what does your
look like?

ordinary cardboard
with nothing but
arrows pointing up
and a warning: fragile contents?

or perhaps a
red-velvet heart,
lavished with
gold ribbons
knotted ever so
d e l i c a t e l y?

maybe not a box,
but a glass vase,
painted with silver strokes,
each layer more intricate
as they’re chipped?

or a pink treasure chest?
a boring old basket?
a ups package?
just another casket?

we’re not entirely sure,
but she knows we can see;
we have eyes, unlike her,
so please, try to trust we.

Heart Shaped Box

Once our love was free, 
as expansive as the sky.
Time then took its toll,
and we saw some magic die. 

But we stubbornly hung on, 
gathered the best of what remained,
formed it into the shape of a heart,
and locked it safely away. 

But safety is not love. 
And a box is not a home.
And a lock demands a key,
or the hearts inside will roam. 

So although this heart-shaped box
is beautiful to see, 
I cannot live within it. 
My love must ramble free. 

–Cynthia Hernandez 

When we were younger, you used to take scissors
To the pictures of us together,
And cut the photographs into the shape of a heart
Around our faces

I never thought you were ruining them
Or changing the meaning behind them

But I also forget
That I never notice when
Nostalgia takes a cookie-cutter to the memories
In my mind

And now when I look back,
I only see our heart-shaped faces,
And I never remember the pieces of me that were sacrificed,
Or cut away,
To make room for your ideas of love


Heart Shaped Photograph

This is my first attempt at #WritingFromTheAshes and my first poem in about 2.5 years. Thanks to my boy @aca-nerd and @herlostwords

War is Unavoidable—and Other Hard Lessons from Homer’s Iliad

The epic tells us that the world is never going to revert to a peaceful state.

By Simon Worrall

“Homer’s Iliad—a 3,000-year-old epic poem—continues to shape how we think about war. “Every adjective evokes the destruction and tragedy of war,” says Caroline Alexander, author of The Iliad: A New Translation. Alexander, a frequent contributor to National Geographic, has made her name writing about modern-day epics like the Mutiny on the Bounty and Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. But Homer has been what the trained classicist calls “the abiding passion of my heart.” (Read Alexander’s article on how modern soldiers recover from brain injuries.)

Speaking from her home in Maine, she explains how her African students in Malawi immediately “got” The Iliad; why Hollywood would demand a rewrite of the epic; and how Homer still has much to teach us about war and the human condition. (Discover why Homer matters.)

Many people think The Iliad glorifies war and machismo. Is that fair?

It’s not so at all. In America, most people who’ve read The Iliad have read it in college in the first year of their humanities courses, as part of a survey of Western or other literature. You’re assigned a few books to read at break-neck speed and there’s this tradition that The Iliad is about war. It’s very easy to support that tradition by picking out four or five main scenes. But when one reads the entirety of the epic, it isunambiguously clear at every turn that the poem is evoking the blighting effect of this war on every single participant in it. Old men, civilians, children, captive women or wives, as well as the warriors, like Achilles—they all decry it. Every adjective evokes the destruction and tragedy of war. It’s literally a war of tears.

The action of The Iliad takes place not during the heat of battle but during a protracted stalemate. Hollywood would have demanded a rewrite, wouldn’t it?

Little is known about the Greek poet Homer, shown here in a bust that dates to about 750 B.C. Some scholars believe Homer was blind; others say he was a she. Seven towns claim to be his birthplace.

Absolutely! [Laughs] Hollywood would make a clever, psychological thriller. The fuse of The Iliad is not the abduction of Helen of Troy, which started the war. The action opens at the end of the war, when nobody’s doing much of anything. The Greeks are restlessly waiting around, then stricken by plague. The Trojans are embattled in Troy. But by having so little background action, attention is focused on the eruption of trouble in the Greek camp between Achilles, the greatest warrior, and the commander-in-chief, Agamemnon.

The broad vision of the poem is that internal discord—disruption of the chain of command, subversion, even mutinous words—can be as fatal and destabilizing as a war between clearly drawn opponents. That’s where The Iliad declares that it’s going to be interested in things that are different from the martial epics of days of old. It’s interested in the minds and motivations and psychology of people as much as just the slugfest.

Achilles is one of the central characters. Why is he so pivotal?

He’s an interesting hero because he’s an outsider, an outlander. That kind of terminology is used even by serious scholars, who have analyzed how his language differs from those of other characters. He doesn’t quite belong. One very plausible theory is that, while the story of the Trojan War arose from an epic tradition, the legacy of Achilles originated in folk tales. If you look at traits of his—his magic armour or his horses, which speak in The Iliad—you can see the fairy tale context. He is such a wonderful folk-tale figure, who was so appealing and glamorous that he just had to be absorbed into this great, rolling story. Homer exploits that to very good effect. Achilles is central to the action. He’s the Achaeans’ absolute best warrior, the heart of the army. Everything he thinks and does is central to their fate. Yet he has a kind of distance that gives him the perspective to make the great speeches that he does in The Iliad, like the one in Book Nine where he declares that life is more valuable than glory.

“The first thing The Iliad underscores is that violence seems to be in our genes,” says Caroline Alexander. Here, a member of the Syrian opposition battles ISIS militants near Aleppo.

You taught classics in Malawi in the 1980s.  What did your African students made of Homer?

Back then, I was 25 and my job was to set up a new classics department. The living circumstances of most people in ancient Greece were very akin to the kind of environment my students came from: rural villages scattered about the countryside with a keen interest in communal entertainment, which included a lot of oral poetry. A Western classics teacher has to work very hard to set the context of the time—what it would be like if you were Medea and when you married your husband you had to move to a different region, with different people and had a fascination with magic. My students knew all of that from their own lives. So I came away with a very real appreciation for this glib phrase we use in the West, that the classics are “universal.” In Malawi, I realized they really are universal.

Londoners assess damage from a German bombing raid in September 1940. “Few would argue that World War II was anything other than a necessary war,” says Alexander.

It turned out that the dictator of Malawi, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, was an ardent classicist. I interviewed him for an article many years later. He was an old man by then and not compos mentis. All he could remember was his Latin. So my encounter with the longest ruling dictator in sub-Saharan Africa was conducted entirely in Latin.

Other epic poems about the Trojan Wars did not survive. Why didThe Iliad stand the test of time?

I believe it was simply because it was the best telling. In Malawi, I did a lot of reading about different oral traditions in Africa and how they transitioned into the literate world. I believe the best explanation forThe Iliad is that it was born at exactly this pivotal time. You had a person, Homer, of unknown age, who had grown up listening to people spinning live oral traditions. Then there was social change disruptive enough to allow someone like him to do the unthinkable: fashion the epic material in a way that is not possible in living oral tradition, which holds you to the format people already know. Homer took advantage of a break in tradition, which enabled a master poet like him to understand that by tweaking this traditional material, he could do something wholly remarkable and novel—use this martial epic to evoke the tragedy of war.

The war between the Trojans and Greeks began when Paris, a prince of Troy, kidnapped Helen, the wife of Menelaus, a Greek king. The ruins of Troy’s citadel can be found in Hisarlik, Turkey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Is there an actual first copy of The Iliad that you based your work on?

No, there is not. The earliest, best, and most complete Iliad is from 1100 or so A.D., in parchment. It’s in the Vatican library. From the name,Venetus A, we can assume it was made in Italy. What is particularly electrifying about that manuscript is that it has in the margins this wonderful scholarly commentary, which goes back to the ancientHellenistic era, in the 4th century B.C. Later commentaries were made by the librarians in Alexandria, who were working from actual texts of Homer they had before them. There’s also an enormous amount of very painstaking, erudite technical work that’s been done over the centuries by modern Homeric scholars. The text I used, by Martin West, is the latest rendition of this. He went back and actually looked, either by physically holding in his hand or working from high resolution scans, at every single scrap of material, whether papyrus or manuscript, that had survived from antiquity with words of Homer on it.

Our world is again riven with war and conflict. What guidance canThe Iliad give us today?

I believe that, tragically, war is inescapable. I know that’s not a very politically correct thing to say. But when you read the scenes of rampage and battle in The Iliad, which Achilles casually evokes when he says, “I’ve stormed these cities from my ship,” and then look at what is happening with, say, ISIS, and the carnage and brutality there, you can see a lot of similarities. But the fact The Iliad still speaks true doesn’t just mean that it has prophetic powers. It means that those truths have always been there. They are enduring truths.

“The Iliad tells us that there will be tragedy,” says Alexander. Here, a U.S Army team at Dover Air Force Base transfers the remains of Sgt. Matthew A. Harmon, of Minnesota, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2011.

One scholar calculated that if you went back and chose any century at random in the past 5,000 years, about 96 years of that random 100 would show large scale conflict in one part of the globe or another. The first thing that The Iliad underscores is that violence seems to be in our genes. Whatever we do, war drags us in, even presidents who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. You can’t escape it.

The other thing that The Iliad tells us is that there will be tragedy. Somebody will knock on the door and a woman will go out and see a soldier standing in dress greens on her doorstep; and her heart will sink because she’ll know that he’s come to tell her that her husband or son has been slain in war. The Iliad is not complete in addressing the question of whether there’s such a thing as righteous war. That’s where we have to use our own historical memory. I think few would argue that World War II was anything other than a necessary war. The Iliad tells us that we’ll always have to make this decision. The world is never going to revert to some peaceful state, and the decision to go to war will always bring with it multifaceted tragedy.”

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or atsimonworrallauthor.com.


I’m so tired of being here
With all these tears, filled with fears,
And no comfort is drawing near.
Someone kill me.

I’m tired of trying hard,
And never really getting far,
Just a wanderer in the dark.
Someone kill me.

Undo the contours of my face
Make a shape no one can trace
A waste of space, just human waste.
Someone kill me.

Leave me in a shallow hole,
I’ll stay awake so cold alone,
In a state forever honed in woe.
Someone kill me.

-Matthew Blake

Work of Art (a poem)

Shape me like plastic
Carve me like wood
Paint over my errors
I’d stop you if I could

Praise me like a painting
Call me a work of art
Sign me like a waiver
Before you tear me apart

Rip me like paper
Because that’s what I really am
Loose scraps
Its time to start again

You once told me I was a portrait
You once paraded me through the streets
You once sold me for a load of cash
So I could end up at your feet

So mold me like a sculpture
Break me into many parts
Build me up into a structure
You’re the artist, I’m just your work of art.

You shape yourself around the words.
It’s obscene – they’re filthy
in your mouth, your hands too small
to be touching them that way,
but you take them in your throat.
Don’t choke on them, stop swallowing
before you forget how to give.
These words crawl all over you,
fingers on child’s skin, and you
know how to guide them
towards you over you into you –
STOP. You’re too young for this,
you hold nothing back.
—  ‘audoire’ by finn s.

I want to make this poem flow inside,
The shape path of a middle finger.
My poems suck.
But you’re in luck
I really give a fact:
I’ve been hardcore thinking like a philosophical zombie,
Ever since roommates tricked me to smoke scopolamine.
It made me piss blood.
I thought I was pregnant.
I ain’t been right ever since.

Joan Miró i Ferrà:

“I try to apply colours like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music.”

“Throughout the time in which I am working on a canvas I can feel how I am beginning to love it, with that love which is born of slow comprehension.”

“For me an object is something living. This cigarette or this box of matches contains a secret life much more intense than that of certain human beings.”

Poem Explosion

Memories, they shaped my mind. Imagery upon imagery of my lifetime. Roaming the earth searching for she, the girl who endless secrets come clean. Opening the book of my brain, it’s pictures are of hidden pain. I search for her, while rediscovering me, because I want to make the world my diary. A soul once lost but is now free