Everything He Left Behind

I am queen of every dark corridor
he ran through. I walk my feet on the streets
he paved, cloak myself in words he never
should have said, live here in his edifice.

Turn back the stars. Unfasten all vengeance
and march it like an elephant across…

About the poem

This poem appeared in the second issue of A Restricted View from Under the Hedge by Hedgehog Press

The poem is one of a sequence inspired by Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid. The story of Aeneas and Dido’s love affair is fascinating because it diverts from the patriotic view of the ultimate Roman destiny. The presentation is both tender and emotionally complex, and I find that the story of their ultimately doomed love affair still holds a lot of relevance in how we experience both love and heartbreak today.

This poem gives voice to Dido’s despair after Aeneas has left to fulfil his destiny. In the Aeneid, she curses him and all his descendants before lying on a funeral pyre in defeat. In Virgil’s verse, her anger and hurt are palpable, and he does not shy away from showing the pain that has been caused to Dido. It’s still rare that women are allowed to give voice to their anger – a scene of her crying prettily and wasting away for love would be more usual, perhaps – but Dido is the prototype of the modern woman and her fury and frustration is clear. 

As someone who gets angry at anything that hurts me rather than defeated, and who knows that little sympathy is given to the woman who cannot look vulnerable and delicate in the face of heartbreak, I felt I understood Dido. Virgil weaves Roman history into her curse – as if Dido not only foretold, but actually conjured the existence of Hannibal, the Carthaginian General and descendant of Dido, to hand the Romans one of their worst defeats at the Battle of Cannae. Anyone who has ever felt betrayed by a lover would not deny Dido such slow-burning revenge on a grand scale. By tying Dido’s story to the history of Rome, Virgil also shows the costs and consequences of human actions and empire-building on both a personal and a global scale. I think there’s still a lot we can learn from Virgil, and many women who will identify with Dido’s vulnerability and her rage