ovid

METAMORPHOSES BY OVID

Certain philosophers, including John Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, have claimed that one has to accept, to confront, the fact that one has been abandoned, and, as such, one has to take responsibility for who you are and what you do. I’ve always liked that idea, have lived my life that way as much as possible, and yet I find religious belief, which certainly allows for individual responsibility but which is the anthesis of a philosophy of abandonment, incredibly attractive. For many of the existentialists religious belief is bad faith, in that it is to accept, and submit to, an authority outside of yourself which provides guidelines [and demands] for your behaviour. Well, I’m not a believer, and never have been, but I happen to find that unfortunate. Bad faith it might be, but it would be a relief, would ease a lot of my anguish, if I could look at the world around me and see a plan, could envisage a plan for myself. I can’t though, I just don’t feel it; and then I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Metamorphoses is an epic poem, comprising fifteen books and over 250 myths [thanks wiki]; it is an attempt to chart the creation and progress of the world, in much the same way as the Old Testament does. Now, I’m certainly not saying that I believe, in the strictest sense of that word, the stories that Ovid laid down, all those Gods and shape-shifting beings, but the book did have a profound effect on me. Genuinely so. I think sometimes, and I’m guilty of it too, that reviewers give the impression of being permanently enraptured. Not every book we read is life-changing, or perfect or a profound and beautiful experience; some are though, and this kind of feels like one. As a result of my reading I’ve started to look at the world a little differently. Ovid’s poem explained the world to me, presented the world to me, in a new and exciting way; and, suddenly, it is a richer place.

Behind each of the things and creatures Ovid touches upon there is a story, and as I came upon these things in my every day life I was reminded of the applicable tale and felt, yeah, happier, somewhat comforted. It may be naíve, but it struck me that this must be what it’s like to be a religious believer: everything makes sense, everything is as it ought to be. Take one of my favourites, the story of Arachne. Arachne was involved in a weaving contest with Pallas Athena. At the conclusion of the contest Arachne hangs herself; Pallas Athena transforms the girl into a spider, her nimble fingers now her legs, to hang forever more. As a result of this story I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eye one without thinking of Arachne, without seeing her in it; of course, I’ll still  murder the multi-eyed motherfuckers, but my experience has [like Arachne herself] been transformed, and so I’ll perhaps do it with a heavier heart; I even feel a little less frightened of them.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that the only way to relate to the book is as a pseudo-spiritual experience. Metamorphoses is, more than anything else, great fun. As the title suggests, the primary theme is one of change or transformation, and within the pages we encounter people becoming trees, birds, bears, and rivers, to name a few; then there are the nymphs, naiads, and dragons etc. A great number of the stories or episodes are parables, yes, but one could justifiably approach them as fairytales. Obviously, some are more interesting than others, but all are short and readable; if you were to open the book at random I’d wager that you’d find something to entertain you within a couple of pages. I was particularly taken with Phaeton and his dodgy driving of his father’s [the sun god Helios] chariot of light [he loses control and burns half the earth], Tereus’ kidnapping of his wife’s sister [don’t worry, his wife gets payback], and Echo’s unrequited pursuit of Narscissus [yeah, so that wasn’t doomed, was it? You’ve got great taste in men, love].

It is, it’s worth noting, a pretty lusty book too, with lots of gettin’ it on between Gods and Gods, and Gods and mortals, and just about everyone and everything else. On this point, this is apparently what happens to you if you trick your father into bumping uglies with you:

Frankincense Tree1

Oh Myrrha, you dirty so-and-so.

There is also, by the way, a lot of rape to navigate, which, as is always the case, I could have done without, but which is, thankfully, never graphic. The women aren’t all mindless airheads either; Juno, for example, is one of the strongest, certainly most wicked, characters; her stock response to her husband’s [Jupiter] indefatigable infidelity is to try and ruin the girl[s] and, usually, the resulting offspring. Her behaviour would make Glen Close blush and could provide inspiration for a whole series of Japanese revenge films.

If I have any criticisms of the work they would be structural ones. In the translation I read the individual stories are titled, yet it is clear that Ovid intended his Metamorphoses to be read as one long continuous poem, that it is essentially meant to work as a complete piece. However, some of the connections between the episodes are tenuous at best and this may irritate readers who want a more straightforward narrative. Ovid will often tie one story to another by saying something along the lines of well, that happened over there, but over here something equally interesting was going on or after presenting the story of, say, Perseus he will write Perseus’ nephew had a friend, whose uncle knew someone who had a goat. Well, that goat was owned by… as an introduction to the next, and so it’s sometimes a bit like he was playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon. I didn’t mind this though, the [sometimes amusingly unsuccessful] attempts to link the individual stories made the book more engaging, satisfied that part of me that usually doesn’t enjoy short stories. On a side note, one could also perhaps credit Ovid with inventing the idea of stories-within-stories, as sometimes he would begin by telling the tale of one character only for that character to then embark on another story entirely.

I don’t have any other negative comments to make, except to say that there is some repetition. My biggest regret was reading Stanley Lombardo’s translation, which is just awful. His word order is at times odd and confusing, although I guess he would claim that Ovid’s is too. What I do know is that Ovid was not responsible for the use of slangy contemporary phrases, such as it got on his nerves or hot under the collar [these are my examples; I can’t remember any of Lombardo’s off the top of my head, but they are exactly the kind of phrases he regularly employs]. I was genuinely concerned that Jupiter was going to tell someone to not have a cow, man. Or announce that the girl he has just spied is well fit, or that the lyre playing is dope. Of course, some people may prefer modernised language, but, quite frankly, fuck ’em. Other than that, Metamorphoses is very highly recommended. Get Allen Mandelbaum’s translation if you can though. 

CROW BY TED HUGHES

Before I get to madly praising this collection of poems, let me acknowledge that I came to it with some niggling doubts. First of all, Crow: From the Life & Songs of the Crow has been described in some quarters as similar to, or even possibly a response to the death of, Sylvia Plath [Hughes’ wife, as I am sure you know]. And I don’t like Sylvia Plath. At all. There, I said it. I’ve read and studied her poetry and, at its best, it leaves me cold and, at its worst, it annoys the fuck out of me. This isn’t really relevant but, now that I’m on the subject, try these lines from her poem Daddy, swill these around in your mouth and tell me if they don’t make you pull a funny face:

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

*snigger*

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

I’m sorry, but that is all kinds of crap. [Only my opinion, folks; by all means, keep on truckin’ if the above is your thing]. So, anyway, that connection to, that suggestion of, Plath really concerned me.

Another, related, concern was the gothic aspect of the poems. I knew in advance that the poems in this volume are pretty ghastly, pretty gruesome; and that, allied with the black cover [not the brilliant one at the top of this post], and the title, was ringing alarm bells like Quasimodo on E. The last thing I want to read is something like this…

Death, my only friend
The blackness overwhelms my rotting soul
You play with my insides,
Like worms from your garden.
It slips through your bloody fingers

Or some shit.

Thankfully, all my concerns were unfounded, and I am a little peeved I hadn’t read this sooner, because, honestly, it is wonderful. I have tried not to read any reviews prior to my reading, and my attempt to review, so I don’t know if this is true but I imagine that a lot of people focus on how nasty, how horrifying Crow is. And it is, yeah. And I’ll come to that in due course. But I think it is worthwhile to begin by stating, emphatically, that this collection of poems is fun to read, before going on to hammer the horror angle [so to speak]. Cards on the table, these poems made me laugh. And I’m pretty sure I was laughing with Hughes not at him. Oh, it’s dark humour, sardonic humour, don’t get me wrong, but it is humorous nonetheless. Take A Horrible Religious Error, in which the “serpent emerged, earth bowel-brown” [great image , btw], and which concludes “Crow only peered, took a step or two forward, grabbed the creature by the slackskin nape”…and…wait for it…“beat the hell out of it, and ate it.” Haha! I genuinely lol’d.

I don’t know if this is me applying my own experience to the text too literally, but it was no surprise to me that Hughes was a Yorkshireman, because I see that dry northern English sense of humour all over Crow. Northern England is/was the industrial heartland of the country, and it is nearly always pissing it down with rain here; and that atmosphere, these damp grey streets, and ruined architecture, do have an effect upon you, on the way that you see the world, and on what you find amusing. As an aside, I was in an art gallery a while ago and I came across this painting, titled Sheffield:

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I reckon Hughes/Crow would get a kick out of that.

When i read Ovid’s Metamorphoses last year I found that, by applying stories and supplying magical explanations for everyday features of our world, it actually changed the way that I look at the world. Hughes once re-imagined Ovid’s work [Tales of Ovid], so he was clearly interested in the same idea. Crow, for me, is his own black take on that concept, those creation myths, that desire to explain the inexplicable. There’s a really brilliant line in one of the poems when our feathered friend kinda vomits up a great white shark while trying to converse with God [again I lol’d; and, well, gasped at the audacity, and, yeah, strange beauty of it]. And, in another poem, it is explained how Crow gets his colour from flying, madly, at the sun.

What of Crow, then? What – other than a bird, of course -is he? It’s hard to say with any certainty. He’s a nightmare, a ghoul, an abomination; he’s responsible for all the bad stuff we encounter; he is, I guess, us. However, one of the most fascinating, most moving, aspects of his character was the sense I got that he isn’t always trying to be bad, that, unfortunately for him, he can’t help but be what he is. Take that line about the great white shark; Crow isn’t deliberately creating havoc, isn’t putting this horrific beast on the earth on purpose, he just can’t help it, it happens because he is what he is. Consider these lines from Crow and Mama:

When Crow cried his mother’s ear
Scorched to a stump
When he laughed she wept
Blood her breast her palms her brow all wept blood

I find that oddly touching.

So, yeah, Crow certainly is brutal, and horrifying, but it is also inventive and witty and sometimes moving. It’s Goya’s Disasters of War with a claw-footed companion. It is: “in rage and madness then they lit their mouths, they tore out his entrails, they divided him among their several hells, to cry all his separate pieces.” It is, in short, amongst the most astonishing, visceral, volumes of poetry I have ever read.

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Caw-caw

Fuck.