Book Review

Myth and legend are such magnificent subjects, ripe with the potential for resonance with modern circumstances. When we are young, discovering a particular legend that leads to fantastic reverie with the adventure of outwitting gods or coming across a figure whose tragic circumstances speak to our own narratives can provide access to otherwise unreachable histories. The trio of poetry collections—The Medea Notebooks by Ann Pedone, Starfish Wash-up by Katherine Soniat, and overflow of an unknown self: a song of songs by D.M. Spitzer—within Fates out of Etruscan Press establishes a weaving of present-day lives with primarily Grecian mythologies. Most often the narratives of these Grecian mythologies can be reduced to gods encountering and disrupting the lives of mortals out of passion, whimsy, or boredom. Here, myth and poetry intertwine to serve a common purpose: to extract one’s vision from plain reality and revivify subjects of life one had otherwise marked off. The arrest and progression of lives dancing through parenting, the parent-child relationship, romance, and lust all find themselves woven and entangled within the works of Fates.

The conversations at work within Fates place the delicate figures of Medea and Telemachus in parallel with the Septuagint. I would preface that it is entirely possible to read all of these works with no background knowledge of the references at work and still encounter an evocative landscape within. Most vitally, though, Fates carries an effort to replace time-honored masculo-centric myths and legends with interpretations that formalize feminine-first narratives. The authors in Fates join ongoing conversations from poets like H.D., Analicia Sotelo, María Baranda, Elsa Cross, and Donna Stonecipher who all have, if not entire works, vast repertoires of poems prioritizing the feminine within myth.

Ann Pedone’s The Medea Notebooks is a deliciously personal ballad interwoven with the introspective and reflective elements of both identifying with and against the figure of Medea. Medea is best known for killing her children as a form of revenge against her lover Jason, who abandons her after she uses her prophetic power to help him succeed in his quest. These poems narrate the ending of a marriage, from infidelity to the finding of new love, configuring hope with a complicated grief. The lyric within is exemplary, though, with poems like “Atherton”:

We live
in a strange hegira
where desire is
the only currency
where nothing
that is ours
ever seems spent.

Pedone works a magic in making woman’s desire in all of its faceted identities (griever, lover, dreamer, mother, wife, etc.) both present and sensed with a distinct textural element. Memorable poems like, “Medea Delivers A Short Lecture” extrapolate the senses into all vicissitudes of violence:

a woman in pain
is a terrible thing
you can smell it
coming up
from between her legs
from a mile away

An unignorable element of Pedone’s work is the series of poems taking form as text message conversations. I referenced earlier that the personal and the mythical are interwoven, and the efforts of these text conversations are a principle weaving element, making inextricable the connection between the personal story and the myth.

In a manner much less intrinsically woven and direct, Katherine Soniat’s Starfish Wash-Up provides a braided and nonlinear lyric, utilizing elements of various mythic and literary references like Telemachus, the Three Sad Marias, Bashō, Kwan Yin, and the Holy Trinity. The effect created is a quantum one, leaving particulate and interconnected the spaces of history that resonate with the core and source story involving Telemachus’s and Penelope’s familial grief. Telemachus’s myth, while most popular for joining with Odysseus at the end of the Odyssey, here details what occurs after the events of the Odyssey—Odysseus is accidentally slain by his son from the goddess Circe, Telegonus, after which Telemachus has a number of godly interventions. I think of lines from the poem “Refusal”: “No future like / that of the fresh survivor and no past like that of a relic—dead pheasant shoveled from / the road, but for one wing prone and blowing up in my headlights.” Whereas Pedone offers us a lyric grounded in character, story, and emotional consequence, Soniat provides a lyric of disconnection and theme, one which unravels and re-entangles ideas around revenge, absence, acceptance, meditation, love, and passion. Soniat plays with ideas of rot and freshness throughout many of her poems, the referenced “fresh survivor” being an immense metaphor for the temporality at work, how quickly one must address and move beyond survival or be swept up into the timeline of decay and loss. Ultimately, what Soniat appears to be after with Starfish Wash-Up is a question left unstated that I find in lines from the poem “Finding Time”:

Every look at the Aegean     Telemachus stops to ask more.

Fathers coming home from war lose track of things like that.

Odysseus finds time to gather his son and the sand
in his arms,                                               or not.

The “or not” here holds and carries with it a lineage and histories of disbelief. The pair of Soniat’s and Pedone’s work is a beautifully conversational element toward the legends of male abandonment, patriarchal failures, and the damage caused to future generations of male-identifying individuals trying to understand what a healthy male-identity really entails and what the obligation is to the relationship with other gendered counterparts.

The Septuagint is attributed as the first Greek translation of the Old Testament, becoming central in the history of both early Christianity and Judaism. In D.M. Spitzer’s notes on overflow of an unknown self, Spitzer writes, “If this work of literary art, sometimes considered the most beautiful love poem of all time, has become more inclusive at last through the trans-lation | trans-figuration called overflow of an unknown self, it is long overdue; let this be a beginning in the direction(s) of the myriad overflow of loves, desires, intimacies, sexes.” The work of a piece of criticism is to provide insight toward a perspective of interpretation. To that effect, the notes and translational context that Spitzer provides to accompany his work are magnanimous. My initial reading of the work was concerned with the context of the translation; the previous two works in Fates are heavily invested in leading away from a—as Jane Alison describes in her work Meander, Spiral, Explode—“masculo-sexuality,” and I wondered if translating the subjects of the Septuagint into an a-gendered “You” and “I” was enough to contribute to this ongoing conversation. The work of overflow of an unknown self: a song of songs is full of feminine-sexuality images like “Canto 1’s “let desire _ enclose us / / into a chamber of treasures / opening     where the mysteries / deliver another self of selves.” There is an unending barrage of vaginally-adjacent imagery—wet mouths, gushing fruits (D.H. Lawrence’s Figs, anyone?), treasured caves in night-darkened valleys—that while veiled in the abstraction of metaphor, is certainly not subtle. However, you also receive such beautiful lyricism as found in “Canto 6”: “love                              is terror // an imminent assault / on all you feel,” where love in all its tender complications feels to be on full display. Ultimately, Spitzer’s “trans-lation | trans-figuration,” feels like at the very least it is beginning the job and doing so with respect to Fates’s overall effort towards giving more presence and voice to the legend of feminine pleasure—after all, love is an erotic art.

About the Reviewer

Cody Stetzel is a PNW resident working within electrical engineering. He has worked as the managing editor for Five:2:One Magazine and is currently a staff book reviewer for Glass Poetry Press. He received his Masters in Creative Writing for Poetry from the University of California at Davis. His writing can be found previously in the Birmingham Arts Journal, Across the Margins, Boston Accent Literature, Aster(ix) Journal, Glass Poetry Press, and more. Find him on twitter or at his website.