(and there, you've just taken the abbreviated version of my class. really, when it comes to these stories, for me, it's a lot of hand-clasping and eyes rolling to the ceiling in raptures and extravagant gestures with my flapping arms and a lot of "o!" exclamations).
i can't tell you what it is about these stories that draws me in so. of course, i took one course on jungian psychology (from a certified jungian psychologist who studied at jung's institute in switzerland!), and another that referenced it for a unit, and so, i can claim to be an "expert" (ha!) on jungian psychology, and while i believe that some of what jung claims can be detrimental and/or limiting, i've always been drawn to the idea that there are universal themes, universal identities, that we all recognize, that strike us deep at our cores, even if the characters/archetypes are not in any way representative of our own experiences. these characters, these revelatory folks -- from demeter's desperate search for her missing daughter, which brings the death of all living things on earth, until she finds her and strikes a bargain to get her back (bringing spring and rebirth), to orpheus' despair over losing his only love not once, but twice, to death -- condense, it seems to me, what it means to be human, and flailing, and failing, and trying again, and then singing about it.
ovid's metamorphoses is by far my favorite version of all these myths (trans. by rolfe humphries -- that's my favorite translation) because, in part, ovid, a roman social butterfly of sorts, is an irreverent writer who is far removed from the perspective of someone like homer, whose gods and goddesses are stoic, if sometimes personal, and rarely prone to screwing up. ovid's humans and gods and goddesses are mostly a mess (and always in flux), but they also end up being more beautiful, lyrical, and full of whimsy and grace and thoughtfulness than some of the other solemn meditations and the grieved and angered portrayals in other versions.
i recognize, of course, that ovid was exiled for his risque and occasionally ribald approach to what was religion in his country and to most human relationships in general -- and maybe it's because he's writing about a religion or faith that is not mine, that is now purely considered "literature" and not loaded with contemporary connections or meaning or devotion, that makes us ease up and enjoy his stories a bit more, without the word "truth" looming behind them. for us, they're no longer blasphemy -- they're stories. for me, this "step away" also makes his perceptions of human life, relationships, faith, and problems with all of the above really illuminating. after all, love, betrayal, deception, devotion, faith, sacrifice -- all of these human dilemmas and joys can be found in any text, really, and especially religious texts, but here and now, they're freed (mostly) from the weight of moral judgment or correctness, and so we're able to view them not as lessons but as reflections and considerations.
i could be way off, here. but i love them, anyway.
and that was all to say: i still find them particularly inspiring (oh, no one likes that word, "inspiring," but find me a replacement and i'll use it) and they end up showing up in my poems at least once a summer. and they always end up being more about my own experiences in conjunction with the myth (and in conjunction with some song that's running through my head) than a retelling of the myth, which, i hope, makes them new. after all, the orpheus and eurydice myth is one of the most retold on the earth (and more than one person has told me that he or she is wicked tired of it -- i even read a poem this week that said something like: the world can't bear one more orpheus poem), and to make it new is not only difficult, but perhaps an arrogant effort. alas, even so, here i go again (on my own...).
and yes, i'm posting another one of mine, despite all my qualms, in part because i'm curious what y'all will say about it ,and in part because i have not been the most dedicated reader this week and so, while i'm building up a stash of poems to share and figure out and discuss with you, i ain't got it together yet.
so: the poem. onward.
eurydice sings the four tops
everyone is tired of eurydice—her grey
flaky skin, her dulled eye sockets, hands limp
at her sides, tugged back to light
everyone is tired of eurydice—her grey
by a winged-foot trickster and some
lovelorn lyricist. or maybe we’re tired
of all women sung back
to life, rising like vapor ghosts in each
chorus, minor chords swirling
in their hair—the eternal
responsibility to eulogize until
we’ve brought them all back to rest
among the living, in our flowered
armchairs, in our silent kitchens. or to
keep singing it’s the same old song
until we’ve all traded places, until
those cities of the dead
look just like a midwestern ghost town—
blank eyes of boarded-up buildings, one man
playing harmonica in a doorway, bodegas *
and laundromats all that’s left
of our once nickel-shine life.
my grandmother deadheaded
all her flowers, and in this way
allowed them to live, which
is what i learned of love from her.
my father snapped off all
the living blooms after planting,
because beauty, color, blossoming—
it all takes so much energy. which is what
i know walking back toward the world—
my body taken from ash, wetted down,
and reformed—that coming back,
sprouting up from the ground, one more
fiddlehead unfurled, one more dandelion
trying to steal all the sun in the day,
takes so much work.
and whatever they’ve told you, love isn’t
water, isn’t sun—those are rewards
for the compliant and the beautiful,
and love spends eternity under the earth, *
singing like worms you won’t hear
until you put your ear back to the ground.
i don’t mean to say that i’m the origin
of all song—no one is that arrogant, even
in her own room alone remembering
how she made a man howl, how his
skin sang under his clothes, under
her hands. no—what i mean is that
the restaurant manager told me,
a tray full of cokes and beers
balanced on my hand, my apron smeared
with grease and ink, that i’d grow
up to be a real heartbreaker, and
the first time i did it, i did it
with no notion the manager had been
an oracle, no idea what a heart looked like
when it becomes an evacuated city.
no idea that the heart is connected
to the mouth by a tunnel that runs
under water, under lungs,
no idea what the wreckage of anatomy
would look like after it collapsed.
but i know now, and this is how it works:
once it’s rebuilt, the tunnel’s traffic
a steady stream again, no one—
not the pretty boy singing
to cypress trees weeping
at his feet, not the girls
in their grey winter hell—no one
ever shuts up about it.
i know two stories about turning backward,
those one-last-glances. neither work
out the way they should. in one, a man
turns and loses love. in another, a woman
turns and becomes salt. in both, the men
go on, get drunk, invent ballads—same old song
since you’ve been gone—sleep
naked under stars. the women are never
heard from again: one blank-dead and dulled,
the other longing but mute. one guiltless
and snake-bitten, one gleaming
but melted after the first rain.