spartan woman

BY Rosetta Marantz Cohen

1

We had chosen each other, as is customary, 
By groping blindly in a dark room
Filled with other men and other women.
My mother helped me plot my strategy:
Feeling for height first, then the width
Of the chest, then sufficient hair
For potency. When my husband’s
Wild hands first found my breasts, I was sure
The gods had blessed us.

First they shaved my head, smooth as a stone, 
Then exchanged my woman’s chiton
For a man’s, a crimson chlamys draped
On my narrow shoulders;
Even laconian boots were given
To me, whose soles were unaccustomed
To the feel of hide, 
Having lived unshod for eighteen years,
Winter and summer.

It was spring. Others had come
Before us; women I had known
Since childhood playing in the yellow fields,
Studying together. Others, like ourselves,
Moved in somber pairs
Down the long arcade, flanked by priests.
Crows reeled overhead.
A warm winter 
Promised a lucky spring.

Past the old men and the wives
Who had taught me letters, past
The sun-dried, mud-brick 
Houses of my town, 
Wended the long processional, 
The cattle mantled in flowers, music
From lutes; a skin 
Drum beating like a heart, 
Entering first our ears and then our bodies.

Teiresias claims that a woman’s
Capacity for sexual pleasure 
Is nine times greater than a man’s. I suspect
That my husband derives
Little pleasure from my body, cares
Little when I am given to his brother,
Nor is his pleasure greater
With other women; one
Woman’s body being the same as another’s.

Nights, when he steals forth from his barracks,
Crossing with stealth the black fields to our dark home,
Entering me, as the gods ordain,
My face hidden, my body 
Given over for its purpose,  
I sense his duty and distaste.
Done, he returns to his bed among men.
I ask the gods for a child, but 
They do not hear me, or perhaps
Hearing me, do not wish to respond.

By summer, my hair returns, a dark
Helmet like a helot’s cap.
I am exiled from the naked
Play of my sisters. No one
Admires my body in the day,
And at night, I cannot remember
With whom I have slept, so many men come and leave
In the dark. And still there is no sign
Of a coming child.

I miss the days of my youth,
My time among girls and women,
Speech that elicited speech.
When the polis took notice
Of me, it was then that
My life ended.

2

First I submerged her in wine, 
As the elders commanded; 
And small though she was
She survived that bitter trial 
Hardly noticing, it seemed, 
The acrid bite and stain 
On her near-transparent skin.

I held her little back erect,
Her feet pressed up 
Against the bucket’s edge
As the priests declared her worthy 
Of her life. Here, 
Said the elders,
She will live among us,
Female though she is, 
With a plot of land—a yellow field, her dowry
And her stake—passed, 
Should the gods decree it,
To many sons. 

Some are stillborn,
Making of the womb 
A compassionate grave.
Others die after birth,
Their deaths decreed by the elders—
Being too small, too weak, too cleft
Of lip, too lame, 
Or cursed by the gods:
Unwhole in mind;

Some for the crime of being
Not a male—destined merely
To breed and not to kill.
All pass violently from life
On the cliff of Apothetae,
Having wasted the state
Nine useless months in the womb,
Which, emptied now, is free
To be filled again. 

3

The elders herald above all else
The birth of a son; 

Call the woman who bears sons
Among the blessed: Sisters of Hera, 

Most precious of Spartans,
Praised by the poets. Sons

Who are turned into strangers
To those who bore them,

Taken and turned, in their seventh year
By brutal men to brutal ways,

Schooled in the edicts of cunning;
Vicious, venal, lovers of blood,

Competing for the honor of most
Cruel; courting hunger and thirst

As if deprivation were itself a god.
Who would want this son? I am asking you,

Secret, precious, invisible Self,

Knowing that you alone
Will understand my question. 

4

Having no sons beyond their seventh year,
My father made me his son, his beloved,
His constant companion. 
Then came word that my brothers
Had died with great honor in war 
And there followed, of course, rejoicing, 

Since dying with honor in battle
Turned men into demi-gods.
The poets sang of their exploits, 
Sang of the gold thrones 
On which they now sat,
Feasting with the immortals.

My mother tied red cloth to the door frames,
Burned incense for the gods, and danced
For joy in the public square.
Each morning gifts would be placed
At our gate: wine, sweets, a linen
Cloth stitched with their names—

Those blessed and most precious dead.
I remained here.  A mere
Body with breasts and a womb,
But brave, strong, ready
To shoulder the work
Of adult life.  

My father would come
And sit with me at the table,
Talk about politics, the demands
Of the gods which always seemed
So burdensome to me. 
He spoke to me like a friend, asked
Should he plow now or later?

Asked how he might settle
A dispute with a selfish neighbor—
I was wise in the way that women are,
And gave him counsel. Father
And daughter, he said, as if
The sound of that phrase gave pleasure:

You, he said, my patroiokos,
Shall inherit my fields and my cattle.
When he died,
A part of me was laid too
In his narrow grave.

5

My body was most my own
When I ran
Through the streets of Elis
During the races of Heraea. 
We who were virgins,
Whose bodies are strongest and most nimble,
Ran the same course as men, 
Steep and circuitous; 
Our hair falling
About our backs and arms,
Our arms sun-brown 
From the long practices that prepared us.

At the starting signal gong
We leapt like Cerynitian hinds, 
Free in the open air,
Unfettered by age or marriage, 
In the heat of the day, 
In the name of Hera, 
For a crown of olives,
Raced through the dust
That stained our legs,
And painted ochre 
Our dark hair.

At dusk, we came 
Together as friends. 
Winners and losers,
Our bodies
Filled with the good ache of use,
Gathering to feast 
In the open air, the sky
Darkening, the cool
Evening salving our limbs.
We told each other:
If we died today
We would count ourselves
Among the blessed.

6

In youth, we are all different:
Some lovely, some plain,
Fertile or barren; some
Rich with family and friends
Crowding their tables, others
Solitary, silent, stooped in service
To those they neither love nor hate.

In age, we are the same; coming
Together as sisters before death.
Stripped of any gifts that distinguished
One from another. Even wealth—
The fine foods or luxurious beds
That made one proud and another
Covetous—fall away as appetite
Falls away. As sight falters
And one bed or rug is finally 
Like another. 

Now, the memories of pleasure
Contract like the memories of pain
Into a single darkness;
Until as one we move together
Into a common sleep,
Hoping at last 
That the gods are real,
But sharing, towards death,
A deepening sense
They are not.


Rosetta Marantz Cohen is the author of two prize-winning chapbooks of poetry, Domestic Scenes (Foothills) and The Town of Insomniacs (Finishingline), and four scholarly books. She is the Myra M. Sampson Professor of Education at Smith College.

Image Credit: Gisela Merkuur