February 14, 2020
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Myth,” from Native Guard, beautifully describes what it is like to seek the impossible. Trethewey wrote the poem as an expression of sorrow at the loss of her mother. Written as a palindrome, it is a perfect representation of loss because the poem cycles again and again, beginning and ending in the same place much like the endless cycle of loss. This poem contains only nine unique lines which are repeated twice and in reverse order, separated by an asterisk in the middle. Reading them backwards recreates the element of loss, and the futility of memory. Half-awake, the narrator wants to see her mother, however, as she more fully wakes, she realizes that her mother only exists in dreams now. The poem also invokes Erebus, from Greek mythology, relating to a hazy, foggy middle world that one passes through between Earth and heaven. I wonder if the asterisk in the middle does not directly represent Erebus himself, as a being which separates the real and the dream.
The poem begins and ends with the line, “I was asleep while you were dying” which implies a sense of guilt, of absence. This memory of her mother (who was murdered by the poet’s step-father) now lives in a dream space, invoked only in the foggy gray space between sleep and wake. As soon as the poet’s eyes open, she realizes that the mother cannot follow. Being titled “Myth” invokes any number of analogies, such as the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Bitten by a snake on her wedding day, Eurydice was immediately taken to the underworld. Ovid writes, “For as the bride, amid the Naiad train,/ Ran joyful, sporting o’er the flow’ry plain,/ A venom’d viper bit her as she pass’d;/ Instant she fell, and sudden breath’d her last.” Orpheus, sick with grief, follows her and begs for her release from Hades and Persephone. They grant her release on the understanding that Orpheus will not look back at Eurydice until both lovers completely clear the underworld. Of course, he looks too soon and all is lost. Trethewey captures a similar longing for her mother’s release, while also dealing with its impossibility. The narrator claims, “It’s as if you slipped through some rift, some hollow,” much like Eurydice slipping away from Orpheus. No matter how hard Trethewey wishes for it, her mother will not return from the dead.
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is an ancient one, first described by Ovid in The Metamorphoses. It links an innumerable amount of works together, having been incorporated into many texts and films. In April, Harrison Middleton University’s Quarterly Discussion will focus on selections from Virgil and Wendell Berry who both play with the Orpheus myth in their work. Trethewey’s “Myth” offers a wonderful introduction to the labyrinthine path of love and loss found in all three.
Book III of Virgil’s Georgics ends with a dark and ominous warning about plagues. The fear of loss and devastation is palpable. And yet, Book IV abruptly begins with an introduction to the “manna, the heavenly gift of honey.” The reasons for the sharp shift in tone is unknown, but it creates an interesting dialogue with poems like Trethewey’s. Even Trethewey’s title – “Myth” – is ambiguous and inviting. She does not claim to link directly to any single myth which allows the reader to follow their own connections. Rather, she gives the feel of myth in general. In this sense, loss is seen as a parable, an allegory, something that both binds and divides. Likewise, Virgil ends the Georgics with the idea that offerings made to Orpheus and Eurydice will strengthen the health of society. His poem is a gift, like the bees’ gift of honey, like Trethewey’s gift of form. Virgil’s poem seems an antidote to the way that Caesar conquers all on his way to the “Immortals.” Virgil focuses instead on ideas of peace and harmony as sung from “the shade of a spreading beech.”
Of course Trethewey, Virgil and Berry all invite the Orphic tradition of poetry. Much like Orpheus who was also a poet, these poets express the way that writing a narrative is as close of an approximation to the past as they will come. From Wendell Berry’s work in his series Farming: A Handbook, the poem “A Praise” mirrors Trethewey’s “Myth.” It links a memory of the past with the cycles of the earth. He writes, “When he died/ and his influence entered the air/ I said, Let my mind be the earth/ of his thought, let his kindness/ go ahead of me.” From these poets, we will see how memory fills all of us with thoughts, ideas, longings, and guidance. I hope you will consider spending a portion of your day in conversation with these great thinkers. Contact as****@hm*.edu for more information on the Quarterly Discussion series.
And if nothing else, these poets help us to contemplate what it means to love, a worthy goal for Valentine’s Day!
To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.