National Poetry Month: Kendra Preston Leonard

Kendra Leonard is a poet I met through Writespace, a Houston-based Creative Writing organization. She and I are both on the faculty, and I’ve really enjoyed her workshops I’ve taken. She recently had a new book come out from Unsolicited Press, entitled Protectress, about Medusa. Kendra works a lot with mythology. I hope you enjoy this fabulous excerpt from her new book and then go get a copy for yourself.

Here’s a teaser about the book:

Protectress places the mythical gorgons in the modern world, where Athena, pumped up by all of the people who blame women for being raped, who slut-shame women who wear and do what they want, and who think that men are always right, is trying to drive Medusa to suicide. Medusa, you ask. Isn’t she dead? She and her sisters managed to fool Perseus, but now Medusa’s happy life as a college professor is upended by Athena’s new negative energy, and the gorgons host a party of goddesses, nymphs, and others from myth to try to figure out how to bring Athena around to a more compassionate stance. Protectress is about rape culture, about the concept of the “heroic,” about solidarity, and about collaboration. It’s also got sea monsters, a dragon, several wars, lots of good dogs, and magic.

***

Wide-ranging across the sea,
Medusa becomes
her own war goddess.
Terrors spread, whispered
cloak to cloak
and shield to shield
speaking of Constantine’s
dark-robed sorcerer
who casts but a glance
and turns a regiment of men
into a landslide.

Efficient, Medusa’s ally
sends enemies to quarry stone
from her newly-made victims.
For her, he not only looks away,
but positively blinds himself
to her other activities.

She rids his armies of vermin:
rats
and
rapists.

It is she who directs the architects
and laborers,
hauling stone veined with
the blood of the Emperor’s
foes
to construct his
bathhouses, celebratory arches,
his arenas, his secret tomb.
Medusa feels sated
when the Emperor dies.
His gods are nebulous, despite
propaganda. They are weak and infantile;
the Greek gods are worn down to translucency:
people begin to believe in natural phenomena
instead of irate bullies on a mythical
mountain.

Medusa travels to the Dalmatian coast,
where she takes up residence in Diocletian’s
old palace, already falling into disrepair.
She destroys his Temple of Jupiter,
chases out squatters and dogs.
There she lives by the Sea-Gate.
on the southern side of the palace.

She can watch the sea or slip away
into or on it
as she likes.

The daughter of sea-gods,
Medusa finds that the slender
minions of her scalp are amphibious
and give to her this gift as well.
She dozes in the water, sleeps in tidal pools,
lazily chases fish.

She swims in and out of the Sea-Gate,
walks the decumanus across the vast
fortress day and night
dipping into temples and sanctuaries
to laugh at the godsand steal the offerings left to them.

Restless, she takes lovers,
keeping her eyes bound
learning muscles and tendons by touch,
nerves and organs and gristle.
She reclines on the palace’s dark sphinxes
back to back
with their immoveable solemnity
as men and women and others
all touch and lap and let hands and tongues snake
in and on and around her,
never looking above her breasts.

Medusa’s lovers, servants, followers
swap bodies, change clothes.
The Empire falls, the palace crumbles.
She spends more time in the sea,
though it grows colder
and the sky heavier and darker.
She swims the width of the sea,
the length of an ocean.
In her sojourns on land, she sees movement:
people everywhere in bands small and large,
escaping one thing to embrace another,
escaping one thing to find only more of the same.

***

Protectress is a hybrid poetry-prose novella offering a risky take on the legend of Medusa. With stunning economy of words and a delicate hand, Protectress provokes us to think about the feminist identity and the power of compassion. Readers who fell deeply for Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Madeleine Miller’s Circe, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of Beowulf, and Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth will find themselves enamoured with Protectress.

 

Kendra Preston Leonard is a poet, lyricist, and librettist whose work is inspired by history, language, and the mythopoeic. Her first chapbook, Making Mythology, was published in 2020 by Louisiana Literature Press, and her novella in verse, Protectress, offering a modern take on the myth of Medusa, was published in 2022 by Unsolicited Press. She has taught poetry workshops for Writespace Houston and is a frequent guest teacher at universities. Leonard is a frequent collaborator with composers and other musicians, as well as a scholar. Follow her at @K_Leonard_PhD.

 

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