Tag Archives: poetry

Orpheus, from Greece to Brazil

Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus and Eurydice

From tales of wood nymphs transformed into trees or rivers, to gods arbitrarily helping or abducting humans, the Greek myths embody tragedy and comedy, love and hate, beautiful beings and repulsive ogres, and nature in all its unfathomable splendor. Of all the myths, the story of Persephone and the story of Orpheus must be the saddest. In Persephone, the young goddess of spring is abducted by Pluto and carried off to Hell. In Orpheus, two lovers are torn apart not once but twice, as Eurydice slips back down into the Underworld.

What is most extraordinary is that the myths were such brilliantly crafted tales and personifications, perhaps most lovingly interpreted by Ovid. The story of Orpheus was first penned by the Greek poet, Apollonius Rhodius, in The Voyage of the Argo, in the third-century, B.C.. Both Virgil and Ovid, two Roman poets from the Greco-Roman time period, continued the Orpheus tale with Orpheus and Eurydice

In this way, Apollonius passed along the historia of Orpheus, in the written tradition, influencing other ancient writers, who enlarged and enhanced the story, allowing the aeons to transform it into mythology for the world’s enjoyment and interpretation.

As the story goes, Hermes, the messenger god, invented the lyre and handed the instrument down, first to Apollo, the “magical musician”, and then to Orpheus. Apollo, the god of light and truth, was the father of Orpheus. Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, was his mother. Hence, Orpheus came from an exceptionally melodious lineage.

Of the Muses, Hesiod is quoted as saying:

He is happy whom the Muses love. For though a man has sorrow and grief in his soul, yet when the servant of the Muses sings, at once he forgets his dark thoughts and remembers not his troubles. Such is the holy gift of the Muses to men.

The Story of Orpheus

It was said that Orpheus could sing and play music more sweetly than any mortal in all of Thrace. Indeed, he could move rivers, rocks and trees and attract the birds and animals to his side.

Half-human, half god, Orpheus also attained the adoration of the nymphs and Naiads: from beautiful maidens and lesser deities of the woods, rivers, trees and meadows, to the formidable, maenads, worshipers of the Bacchante, who, in Ovid’s version, ultimately destroy Orpheus out of jealousy.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Orpheus is married to Eurydice;

The new-wed bride,
Roaming with her gay Naiads through the grass,
Fell dying when a serpent struck her heel.

And in so dying, Eurydice is whisked away to the Underworld, much like Persephone, to the place of death, in Greco-Roman mythology, where all souls go in the final end. But the love of Orpheus and the loss that he feels is so great, that he travels to the Underworld and pleads his case before Hades to have his wife, Eurydice returned to life.

He plays upon his lyre and sings to all the host of the Underworld;

So to the music of his strings he sang,
And all the bloodless spirits wept to hear…
Then first by that sad singing overwhelmed,
The Furies’ cheeks, it’s said, were wet with tears…

Orpheus wins his wish. Hades grants that Eurydice return to the upper-realms with her husband, but with the stipulation that he is not to look back at her as they ascend to the light, Orpheus leading the way.

As the tragic tale goes, Orhpeus, in a fit of concern, does look back just as Eurydice is about to step up into the earthly realm, and the ill-destined bride descends, like mist, back down the dark tunnel into the Underworld again.

And now they neared the edge of the bright world,
And, fearing lest she faint, longing to look,
He turned his eyes – and straight she slipped away.

He stretched his arms to hold her – to be held –
And clasped, poor soul, naught but the yielding air.
And she, dying again, made no complaint
(For what complaint had she save she was loved?)
And breathed a faint farewell, and turned again
Back to the land of Spirits whence she came.
The double death of his Eurydice,
Stole Orpheus’ wits away.

And so Orpheus is left to sing and play beautiful, sad songs in the forests and meadows, by the rivers and under the trees, for the next three years, loved by many women, but loving none in return.

Then, Ovid continues the tale in The Death of Orpheus, wherein the Maenads, those jealous, pleasure seekers of Bacchic’ orgies, explode into a frenzied rage and destroy Orpheus with the violence of a pack of wolves.

Of Thracian women, wearing skins of beasts,
From some high ridge of ground caught sight of him.
‘Look!’ shouted one of them, tossing her hair
That floated in the breeze, ‘Look, there he is,
The man who scorns us!’

Re-telling the Myth

Many poets and writers have since developed and retold the myth, using the themes of ill-fated love and the immortals in such stories as Pyramus and Thisby or Romeo and Juliet. And Orpheus has found his way into opera, art, theater and film as well.

In the film, Black Orpheus, the setting is Rio de Janeiro during the wildly colorful and musical celebration of Carnival, which takes place during Lent. This makes for a brilliant tableau for the ancient tale. Since the Brazilians feel connected to the Greeks and make up a multi-faceted culture of strongly Catholic beliefs, with people of indigenous-Indian, Italian, Portuguese, German, French and African descent, their story is rich with the traditions of these combined groups.

From the film, Black Orpheus

From the film, Black Orpheus

This softly colorized film-version of the myth of Orpheus was directed by Marcel Camus, using a cool, samba musical score by bossa nova jazz legends, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa. Lots of symbolic detail can be deciphered from the beginning until the ending scenes. Through personifications of Hermes, the Muses, “Mira” – a jealous maenad, and Death or Fate, the Brazilians express their love of the Greeks, revering their stories and retelling their myth.

Yet, the Brazilians celebrate the illumination of the human spirit through the music and dancing of Carnival. Innocence shines through in the joy of their faces. And the very enchanting children of this film embody the true essence of dance. The bright colors and natural, instinctual rhythm of their remarkable “African beat” becomes that of a folk religion, mixing the Christ, Greek Mythology and African mysteries into one.

The festival costumes represent the Greco-Roman as well as the French, with Orpheus and Eurydice wearing Greek garments of a Golden Era, while the Maenads are dressed up in the flamboyance of French Versaille, illustrating the excesses of Marie Antionette and Louie XVI alongside street urchins and the very poor.

In the end, Mira, the frenzied Maenad, hurls a stone at Orpheus, as she does in the mythology. Camus remains true to Ovid by bringing Orpheus and Eurydice ultimately back together in death, but through the perspective of this romantic, creative, Brazilian film medium.

Black Orpheus won the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1960. Moreover, the film brought wide recognition and popularity to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim.

References:The Metamorphoses by Ovid

(A version of this post originally appeared in my HubPages blog.)

Falling in Love With The Short Stories of Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas is probably best know for his poems of sublime beauty set amidst the simple, beloved people who live in the seaside village of Swansea in Wales. The poems ring clear and majestic, with a rhythmic zeal. Not surprisingly, the short stories of Dylan Thomas read much like his poetry. They are exquisite tales told with the same passion and Welsh cadences that evoke a mixture of exhilaration and simplicity, delight and tragedy, not unlike the stories of James Joyce, whom Thomas loved and revered.

After the Fair draws a parallel to Joyce’s oft-emulated story from the Dubliners, Araby. Indeed, Thomas’ story seems to begin where Joyce’s Araby leaves off: at the village fair after it has closed up for the night. Instead of a boy who stands in the open isles under the night sky, the main character is a little girl who appears to have no home. Somewhat dark and mysterious, the tale carries a sublime, fantastic air, as do many of Thomas’ stories. A girl who is brave but also scared, she makes her way through the shadows cast by the wooden horses.

“Once she stepped on the boards; the bells round a horse’s throat jingled and were still; she did not dare breathe again until all was quiet and the darkness had forgotten the noise of the bells.”

The Fat Man from his humble, lighted doorstep says into the night, “Who?” “Who?,” after the girl has knocked on his window and then hides. When she hears his thin voice, she laughs. The story is quick and playful with suspense and a merciful kindness.

The sparse dialog somehow creates the impression of a great deal of communication between the girl and the Fat Man. They innocently become fast friends as they toast bread inside his tiny, mirthful hut. At the end of the story, there is the ever-present epiphany, which Joyce invented and Thomas developed in his own style.

In all of the Collected Stories, there is the feeling of lines being blurred between fantasy and reality, of dream-recollection or heightened imagination. With Brember, from Thomas’ Early Stories, the theme from Joyce’s Araby emerges in the shadows of the rooms in an old house. As if the boy in Araby had returned as a grown man to the house of that earlier story.

Shadows flickering above the man’s taper candle and the pale moonlight coming in through the windows, a sad pathos imbues the room and the man’s memories:

There were tears in his eyes, a great longing for something he had known and had forgotten, loved but had lost.

It is a ghostly story, animating inanimate things, which is part of Thomas’ poetic brilliance. Many of his stories are autobiographical: about a boy and the quirky, loveable and often complex people living in Swansea. The stories are highly crafted, blending the ghostly and the suspenseful; the humorous and the tragic; and pathos with enchantment. The tales involving a boy are comparable to Joyce’s Dubliners, they cling to the drama and innocence of childhood, the enlargement of life that Thomas sang of in so much of his poetry.

As, In the Garden, the boy loves the garden but is afraid of it at night. He imagines the dark trees talking to one another. And he hates the nighttime summer bugs that fly into the kitchen, especially, the great grey moths that blundered round the room, for he knew they were in league with the things in the garden outside.

Here, in the garden, the trees and the groping shadows take on an animated life in the boy’s imagination. His racing mind invents a fantastical world of looming darkness, mystery and treasures. The boy really feels the effects of his imaginings:

… he was more afraid than he thought he could ever be. The garden writhed about him, and the walls and the trees shot upward so that he could not see the sky. The pointed roof of the summerhouse shot up the dark like a steeple hat.

These earlier tales are often ghost stories with a sublime ending, while the stories in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, which are clearly dedicated to James Joyce, are most often comedies. As with The PeachesA bitter-sweet tale of class and strife, addressing friendship, religion and sexuality told with Thomas’ distinctive Welsh humor.

At the end of the Collection are what I would call The Beautiful Tales and his most beloved tales, as Quite Early One Morning and A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which Thomas broadcast via the BBC as well as to audiences in America. Like Dickens, Thomas read his own work to an adoring fan-base. Listening to recordings of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry is to better understand his meaning. It is a very moving experience. He read with eloquent passion and a glory to life and living that is welcome today more than ever.

After hearing some of the poems by Thomas in his own melodious and burly Welsh tongue, you can hear his voice in reading his stories. The lilting accent, the magical, textured language soaring down through the years as if from a cathedral. It is the simple, common scenes animated to life with rhythmic word play and clever personification that endear us most, as in The Followers:

The thin, dingy rain spat and drizzled past the lighted street lamps. The pavements shone long and yellow. In squeaking galoshes, with mackintosh collars up and bowlers and trilbies weeping, youngish men from the offices bundled home against the thistly wind –

In another paragraph, the word hollow or hallowed is used four times. Instead of sounding too repetitive, this lends a unique drama. As with his poetry, such poetic devices as repetition and elegiac sound-patterns enhance the writer’s artistry. If the poems evoke the pathos Thomas intended, then his stories will inspire a deep love for his mastery of invention and story-telling craft.

pembrokeshire Dorian Spencer

Painting of a Welsh coastal village much like Swansea by Dorian Spencer.

A Japanese Literary Masterpiece

The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman who served among the royal court in the tenth century Heian period in present day Kyoto. This fascinating tale, the length of Wuthering Heights and Dickens’ David Copperfield combined, is revered as the finest work of Japanese literature and indeed one of the world’s greatest novels. Written in the lyrical style exclusive to Japanese poetics and prose, The Tale Of Genji flows in its original form as uninterrupted poetry. English translation does alter the original with paragraph-breaks and punctuation, yet the tale was so well crafted that the integral feeling of beauty holds forth, delighting and inspiring us.

Murasaki Shikibu, who was brought into the royal court as a girl, wrote her story probably with a brush and ink in the exquisitely painted characters of the syllabary, or alphabet, which had been developed over time as intrinsically Japanese and therefore distinguishable from its derivative Chinese. The Tale of Genji was written at the height of Japanese literary excellence, when artistic brilliance was cherished throughout the country, and women in particular were known to be the greatest writers of poetry and prose. Moreover, to be gifted in poetics was revered as a supreme talent in the royal court and among society at large and remains so today.

Of Japanese poetry, the Japanese poet, Kino Tsurayuki, has said,

The poetry of Japan has its roots in the human heart.

The Tale Of Genji, a masterpiece of poetics, reads as something of a Siddhartha tale; although, Genji, unlike the young Buddha, experiences a number of pivotal romantic relationships on his journey rather than spiritual encounters: Siddhartha, the son of an emperor, chose to leave the sanctuary of the court and follow his own yearning to know the world and all of human suffering first hand. In Genji’s case, his father, the emperor, forces Genji out into the world to save his beloved son from the jealousies and intrigues of the court, where highly contentious political backbiting could, his father believed, kill a spirit of such divine charisma as Genji’s.

In the genre of courtly romance, the extraordinary infuses Genji’s environment even as a commoner living amidst a realm far from the royal court. Beauty and refinement are written into the flowers, trees and things of nature. Coming from a tradition of, not only Buddhism but, firstly, the Shinto religion, in which reverence for feminine nature-deities, as the sun, mountains and rivers, Murasaki draws from these nature-tropes to imbue her tale with a subtle, supernatural ambiance. Here, the various relationships of our chivalrous Genji include the poetry, symbolism and quiet eroticism of flowers. Cantillation, or the reading out loud of poems as declarations of love, describes Genji’s character while also exhibiting Murasaki’s rarified art of poetic verse. Genji learns through his adventures the poignancy and anguish of romantic love as well as that of death’s shadow.

The evening sky was serenely beautiful. The flowers below the veranda were withered, the songs of the insects were dying too, and autumn tints were coming over the maples. Looking out upon the scene, which might have been a painting, Ukon thought what a lovely asylum she had found herself. She wanted to avert her eyes at the thought of the house of the ‘evening faces.’ A pigeon called, somewhat discordantly, from a bamboo thicket. Remembering how the same call had frightened the girl in that deserted villa, Genji could see the little figure as if an apparition were there before him.

‘How old was she? She seemed so delicate, because she was not long for this world, I suppose.’

The above excerpt is taken from the chapter entitled Evening Faces. Other chapter titles include: Lavender, The Sacred Tree, Wisteria Leaves, Evening Mist, The Wizard, Beneath the Oak, and The Drake Fly. Within these wilderness motifs, Genji embarks on his romantic adventures. As an Orpheus hero, the prodigy evinces the nobility of his ancestry, knows something of its effects, but disavows any show of rightful hubris.

Murasaki Shikibu was the daughter of a low ranking nobleman and was recognized as a gifted writer with superior potential and was thereby invited to serve in the salon of a royal consort. Shikibu’s father preferred the education of boys, but he too saw his daughter’s genius and so allowed her to live outside of her home, inside the opulence of courtly-life. It was here, in these most ideal surroundings, for classical education and writing, that a tenth-century Japanese woman wrote the world’s first novel.

It has been observed that any English translation of The Tale of Genji loses much of the natural grace of the original, and this may be a metaphor for the Japanese culture at large: we as Westerners are captivated by its charm, find mystery and adoration in it’s artistry; yet, we can perhaps never fully appreciate the essential beauty of its enigmatic language.

Castaways

Shakespeare the Tempest adjst

Shakespeare’s The Tempest may be the definitive castaways-tale. There is the duke, Prospero, who becomes usurped from the throne by his own brother and put to sea, along with a baby girl, in a meagerly provisioned, shoddy boat. Ovid, Shakespeare’s unofficial muse, used this suspenseful theme in the mythical tale of Perseus. Similarly, there is an island on which the two exiled royals find refuge and where they ultimately long for a return home. In both Shakespeare and Ovid, the castaways survive with the unusual advantage of magic.

The Tempest’s Prospero has spent his life studying books of the supernatural within the sequestered comforts of his beloved Milan. Now, many leagues from his homeland, surviving for approximately twelve years on a faraway island in the Mediterranean, Prospero has been plotting with his art to conjure a storm, a tempest, which will bring his enemies to the island. It takes a tremendous amount of control to accomplish such a feat, and Prospero certainly is something of a control freak at best and a cruel brute at his worst.

Though he adores his daughter, Miranda, Prospero is manipulative with her in the way he controls her thoughts and her memory and even what she sees:

The fringed curtains of thine eye advance,
And say what thou seest yond. 1.2.411,412

With cunning conversation, he allows for certain memories to filter in. But when Miranda begins to recall too much, Prospero utilizes his absolute power to knock her out with sleep. So, Miranda is continually awakening from naps with a quizzical look on her face. Still, she has very early memories that appear to be surreptitiously pressed on her by Prospero:

’Tis far off,
And rather like a dream than an assurance
That my remembrance warrants. Had I not
Four or five women once that tended me? 1.2.46-49

Mirada, (whose very name is phonetically similar to the words memory and remember), speaks with eloquence about what she does or does not recall of her early childhood in Milan. She is the angelic, innately wise ingenue that Shakespeare often employed for his female characters.

Since landing on the isle, Miranda has been under Prospero’s tutelage and influence. Yet, her temperament hardly resembles her father’s. For instance, while Prospero has enough angry aggression to create a violent tempest that would bring a ship crashing in flames to the shore, Miranda has not inherited any of his meanness; in fact, she sympathizes with the crew:

O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! 1.2.5,6

As they made the island their home, Prospero had quickly acquired slaves: Caliban, (an anagram of cannibal,) a native of the island who is referred to as a grotesque creature – and Ariel, a male or kind of asexual sprite, who had been imprisoned in a tree trunk by Caliban’s mother, a witch. The witch has since died, so Prospero frees Ariel from the tree, but imprisons the airy spirit all the same with threats of returning him to the tree if he does not obey:

Thou liest, malignant thing! Hast thou forgot
the foul witch Sycorax… 1.2.259,260

In keeping with this colonialist trope, Shakespeare has Prospero commanding these two slaves for the magician’s own purposes in raising the storm and using his minion, Ariel, to perform spritely tricks on the royals, who wash ashore. Indeed, Ariel is eternally on-call to carry out fantastic, magical activities all across the island. Hence, Prospero, who was exiled, has exiled his captors to the imprisonment of slavery and bondage.

The dialogue is highly poetic even between the oppressed Caliban and his master, for Prospero and Miranda taught Caliban to speak, thus he speaks their elevated language, yet he resists their complete control by saying:

You taught me language; and my prophit on’t
is, I know how to curse… 1.2.365-366

On the other hand, Ariel addresses Prospero as he would want to be addressed:

All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail!… 1.2.189

However, Ariel’s salutations to Prospero are so slavishly sycophantic, one might mistake it for mockery. But Ariel has been promised the carrot of eventual freedom; and so, the invisible sprite dashes from one side of the island to the other and then out into the middle of the sea before you can blink, in order to fulfill Prospero’s deeds.

With Ariel, there are many references to the Greek gods and goddesses, unicorns, mysterious incantations and mythical masques and pageants. In Act IV, a magnificent engagement-ceremony is performed for Miranda and Ferdinand, who fall in love at first sight. With a fantastic tableau and supernatural arias, Ariel conjures the spirits of Queen Juno and the goddess Ceres. Invoking the Proserpine myth, Ceres must first be assured that Venus was not a part of this union, for Ceres has forsworn the Goddess of Love because of the way Venus sealed the fate of Ceres’ daughter, Proserpine, who was abducted by the King of Hell to become the Queen of the Underworld. After Ceres has the assurance that Venus had no part in this coupling, the engagement-ceremony for Miranda and Ferdinand is then blessed by Juno, Ceres and the singing and dancing of ethereal spirit-nymphs.

Unlike Ovid himself, who was exiled by Augustus Ceasar to the island of Tomis in the Black Sea, Prospero attains his desired outcome: the royals and their lords land – setting the stage for the magician’s machinations. In perfect, Shakesperean writerly-timing, the newly arrived men notice the enchantments in the sultry island:

These are not natural events; they strengthen
From strange to stranger. 5.1.227,228

Still, the royals and their men soon speak of plans to establish an ideal government in a sort of utopian society. Politically, however, their ideals only lead them to contradiction, debate and trechery. And as with most Shakespearean plots, the jesters stumble on stage to mock everything that is taking place in the play.

Meanwhile, Prospero and Miranda are prized with the most philosophical and poetic lines, as when Prospero addresses his new, prospective son-in-law, Ferdinand; Prospero councils:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep… 4.1.156,- 158

Another poetic tool, personification, is generously used throughout the play, as when Prospero personifies time:

Now does my project gather to a head:
My charms crack not; my spirits obey, and time
Goes upright with his carraiage… 5.1.1

Finally, Prospero’s solemn speech in Act V has been attributed to Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater. Spectacular as it is, the soliloquy is too long to quote here, (5.1.34-57), as is Prospero’s epilogue, a prayer, really, of farewell and forgiveness. (Epilogue)

Yet, Miranda utters the most famous and widely used lines in The Tempest when she says:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t! 5.1.182-185

These are the words she speaks as all of the survivors of the tempest gather around Prospero. They are highly optimistic words that can be broadly interpreted coming from innocent Miranda, who could not recall seeing another man, other than her father, Prospero, and a slave, Caliban, her entire life.

{photo taken with my BlackBerry}

Goddess Season

fog in park

In the short story, “Demeter” by Maile Meloy, the writer draws parallels between a modern-day woman named Demeter and the ancient goddess of the harvest in Greek mythology. “The Rape of Persephone,” one of the most sorrowful tales in mythology, is the story of a young girl torn from her mother, Demeter, by a great, colossal fiend – Pluto, the king of hell. In some of the mythical versions, Persephone is a maiden and in other versions she is a goddess in her own right – the goddess of spring.

As the myth is told, Persephone was picking flowers in a vast, summery field among her friends, when Pluto, the king of the underworld, snatched her up and brought her down to Hades to be his wife and his queen.

Terrified,

In tears, the goddess called her mother, called

Her comrades too, but oftenest her mother;

And, as she’d torn the shoulder of her dress,

The folds slipped down and out the flowers fell,

And she, in innocent simplicity,

Grieved in her girlish heart for their loss too.*

The myth, while portraying Pluto as a monster, also allows for the fact that Venus, the goddess of love, had arranged for the coupling by instructing Cupid to shoot Pluto in the heart with an arrow that had Persephone’s name on it.

Meloy’s short story brilliantly translates the sorrow of the Persephone myth into an everyday tale of relationships and divorce, linking the modern world to the myth of antiquity. Here, Demeter’s daughter, Perry is fourteen, perhaps a couple of years older than her mythological counterpart. And her real name is Elizabeth, an intimation of the name-confusion in the Roman vs. the Greek. For example, Persephone and Demeter in the Greek version are named Proserpine and Ceres in the Roman.

As a somewhat sporty, straight-forward and logical girl, Perry hardly mimics the nature-loving, flower child who, rather anemic, rises from the dead every spring, like Persephone – and Perry is spared from actually being abducted, but she fits well into the narrative of a young girl torn between two worlds. In her parents’ divorce-settlement, Perry is to live with her father for half the year and her mother the other half, a harrowing division of the year.

Meloy begins:

When they divided up the year, Demeter chose, for her own, the months when the days start getting longer.** 

This correlation with the annual division of the seasons stands out as the most telling, connecting theme. In Meloy, Perry disappears into her father’s house: The dark interior of the house engulfed her. The screen door slammed shut.

Meloy sprinkles her story generously with such tropes that hearken to the original tale. Perry refuses to eat Demeter’s ultra-healthy, organic food: It’s not real food! I will not eat millet! she shouts – a nod to Persephone’s seven pomegranate seeds. Perry’s parents, Demeter and Hank, are at opposite extremes, just as the goddess of grain, who gives life and vitality to the earth vs. the king of hell, who lives in a dark, cold land underground.

mv stream

Hank is a scuba diver, and though he is not really a hateful character, death clings to his preoccupation with the extreme. The premise of plunging underwater or swimming works well in Meloy as both symbols of death and transformation – two key ideas that fill the Greek myths.

While Hank’s scuba diving conjures death in Meloy’s story; for instance, their friend, Duncan – Demeter’s lover – drowns on a scuba diving expedition lead by Hank, conversely, Meloy uses swimming as a platform for transformation and healing with Demeter. Just as Arethusa transformed into a beautiful, streaming pool in Ovid, the modern Demeter transforms as she swims in the local swimming pool:

It was her favorite moment of swimming, the passage from dry to wet, her skin shedding tiny bubbles of air as she kicked. It felt as if the world were washing off her. She was starting over, newborn.**

Among many brilliant references to the gods, the celestial-constellations, lightening bolts and “thundersnow,” Meloy supplies her Demeter with plenty of similarities to the character of Demeter in the ancient myth. Both women are the quintessential earth mother; one can imagine each of them cultivating the earth, barefoot – long, wavy hair billowing in the flower-scented air. At her most subtle and brilliant moments, Meloy brings the two together in spirit:

As soon as she knew she was pregnant, Demeter had stopped smoking pot. She started meeting the black-coated Hutterites in their truck to buy chickens and eggs. She bought vegetables at the farmers’ market from the Hmong refugees, who coaxed green shoots from the ground so much earlier in the year than anyone else. She ordered milk from the dairy and made baked eggs and cream with Hmong chives. She didn’t worry about getting fat – she was supposed to get fat.** 

The goddess Demeter can be inserted into this scenario of natural, culinary, food preparation with these nomadic, pastoral peoples. As well, both Demeters bear powerful feelings and emotions: the tormented, inner thoughts of the modern Demeter often match the violent responses of the sometimes angry, ancient mother-goddess.  And, of course, they both suffer with the tragedy of separation – the consequence of their unbreakable ties to a young daughter.

Meloy’s story is a tale of grief and loss, just as sorrowful as the original mythological tale. Demeter’s feelings emerge in waves over the separation with Perry as much as for the death of Duncan. And the writer brings us ever closer to Demeter’s loss, by degrees, to the culminating moment in the pool when Demeter tries to imagine, while swimming, what Duncan may have felt as he drowned. Then, the whole universe seems to react to Demeter’s slight flirtation with drowning. Annie, the lifeguard who also happens to be Duncan’s eighteen-year-old daughter by his marriage, becomes the sentry amidst all of nature’s omnipresence – blowing her whistle and clamoring down the ladder.

pool storm

And as in the Greek, Meloy ends with a measure of justice – but with an almost joyful portion of hope. Scenes in which Demeter frolics in the snow with the teenagers, after the summer snowstorm of mythic proportions, symbolize a christening or a blessing of eternal hope – perhaps even Duncan’s blessing. The complications and challenges within a lifetime have brought Demeter to middle age, yet Annie represents the next generation, and she does so with a sense of anticipation. Annie includes and accepts Demeter where Perry, her own daughter, had always shunned and marginalized. Yet, Annie also lightly ridicules her own mother – such is the way of mother/daughter relationships in the modern world.

Meloy renders a beautiful ending worthy of the goddess who promotes the continuation of all life. Whether you are a mother, a daughter, and/or a lover of mythology, you will love and appreciate this story.

* Metamorphoses by Ovid, Translated by A.D. Melville.  Book V, The Rape of Proserpine.

** “Demeter,” by Maile Meloy, appeared in The New Yorker, November 19th, 2012.