Poem: Oedipus Noir

This is definitely one from the deep archives. I think this poem is about eighteen years old. I found a copy this week, with a note on it saying that I’d performed it in early June, 2004. It’s probably a couple of months older than that. I’d previously done another poem, about the Judgment of Paris, and I was trying to do something similar to that. When I find The Judgement of Paris again, I’ll post it here, too.

Oedipus Noir

a not-quite crown of sonnets

The town was down with a bad case of flu,
and men and women were dropping like flies.
The king and his council knew what to do;
they asked the oracle, woman so wise 
to help them escape their woe and despair.
"Is there some goddess we have failed to please?
Is some God's temple in need of repair?
Help us find release from this disease!"
So spoke the Pythia, Apollo's voice,
"Your last king was killed and laid in his grave
and his murderer runs free.  It's your choice
but it's vengeance and justice the gods crave.
Blind the king's killer and the plague will end,
an anti-plague vaccine the gods will send."
The king fancied himself a detective,
a Sam Spade archetype with fedora.
It college, he'd taken one elective
in criminal justice -- and what's mora,
he had the whole outfit from halloween.
"We'll find the man, and blind the brute," he said.
He summoned his wife, the shapely ex-queen,
"how did your ex get a bad case of dead?"
She had this necklace, a gift from the gods,
that made the old broad a real femme fatale;
not many women have those kinds of bods,
For a grandma, she was a shapely gal.
"The king was a putz, and what's more he's dead,
Give up the questions, and come back to bed."
But the king didn't like her sultry stare.
"Our folks are dying, and you think of sex!
I'm the new king and it's my job to care,
to solve the murder and lift the gods' hex.
Were any at all known to wish him harm?
Could his campaign donors have done him in?
Did some malicious person cast a charm?
Was he infamous for living in sin?"
"None at all! He was thought the best of kings!"
That was what all the witnesses declared.
"No one coveted any of his things;
He hoarded nothing that was not shared.
But his son was fated to kill his dad,
and the son's future after that, looked bad."

“Aha!” said the King, “Was the kid done in?
Did the king have some kind of enforcer
who threw the baby in a dumpster bin,
some thug with a nickname like ‘Eraser’?”
They brought in the guy on another charge
and the king softened him up in the tank.
“just some info will spring you from this cage,
you’ll walk free despite your role in the bank.
Tell me what you did to the old king’s kid.”
Said the old thug, “I was supposed to kill,
but he looked so helpless, I never did.
I had some conscience, some vestige of will.
I tried to be cruel, but I’m not that sick;
I did the famous baby-switching trick.”

"Well," said the king, "now we're getting somewhere.
We've got a kid who was supposed to die,
supposed to be done in by this au pair...
Yet it seems he received a second try.
Let's find the people who picked up the boy,
learn what happened to their adopted son.
Who'd have guessed the old baby-switching ploy
would have such consequences when day is done?"
Curious, the king said, like Sherlock Holmes,
half to himself, when his minions had gone.
When I was young, I asked Apollo's crones
what Fate had marked for me when I was born.
She gave me an answer like this kid had,
that I would grow up to murder my dad.
The search went fast with the yellow pages;
they found the foster dad in the next town,
where, since he was famous for drinking binges,
it was in Larry's Bar they tracked him down.
The king, now dressed in his Thin Man disguise,
with a double martini in one hand,
got straight to the point.  "Don't try to be wise,
just give me the data that I demand.
You picked up a package, many years back,
and smuggled a baby across state lines.
There'll be no trouble if you give him back,
not a day served in the chain gangs or mines.
By the way, old chap, you look familiar,
This is all getting a bit peculiar."
The old drunk replied, through stuttering lips,
"The the wife and me took care of a boy
for three or four years, 'til one of those dips
who works for the state took our pride and joy.
They nabbed him and put him in foster care
with a rich couple with college degrees.
Since my wife died, it's been so hard to bear,
but what could we do?  THe kid had bad knees
and his ankles needed surgery, bad.
The fiends who dumped him had pierced both his feet,
and he needed stuff we couldn't have had.
Those rich folks had him fixed up pretty sweet.
The boy's grown up now, but he went away,
after some oracle ruined his day.
Strange, thought the king, once more in his palace,
I had bad feet when I was very young,
and I fled my folks, though not with malice.
A prophetess with oracular tongue
said I'd marry mom after killing dad.
It's a sick notion, you gotta confess.
But fate is fate, and though it made me sad,
I left at once, nor went home to that mess.
At least I've never killed, -- well, just that once,
but that boss made his goons all shoot at me
and it was a clear case of self-defense.
No relevance at all that I can see.
I think this line of clues takes a weird bend...
Let's start anew -- How'd the king meet his end?
The king's ex-bodyguard had this to tell
of the day of the murder in question.
"We had him in a car and all was well,
no sign of trouble, no hint or mention,
not a single bomb threat or alert.
I guess I'd say that was the biggest hole
in security -- he died, we got hurt
just as we were passing this grassy knoll.
This guy in a fedora blocked our way
and we started shooting to make him move.
The guns they let normal folks have today!
He got the king on one, so off we drove.
We pinned the slaying on some other dupe
with no known ties to any fringe group...

but that man in the hat — he's the real guy
that all the Commission's reports ignore!
He pulled the trigger, and made the king die,
and never have I seen him any more 
except till the day he waltzed into down
after beating the Sphinx and her Riddles.
Somehow, the dude pulled her syndicate down
by answering the questions she peddles.
"That was me," said the King. "I brought her in,
and in thanks I got to marry the queen.
I'd heard her ex was quite roughly done in,
but I'd no idea how rough it had been...
But wait... the sphinx, you say -- ye gods, I see!
The old king's killer is Oedipus... ME!
The king rushed into the empty palace,
searching each room for his mama and wife.
He found her at last, done in with malice,
she'd hung herself and taken her own life,
with magic necklace wrapped round her neck, tight.
"The gods toy with us as we toy with flies,"
He said to her corpse in the room's dim light,
and their law was to take the killer's eyes."
He grabbed the long pins from his mother's hair,
and drove them deeply into each of his eyes.
With ichor running from his sightless stare
he spoke the fairest words he could devise.
"The Fates set our lives, and we do as they bid...
good-bye, Mom -- here's not looking at you, kid."
Therefore, be cautious in seeking for truth
from the prophecies of Tarot or stars,
and as martinis have hints of vermouth,
season with salt all prophetic "Bewares"!
Meet the whole family before you get hitched
and make sure the blood tests come back right,
ere with a parent or child you're matched
in some incestuous honeymoon night.
Leave solving crimes to the professionals,
and save some matters for your therapist,
or for daytime TV confessionals,
if Jerry Springer's your kind of sadist.
Whatever you do, please practice safe sex,
and stay, if you can, out of Freud's index.

Notes on the text

I don’t have too many notes, except that I’ve called this a Crown of Sonnets and… that’s not technically true, since this is not fifteen poems of fourteen lines each, where the fifteenth poem contains one line from each of the previous fourteen poems — specifically, the first line of the first poem, the second line of the second poem, the third line of the third poem, and so on, until the fourteenth line of the fourteenth poem forms the last line of the fifteenth verse.

The Crown of Sonnets doesn’t really work very well in English, since the rhyme schemes of the various poems have to interlock in complex ways in order for the whole structure to work: the first four verses have to have similar rhyme schemes in the ABAB section, the next four verses have to rhyme in the CDCD section, the next four verses have to rhyme with each other in the EFEF section, and the thirteenth and fourteenth verses have to have matching couplets, which suggests or anticipates the end of the poem. Working out a genuine theme for that sort of poem is always difficult, and a lyrical form is more likely than storytelling, as we see here.

This is, however, or could be called a diadem, or perhaps a magical necklace, of twelve sonnets, which is somewhat unusual in English verse, in that it tells a story, and also matches the High Burlesque Style, in which a formal subject is treated humorously, or a humorous subject is treated formally, as in Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. For another example of my High Burlesque style, see The Glorious Day.

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