Well, hello again, dear readers! After many months of silence, or near silence, I’m finally taking a stab at inserting (or, should I say “inflicting”) a new post on my almost moribund blog. It’s requiring a bit more of an effort than usual, given the enormous and frightening changes in the world since my last post in January. Then I had two major preoccupations, one being the very pleasant task of choosing my books for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate, the other the not-very-enjoyable labor of planning and executing a long-distance move (a task that proved almost, but not quite, too much for Janakay!). In those halcyon, pre-pandemic days, Covid-19 was barely a shadow on the horizon. Now it appears to dominate my life. When I’m not washing my hands or sanitizing hard surfaces with whatever disinfectant’s at hand, or enjoying those very entertaining bird videos with the cats (Birds of Australia is a particular favorite at our house), I spend far too much time reading news accounts and statistics relating to this terrible disease. Covid-19, dear readers, has given Janakay some (very) minor and unwelcome insights into life during those medieval plague years that were the subject of several of her college history courses. Except, of course, medieval plague sufferers lacked both Purell and the internet (how would we all survive without both?)
And yet, however imperfectly, life goes on in this year of the plague. Because it is “insufficient,” however, merely to survive (if, like me, you adore Emily St. John Mandel’s work, you’ll recognize that I’m lifting this line from her great Station Eleven, which in turn borrowed the idea from a Star Trek episode!) literature and art accrue even more value amidst the horrors of our chaotic times. To survive in any meaningful sense of the word in these difficult days one must read! Although I’ve not been sharing my thoughts online, I have been reading steadily, in the time between packing boxes and moving furniture; my reward has been discovering a number of remarkable classic and contemporary novels. Hopefully I’ll be giving you at least some general reactions shortly but only after I finish unpacking the dishes!
If you’ve visited my blog in the past, you are aware that I love novels, which are almost always the subject when I write about bookish things. As I’ve posted before, I’m a little ambivalent about poetry (short stories, too, but for different reasons). Although poetry was very important to me at one time in my life, it’s a difficult and demanding art form that requires time, attention and insight, which for many years were in short supply for anything other than Janakay’s job (kitty kibble is expensive and hungry cats can be positively savage!). Although I don’t focus on poetry these days, I honor the art and do still attempt to save a little time for reading it. I also attempt, in a mild sort of way, to venture beyond my youthful favorites, which included lots of poems about Corinnas and Lucastas gathering rosebuds and knights riding to many-towered Camelot and so on (Janakay obviously adored Cavalier Poets and the Victorians. How could you not? Their stuff all rhymed and was usually easy to understand. “Ah, youth,” as one of my old fav poets might have sighed). My efforts these days don’t amount to much; I read a poem now and then, usually something in a traditional mode and, occasionally, check out The Guardian’s weekly poetry column (for me it’s a great resource for finding unfamiliar work. A bonus feature is Carol Rumens’ commentary, which always accompanies her weekly selection).
My biggest gesture of support for my former love usually comes in April, designated “National Poetry Month” by these squabbling, competing and currently very disunited States of America. Every April I make a point of actually buying a book of poetry; while I don’t have any rules about what I select, I do try to make it a work of a contemporary poet, or at least a poet who’s unfamiliar to me (this includes almost everyone writing poetry after 1900 or so). My choice this year was Nina Maclaughlin’s Wake, Siren
in which Maclaughlin reimagines the stories of several mythical heroines taken from
Metamorphoses, the great narrative poem written by the Latin poet Ovid in the first century CE. Any lovers of Ovid out there, or just anyone who likes good stories? As the name indicates, Ovid describes an unstable universe in which the world and its creatures constantly shift and transform from one shape or substance into another. Chaos morphs into an orderly universe of form and matter; a golden age transforms into one of silver or bronze; male shifts to female and vice versa; humans transform into animals or plants or constellations — well, you get the drift. Many of Ovid’s stories involve human women or nymphs (lesser female divinities associated with nature) who happen to catch a god’s attention, almost always with disasterous results. The women in Ovid don’t get many happy endings, unless you count being changed into a bear, a spider or a laurel tree as such.
In a very clever metamorphosis of her own, Nina Maclaughlin transforms the traditional stories recounted by Ovid by taking thirty of Ovid’s female characters and transposing them to a modern setting. Maclaughlin’s women wear jeans, do yoga, go to music festivals and talk to their therapists using language familiar to Janakay from her days as a seaman apprentice (the narrator in “Agave,” for instances, tells her visitor that “there’s some beer in the fridge” and describes — sanitized version — King Pentheus of Thebes as “this asshole jock, this clean-cut rapey beef-brained” guy). Most importantly, they tell their own stories in a series of monologues of varying length, speaking not in verse but in a type of flowing prose-poetry. Maclaughlin’s approach adds depth and richness to Ovid’s tales and while you may not always agree with her take on the characters (who knows? Maybe Pentheus has some fans out there!) it frequently makes you rethink what’s going on in the stories. Considering that these tales have been retold in verse, prose and music for over two millenia, this is a considerable accomplishment.
Maclaughlin’s format (like Ovid’s) is very conducive to reading in small dips and nibbles, which is very congenial to my currently fractured span of attention (so difficult to concentrate, don’t you find, with all this constant hand washing and disinfecting?). It also has the advantage of letting you skip around, from short monologue (Nyctimene, two pages) to long (Tiresias, twelve pages), from happy (Pomona) to sad (Callisto). My favorite piece so far (I’ve been dipping in and out for several days now) is Maclaughlin’s retelling of the Orpheus myth, the ancient and popular story of a divine musician who descends to Hades, charms the very dead with his song and almost, but not quite, retrieves his beloved wife, killed by a serpent’s bite on their wedding day. In Maclaughlin’s version, Eurydice is the neglected daughter of a rock legend with music in her blood and a great deal of talent of her own. After several unsuccessful and demeaning relationships that reinforce her low self-esteem, she hooks up with “O.,” a world famous singer who adds physical to psychological abuse in his attempts to silence her own song. Realizing on her wedding day that she can’t go through with it, Eurydice flees to the Cobra Club, a raunchy honky-tonk located in a basement and run by HayDaze and his relunctant wife Penny, who goes away every summer on tour (the club’s sign features a red snake, naturally, and Eurydice and her friends joke when they go there that they’ve been “bitten by the serpent.”) O. follows and, using his music to charm and bewitch, almost leads Eurydice to the top of the stairs and out of the club. One final act of cruelty, however, gives Eurydice the impetus to free herself from his spell and, with relief, return to her refuge, the club where everyone goes eventually and which always has room for one more (even at the sold-out shows). Rather than being gimmicky, Maclaughlin’s clever inversion of the myth’s plot and visual elements makes the ancient story as relevant to us as it was to Ovid’s original readers. It also makes for a lively, amusing and horrifying piece of work. (For another great take on the Orpheus myth, try Carol Ann Duffy’s “Eurydice,” from her wonderful poetry collection The World’s Wife.)
So, do I recommend Wake, Siren? Oh yes but . . . with a few teeny caveats. Although Janakay adores giving a new spin to old material and is very fond of a feminist slant, she is aware that not every reader shares her taste for this sort of thing. If, unlike her, you prefer your mythology straight, Maclaughlin’s book is obviously not for you (in that case, you might check out the edition of Ovid pictured above. Stanley Lombardo’s translation is great, there’s a wonderful introductory essay discussing the themes underlying Ovid’s work and some helpful additional features, such as a glossary of names and a table grouping the myths into various categories). There’s also the question of language, which is very uninhibited. Again, this is fine with Janakay (any naughty word she didn’t hear in the navy turned up when her college Latin class translated Petronius’ Satyricon) but if it’s an issue for you, well, there are plenty of other sources to choose from. Oh — before I forget — it isn’t necessary to know the traditional form of the myth to enjoy Maclaughlin’s version, but it’s fun if you have the time and energy to read the two in tandem.
Well, that’s it for tonight, dear readers. Stay healthy, keep washing those hands and if you’ve time to honor the muse in her special month by reading a poem or two, share any particular treasures you may find!