Her only home was here in this forest, among the high rocks,
sending her long arrows in flight through the standing pines
as if threading nets in the air.
She’d never seen a cup of wine or a perfumed room, or a bed:
she drank chill water from the mountain brook and had only ever
lain with lionesses, newly delivered of their cubs, who licked
her hard white body, whimpering there like dogs.
She was not alone in the woods: the breeze shook her hair, lifted
the edge of her tunic on those bare legs
as she ran on the rocks, climbing
after a huge stag, and stopped; felt for the shaft
and quickly nocked it to the bowstring, drew, and let it loose.
She was not alone: a young shepherd was watching,
trying to call up the breeze to lift her again. He wanted to be
her quiver, her spear, and when he found all her weapons in a cave
he was swept with such longing he kissed her coiled nets
and pressed an arrow to his lips – which is how she found him.
‘Save me from this passion, this fire that feeds under my heart!
If you can never love me, as you must know now that I love you,
then to watch your bow-arm tighten and your breast rise and steady
is all I can ever ask, so fix me in the heart to end this hurt …’
Despite her shaking fury, her disgust, she drew fast and clean:
pinning the last words back in with his tongue,
filling his mouth with feathers.
He was done now with satyrs, took no pleasure in his Bacchae.
Dionysus – he whose colours were never true – had seen her
swimming naked in a pool, seen her again in the flowers:
arms of lily-white, cheeks of the rose, eyes of hyacinth blue.
‘If you wish for a chamber in the forest,’ he said, ‘I will grow
grapevine round a glade strewn with ferns and petals of iris,
and lay a piled bed of dappled fawn-skins there
for you, to rest your head on the shoulder of Dionysus.’
‘Touch me or my bow or quiver and you’ll follow
that lovesick shepherd … Believe me, I will wound
the unwoundable Dionysus. I refuse your bed,
your perfumed hair, your woman’s body, even if it’s true
your veins beat with the blood of Zeus.
I’ll take no man for a lord, and no god either.’
And with that she went plunging into the forest.
For days he tracked her, kept her on high ground
away from the water; let the thirst for it draw her back down.
He opened his arms and darkened the river with wine;
folded his arms, and she drank it down in draughts.
Her world doubled. She turned her eyes round
to the wide yawning lake, and she saw two lakes;
the hills swung around her as her head grew heavy
and her feet slipped under her, under the heavy wing
of sleep, and deep into this: her wedding slumber.
He came to her then, undid the end of the knot, releasing
a teeming fragrance of flowers, and ivy, and vine
with grapes in its leaves as a screen for the bed,
for the stolen bridal, for the pleasure of Dionysus.
He entered her the way light breaks through mountains;
gave her this: his gift of going,
made the noise of a cliff, and fell away.
She woke in her pain to a bed of skins and leaves, her thighs
soaked through. She wept and raged at her abandonment by the gods.
All the gods but one.
She thought to set a sword to her throat, cast herself
rolling off some crag; to cut apart the river where she drank,
burn down the mountains, uproot the forest where she ran.
But it was him she wanted most: to track him and find him and drain
his heart’s blood on her dagger’s blade. Take his breath away.
She wandered the high hills for weeks, months, into winter,
casting her nets at shadows, pitching her lance at the dark.
With every sound she heard, she freed flocks of arrows into the air,
into the body of the god, she hoped.
But Dionysus was air, and she was alone in the woods,
following these tracks
of a beast, or a man, or a god
when they were just her own tracks in the snow.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2012. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editors in 2012 were Zoë Strachan and Louise Welsh.
Dionysus has stalked through earlier, Ovidian poems by Robertson. Here though, the focus is on the nymph Nikaia rather than the god. In the first part she kills her shepherd suitor, ‘filling his mouth with feathers’ from her arrow. In the second the ‘intoxicated bridals’ of Nonnus are seen clearly for what they are: the maiden wakes ‘in her pain . . . her thighs soaked through’. As the poem leaves her ‘alone in the woods’, it reaches somewhere visceral inside us and twists.
In my new book, Hill of Doors, there are four stories about the god Dionysus and his time on earth, taken – very loosely – from the Dionysiaca, written by the 5th century Alexandrian Greek, Nonnus. W.H. D. Rouse, the translator for the Loeb edition, tells us in his introduction that not only is it the longest surviving epic poem from antiquity (at forty-eight books), it is also the dullest. ‘To the student of religion or mythology,’ he explains, ‘Nonnus has here nothing to offer.’ This is almost true, but there are some fascinating stories of the young Dionysus that appear nowhere else and which offer new angles on this androgynous shape-changer, the most exhilarating and complicated god in the pantheon. The unhappy few that try and actually read the original (or Rouse’s translation) will see just how many liberties I took.
The four versions were first published in the London Review of Books. They describe the birth and early childhood, the adolescence, the adulthood and the death of the god. ‘Dionysus and the Maiden’ is the third in the sequence, its title nodding towards Der Tod und das Mädchen, and it shows the god in his least flattering light as a ruthless hunter of the huntress.