Saturday, May 4, 2013

Living the epic

Boulder, Colorado, and the wine-dark sea

"That's the end of it, my story. May the next who tells it tell it better."
    This is the way I once heard a traditional Irish storyteller conclude a spoken tale. What a lovely encouragement for us to improvise and claim the power of a story that calls us by making it our own.
     Great stories are like this. They are more than twice-told tales; they may be neverending in their variants. Over the past two weeks, I've been recalled by dreams, bursting through in synchronicity, reincidence and mythic irruptions in daily life, to revisit the world of the epic poems beloved of the Greeks and of many who have heard them since.  I dreamed I discovered an epic poem, in a neat typescript of maybe 200 pages, that I had started composing in 1987. This seemed just-so. I emerged from that dream feeling that the epic was complete; it was just a matter of reclaiming those pages and getting them to the write people. Why 1987? Well, that was a year when I started keeping very copious and detailed journals that helped me to write my way through a period of immense shamanic crises of ordeal and initiation that involved braving monsters and sirens and clashing rocks, on the inner planes and sometimes in the physical world too.
     I dreamed that I had brought through a book - perhaps the same one - that delighted me and many others, and that this accomplishment had required me to make an offering in words. So I composed a short poem ("Sing in me, creative spirit") that I offered last weekend in a fire ceremony in the midst of a circle of 30 active dreamers on the mountain where we have been gathering for many years.
     Reflecting on all we have shared on that mountain last Sunday, many of us recalled the weekend we devoted to bringing alive the wild odyssey of Jason and the Argonauts in quest of the mysterious Golden Fleece. We thrilled to the tale of passion, sorcery and jealousy in the romance of Jason and Medea. I found myself cast in the role of Phineus, once a king and always a truth-seer, who was punished by the gods because he always aw true and thus exposed secrets of heaven. They set the Harpies on him, to steal his food and crap on the remnants, until Argonauts drove the Harpies away. No shortage of volunteers in our group to play those Harpies!
     Though the best-known version of the Argonautica comes from the Greeks - specifically from the Hellenistic writer Apollonius Rhodius - the story is much, much older, at least as old as a Hittite tablet from the 14th century BCE, now in an Ankara museum, that contains a tale remarkable similar to that of Jason and Medea. And since Apollonius (and before Hollywood) there have been other retellings that are worthy of close study. In my favorite used bookstore in my home neighborhood, last week I chanced upon a book that had just been paced in New Arrivals: David Slavitt's remarkable translation of the Argonautica of Gaius Valerius Flaccus, composed in the 1st century.
     Little is known of Valerius except that he was a member of the group that had custody of the Sibylline Books and the supervision of foreign cults. His special knowledge must have helped him to present fascinating descriptions of many ancient modes of divination. And he is no slouch at describing what happens when a goddess becomes enraged! Through his lines - as rendered into supple, sinewy English by Slavitt - I was transported to the nightmare battle at Cyzicus, and into a dream of Hercules grieving for his lost boyfriends, and to the deck of the Argo on stormy seas, hearing Athena's voice in the timbers of the ship she has infused with her power.
     In all the versions that count, those early poets and storytellers remembered to invoke the Muse. Valerius calls on Clio, the muse of history, as well as Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. Famously, Homer begins the Odyssey with the words

Sing in me, O Muse, of the man of many ways.

The adventures of the Argonauts are rich, and the mystery of the Golden Fleece - stripped from a ram that could take its rider flying and swimming - is something to dream on. Yet Jason, sent on a suicide mission by a paranoid tyrant, is a less interesting protagonist than Odysseus, the homecoming warrior who must be healed and cleansed in the world of the Feminine, and transit a land of dreams, before he can reach his native shore, where his hardest ordeal, that of truly coming home, yet awaits him.

with Odysseus at the Boulder Bookstore

So when I arrived at the Boulder Bookstore on Thursday evening to read poems in my new collection Here, Everything Is Dreaming, I was delighted to be welcomed at the desk by a young lady named Athena. "Where's Odysseus?" I demanded, recalling how he was guided and saved by that goddess. "Odysseus is in the store," said a manager. "I'll call him." Within minutes, Odysseus appeared, a well-built young man with the flowing hair and beard appropriate for "the strong-greaved Achaeans, breakers of horses." He works for the bookstore. How did he come by the name of Odysseus polytropos, the "man of many ways"? his parents lived in Greece and chose his name.
     There are moments when it is impossible not to notice that powers of the deeper worlds are pushing through the curtain walls of our consensual hallucinations, enjoy interplay with humans. When I arrived at the Gaiam TV studios on Friday morning to record an interview, I was offered a cup of espresso by a young lady named Gaia, with a magnificent tattoo of the great Earth Goddess on her arm. Then I was introduced to a studio producer whose middle name is Icarus. "I hope you don't fly too close to the sun," I quipped. He heard me, and raised me. "I don't think Icarus fell to earth," he told me. "He shed something and went on shining."
     That's my Boulder epic, for now. May the next installment be even better.

Lorenzo Costa's version of the Argo (16th century)

1 comment:

Thea Litsios said...

How interesting. The Greeks are everywhere. I just picked up a book of Plato's Dialogues and was gifted a book "Psyche and the Supernatural" by Franklin Shontz, a former professor of a friend of mine.