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Myths Retold   

August 2020

Recently, I listened to the NY Times Book Review podcast with Stephen Fry on Reimagining the Greek Myths.  Fry's latest book is a second about the Greek myths. In Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined , a sequel to his Mythos, Stephen Fry moves from the exploits of the Olympian gods to the deeds of mortal heroes.

What interested me in Fry's sequel is that these are not the stories of the gods but of the mortal humans who sometimes live in the favor of the gods and goddesses, and sometimes are punished by them. Some of their names are also well known: Perseus, Jason, Atalanta, Theseus, Bellerophon, Orpheus, Oedipus, Theseus and Heracles.

When I first encountered the myths as a young student, I took a liking to Prometheus who stole fire and gave it to the mortals on Earth. That really pissed off Zeus who saw this as the beginning of the end for the gods.
"...Prometheus himself – the Titan who made us, : befriended us and championed us – continues to endure his terrible punishment: shackled to the side of a mountain he is visited each day by a bird of prey that soars down out of the sun to tear open his side, pull out his liver and eat it before his very eyes. Since he is immortal the liver regenerates overnight, only for the torment to repeat the next day. And the next.

Prometheus, whose name means Forethought, has prophesied that now fire is in the world of man, the days of the gods are numbered. Zeus’s rage at his friend’s disobedience derives as much from a deep-buried but persistent fear that man will outgrow the gods as from his deep sense of hurt and betrayal.

Prometheus has also seen that the time will come when he will be released. A mortal human hero will arrive at the mountain, shatter his manacles and set the Titan free."

Who saves Prometheus from this torment? The Greek hero, Heracles, frees him (though with Zeus's permission). Saved by a mortal.

The podcast and book got me thinking about how myths are used in poetry.

One poem I thought of is by Alicia Ostriker:


    There is one story and one story only
    That will prove worth your telling
        —Robert Graves, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice”

That one story worth your telling
Is the ancient tale of the encounter
With the goddess
Declares the poet Robert Graves 

You can come and see 
A sublime bronze avatar of the goddess
Standing in the harbor holding a book and lifting a torch
Among us her name is Liberty

She has many names and she is everywhere
You can also find her easily 
Inside yourself—
Don’t be afraid—

Just do whatever she tells you to do

In that poem, the goddess seems to come to Earth as the Statue of Liberty.  In "Selfie with Pomona: The Goddess of Abundance" by Alexandra Teague, we also encounter a goddess as a statue at the Pulitzer Fountain in New York City.

She has all the advantage. Two sculptors
for her single body. Bronze prepossession. Bare arms
muscled as if she plucked each apple in her basket, 
then scythed the reeds to weave the basket—heaping on peaches
and pearls of snow. What seasons? 
What death? She’s seamless as light...
Where’s the best light to look human?

But the book of poetry I thought of is Mother Love by Rita Dove who takes Demeter and Persephone out of the Greek myths and sets them into Arizona, Mexico, and a bistro in Paris. She retells this mother-daughter story in our world. 

Rita Dove has said that she thinks of her verse-cycle as a "homage and as counterpoint to Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.”  You could choose almost any one of the poems from the book as a model for this month's prompt, such as "Persephone, Falling." 

I chose "Hades' Pitch", in which the god of the dead and the king of the underworld that bears his name makes a pitch to Persephone.

If I could just touch your ankle, he whispers, there
on the inside, above the bone—leans closer,
breath of lime and pepper—I know I could
make love to you.  She considers
this, secretly thrilled, though she wasn’t quite
sure what he meant...

Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, goddess of the earth. Hades abducts the young goddess one day as she is gathering flowers by a stream. Demeter goes in search of her daughter but is unable to find her. Demeter’s grief causes the earth to die — crops fail, and famine comes upon the land. Zeus intervenes and commands Hades to return Persephone. Reluctant to release her, Hades forces Persephone to eat a pomegranate seed, food of the dead. As a result, she can spend only six months out of the year with her mother, and the other six months she is destined to spend in the realm of Hades. To the Greeks, the return of Persephone from the underworld symbolized the return of life in the spring. 

This month's prompt asked poets to reimagine a myth or mythological character in our own world or in a modern situation. Is there a god, goddess or mortal from mythology that connects to your life?

Here, I have focused on Greek and Roman myths but you can look to myths from other cultures. And though I do like tales of the poor mortals mixed up with the immortals, the choice is yours. Include in your poem's title a clear reference to the character or myth you are reimagining.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


NIKE

The young woman who settles beside me on the bench along the running track
wears a shirt labeled Nike over one sweat-stained breast.
She is probably oblivious to the goddess who personified victory.
It is very unlikely that she is also a daughter of the Titan Pallas and the goddess Styx.
But as her essence evaporates into my nostrils, I wonder -
Are those goddess pheromones
that are making me accidentally-on-purpose
move my arm closer until it touches her arm
and causing her to follicle fan me
when she pulls back her long hair
and rearranges it with a circle
of metal leaves that might be laurel?
When she stands, the Sun helmets her blonde head
I want to follow her
as she continues to fly around the field
rewarding the victors with glory and fame,
but my mortal rules won't allow that.

Lily Hayashi



BAUCIS AND PHILOMEN

We look above to a glistening screen
of willow leaves, pulled over us
like a linen warp of yellow and green
threaded through a foot pedal loom.

The wind is the weft we feel as it passes
over and under, the breeze on a shuttle
weaves a coverlet of current around us.
You entwine your fingers in mine

as my cheek rides the curve of your arm
and my hair spreads the auburn rays
of a fan in the grass at our heads
while finches seek finches

with dipping glissando trills.
We find ourselves creekside
where earth smells of water
flowing and lithe, suspended

like silver minnows in a stream
arching and winding our way
finally fused together
in the rings of our aging trunk.

J. Belcanto



CAPTURED BY BLACK AND WHITE

Like Oedipus before Polyphemus, Susan before
the wide-eye of the Nikon camera,
wants to escape, looks from side to side
for a sheep under whose belly she can ride
from the room, smelling of lanolin, smoke,
wool, and the airy, spicy meadows of the Greek
island where it grazes. Instead she turns
her head while the lens loves her profile,
steals a bit of her soul to mount on heavy
slick paper, to be framed like a trophy by her
bring-it-back-alive husband, the hunter who
kills nothing but the small things he can
not see: desire, hope, and objects of varied
color, for his only film is black and white.

Mikal Lofgren



HYPNOS

It separates us from the gods.
Zeus knew not of time, age or sleep.
Night nursed sleep and dreams
and their younger brother too.
But Hypnos was dearest to the muses,
who loved song, discovered letters
and so poetry.

The gods didn't want poetry,
songs, dreams or sleep.
Thanatos sucked slowly at night's breast,
but still could not sleep.

Charles Michaels



ISLANDS IN THE MYTH

"Search.  There is but one...," a voice rang forever true.
Hey you!
Dare.
With you on that Island, who?
Tourists from
modern-day ocean liners fully manned,
an innocent, unknown coo?
Seaplaners on
mission do.
It's Dare, it is.
Dare.
Dare.
Daedalus did dare.
Flee to an island,
build did he.
Webs of sorts, in 3-D.
Oh said they, he gave
"Power of Movement" to
mere statues there.
Going somewhere?
By and by, the next time
you island stay...
think:
'Of Daedalus, is the mythological
energy a spectrum to consider?'
'Am I another Labyrinth builder,
yielding?'
'Be I, the Power of Movement, or the Movement of Power'?
Must it be one way or another?
Isolated?
Daedalus leaves the mystery.
The new-day scenes carry on as well;
with loads of new-day cigars, secret visitors,
oh yes, some from 'Hell',
some not.
Carry on. Carry on.
Carry on- flee...
as Daedalus did to an Island he be.
Where's not an Island then?
Careful, don't be deceived.
Search.  You must.
There IS 'land', but one.
Look, look to the new-day sun.
An 'Indiana Jones' connection.
Modern-way puzzling, even in, all rather simple.
Simple.
It's the Labyrinth - build as it may;
But the motion of the pieces won't go away.
Here and there, all over the place.
The ISlands as pieces, we too may face.

Jane Conforti



AFTER TEN YEARS

"Do not speak soothingly to me of death." - Achilles to Odysseus

It's as if Hermes has led me
past the gates of sun and dreams
and left me here,
drinking coffee at a sidewalk cafe
beneath an elm tree
where false dreams cling under every leaf.
Pleasure gone, flavorless air.

Had I Hades' helmet of invisibility,
I would walk to the beach,
take the coin from under my tongue
and buy passage home.

Ken Ronkowitz



WASTED TRIP

Sun's blaze burdening the venture
through the ever growing jungle mist
Hard to end the trek I've indulged upon
as the destination does not exist

Wandering left to right
returning to the start
Ever remembering how
the dream was torn apart

The phone told me of the
home of Emperor Eiold
Deep within this hell hole
near his treasure chest of gold

So without all of the logic
I have within the mind
Endless funds of fortune
In this jungle I hoped to find

But as I divulged earlier
in this explanation of my fate
Traveling deep within this clog of trees
it seems I came too late

For as I watched the group of men
have possession of the prize
I also watched my life savings
Diminish with my pride

Rob Shannon



LEDA

Zeus had sex with gods, demigods, mortals, and animals.
It makes me think anything is possible with him
but I have always thought that there may have been something
mistranslated in the story of Leda and the swan.

Zeus sees Leda and wants her.
For some reason, he decides the way to do that
is to transform into a swan.
The swan seduces her.
I want to know how.
There's no way I could be seduced by a swan.
They are very territorial and can be quite mean.
But he does,

and from this encounter
comes two sets of twins.
One child is born from an egg.
She is Helen. That Helen of Troy
who was known as the most beautiful woman alive.

"Mommy, " asked young Helen, "Who is my father?"
"Zeus Swan," replied Leda.
"Where is he now?"
"He flew away. They all fly away," said Leda,
flapping her arms at the beautiful young girl.

Pamela Milne



DON'T LOOK BACK

Aristotle thought that he never existed
but there were others to whom he was a real
musician, prophet and poet in those pure days before Homer.
His death song for his wife was so sad that gods and nymphs wept.
I'm sure that Lot would think of him and Eurydice
when he went through his own salty days.
The poet would sing to the Sun and avoid women,
preferring boys who had recently entered adulthood.
I suppose I should learn from their lessons
and not look back, especially back to ancient times,
expecting to find guidance in my poems, songs and life
from someone who women eventually tore apart.
But then I see his lyre there among the stars
and hear nightingales singing for him
even now on this empty beach
I want to think that he was reunited with his wife
and that together they could look back and laugh.

Lianna Wright



ATLAS
Atlas shrugged and
hid behind the world
he no longer had to hoist
upon his mighty shoulders.

He discovered that
that world no longer
needed nor desired
his strength to keep it
from falling free to doom.

No, that self-absorbed world
thought itself self-sufficient,
and the ancient fears and hopes
no longer mattered.

Atlas, as such,
a man without a mission.
snuggled softly into
his quiet masculinity
and carefully, solemnly
exited his Earth.

R. Bremner



THE GREEN MAN IN OUR GOLDEN HILLS

Every morning the Green Man walks his land
greeting oak, wild plum, and buckeye by name,
and measures a year’s growth rings by his hand –

long life-lines under bark, the trees that stand
as guardians of soil and air. The same
every morning. The Green Man walks his land,

picking up road-sweep litter, contraband
of traffic. This blooming natural world we tame.
He measures new-sliced growth rings by his hand

where chainsaws left raw stumps. The laws demand
we clear what’s flammable, an annual game –
every morning the Green Man walks his land

with weed-eater and loppers. Understand,
one needs to sort the leaping from the lame,
to measure the new growth rings by a hand

outstretched. Blessing of light at day’s command,
sun transforming each leaf to living flame.
Every morning the Green Man walks his land
and measures a life’s growth rings by his hand.

Taylor Graham



GAIA

Her favourite parts of the spectrum were always blue and green. Any astronaut could have told you that.
Out of the black came a hotbed of emerging colour and in her youth, there was little that could hold her back.
She interlocked her ivy fingers with the bony hands of time, draping green flesh over a skeletal fist.
The optimist thrived inside the garden of her eyes but then every part that died begot the amputee's itch.
Scores of wrecked boats litter the checked ocean that covers her torso to the neck. Every oil spill floats
like an ink stain of a pen she tries to keep in check. A tsunami rises from a cough inside her throat.
With the shrinking of severed land, she shrivels revealing teeth behind receding lips. Like a wolf caught in a trap,
she's had to chew off her hand a few times to save herself, but she's always been reluctant to resort to that.
Instead, she'll try to appeal to reason. Behind a leafy visage, two birds immune to the boundaries of state lines.
One with a humble message; the other, a foreboding presage. Their voices travel from the wind to the grapevine
to the mind of the megaphone man on some street corner of the world. Her heavy sigh punctuating his spirit.
A rallying cry that falls on deaf ears when the cynics think he's crazy and all the crazies think he's a cynic.
"What is a reflection but years in question?" A fine line in her intentions. "What is petty wrath
but the twisted salvation that only we divine can justify? Yet a crack only ever leads to another crack."
Her name becomes a mantra to a stranger in a mirror trying to remind herself. "My name. My name. Gaia."
She'll open up the heavens to unleash a beam of light where the hand of arid rage will set a forest on fire.
That's when her lips will switch from raspberry-pink to Chernobyl-red as she purses them to gently fan the flames.
And it'll all blow over when she decides to wrap the wind around her little finger and spin out some hurricanes
that'll fly over every head. Still her eyes remain unblinking, unflinching; uncaged but useless. A frail
truth wanders the crusader rallies of pamphleteers. Mistaken for anger, the acid rain's a weep behind a veil.
Every second another weapon teaches another lesson, ignored, but for the greenhouse of her imagination
where life is but a transient thought and apocalyptic paradoxes can reclaim what lays under the pavements.
Mother of a thousand sons who killed all their friends, blunted at the edges, aware that the fate of all things
rests in her lap. She takes a deep breath and again she says, with the grace of calm, "this is where the end begins."

David Pearman



PYGMALION AND ME

I awoke to the touch
of his sculptor's hands
stroking my laurel scented hair.

He named me Galatea
taught me to speak,
make love and sing to the sea

cautioned me to avoid
bright sunlight and too much conversation
with other men.

told me that when he'd given up
the search for a perfect woman
his mother cried.

That was when he began carving me
having nothing else in mind
but the pleasure of finding

beauty in stone, tooling inside
feeling the grain sing
in his fingertips,

conceiving me as he chipped away
smoothing each curve
till a fantasy took hold

that my stone would change
to flesh and bone. He began
sleeping in his studio

praying nightly to Venus.
Beverly Rosenblum
PYGMALION and ME
I awoke to the touch
of his sculptor's hands
stroking my laurel scented hair.

He named me Galatea
taught me to speak,
make love and sing to the sea

cautioned me to avoid
bright sunlight and too much conversation
with other men.

told me that when he'd given up
the search for a perfect woman
his mother cried.

That was when he began carving me
having nothing else in mind
but the pleasure of finding

beauty in stone, tooling inside
feeling the grain sing
in his fingertips,

conceiving me as he chipped away
smoothing each curve
till a fantasy took hold

that my stone would change
to flesh and bone. He began
sleeping in his studio

praying nightly to Venus.

Beverly Rosenblum



BAAST ACCEPTS A TRIBUTE

Three adult cats;
Baast and her two pages, who live
to serve the Goddess.

On a bright, warm, August day,
the male trots in through the gate,
a recent kill, a mouse, jiggling in his jaws and,
as Baast and the female look on, he places it on the grass,
in front of the house,
and takes a few exploratory sniffs.

Baast approaches.
We expect hackles, hissing, high drama.
Instead, the male steps back, allowing space
for her to freely inspect the fruits of his hunt.
After a few moments, she moves away, satisfied,
and the male returns to his prize.

Then, the female approaches.
Again, he moves away a few steps, watchful,
and seemingly respectful.
The female takes the little grey body in her mouth
and crunches down, hard.

It takes her just a few minutes to devour the mouse;
legs, guts, body, tail - she's steady and methodical,
totally absorbed in her task.

When only the mouse's head lies forlornly on the grass,
untouched and undamaged,
does she pause, reflect, consider,
with a thoughtful lick of her lips,
before walking over to the male
to sit near him, perhaps in wordless thanks
for the grey gift bestowed.

In the Bible -
the head of John the Baptist;
in myths both modern -
the head of Alfredo Garcia -
and ancient -
the head of Medusa;
from history -
the head of Anne Boleyn
and all the heads severed by Madame Guillotine;
severed heads are tributes, loaded with significance and meaning.
Now, here, on the grass, in front of the house,
the head of the mouse,
surrounded and considered by the Goddess
and her entourage.

Finally, Baast steps forward once more -
who else? -
and accepts the mouse head tribute
in three deft bites and a deep, deep gulp.

He brought home the meat.
She filled her belly.
And they both honoured the Goddess
by leaving the severed head for her,
and her alone.

Robert Best



PANDORA PROMISES

He claimed he was a God
Bronze skin and Golden hair
That HE alone could save mankind
From certain ruin
How could we not believe?
One whose empire spanned the globe
Who ruled it from a gleaming Tower
Surrounded by a stunning Queen
Perfect sons, gorgeous daughters
Noblemen and Courtesans
Fawning at his feet

What did we have to lose?
He asked
Broken and impoverished
A once great kingdom
Now preyed upon by heathens
At risk of being overrun
By vermin

He claimed he had it
All wrapped up
In a gilded box
Stuffed with gifts
Beyond compare
No need to open it
Just yet

But, being curious,
We did
And found
To our surprise
He’d lied
Ironically, the box
Was filled
With all the things
He’d promised
To protect us from

… Except for one
Stuck to the lid

Frank Kelly



REUNION ON AEAEA

At a luncheon of retired colleagues
I think of Odysseus reuniting with the characters from his poem.

Calypso, who sometimes haunts his dreams, would be there.
Now grown stout,
She still wears a diaphanous gown that clings to every bulge and rift.
She introduces him to her newest lover, to whom she says,
“This is the man I’m always comparing you to.”

The Sirens sit at a table by themselves.
They tell him about their new careers as schoolmarms
In an academy for young witches in Sorrento;
How they teach their acolytes the old songs,
And thank him for his trick of bees wax and a mast
Because it forced them to rethink their job.

Disfigured Polyphemus is off in a corner by the lyre player.
He grunts contentedly behind a plate of raw sacred cattle,
Gorging himself,
With a sheepskin bandaging his gutted eye.
Ignoring the impulse to announce himself,
Odysseus feels only disgusted pity and walks on.

Suddenly, Circe, whose palace this is, kisses him on the cheek,
And tells him how kind the years have been to him.
He notices a wart on her nose and wonders if she always had it
And was that the reason she kept her bedroom so dark.
She pulls a note from between her small breasts
And says it’s from Zeus and Athena,
How they’re sorry they can’t make it due to health reasons.

Near the door is Tiresias, surrounded by the souls of the six sailors
Who were devoured by Scylla.
He tells him what he already knows,
That he never really fit in with these people;
But adds, unless he learns to hate like his former shipmates,
When he dies, he won’t fit in there either.

Finally he’s bored into leaving,
When Calypso, a little drunk, takes him by the arm
And pouts, “We have to do this again, perhaps in the spring;
“When we can have a little time to ourselves.”
And Odysseus gives the smile only loss can bring,
And wishes he were already home with Penelope.

Ron Yazinski



CANCEL THE NARCISSIST

you’re so vain
bet you’d think this poem is about you
but that’s only partly true
but you’re not partial to the truth
you walked into a party and you’re …

Pathetically petty, pompous and pandering
Offensive, obscene, opportunistic and philandering
Testy, traitorous, tyrannical through and through
Unsound, unskilled; unapologetically unscrupulous you
Shameless, self-interested – a scourge upon the red, white and blue

but rhyme aside and decades before the Reign of Error
was Carly writing about Jagger, Beatty or both?
or was it Narcissus she summoned?
was she looking back to Ovid
or was she a seer like Teiresias?
knowing Narcissus would live a long life
unless he came to know himself
did she prophesy a future “leader”?
nay, Narcissus, entirely messed up too
but divinely handsome
and a real god amongst gods
talking the talk, walking the walk

today he would be just one of many
unable to draw themselves away
from the pool of social media,
the lens in their hands
projecting their favorite image
out to friends and strangers
would-be lovers passing and permanent
what a wonder and joy Narcissus
would find in technology
over the centuries
mirrors, cameras, video, smartphones
Siri, tell me how beautiful am I?
Narcissus - the ultimate influencer
a most shameless, solely-focused self-promoter

as to Echo (no relation to Alexa),
did someone say something?
ahh poor Echo, have you not heard
there really are Plenty of Fish in the sea
online - and free at that
but when you’re sexy and you know it
who needs the adoration of just one
Narcissus who died of thirst and starvation
no need now to tear oneself from self
Grubhub, DoorDash, Uber Eats
at your service

... or do we have it all wrong?
before Ovid we are told
you rejected another - Ameinias
sending forth a sword
that he might take his own life
which he does
and so you were punished
for your cruelty
by the god Artemis

today you’d be just another little shit
in the world of cyber bullying
perhaps it is best
we leave you in the past
your visage and those like you
your name given to a personality disorder
but no temples, no sculptures
carved into mountains
no Twitter account
no #narcissus2020
for Ameinias, Echo and all of us
I echo the late great Amy W.,
and I say "no, no, no"

Terri J. Guttilla