From Dante to Ovid to Pinsky…

I’ve been away from Ovid for too long, so let’s delve into Book VII of The Metamorphoses, where I learned that Medea is an origin myth for our modern witches. I’m not sure where I thought the story of witches came from – the middle ages, perhaps – but certainly not Ovid.

Medea first appears in Euripides’ plays, but Ovid transforms her into something less tragic, more willfully evil. In his preface to Book VII, translator and scholar Horace Gregory says:

348px-de_morgan_medea“Ovid’s Medea is far more bloody, more savage in her behaviour than the character conceived by Euripides. Ovid makes her an archetypal sorceress, a priestess of Hecate and all the evil forces of the night. Her image survives in tales of witchcraft, and her chariot drawn by dragons, became transformed into a broomstick.”

In Book VII we hear the story of Jason of the Argonauts, his liberation of the golden fleece, and Medea’s obsessive love for him. She assists Jason in his labors with her magic, then brews up a pot of sorcery to save his father’s life.

On the face of it, this seems a noble act. However, Jason’s father is not dying of disease or war wounds, before his time. He is dying of old age. Suddenly, Medea’s magic seems perverse. She is thwarting the natural order of time and human mortality. And the scene that Ovid conjures in a forest clearing echoes down the years to Shakespeare’s MacBeth. I can almost hear the chanting in the air: Double double, toil and trouble.

Meanwhile in a bronze pot her liquor simmered,
steamed, leaped, and boiled, the white scum foaming hot:
There she threw roots torn from Thessalian valleys,
Seeds, flowers, plants, and acid distillations,
And precious stones from the far Orient…
Wings of the weird scritch owl and his torn breast,
Bowels of the werewolf which shudder and twist
Into a likeness of mad human faces,
The scaled skin of a thin-hipped water snake,
Liver of a long-lived deer, foul eggs,
And battered head of a crow that outlived
Eight generations.
The Metamorphoses, Book VII, Ovid

Medea goes on to perform various feats of dark magic. She eventually attempts to poison a king, gets caught, and finally:

‘Scaping her own death, vanished in a cloud,
Dark as the music chanted in her spells.
The Metamorphoses, Book VII, Ovid 

Ovid may have transformed Medea into an evil witch, but he has not been the only one to appropriate the myth for his own purposes. She is the old crone that frightens children on Halloween. She is Glenda, the Good Witch, who cares for the little people in the Wizard of Oz. For my own taste, I rather enjoy the modern feminist witch in her TV incarnations – Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Piper Halowell in Charmed.

Now let’s skip forward from 8 A.D. to 2008 A.D. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. I’ve been reading Ovid slowly – over months and months – in between other novels and poetry. And I came to Ovid because I studied Dante’s Inferno last summer in a class at The Gleacher (University of Chicago’s Graham School of General Studies). And the text we used in the class was Robert Pinsky’s very critically acclaimed verse translation of the Inferno. From Dante to Ovid to Pinsky… 

I dipped into some of Robert Pinsky’s An Explanation of America this week. He gave a free reading at the Art Institute on Thursday night – mostly from his more recent book of poetry, Gulf Music – and was very entertaining, if a bit … well … rehearsed. I studied individual poems from Gulf Music in a class on contemporary poetry (another course at The Gleacher), and while I enjoyed lines here and there, I didn’t really fall in love with it. After hearing Pinsky read his own work, I decided to give it another chance.

Later that night, I realized that I don’t even own Gulf Music, so instead I opened his book-length poem An Explanation of America, which I bought used at Powell’s a year ago (two years ago?), but had just not got around to reading. I won’t pretend to be a complete convert to Pinsky’s work, but I did find it more accessible, now that I could imagine his voice reading the lines, the words, inserting the breath.

On the radio,
The FM station that plays, ‘All Country and Western’
Startled me, when I hit its buttons one day,
With a voice – inexplicable and earnest – 
In Vietnamese or Chinese, lecturing
Or selling, or something someone wanted broadcast,
A paid political announcement, perhaps…
“All politics is local politics”
Said Mayor Daley (in pentameter):
And this then is the locus where we vote,
Prisonyard fulcrum of knowledge, fear and work –
Nest where an Eagle balances and screams,
The wild bird with its hardware in its claws.
An Explanation of America, Robert Pinsky 

I’ll let you meditate on that.

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