TEXT review


Of bodies changed to other forms I tell: Poets respond to Ovid’s Metamorphoses

review by Linda Weste

 


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Metamorphic: 21st century poets respond to Ovid
Nessa O’Mahony and Paul Munden (eds)
Recent Work Press, Canberra 2017
ISBN 9780648087854
Pb 224pp AUD19.95

 

The two thousandth anniversary of the poet Publius Ovidius Naso – one of the canonical poets of Latin literature and known to us more directly as Ovid – provides inspiration for this anthology of poems edited by Nessa O’Mahony and Paul Munden and published by Recent Work Press. In Metamorphic: 21st century poets respond to Ovid, one hundred participating poets – from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, South Africa, India, Singapore, the Philippines, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada – rewrite or re-envision Metamorphoses in a mix of poetic styles and forms.

This heterogeneous collection reflects its derivation – Ovid’s continuous narrative of over two hundred and fifty stories wrought in dactylic hexameter itself drew from earlier collections of myths and tales of transformation. Of the twenty-first century poetic responses in Metamorphic, some work closely with the mythic material of the Metamorphoses; others create new versions, re-imagining his stories – indeed sometimes linking these to different countries and cultures altogether, transporting and transforming them.

Merlinda Bobis’s ‘O Daphne Down’ offers a re-envisioning of the tale of the nymph, Daphne. Bobis’s three-page narrative poem – set in the present-day Philippines – is prefaced with an estimate of deaths arising from the state-sanctioned death squads. Here metamorphosis is staged, in the first instance, as the changing identity of Damian into Daphne Down: ‘After his pants flared into skirts, Damien running / from his father’s rage’ (15), then as a metaphysical transformation when Daphne Down is gunned down – but rather than into the elemental, the trees and roots of a daphne, ‘her feet sink into the asphalt her arms branch / into cables her hair sprouts into a foliage of fire’ (16). In the third instance metamorphosis is staged as an allegory for the transformation of ideology. The gods are exposed disdainfully and without reverence; as exploitative ‘Johns’ – ‘Baby, make Daddy happy!’ (15) – or vengeful, ‘heavy booted’ vigilantes vowing ‘Get that drag queen drug queen!’ (15):

She smells their circuit of intent, the cordite
in the friction between steel and trigger finger.
The gods are baying like dogs – or is this just
a nightmare like when she sings and a drunken
god barks her name with his brand of tenderness? (14)

Judy Johnson’s ‘Me, Myself and I’ imagines the possibility that ‘Metamorphosis / isn’t always a one-way street’ (46). In this two-page poem, Narcissus – having successfully bribed a god to turn him back into human form – is now ‘Narc’, a recovering addict in the ‘city of self-declared angels’ (46), Los Angeles. Although Narc ‘drinks expensive bottled water, / never pond, / stays away from his own / reflection in shopfronts / and drugs that exaggerate a sense / of self-importance’ (46), he still ‘can’t quite make it yet / in the outside world’ (46). The story of Narc’s attempts at self-transformation instantiate in Johnson’s poem – which she inflects with the quasi-register of rehabilitation discourse:

Up himself completely. A lost cause. A pretty boy

who couldn’t figure out if his was a lone voice
in the wilderness (some pallid hangover mirroring
his own words back to him). Or if someone
out there might actually be listening.

Once that trip down memory’s meadow
would have freaked him out completely.
Now it re-enforces just how far he’s come. (47)

Jane Yeh adopts a flexible approach to lineation in ‘A Short History of Mythology’ (159). The format of this poem entails the dislocation of eighteen line beginnings and the same number of line endings on the page. The beginnings are truncated at varying lengths, double-spaced and uniformly left-aligned. The endings are cast adrift on alternating lines and loosely form a column of text down the right-hand side. Yeh envisions a lady centaur running across a landscape, as through history. Since the leap from any particular beginning to an ending is approximate, the dislocated sentences or clauses make this evocation manifest in form. ‘To be a lady centaur / leaping across the Hedgehog Isles’ further brings to mind a potent cultural image, Picasso’s famous 1922 painting ‘Two Women Running on the Beach’.

In its re-envisioning of myth, Metamorphic does not, however, simply amass contemporaneous cultural references. Variously playful, droll or ironic, each of the collection’s poems bring something fresh to the myth they retell. Even the poems that relate more generally to the Metamorphoses – some of which are placed as chapter markers – exude a vitality. Peggie Gallagher’s poem ‘Blood Oranges’ illustrates this vitality; its airy syntax sizzling with sound and other sensory stimuli:

The afternoon light was
the texture of dry tinder

with all the touch flares
of a volatile sky.

You must remember how young
we were, the blood sweet surfeit

still warm in our bellies. (71)

Christian Bök’s ‘A Nocturne for Eurydice’ relocates a familiar myth to Northern Australia. The poem’s language is effusive, lush and distinctive; cinquains of ten-stress lines build layers of sensory depiction as Orpheus and Eurydice – as two modern day tourist lovers – explore a rainforest cave:

Twilight through the roof of a rainforest
shatters like a chandelier of green glass,
the shrillness strafed by keening cicadas
and unseen flocks of cockatoos that caw
their catcalls at the meltdown of the sun.

Dimming of the day bronzes a pathway
that we follow under vaults of booyong
down a terraced stairway to this canyon
of warm mist, where a waterfall loiters,
draped in a grotto, like a soaked sarong. (142)

The fifteen-book original order of The Metamorphoses remains the editors’ choice in Metamorphic and structures their selection of poems. Due to the collection’s overall verve and momentum, it is not overly evident to the reader that the sections are somewhat uneven, for instance, Book I has twenty contributions and Book VIII has thirteen, by contrast with Book II and Book XIII which each contain only two poems, or Book V, which has six. Some tales of Ovid garner greater interest than others; in this collection, Narcissus is a case in point.

Metamorphic’s poetic responses to Ovid might be compared with an earlier (Terry 2001) edited short-story collection entitled Ovid metamorphosed. Published sixteen years apart, the collections show Ovid’s continuing appeal for creative writers; indeed, the lasting impact of the Metamorphoses throughout two millennia. Of course, Ovid’s works are freely available to today’s writers via digital resources of exceptional quality, including the online Perseus Digital Library and the Loeb Classical Library.

The appeal of Metamorphic is both as a fine collection of twenty-first century poets’ responses to the Metamorphoses of Ovid, and as a fitting two thousandth anniversary tribute.

 

Works cited

 

 

Linda Weste won the 2016 Wesley Michel Wright Poetry Prize for excerpts from her verse novel set in roman antiquity, Nothing Sacred. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.

 

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TEXT
Vol 22 No 1 April 2018
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews Editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker
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