Monday, January 20, 2014

Orpheus and the lot, revisited

Needless to say, I had to read 'xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths', the new anthology edited by Kate Bernheimer. Didn't even bother to see who the writers were in this new compilation. Blind faith. Simply picked it up. I like Kate's curation of stories and her chosen humor from the different stories which lent a superbly fun angle in the re-telling of myths and legends.

The previous anthology touched on fairy tales. This new anthology touched on Greek myths, Indian legends and evergreen stories. We all know the story of Orpheus, his lyre, Hades, and Eurydice. The stories spoke of more than Orpheus though. There were Daphne the laurel tree, the pain of Daedalus and his lost Icarus, of coyotes, ogres and humans, et cetera. (Reviews herehere and here.) 

Fifty little stories. Honestly, I like them all. Some are a tad odd in their interpretations, almost stretching it, but each, delightful, many wickedly so. At the end of each story, the writer pens a note to tell readers the inspiration behind their interpretation. I like that.

A story that's pretty close to the original without much tweaking to set it in the modern context beyond a hospital room and bed, is Madeline Miller's 'Galatea'. It's based on the Greek myth of sculptor Pygmalion whose beautiful statue came to life, and in Ovid's retelling, of this statue Galatea having a daughter, Paphos. Madeline Miller's version is better in that she wrote how this statue wasn't well treated and wasn!t happy. The statue finally had her revenge when she drowned her husband the sculptor, and returning to peace as a slumbering statue at the bottom of the ocean floor.

One of my favorites is Sabina Murray's 'The Sisters'. A little lengthy, but rather fascinating, of a "recasting of a troop of Bacchantes, who, in classical mythology are followers of Bacchus/Dionysus who liked nothing better than to get really drunk and then go running through the woods" and occasionally murder animals and men. An English department's Professor Basil Zinn was wondering what on earth happened to a male intern Carson Bakely whom he sent to an apparently legitimate society called 'The Sisters of Emily Dickinson'. The intern simply disappeared, never to be found. We learnt of the answers only years later when Professor Zinn was elderly. At that point, I was just laughing so much that I had to pause before continuing the read.

It was the smell that hit me first. Something had died back there. I thought that Margaret Dickinson Shumworth might be a very figurative sort of lady - a concept suggested by her reading of Emily Dickinson - and that she was perhaps giving me a metaphorical equivalent of what had happened to Bakely. I tucked my head into the woods, but couldn't make out anything. I ventured forward with the tip of my cane sinking in the mud. A few feet in, I saw the first squirrel. It had been decapitated and was, of course, dead, but a soft wind was stirring the fur of its tail in a way that suggested, if not exactly life, movement. There was another dead squirrel two feet away, with its intestines unraveling out of its tiny gut. Further in, I managed to make out a patch of calico fur. She was still active, this Sister, this Margaret Dickson Shumworth. She was still active and when I heard a twig snap behind me, I knew I was in danger. In the pooling sunlight I felt a moment's warmth and bravely turned to see what had followed me. There she was, The Sister, hands on walker, hair pulled tight. Her eyes had a strange, snakelike hardness and she was watching me. Above me, the squirrels chattered their warnings, rattling branch and leaf, but I stood earthbound, the air catching in my throat. "The Sisters ... The Sisters ..." I said, struggling with words. 
"What about us?" she said.
"You're monsters! Bacchantes!"
"You're the monster," she said. "You know absolutely nothing about Emily Dickinson." 
And casting aside her walker, The Sister took a step forward, and then another, teeth bared, shortening the distance between us.

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