Scene of Achilles tending to Patroclus

We are so proud and excited to publish WIDOWS, a new long poem by Tom Sleigh, which appears in full for the first time here at Consequence Forum.

At Consequence, our focus is literature and art that examines the culture and consequences of war and geopolitical violence. We on the poetry team are especially interested in the question, “What is war poetry?” Beyond a definition or taxonomy, we strive to understand how war has made itself so central to literary tradition, and how poetry of war both constructs and calls into question our beliefs and ideas about war.

This fall, we launched a few special projects that focus on The Iliad, an ancient poem of war that’s nevertheless very much in our collective contemporary consciousness: We celebrated and examined The Iliad online with a series of audio and video responses to David Ferry’s masterful translation of the Aeneid, and our most recent print issue featured a special section on The Iliad, which included a short essay by classicist Emily Austin, as well as poems by Ellen Kombiyil, George Kalogeris, and others. We were delighted to publish an excerpt of Sleigh’s WIDOWS there. We are even more excited to present it here in its ambitious, beautiful, brutal, strange, poignant, wonderful entirety.

—Katherine Hollander, Poetry Editor



Andromache, as if
the Zeus Machine
had fit over your eyes
a pair of God-like

X-ray vision goggles,
you can’t help but see
the spearpoint
in slow motion

pierce through
the helmet ridge
down through the septum
severing the tongue

to shatter
the teeth
to pierce through
the back of the neck.

2/Hector and Andromache, Book 6, The Iliad

Hector, silent, smiled—smiled
at his son—but Andromache, standing
beside him, clinging to his hand, said:
“Your own great strength will turn against you
and turn on me and on your son
so that he’ll be fatherless and I’ll be a widow.
The Greeks will surround you and one day cut you down.

And when I’ve lost you, I pray to sink
into the earth—Achilles
murdered my father, my mother too is dead.
But he didn’t strip my father’s armor when he destroyed
our city—his heart inside him
hadn’t turned into a wound. He respected
my father’s corpse and we burned his body and his weapons
and piled the earth in a high mound
that the mountain nymphs planted
with a grove of elm trees.

—And then Achilles murdered my seven brothers
all on the same day, sending them all down
to the house of Death as they tended to our sheep and oxen.
But when he seized my mother, he released her
for a ransom—
                         then Artemis strung her bow
and struck her down in the halls of her own father.

And so, Hector, you must be my father, my mother,
my only brother, my young husband.
Stay here behind the walls—
don’t leave our son an orphan, me a widow,
but send our soldiers to the fig tree where the walls are lowest
and keep the Greeks from swarming over the ramparts.

Then Hector, his helmet gleaming, said:
“All this pulls me down under the earth—but I have to keep fighting
because the shame I’d feel before the Trojans
and the Trojan women in their trailing robes,
makes me keep on fighting in the front lines, winning
for myself and my father more glory.
But I also know this: my heart speaks to me like a wound
aching in the mind that one day Troy must fall—
and Priam, and Priam’s people of the strong ash spear.
But it’s not that coming agony that troubles me the most,
not Priam or my mother, Hecuba, or the thought
of my brothers sprawling in the dust,
but when some Greek in bronze armor
drags you away to Argos to weave on your new master’s loom
or carry water from the spring, hating it but helpless
not to do as you’re told—and if someone happens
to catch sight of you weeping, he will say,
‘That is Hector’s wife, Hector the bravest soldier
of all the horse-breaking Trojans, in those days
when they fought for Troy.’ That’s how they’ll speak of you:
but for you, it’ll be just more bitterness and grief
to be widowed by a man who fights off your day of slavery.
But may the earth be piled upon me
before I hear you crying out when they drag you away.”

Then Hector reached out to hold his son
who squirmed away from him screaming, terrified
of the nodding horsehair cresting his helmet.
And then the boy’s mother and father laughed
and Hector took off his helmet and laid it shining
on the ground and embraced his son
and tossed him gently in his arms and kissed him
and prayed:
                      “Zeus and you other Gods who live forever,
grant that my boy will be as strong as his father
and rule in Troy above all men. And may the Trojans
someday say of him as he comes in from the fighting,
‘He’s a far greater man than his father.’ Let him kill
our enemies and bring back their treasure earned with blood
to give joy to the heart of his mother.”
                                                                   And then he gave the child back
to Andromache, his wife’s body smelling sweet to him.
But when he saw she was cut to the heart, despite her smiling
through her tears, he stroked her with his hand and said:
“Don’t let yourself feel such pain for me—no one
can hurl me down to Hades unless his fate has willed it.
But whether you’re brave or a coward,
once your fate is set, you can’t escape it.”


Fate fingers the dials
on the Zeus Machine.
Everything that happens now
is both fated

and foreknown.
Zeus’s power pours
into the wolves’ jaws
dragging down a stag,

their whole heads
shoved into the stag’s
belly, one pup rearing
back his head

to catch its breath,
fur stained pink,
pupils glazed over
with infantile rapture

as their jowls
clot with blood.
Lying on her bed
and staring at the ceiling,

or weaving at her loom,
or picking up her son
to nurse him,
Andromache hears

the whirring
of the Zeus Machine
steering them always closer,
their swift-legged

ratcheting like interlocking cogs
as in one motion
they finish feeding
and trot to drink

from a dark-running
spring, lapping
at water reflecting
back their tongues

dripping pink
in the blood-swirled surface
as they start to howl—
so that’s the way

Achilles’ pack
eats and drinks.
Fate’s hand
turns the dial,

the wolves swirl
like electrons
bombarding Troy’s walls—
then turn to

rays of light
lining up
behind Patroclus’s
shining spear.

4/Picture of a Vase Painting of Achilles and Patroclus in a Living Room

They are both dressed in armor and enclosed in a circle against which Patroclus’s foot is pushing as if it were a bubble they both float inside, a bubble of contingency which neither of them knows about: how could they when the Zeus Machine stares down at them in grief, knowing what must happen, knowing too that Fate is like the inside and outside pressure on the bubble, keeping it from bursting or floating off. Achilles looks down at Patroclus’s bleeding arm held out for him to bandage. The table underneath the picture is in flawlessly good taste, the kind of mahogany only the wealthy can afford. Coffee in a Pyrex coffee-maker, two cups, two chairs, the chairs empty, as if whoever sits at this table just this instant got called away, not knowing that they’ll never be coming back.
     Still the wound-binding continues in its own little eternity, Achilles concentrating on the wound he wraps round and round with white gauze-like cloth, while Patroclus stares pointedly in the opposite direction, not wanting to see the blood. The two friends’ faces are turned away from each other, both vulnerable, both killers, both doomed. Over Patroclus’s shoulder is an empty quiver of arrows—but there in front of him, lying on the ground, an arrow points directly at Achilles’ heel—his famous heel, the only place his invincible body can be pierced by bronze or iron. Patroclus’s penis, small, the way the Greeks liked to depict them unless they are barbarians, rests in its demure sheath, uncircumcised. It hangs down beneath a blackened patch of pubic hair and lies limp on his inner thigh and touches his ankle because his foot is pulled up into his crotch while his other leg extends straight out to the side, behind Achilles’ body, so that his toes push against the bubble.
     Achilles could be staring at Patroclus’s penis if he weren’t looking at the wound. The expression on his face seems tender, tentative, worried that he’s hurting his friend whose lips are turned down, grimacing, even as his left hand holds up his wounded right arm to help Achilles in the bandaging. Achilles smiles, or almost smiles, as if he loved what he’s doing for the person he does it for, sorrows over it too, happy to be sad if this is what sadness means.


And then the soldiers change
back into wolves staring
with bright stone eyes,
bodies like snowclouds

swirling to attack
as the Zeus Machine, high-thundering,
puts into their bellies
my Achilles’ anger when

Achilles says to Hector
dying on his knees,
“Return you to your father,
your wife and son,

to be decently buried?
For killing Patroclus,
I should eat you raw.”
My Achilles’ spear is still

plunged through the throat’s
soft flesh where Hector’s
collar bones separate
the neck from

the shoulders—
but the bronze hasn’t cut
through the windpipe
so that Hector says,

“When Paris and Apollo strike
you down in the city gates,
I will be the gods’ curse
that kills you.”

And then his soul
flutters free to Death’s house
as you, my Achilles, answer,
“Die—and when the gods

choose to cut me down,
so be it.”
And then he
wrenched loose

his spear and shoved the body
on its side and yanked off
the shoulders the bloody
armor and the other soldiers

ran up
to the corpse
and stared
at Hector’s clean-limbed body

lying sprawled, at ease—
and not one
could resist
stabbing his already dead

body, saying, “So Hector,
you’re not so tough now,
are you, as when you
torched our ships.”

And they kept on
leaning over him
and stabbing him
until Achilles pierces

Hector’s tendons
just above the heels
and cinches them
with ox-hide thongs

to his chariot
and whipping
his horses
to a gallop,

drags Hector’s
head, once
so handsome,
through rising dust.

6/Andromache, Book 22, The Iliad

Try to see it from the Moon:

Staring down from the city’s high walls
Trojan soldiers like specks of light
ricochet off the battlements
                                               then firm up
into tiny bronze heads leaning down to see
                                                                            in the ramparts’
shadows the even tinier Greeks
shoulder shields onto their backs as if a swarm
of wasps flashed chitinous wings
like a migraine:
                           and picked out by a cone of sunlight
before Troy’s gates
as if the reflections swirling all around him
wrapped him in chains, Hector—
standing all alone . . .

                                       There his wife sits
at her loom weaving, throwing the shuttle back
and forth, then tamping down the threads
of the pattern always complicating, figure
bleeding into figure
                                  of flowers slowly blossoming
through the purple cloak.
                                            And while
flames lash up the sides of the great blackened cauldron
heating water for Hector’s bath,
                                                        Achilles pierces
Hector’s tendons just above the heels and cinches them
with ox-hide thongs to his chariot
so the head drags behind
                                             as the body twists
in its sprawling cloud of dust, the horses’ pounding
hooves lashed on by Achilles’
unremitting rage.
                               I said see it from the Moon:
                                                                                                  but even the Moon
would turn away from Hector’s savaging.

From the tower walls Andromache hears a cry
drifting as if it were coming all the way
from the mountains of the Moon
                                                            and she knows—
                                                                                           her fingers
freeze, the shuttle clatters to the floor.
“He’s ranged too far from the ranks—Achilles
has cut him off.”
                            She runs to the tower and sees
Hector dragged
                            behind the racing horses, his body
suddenly turning random, anonymous as a pebble
in a sandal—
                       while up from her breast
a black shadow
                           slowly spreads, eclipsing
every thought, every image
but the long line of blowing dust his body traces back
to the Greek ships.

Down through space that is nothing and no place
the Moon is as distant as that line in the dust
Andromache can’t keep herself from seeing—

                                                                                    around her, helpless
to help her, Hector’s sisters and the wives of his brothers
keep her from falling into that blackness—
and when she comes to, grief like the flowers
she’s been weaving for her husband’s body
into full blossom in her throat:
                                                      “Hector, you and I were meant
to suffer the same fate—if only I’d never been
born, never lived in Thebes, never known
my father, never grown up shadowed by the dense woods
that cover the mountain of Plakos—doomed daughter
of a doomed father. And now, Hector, you too have been
sent down to the house of Death in the hidden places
of the earth, leaving me behind, a widow and mother
to our boy, still just a baby, whose fate is just as doomed as ours.
Achilles strips you of your armor and you lie there, unmoving,
unable to shield your son.
                                             And your son can’t shield you
gone down to utter blackness in Death’s unending corridors.
And even if he lives through Troy burning to the ground,
because he’s your son he’ll be beaten
and made into a slave, and no other boys
will play with him, he’ll bow before everyone, a boy without a father
who tugs at the cloaks of his dead father’s friends,
and if one feels sorry for him and lowers his cup
for him to take a sip, just enough to barely wet his lips,
his thirst will only be that much worse when another child
loved by both his parents shoves him from the table,
Go find your father and eat with him—go away!
                                                                                       And I see him,
my only son, Astyanax—
                                           driven off in tears, calling out
to his widowed mother, remembering how on his father’s lap
he ate the rich marrow and the fattest lamb.
And when he was tired out from playing and lay down
in his soft bed safe in his nurse’s arms, his heart
would be full as he fell asleep.
                                                   Now his only father
will be pain.
                     Astyanax—Lord of the City—
is what we Trojans called you in honor
of your father who always beat back the enemy
from our gates and long walls. But now, my Hector,
you lie beside the beaked ships, far from your own parents,
embraced only by maggots now that the packs of skulking dogs
have had their turn feeding on your naked body.
Now the clothes I wove for you, all that skillful work
of a woman’s hands, the weave tight, the pattern
intricate to look at, I’ll heap up for the flames:
what’s the use of keeping them since even your corpse
has been taken from me.
                                           But the blaze will be the honor
Troy’s men and the Trojan women offer up.”

                                                                            And as the women’s
moans rose up to meet hers
it was like dust charged in the solar wind
rising above the seas and craters of the Moon.


The rawness, my Achilles,
of your mind
when you tell
your mother, a goddess,

that you are the reason
Patroclus was cut down
hisses like static
in your brain—

his wounds become
a hundred eyes
staring at you staring back,
watching him fall

and setting in motion the fatal
arrow already
flying toward your heel—
and because you refused

to fight the Trojans, feuding
with Agamemnon, King
Bull-Cock of the Greeks,
raging how your glory

was stripped from you
when he seized your slave,
the woman, Briseis,
whose husband

and three brothers
you killed in a raid,
your bitter bronze
slashing through the city,

Patroclus—your Patroclus—
whom even Briseis
mourns, saying,

“You were always kind
to me despite my fate
whispering how pain
leads on to pain forever.”

And you, too, my Achilles,
your grieving
turns to gall
that swarms

into smoke billowing
in your heart
and turning sweeter
than honey dripping

from the comb.
And you say to your mother,
“Don’t hold me back
from killing—”

and as when a vast bonfire
signaling island to island
shoots high above the city,
so from your brow, my Achilles,

a flare shot upward
scorching the bright air—
Trojan charioteers
look on in terror

as their horses
fight the reins, wind-whipped
manes blowing backward
as they wheel around

toward the city walls,
pounding hooves
stampeding toward
Troy’s fall.

O my Achilles,
Patroclus doesn’t flinch
from arrows storming
overhead when the Greeks

drag his body to you waiting
by the ships—you who swore
to his father you’d
bring him home alive,

knowing now how empty
your words were
and are even as you
grieve, saying into yourself:

“Let the dirt
heaped on him
be the same
heaped on me.”

8/Achilles and Patroclus, Book 23, The Iliad

You, my Achilles, lay hunched on your side, then thrashed, turning
and turning on yourself, burrowing like a wild creature
before contracting your huge body
knees to chin, trying laboriously to sleep . . .

But when sleep finally took you,
soothing the pain afflicting heart and mind—
oh, how you ached, legs heavy as stone
from having run down Hector, sprinting round and round
wind-funneling Troy’s walls—
                                                     there appeared
to you what looked like Patroclus, wretched, dead Patroclus, the man’s imago
framed as the very body of the dead one,
identical in voice and gaze, wearing Patroclus’s clothes
as it kneeled down to your ear and whispered:

“Achilles . . . how can you sleep?
When I was alive, you didn’t neglect me.
But now, in death, you’ve forgotten me.

Bury me, Achilles—
                                 the other dead who
have stepped free of their bodies
and all their suffering, won’t let me cross
the river to join them:
                                      they drive me off, forcing
me to wander through Death’s wide-gated house . . .
Reach out your hand to me: once you’ve burned
my body, I won’t ever come to you again,
I’ll never cross back through those wide gates . . .

It’s hard to bear up under grief like this—
remember how we’d go off from all our other friends
and make our separate plans:
                                                    those times won’t come again.
My fate, lying in wait for me from the moment
I was born, has devoured me in its jaws.
And your fate too, even though you’re like a god,
is mine:
               to die under the high walls of Troy.

There’s something more I want from you, Achilles:
Once the fire eats into my bones, turning them
to ash, I want your remains mixed with mine
in that urn of gold, the one with two handles
that your mother gave to you, your mother
like a queen—
                         but a queen who will never die.”

And you, my lightning-heeled Achilles, answered:
“Patroclus, why did you come here to me—your face,
your head—
                     so dear, so familiar—
                                                        to give me these commands?
I’ll devote all my strength to fulfilling
everything you ask—
                                     but come closer to me now—
I want to hold you, even if it’s only for a little while,
lie down with me and join me in my grief.”
Saying this, you reached out your arms, my Achilles,
reached them round
                                    Patroclus’s shape,
but couldn’t hold him:
                                       the dream that was Patroclus
gave a faint cry
                          and sank like smoke into the earth.

9/Andromache, Book 24, The Iliad

“Hector, all you’ve left your city, your parents, is our pain,
our grief, a wound
                               beyond words—
                                                           and all you
left me is the bitterness that you didn’t die
in our bed, reaching out your arms to me to tell
me some last loving word that always I would remember.”

And there Hector lies . . . handsome . . . fresh with dew . . .
and no matter how many times Achilles drags
his body round and round face-down through the dust,
Apollo keeps his flesh from being bloodied, ripped, torn—
so that he looks like someone sleeping, forehead
smooth as marble, face unclenched, at ease,
looking just like a man who dies a painless death
when Apollo’s silver bow lets fly the shafts of his gentle arrows.

10/Odysseus and Achilles, Book IX, The Odyssey

What can heal
you, my Achilles?
Patroclus’s wounds
whisper how you, too,

must go down
to Hades
where like his twin
you, too, must grieve . . .

Achilles, remember
Odysseus, tough-minded,
a living man walking

down among the dead?
He approached you and Patroclus
through the thronging
ghosts and you spoke

to him winged words:
“Resourceful Odysseus,
how could you bear
to come down here

where only dead men dwell,
torn from our senses,
not flesh or bone,
walking nothings

imitating human beings?
And Odysseus answered,
“I came to ask Tiresias
what I must do

to return home
to rocky Ithaca.
But Achilles, no human being
was ever more

favored than you:
we Argives honored you
the same as the gods—
and here, too, among

the dead I can see
how your authority
makes them shrink away.
So no matter what death

strips from us,
don’t grieve.”
And you, my Achilles,
answered: “Odysseus

shining down among
the dead, don’t try
to console me
for dying—the most broken

slave alive is better
than me in all my glory,
lion-maned Achilles
prowling the underworld.”

11/Vase Painting of Achilles and Hector

Picture my Achilles lying on his side, a knife in hand as he eats a strip of meat from a table from which other strips, dangling down, drip blood on Hector’s body. Bound at the ankles, he still bleeds from his many wounds, arteries pulsing in long bloody streams tracing down his naked abdomen, down across his chest and thighs. Stone wound, iron wound, bronze wound. Dirty spearheads, sword cuts, slashes. Hector’s body as limp as the strip of meat my Achilles holds in his hand as he asks a young boy to fill his wine cup.
     My Achilles hasn’t yet seen that Priam, Hector’s father, waits to clasp his knees and beg him to give back his son’s body. (Such an old story—try to describe what blood tastes like in the mouth when that mouth keeps asking whywhywhy?) Just above Hector’s groin, where his pubic hair is blackened in, the wound keeps on impossibly bleeding, eleven days after his dying—and you, O my Hector, recede into the future “modified in the guts of the living” the way dead people always do. Except for Patroclus’s ghost, his dragon-fly wings and tiny body still wearing his armor and thrusting with his spear as he hovers, dwarfed by his own tomb.

12/Epilogue: Movie

My Achilles is a robot in the future. Andromache wears a haptic glove with a thousand sensors that each time she moves a finger makes Achilles lift a hand, makes him smile or frown, even move in for the kill. Or she points to his eyes and Achilles weeps. She points at his crotch in his heroic nakedness and he stares at himself in robot shame. One finger crooks, he comes to her, kneels down, and clasps her knees. She stares into his eyes, he stares into hers. She takes off the glove. The vase all this is painted on begins to cry.
     The vase turns into a god who touches them each with a drop of water that wipes away my Achilles’ circuit board and makes Andromache forget everything she is and was. Across the screen, instead of THE END, flashes the word, WIDOWS.

Tom Sleigh

Tom’s many books include House of Fact, House of Ruin; Station Zed, Army Cats (John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters); and Space Walk (Kingsley Tufts Award). His new book of poetry, The King’s Touch, was published by Graywolf Press (2022). His most recent book of essays, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing In an Age of Refugees, recounts his time as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa. He teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College.

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