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   b e t w e e n    a    r o c k    a n d    a    v i s i o n:    a    r e v i e w    o f    w i l l i a m    f.    v a n    w e r t 's    p r o p e r    m y t h ,    o r c h i s e s    p r e s s,    1 9 9 8

--- S C O T T   A .  K R A M E R

Sisyphus pushes his huge boulder up the steep incline, near the top it falls again, rolling over him to the bottom and in doing so rolls over each one of us, leaving humanity stunned and sore for an eternity. This is a Myth many have heard before, an illustration of life that continues to ring true, like a fierce hangover. Numerous peopleís perception of Myth is as static story, read in school or seen at the theater created by some dead civilization a long time ago. Through the works of Joseph Campbell, Myth became known widely in a Jungian sense: narratives shaped from timeless archetypes and motifs weaved naturally through cultures, seeking to explain life and offer suggestion on ways of living. Since our cultural experiences are always changing, the Myths too must evolve. William F. Van Wert in his new collection of poems, Proper Myth, published by Orchises Press 1998 addresses this perspective of Myth; shaking off all presumptions that Myths are dead stories. In Van Wertís new collection, Myth is living phenomenon which is vital and dynamic; it still plays an active part in our lives as generator of meaning. In turn, we as living beings still play an active part in the creation of Myth.

Van Wertís Myth finds dynamic existence in his poems in the same way a song, like Bob Dylanís Isis, can bring a whole new perspective to Egyptian Myth while maintaining respect for the essence of its origins. Van Wertís poems takes on the details of his contemporary storytellerís memory. Under Van Wertís influence these ancient stories come alive, evolve, mutate, become personal touching each new listener and always changing. Van Wert, an author of over ten books ranging from fiction to poetry, and creative non-fiction draws from his whole arsenal of techniques to fuel this work. In this collection: Dido gets her chance to speak and tell her version of her affair with Aeneas, the reader experiences the retelling of the story of Persephone with strange and new details never before brought to light, along with a fresh meditation on the myth of Orpheus with a decidedly postmodern point of view, and a truly amazing and intimate retelling of the flight and fall of Icarus. These Myths, among the stories of Echo, Narcissus, Oedipus, and Osiris are all explored and brought back to life. In doing this, Van Wert shows his reader how to make myth their own, telling these stories as if they were still in the oral tradition evolving in front of an audience.

From the opening poem, "Song of Dido", Van Wertís Myth gulps air. This poem, generated through the voice of Dido looks back on her love for Aeneas and her subsequent demise in the Aeneid. Van Wertís use of couplets captures the fractured speech and surprisingly modern thinking within Didoís reminiscence. Van Wertís Dido describes her first sight of Aeneas:

a vagabond with hair. What wondrous
locks. Like a girlís. Body like

a banyan tree, wayward look,
the dry Savannahs in his eyes,

beauty without mercy. Just like
a drought, his look....

The poem uses enjambment to drive forward Didoís observations. This technique gives the poem a feeling of immediate discovery. Dido, the tragic pawn of Cupid and Venus, finally voices her point of view. She does this with a contemporary self-awareness. This poem works as an excellent example of Van Wertís constant inventiveness tempered by commitment to the tradition behind the Myth. He balances Sisyphusís rock on the precarious peak of adaptation, taking great freedoms having Dido speak, yet works very hard to remain sincere to the essence of the story. We see this in the final lines of the poem, as Dido tells the story of her suicide:

to be their queen. My handmaids cry,
for they are women, and women cry

for courage. Outside, the men.
The men are gathered by the dozens,

howling like hungry dogs.
Their righteousness amazes me.

They are men. They want a good show.
I will not disappoint them

A reader who has read the Aeneid comes away feeling that Van Wertís elaboration adds to the tragic love story of Aeneas and Dido without changing the ancient story into something different.

Oedipus is, likely, the most widely known Myth. Itís a story all have read in school, or seen performed. Van Wert offers his readers a unique perspective on the play in "Oedipus: The Return of the Repressed." The poem rethinks the familiar story in three sections, contributing new life to the old tragedy. In the first section, with the header "Narrative," Van Wert analyzes the story from a critical point of view. Thinking about how narrative works:

Narrative is not just the need to repeat
the death drive acted out in words
but the return of the repressed.

Van Wert offers the repressed pre-story: King Laius raped a boy causing his death, and he received a curse from King Pelops. This Van Wert suggests is why Oedipus was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Van Wert writes:

Elaborate prehistory of a myth,
and all to explain

why the homosexual Laius
wouldnít sleep with a woman.
Laiusí sexual preference, thus,

prefigures sex, itself, and all desire
so shamefully that the myth before
the myth must be repressed.

This is the law. Whatever precedes
must be repressed.

This first section is driven heavily by ideas and finds its poetry in economy of words, surprising turns of line and a steady meditative rhythm.

The next section headed by the word, "Voice" takes the voice of Oedipus, offering the reader the unique opportunity to know Oedipusí inner most thoughts:

If I had known,
I would have stood there, arms

at my sides, and let my father
run me through. He who gave me life
could take it back, acquitted,

for I would never harm the father,
even though I be eclipsed, This is what
I wish to tell him,

where he wanders in the shade.

Van Wert offers Oedipus a human voice, a familiar voice speaking frankly to the reader. This choice is much different than the arrogant character of Oedipus portrayed by Sophocles. Van Wert steps up the poetic devices in this section, the language relies heavily on images to offer the reader a vivid sense of Oedipusí experience. Van Wert offers many sensible additions to the narrative leaving us with a new sense of the story.

The final section, "Myth" is once again philosophical; itís also fragmented, poetic, historical, and at times perplexing. This section, more than the other two relies heavily on figurative language. In this Stanza, Van Wert returns to the couplets of the earlier poems in the collection, alluding to the Heroic Couplet. He even ends the poem with a slant rhyme:

Raw or cooked, myth is the
scaled fish, out of water,

out of time. It lacks
the shame of history.

Oedipus, if given voice
beyond the death thatís never told,

would not retract the tragedy
if he could have a real body.

Towards the middle of the book thrives Van Wertís poem "The Story of Icarus." This poem meditates on relationship between fathers and sons by retelling the story of the flight of Icarus from a narratorís perspective. Van Wert thinks about the complex process of learning to fly, studying Icarusís preparation to the moment of flight when practice becomes reality. This piece, alone, is enough reason for checking out this book. Van Wertís ability to portray Icarusí transformation into a bird, captures the rhythms of flight through language:

the bird must fly or die. Driven by
flight instead of thought. He would eat
anything close. He would mate in mid-air,
by accident. Flight precludes feeling.

Everything, relational: air, the stuff of
flight, itself. No predators. Clouds,
an obstacle. Warmth, a need immediate.
No sense of time, no past. Only now,
now movement, here to there. Space
everywhere, infinite. No stopping.

These stanzas capture the freedom and transience of flight. One gets the sense of the wings pumping furiously and the boy soaring blissfully towards the sun. Van Wert blesses us with a rare final glimpse of that final moment when the bliss turned to tragedy:

No time for sorrow. Only shock,
the body like a leaden, downward weight.
He wonders if pieces of him or the frame
will float to shore, to his father.
He wishes he could tell his father
the climb was worth the fall.

These final lines become a message all artists and visionaries who fail, wish they could deliver to their detractors.

In this collection, William F. Van Wert gives Icarus, Oedipus, and Dido another chance to be heard. For many of the characters of these ancient myths, he offers a voice where no voice had been offered previously. In doing this, Van Wertís voice rings through loud and clear as a poet who, through scholarship and acute sensitivity, crafts fine new poems about many of our civilizationís oldest stories.

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