By Rose Solari
As a child, I distrusted mythology, as I did any literature that adults seemed to think was especially well-suited to kids. Tales of Mount Olympus, of Zeus and Hera and their many disruptive children, seemed to me to be just stories about people who never existed performing feats that were clearly impossible, not unlike Santa Claus. I much preferred, for example, the work of Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte. In Little Women and Jane Eyre, I found believable tales that I could both enjoy and learn from, stories that helped me to grow up.
I found my way into myth as an adult. As I entered my 30s, the dialectic between romance and reality in my life had reached its inevitable combustion. It was a threshold time, and filled with losses — my parents died, my marriage broke up — and suddenly tales of trials and transformations and journeys between realms felt utterly personal. Arthurian Legend snagged me first; so many of Guenevere’s struggles, from her not-entirely-loving marriage to her childlessness to her affair with Lancelot to her rape, were mirrored in my own life and those of my women friends. I wrote and performed in a play, Looking for Guenevere, in which two contemporary women go on an imagined quest to find the real Queen of Camelot.
That work only whetted my desire to explore classical mythology more deeply. I designed and taught a class for the University of Maryland’s Undergraduate Honors Program called “Retelling the Tale,” in which we read classics and their recent retellings. We read some Grimm’s fairy tales and then Anne Sextons poetry collection “Transformations,” in which she brilliantly re-sees them. We read chunks of The Odyssey, then watched the Coen brothers’ movie, “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?” For their final project, the students wrote their own retellings in prose, poetry, or drama of their choice of a myth or fairy tale. It is my favorite of all the college level courses I’ve taught, in part for the tremendous energy and creativity the students brought to those final projects. I saw lives get brightened, informed, changed by their encounters with Penelope and Odysseus, Cupid and Psyche, the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood.
My students frequently told me that once they started looking at the archetypes in these stories, they suddenly saw them everywhere, and the same was true for me. A friend’s abandonment by his mother led me to write a poem about Achilles and Hera; observing the effects of war on soldiers I knew and their loved ones led to the poem, “Achilles on Shore.” The book grew into two separate, intertwining strands: one, the mythological retellings, and the other, a thread of more directly personal poems of grief and loss. A chapbook of some of these appeared, entitled “Myths and Elegies,” but I still wasn’t finished with these subjects.
As these poems grew into a full-length collection, I sensed a poem growing that might reflect the way in which the archetypal or divine interpenetrates the everyday. Few things seem to me more goddess-given than the gift of a beautiful singing voice. I began to wonder what Orpheus, the great singer, might have actually sounded like. One magical full-moon night, I was with my beloved in Stratford, England, about to see a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. As we walked up the hill to the theater, we encountered a busker, a beautiful young man, singing an oh-so-sweet version of one of my favorite songs, Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbuy Hill.” I thought, “Why, there is Orpheus!” The extraordinary and the ordinary were suddenly one.
Here is the poem I made from that.
Orpheus in the Park
For all the time he can remember it has been his — a voice that hits, secure, the center of each note, as in the often heard but no less worthy image, the arrow that carves in two the one before that split the one before that hit the target’s flag-red, heart-red center. If you heard him, as you walked, maybe, through a city park in spring, saw his feet beat out the time while he strummed and sang, turning the golden lyric into dark earth, then into gold again, you might have wept. It’s only a story, your companion says, for comfort. It's the only story this boy will ever tell. The gods are jealous, and know us to be weakest and most worth envy when in love. So when the girl, near-but-never-to-be a bride, walks in the grass, she does not see the glittering, ignorant thing that will make her tale worth singing. As fangs sink into skin, she begins to cry out, then thinks, how silly. I will die, anyway. Her body falls. The soul penetrates the ground, mist after rain. Science says wherever we walk, we change the future. Myth says every step we take is a step into the past. What if her loveliness, that is, her human body, was like a dress — the thing she used to cover her real self — and being longed for only shrank her in her skin. They love me for my flesh, which is not me. So, when the snake strikes, rising fast for the narrow ankle, it gives her respite she may not have known she wanted. How quick, the move that lifts us out of time and into the never-again. There is love that rises, and there is love that falls. How could he know which kind his song would be about? No matter how the music hurts, it hurts less than life. As you sit weeping at some concert, perhaps, your lover at your side, you feel the luxury of created hurt, a worked echo of the spinning blades slung by your own desires. Later, safe in your bed, you think, I was not myself. I was not in my right mind. Still, you long to hear it one more time, the tune only half-unfolded, half-light, half-gone. A girl who wants to be air. A boy who is song. What is this life, then, but a means to get to the other side, where voice and body, being one, no longer fight.
Rose Solari is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, The Last Girl, Orpheus in the Park, and Difficult Weather (re-issued by ASP in 2014); the one-act play, Looking for Guenevere; and the novel, A Secret Woman. She has lectured and taught writing workshops at many institutions, including the University of Maryland, St. John’s College, Annapolis, The Jung Society of Washington, and the Centre for Creative Writing at Oxford University’s Kellogg College in Oxford, England. Her work as a journalist includes numerous free lance assignments, as well as positions as staff writer and editor for SportsFan Magazine and Common Boundary Magazine. Her awards include the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, The Columbia Book Award, and an EMMA for excellence in journalism. She is currently a member of the Advisory Panel for the Centre for Creative Writing at Oxford University’s Kellogg College.