghost-quiet, though billions of ephemeral souls blew about them in an astral wind, filling the dark chamber where Hades sat. Pensive. His clammy fingertips touching. He drew in a deep breath and blew a thick smoke ring from his cold, pale lips, watching dispassionately as the vapour coalesced into human form, a shade in the aether. It was Apollo’s son, Orpheus. Orpheus the bard. Orpheus the lyre. He had his famous harp slung on his back, and arms unused to toil were struggling him up the entrance to a cave, to the banks of the river Acheron. It was hard to see in the smoke-vision, but Hades fancied that Orpheus’ eyes carried a steely, determined glint. In the smog, Orpheus knelt at the river and cried out. Soon enough a boat appeared from the mist carrying Charon, the silent ferryman. Charon held out a skeletal hand, but Orpheus had no coin to pay him. Instead, on his knees he unslung his lyre and strummed and sang. The strings of the instrument vibrated with such power that they coloured the smoke-screen Hades was viewing through. Tinges of purple and violet plumed outwards, and when he sang, the smoke billowed from his mouth in a dizzying electric indigo. It was his song of grief. He sang of his lost love Eurydice, cruelly taken from him, and of his quest to the underworld to bring her back to the land of the living. He sang with such passion and such pain and such raw emotion that Charon, the empty and impassive ferryman was moved. Bones that could not feel, felt. The ever-still waters of the Acheron rocked up against the boat to listen closer, and the rocks themselves wept. Charon extended his hand and helped Orpheus, the tear-stained, onto the boat. Hades waved a hand through the vision and the smoke dissipated. “Interesting.” He said aloud. He turned to look at his wife, but Persephone’s expression had not changed. “None may cheat death.”

***

It was two days later when Orpheus arrived in the Hall of Hades. It had been prepared for his arrival – the wall sconces had been lit and torches filled the room with a flickering blue-black light. Hades had watched his progression with the same unblinking eyes, but he was aware that however much she tried to hide it, his wife was moved by Orpheus’ plight. She had said nothing, but had smiled, briefly, when Orpheus had overcome even the mighty Cerberus. So when the great stonewrought door scraped open and the sound echoed through the chamber, Hades watched his wife and not the young figure of Orpheus emerge. Persephone was aware of her husband’s scrutiny, but unable to contain herself at the sight of the pitiable man, who had fallen prostrate at their feet. She smiled at him and beckoned him closer.
“My lord, my lady,” Orpheus began, his voice sweet and mellifluous. “I come with a woe so weighty that it pains me to sing of it,” he said, pulling his lyre round and into his soft hands. “Yet I would beg audience for the span of my tale.” Hades said nothing, and Orpheus looked up at the rulers of the underworld, watching them closely. Hades was immense. Clad in a simple black robe, his frame was gangly and thin and stretched, his head shaven and mis-shaped, his skin a pallid corpse-white. A lumbering, ugly dead-thing. Hades’ wife, Persephone, was mortal both in shape and nature. She wore a simple gown of black, and her hair was cut short in mourning. She smiled encouragingly at him and gestured for him to play. So he did.

***

Persephone cried tears she had forgotten she owned. Orpheus’ song was beyond beautiful. It was an ancient magic, a song older than the gods themselves – as old as pain. His voice cracked and wavered but each tremulous quaver was a blow to Persephone’s gut. She reeled as he sang and her tears came unbidden but welcome to her cheeks. The river of souls that cloaked the monarchs of death stopped and hung in the air – the power of Orpheus’ song rang through the fabric of their essence and gave them the gift of grief. All of the guardians of Hades filed into the room in silent awe, each sobbing mightily. The Erinyes, wide-eyed and crying – the Gorgons, with eyes closed and heads low, the Harpies, lips moving in mute adoration – until the cavern was shaking with the sounds of wailing and Orpheus’ song. Orpheus struck a final chord and with a trembling creak whispered his final plea for his wife’s return, turning his glistening eyes up to Persephone who was gasping for breath and clutching her newly-broken heart. Every being in the room was rent by the music. Every creature save one. Hades moved his unchanging eyes over his court, so stricken with sorrow and asked: “What would you have me do?”
The answer came like a storm – from every creature, every spirit, every wraith and spectre in every cadence with urgent despair: “Free Eurydice!” the Gorgons cried, “Send her home with her husband!” insisted the Tartarians. The furies tore out their feathers in anguish and added “Soothe his pain!” The clamour grew and grew and Orpheus knelt in the midst of it all, looking at Hades and daring to hope against hope. Everything in the room howled its support, the Gods on high Olympus crossed their fingers and watched with bated breath, the earth itself stilled and quietened to hear Hades’ reply. Hades turned his gaze slowly over his subjects, before meeting Persephone’s bright eyes and saying in a dull, flat voice: “No. None may cheat death.”

The hall erupted into noise again – great cries of weeping and begging from his subjects, but Hades ignored them, rising and striding through the chamber with a lopsided gait, cutting a path through the pleading creatures. At the door, he turned and repeated “None may cheat death.” But added softly to Orpheus “Your wife is gone”. He turned and left, his uneven footfall echoing away into the underworld. There was much wailing and weeping and a great wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth – cries that tore the air itself but Orpheus was deaf to it all. He stood up, blankly and, eyes frozen, he turned to leave.
“Wait!” cried Persephone, rushing down the chamber after Orpheus. He looked around and saw her standing before him, a great gnarled staff in her petite hands. “There is a way.” She turned to face the river of souls that writhed in silent turmoil and pointed the staff in one hand. Holding the other out to Orpheus. “Eurydice!” she called, and the spirits began to settle their roiling dance. “Eurydice, come forth!” She called again and the staff glowed a dull red. Orpheus watched the spirits roil and roll and part as a single wisp of light emerged and began to take shape. He held his breath.
“Turn around.” Persephone commanded. Now! Do not look at her, or you will lose her forever!” she said and Orpheus tried desperately to wrench his eyes away from his love. The light was forming into a shape. Her shape. Still just a silhouette, but gaining clarity with every passing moment. Her hair, and her eyes and her lips, blurry but hers. He closed his eyes and turned his back just before she came into focus. “Orpheus, you must exit the underworld without once looking back. Eurydice will follow you to the land of the living, but silent as the grave. If you look back even once, she will be lost to you forever. Do you understand?” Persephone asked. Orpheus, a look of grateful wonder on his face, wiped dry his eyes and stood, slinging his lyre onto his back and making fists of his trembling hands to stop the shaking.
“How can I repay you?” he asked.
“Just get her out.” Persephone replied.
He did not notice the tone in her voice.

***

He had almost made it to the entrance. Behind him, he could feel the presence of his wife. His song had slumbered Cerberus for a second time and the chords of power had bested the guardians of the underworld who, for a second time had tried to prevent his passing. He had simply gotten into the boat at the river Acheron, and Charon the ferryman had watched behind him as someone else boarded. He’d felt the boat rock as they entered. Charon had remained silent and still for a long time, watching the figure behind him, until he said “Row man! Scant hours separate me and my love!” and the vestiges of hope and grief lodged in the young man’s voice turned Charon’s head from the passenger to the river, and his brittle arms grasped the oar and sculled for the other side. All was quiet and Orpheus felt himself shake in excitement and anticipation as he saw the other side of the river and the corpse of his wife. He felt her reach out behind him and touch his back gently, and he fought his urge to turn his head, keeping it focused on the goal – life and rebirth. The boat shored up by the cave entrance, and Orpheus leapt from the boat, almost turning to help his wife out, but catching his gaze just in time. He turned back to face the body of his love, dead and on the ground.
“My darling. My beloved. My dear one, you’re free.” He said, kneeling to embrace the corpse, feeling the presence of his wife behind him. A tear rolled down his face, as he tenderly brought his lips to Eurydice’s cold lips. He kissed her deeply and then looked down at his dead love. “Why?” he asked, and kissed her again. “Why won’t you come back? Didn’t I save you? Didn’t I bring you back with me?”
The presence behind him reached out a hand and laid it softly on his shoulder.
“I am sorry, Orpheus.” She spoke. He turned his head, and bleary-eyed saw the light of his love fade, and in her place there stood Persephone. She was crying. “I really am so sorry. But only one may cheat death.” She whispered, and tears on her face, walked out of the mouth of the cave and into the bitter-bright light of freedom.


Yeah, I scraped around the back of the computer and found this old thing. I finished it up and here it is. A reimagining of Orpheus and Eurydice, where Persephone sees his plight as her way out, and takes it.

Not my usual fare at all, but interesting. Nice to write something non-ironic. Like it? Hate it? Let me know in the comments or on twitter @Sellpen.

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You Can’t Dance In Gumshoes

Dark streets.
A bloody dance of money, or love, or revenge.
A sudden sharp flash of violence, an inevitable mis-step and the music stops.
And two people is now one person and one corpse.
Running footsteps.
Time passing with trash-wind and a curious fox.
An interlude.
An early dog-walk-discovery leads to screaming and phone calls and sirens.
The sirens start act two.
Two cars. Two coppers apiece. A well rehearsed quartet.
To take a statement, and tape the pavement and patiently stave off the videotapers:
The instagram journalists, the twitterazzi and crime carrion,
The lorekeepers, engraving our passions and our past on tablets no longer made of stone.
An instant, international chorus that rounds out the sound and carries the song.
Wave them on, conductor, wave them on.

Morning traffic trickles and slows to a standstill stare.
No pulse, no paramedics. They’re done dancing, let them rest.
Forensics are late but awake.
Plastic bags and latex gloves.
Cameras and questions.
Words flying over the heads of the beat-cops.
A new dance begun, to a medical song.
Of angles, and blood-stains,
Incisions, contusions,
Of foot prints and finger prints and
Surgical terms.

At the edge of the ballroom, he’s waiting by the beat cops
Allowed past the tape, but barely inside.
He stifles a yawn, he’s been up since dawn,
And drinking before that.
He watches the blood and the flirting, uncertain
If the two young forensics are intimate yet.
He waits, and dispatches a beat-cop for coffee,
Wanting to join in the evidence gathering,
Desperate to eat something more dirty than pastry
And to sink his teeth into the case, and throw himself around the floor.
Still he waits for the news,
Because he knows
That you can’t dance in gum-shoes.

He’s a fighter, not a lover.
And when he gets the file, the day’s almost done,
But he’s just begun.
A DNA match.
He doesn’t know how it works.
He doesn’t much care.
It got him a name.
He’s a hunting dog.
And he moves without style.
Barely a dance, but with scent and with fury he prowls through the night.
Knocking some doors.
Kicking some in.
Knocking some people around.
Kicking some of them in, too.
Until finally, bruised and belligerent, he has his man.
In cuffs.
In the car.
Slam.

It’s late now.
The detective is tired, and tried.
A long night made longer by paperwork and pen-pushing,
Whiskey and writing out form after form,
After hours. And he’s done. He takes off his gumshoes,
He takes his applause and he blacks out and leaves the stage.
His race is run, and for him the show is over.

Somewhere a lawyer,
A crime commissioner,
A prosecutor,
A newspaper editor,
Twelve unsuspecting jurists,
A hundred unsuspecting citizens,
A thousand different people
Hear the music start.
And they begin to dance.

Beware the Horrid/Humid

In the depths of Summer,
When the sun beats sticky into your clothes,
And the air is thick
And the flies are huge,
Maybe stay at home. Indoors.

Ignore the beach.
Ignore the lure of the blue,
Of wide skies and deep seas,
Of outside meals and verdant pleasantries,
Of laughter and bronzing and
Of strangers, scantily clad.

For those are his baits,
His gaudy feathers,
His colourful lures,

And you are his prey.

He lurks,
In the heat,
The Horrid-Humid.

The beast that feeds,
With slow-grinding jaws of sweat,
Upon fine plans and the day’s desires,
With all the sad certainty of a sand-castle.

KNOW the Horrid-Humid by his roar:
The screams of too-hot toddlers,
The crashing of too-big waves,
And the droning of a thousand picnic-wasps.

FEAR the Horrid-Humid for his hunger:
His ice-cream melting,
Tin-car-boiling,
Family-frustrating,
Let’s-just-go-home-then,
Day-ruining hunger.

AVOID the Horrid-Humid by his nature,
And learn to live in his shadow.
For he always faces the sun,
And he cannot see you,
Or hurt you,
In the shade.

So.
In the depths of Summer,
When all is shorts and sandals,
And flip-flops and buckets
And spades and sand and salt…

Look up and see the Horrid-Humid,
Huge,
And Sweltering,
And Just-Outside your door.
And maybe stay at home. Indoors.
And let another be his prey.

Tarot 01

The First Chapter in a potentially long series about a steampunk magical world where the Tarot function like Yu-Gi-Oh cards.

 

“I am NOT being the page of Cups!” screamed Lydia, charging down the hall with all of the blind fury that a scorned eleven year old can muster. “I am the Queen of Swords!”. The hallway was long and lined discreetly with coats of arms, suits of armour and stuffed animal heads mounted over guns. Lydia took a swipe at a moosehead as she passed, but it didn’t seem to mind. Lydia’s mother simply stood in the hallway, hands on hips.

“Lydia St. Jude, you will come back here this instant, or by the Tower, you’ll regret it.” Continue reading “Tarot 01”

A Perfect Love

It’s so much fun to pretend to be the person you are when you’re in love.

And it makes you lesser, and feel lesser when you’re not him.

That wonderful, talented, attractive man that you were, that she loved, that you loved.

And now it’s moved on, and he’s gone, and there’s you.

The man that you are. Not all that you could be. And your warts start to show.

And in rooms not kept clean and in tears that she’s seen, and in anger and pain and in rage, all the memories of you that you shared are now dew, and evaporating from the page.

Here’s to the Women,

all lovestruck and lovelorn who are people they’re not,

and cannot continue to be,

just to be, for a while, perfectly in love.

And here’s to the Men, who again,

are never the people they actually are,

until it’s just you,

and the you that he knows,

with the unpleasant toes and the scars and the stretch marks and moods.

And you know that he sees you.

The woman you are. Not all that you could be.

All that you have been. And will never be again.

Here’s to the newlyweds, In quarreling arms,

in fits and in spats, in hot and in cold, and in death you do part.

Here’s to the couples who love in good faith

and are true and themselves when they woo, but in vain.

Here’s to the bachelors, the spinsters, the cowards,

who count down their lives by the minutes and hours –

who would never share their precious time,

their sacred days,

and terrifying weeks,

and lonely years. And here’s

To the actors.

Who strive each day to play the parts they’ve long outgrown.

Who go to work in the morning and bring romance home.

Who wake each other up with stories or sex or gossip or just for love.

Who grip Time’s fist and fight him, bleeding,

to roll with the punches,

and keep up the show.

They have intermissions,

they have to take breaks,

and take off the greasepaint and go for a fag…

but sooner or later, the drama comes calling

and on come the stagelights

and up comes the curtain,

and you’re there again.

The people you were, and are, and all that you can be.

And though you are pretending, you have,

and always will,

a perfect love.


Wow, okay so I really like this one. It’s probably a spoken word piece more than it is a poem, but I broke t up like it’s meant to be read, so hopefully you can still get the gist of it.

Hit me up on twitter @Sellpen. Seriously, I’m lonely up here.

Sellpen Reviews: Wonder Woman

Sellpen Reviews: Wonder Woman

Yeah, it’s pretty good.

Superhero movies are selling like brownies iced with cocaine – it doesn’t matter how many you eat, or how badly made they are, you STILL want more. Given this, I suppose it was inevitable that in today’s post-Frozen world, where strong female leads are de rigeur, that DC would tap Wonder Woman for a film or four. She’s the perfect choice: Brand recognition, emminently franchisable, and plenty of bad guys and comic book threads to plunder for sequels. In her, DC has an opportunity to flex its muscles and prove that they haven’t just got the bulletproof alien one, or the one that’s Batman. They have a girl one too.

The only problem is that DC just can’t stop making bad movies. Between the utter mess of just… ALL the recent Superman films, the terrible “Batman Vs Superman, colon, dawn of oh my god is this title still going?” and Suicide Squad which sucked, Wonder Woman doesn’t have a great pedigree, but manages to turn out a pretty good film. Let’s talk about that.

The Cast

Gal Gadot, surprisingly for a superhero protagonist, brings a really earnest character to Wonder Woman, showing naivete, playfulness and blind passion in equal measure, and making them believable. Hard to do when you’re in a corset and miniskirt, but she’s really watchable and it’s a commendable performance. Chris Pine is fine as love interest and American spy Steve Trevors, but we’ve seen it before and he was better as Kirk. He downplays the few laughs he gets, and makes the film more dramatic and less comic which I assumed was a directorial choice for the film until the arrival of Lucy Davis’s receptionist character. She wrings the comic joy out of every scene she’s in. She’s a scene stealer, and she can deliver a punchline. Cast her. Cast her in everything.

The rest of the cast are all fine too, but no-one really stands out for better or for worse. Danny Hustun is well cast as the fearsome German general, but he’s very one-dimensional. David Thewlis is always good, and here’s no exception, but the script didn’t really give him an opportunity to shine. Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen are barely present in the film as Wonder Woman’s Aunt and Mother, and to their credit, they manage to establish strong on-screen relationships with minimal dialogue, but that’s about it.

The Plot (spoilers be here…)

Yeah, here’s where the issues start. There are several timeskips and cuts between locations and events that smack of deleted scenes. It was an ambitious origin story, and not just because it had to pick up the pieces from the bizarre and bad BatSuperMan vs Good Movies – Wonder Woman (aka Diana Prince) basically starts the movie as a superhero – the first act is an exposition-laced training montage, but she’s badass from the get go. As such, her story isn’t about learning to use her powers, or accepting the responsibility that comes with them. Instead, there’s a confused dramatic question about the worth of humanity.

Diana leaves Themyscyra determined to slay the evil god Ares and take the darkness out of the hearts of the German soldiers fighting in WWI. As she experiences the horrors of war, Diana alone stays honest, and noble, and true, and pure throughout the film, placing her very much above the petty humans who all fail to live up to her exemplar standard.

I loved this set up, as it promised a discussion about the nature of evil, and war, and how both sides are commiting atrocities, and neither side are morally justified. It nearly delivered on this, with an early scene showing the German soldiers as starving and low on supplies – highlighting their humanity and putting a face to ‘the enemy’ to make them less ‘other’. Sadly this is where the film, for me, loses a star. It can’t help what it is. As a high-budget Superhero blockbuster, Wonder Woman is a love-letter to violent action sequences. It’s central message that things aren’t black and white, and war is never justified, and the enemy are redeemable rings hollow against the familiar backdrop of faceless German soldiers torn apart by shield, whip and a hail of bullets from the rag-tag bunch of ‘good guy’ murderers. I have no doubt that there awaits a genre-redefining classic that can handle the dichotomy of the evil of violence and the innate goodness of man in a Superhero flick that relies on both, but it is not this film. Instead, Wonder Woman chooses to prioritise…

The Action

And f*#k me, but the action scenes are good. The fighting in this movie is just great. It’s cartoony, it’s balletic and there’s bloody loads of it. The film opens on a masterfully choreographed fight scene/training montage involving a few dozen beautiful Amazonians kicking ass in slow motion, and it just gets better from there. Wonder Woman combines the best bits of the free-flowing bullet time fights of Deadpool and the awe-inspiring set-piece moments that Snyder does so well, and renders them with a lovely colour saturation that shows off Diana’s glowing whip to epic effect. Yes, people leap thirty feet and change direction in mid-air. Shut up. Go home, physics, you’re drunk. I choose to live in the world where there are close-ups of Gal Gadot’s shapely thighs kicking churches so hard they explode. A minor technical quibble, which I only bring up since I mention the colour balance, but the brightness in this film could do with being whacked right up. In the night time scenes, a lot of detail is lost. It’s almost impossible to read any of the text onscreen and it’s such an easy fix.

Gender Politics

Wonder Woman actually handles the whole ‘Woman in WW1-era Britain’ thing super well. She’s allowed to do all of the fish-out-of-water humour of trying on dresses that are impractical for fighting, and interacting with stuffy male politicians at a time when women didn’t have the vote. She gets to be a quirky, interesting character who believably derides the establishment of marriage and heteronormative relationships without it being a ‘thing’. She appeals to modern sensibilites, and is allowed to be a progressive, liberal woman without it defining her character.

Even more impressively, she’s not really objectified in this film. I mean, no-one can deny that this is an exploration of the body beautiful – Chris Pine looks suitably hunky with his top off, and Gal Gadot is absolutely gorgeous, particularly in the skimpy superhero getup, but I love that they just embrace it. Steve Trevors spends the movie telling Diana that he’s ‘above average’ for a human male, and isn’t shy about appearing before her naked. She’s very happy to change and strip in front of whoever, which really sells her outfit – she doesn’t care. Many other characters in the film mention her beauty, or act embarrassed when she’s taking her clothes off, or just being in her revealing costume, but that’s very much their problem. She is a beautiful woman who is comfortable in her own skin, so despite the fact that there’s a lot of it on show, it rarely feels exploitative.

Summary (tl;dr)

Wonder Woman doesn’t quite nail down its core dramatic question, leading to an empty moral dilemma and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. This is compounded by an over-use of CGI in the final fight. A shame. I think the film really could have explored its premises a little more – it had a stable enough vehicle to take on more emotional weight. It would also have been cool to see more of the Amazonians.

THAT SAID: This is a good film. Easily the best thing DC has churned out in years, and hopefully the first of many. Wonder Woman handles pretty well, has some memorable action sequences and does the Captain America thing of doing an Origin story set entirely in the past, which means gorgeous period costumes with modern commentary. It’s also nice to see WW1 for a change. #JustSayin

The Verdict

3.5/5 – Go see this one. Gal Gadot is great, and DC needs to build on the good stuff here because there’s plenty of it.

Don’t Live in London

Don’t live in London,

The rents are too high.

So are the buildings,

And you can’t see the sky.


This is a little thing I wrote at the same time as @TheLadyAmelia wrote her London poems for Sellpen’s #20MinutePoetryChallenge.

If you want to do a challenge with me, or challenge me to a duel, or dueling banjos with me, or play Banjo Kazooie with me, or invite me to see your play, or whatever, then talk to me on twitter @Sellpen.