Cassandra at the Bonfire

The snakes licked my ears.
I told you about the war.

They danced with me and whispered.
I told you about the horse.

I gave you the libations of the funeral,
and my brother gave you the food:
water and wine and the mixing of fruit old and new.
You received it all, calling me mad and ignoring his calls for hyssop.

I can place a bird in my mouth—
the tiny ortolan, the bee-sized hummingbird—
and you would hear birdsong that you would not believe.

But shhhh—
how you reject 
true words from my mouth:
birdsong, all; a horse’s cry;

the murmur of the snakes.

Oh, bring them to me,
each a single long
lung full of sweet prognostication. 
Bring me lengths and curling bodies,
that I might feel their tongues
and tell you a truth.

Kendra Preston Leonard

3 Questions for Kendra

What was your process for creating this work?

A lot of my creative writing draws on myth, and so when my friend and colleague, composer Jessica Rudman, contacted me about writing a piece about Cassandra of Greek myth, I jumped at the opportunity. I ended up writing two very different texts, one called Girls Love Horses, and this poem. Jessica set Girls Love Horses to music and it was premiered in 2020 by Ensemble For These Times. “Cassandra at the Bonfire’ is the second of the two texts, in which I use somewhat more obscure references to Cassandra’s story and to Greek myth. Cassandra has been written about a lot, and I wanted my work about her to be very different from its many precursors. Here I revel in the possibilities of language in order to create a sense of sensuality and a little desperation.

What is the significance of the form/genre you chose for this work?

I almost always write in free verse and am very deliberate about using line breaks to indicate delivery or the mood of the words. Here Cassandra is the narrator, dizzy with madness and making one last attempt at trying to tell those around her to listen to her, but knowing that they can hear nothing: not her, not birdsong, not anything but themselves.

What is the significance of this work to you?

This is a piece in which I could be extravagant with language and play with various versions of Cassandra’s myth. In one, she becomes a prophet when the sacred snakes of Apollo’s temple lick her ears, but Apollo curses her when she will not sleep with him. Using that as the basis of her gift, I could give Cassandra sexual agency and power, a moment in which she can demand attention one last time before the predicted catastrophe comes.

Kendra Preston Leonard is a poet, lyricist, and librettist whose work is inspired by history, language, and the mythopoeic. Her first chapbook, Making Mythology, was published in 2020 by Louisiana Literature Press, and her novella in verse, Protectress, offering a modern take on the myth of Medusa, will be published in 2022 by Unsolicited Press. Leonard is a frequent collaborator with composers and other musicians, as well as a scholar. Follow her at @K_Leonard_PhD.