In two new collections published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, ancient myths, fables, and texts are transformed, revised, and dreamed of.
Edward Carson’s movingparts is focused on the literary points of departure. Prompted by images from ancient myth and contemporary literary discourse, he moves swiftly into explorations of the ever-renewing novelty of language. The opening poem “Caveat,” which stands apart at the start of the collection, offers a metaphor for these departures. The speaker debunks the idea that a canvas can be blank:
its plain weave
a reminder that
as in a poem
The first section, Counterparts (Fox & Friend), springs from one of Aesop’s fables in which a fox sweet talks and outsmarts a crow. In a series of 11-line prose poems, Carson abandons the fable’s plot, and instead explores the potentialities between the fox and crow, creating complex and expansive prisms: “when fox explains things to crow meaning is slippery.” The two animals ricochet off one another unexpectedly, and each line brings a newness into the text. Carson writes with an elasticity – “crow thinks and as a consequence time and space will / stretch and compress calling for the swoop up swivel / down of flight ” – that troubles linearity, reminding the reader of the expansive nature of language. Aesop’s fable ends with the moral (the flatterer lives at the expense of those who will listen to him), but Carson abandons that too, recasting the fable as a way to think about both linguistic and emotional transmission.
In the following section, Primaryparts (Desire Memory Anatomy), Carson shifts his focus from the linguistic to the interpretive as he considers the process of rendering emotion in art. Reflections, perceptions, and points of view proliferate in this series of spare sonnets. The couplet becomes a space for a fracture of a moment or a movement, and is always contingent on the one that follows. He writes:
a woman in
as a viewer
The poems move into the space of the erotic, exploring the slipperiness of how information passes between lovers, which also mirrors the relationship between reader and author. The title of each poem is a line borrowed from a range of contemporary writers, mostly poets, including Maureen McLane, Simon Armitage, and John Burnside. “Is There a Woman in This Text?” references scholar Mary Jacobus’s response to the linguist Stanley Fish’s seminal text on the relationship between the reader and the text. Though the poems can be read (and enjoyed) without this context, Carson is formally, and ideologically, bound to the notion that the utterance, perhaps especially the poetic one, is a shared pursuit,
to mean and
The final section, Missingparts (Decomposing Sappho), is a series of poems that respond to the Greek poet Sappho. Most of Sappho’s work has been lost to time and what has survived is famously fragmented, leaving little context for translators. Carson’s interest in potentialities, lacunae, and the space between parts is the driving force in this collection, and it comes to fruition in the final poems. In “Having Been Breathed Out,” titled after one of Sappho’s lines, he writes of the productive quality of traces: “in leaving behind a sceptical mind and a / vast emptiness as a starting point to fill in / each poem setting free all this is missing.” In the liminal space around texts, Carson has created a beautiful collection of riffs and reveries. movingparts is freeing to read – an effortless display of approaching opaque, distant, and even difficult art with warmth.
In New Songs for Orpheus, John Reibetanz takes a more traditional approach to exploring literary influence. Each of his poems begins with a short epigraph from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. With Orpheus – the poet, musician, and prophet, whose songs gave him a chance to save his wife Eurydice from the underworld – ever present, Reibetanz returns the idea of poetry to its musical roots, for which the natural world is an instrument. In the opening poem, “Their Song,” Orpheus, who famously sings with his lyre, stops to listen to the sounds of nightfall. As he listens, the sounds become musical – “he makes out frogs’ miniature bagpipes,” “a lamb’s vibrato laments,” “bell-like notes of bats,” and, lamenting Eurydice’s loss, he picks up his lyre and joins them.
Reibetanz takes moments from Metamorphoses and creates rich natural worlds around them, often linking the power of myth with the power of animals. In Greek myth, animals appear when gods abandon – or are forced from – their human form. He uses these moments of transformation to explore the misconceptions, contempt, and fear that humanity has for animals. “Minstrels” is a standout poem about Io, Zeus’s lover who was temporarily transformed into a cow. In it the speaker explores Io’s loneliness in a world which is “filled with sad and happy ballads that / float free of words and letters,” concluding that “Io must never have / fully been a cow.” In a poem on Macareus, who Circe transformed into a pig, the speaker laments:
we exorcise our demons by
projecting human blemishes
onto the pink skins of fellow
creatures our messes morphing.
Teetering between powerful and didactic, his message is clear.
Reibetanz’s consideration of nature extends to plants, particularly trees, which also feature prominently in Greek mythology. In the aptly named section Roots of Song, he critiques humanity’s destruction of forests: “we bulldoze forests to stuff / our maw … oblivious to woodland lives / (not mythical but real).” His scale is not always global, and perhaps his writing is most effective when lingering on a single, still image. A poem on Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree ends: “for decades after a laurel wood / is cut it will remain fragrant.”
“We sing to make our moment last,” Reibetanz writes, a line deeply felt across both collections. Ancient words and images that have somehow lasted inform both works. Reibetanz curates a poignant selection of moments from Metamorphoses and merges their temporality, sounds, and concerns with his own. Carson takes a trace of an image and runs with it.