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Joyce is editor and creator of The Poetry Porch which is accepting submissions for its new issue in February and March 2013. See www.poetryporch.com/submissions2013.html for details.

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See Joyce Wilson’s Observations column in previous issues.

Perloff and Vendler

Burt and Scharf

On Stephen Burt

Review of Thomas O'Grady

Review of W;t

Review of Nadya Aisenberg

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Contributor Notes







Among the Goddesses


Reviewed


Joyce Wilson


by Joyce Wilson



Among the Goddesses
by Annie Finch.
Red Hen Press, 2010. ISBN 9781597091619 (paper).


The book of poetry Among the Goddesses by Annie Finch is an epic libretto for an opera, and as such, set its sights on the public as trustee of the private. The journey is presented as a Libretto in Seven Dreams, to be performed before a live audience. This long poem in seven dreams dramatizes a journey in contemporary times, from Oregon to San Francisco, in which goddesses from ancient times exert their influence through a series of visits to guide a troubled woman as she loses a friend to death, is raped, has an abortion, finds retribution, and gives birth to a daughter. With an emphasis on form (drama, epic, and lyric), Finch is able to cut across time as she addresses the cycle of birth and death, the journey in search of retribution and identity, and the pain of self-knowledge.

In the preface, Finch explains that she wrote the eight books to honor eight goddesses (reduced from nine) in dactylic meter, “to evoke the rhythm of ocean waves and the depths of female power” (Finch 9). The invocation reads as follows:

One plume of salt-spray thrown up by a rock-face,

One pebble left on the shore where it lands.

There is no end if there was no beginning,

So help me to tell where this ending began,

Gathering women who touch, who honor,

Who loom traditions through the body of earth.

Please lend me your voices, and some of your stories,

To spiral this shell through the layers of sand.

When it began, I was travelling in Oregon––

                        (Invocation, 21)

In the imagery of a vast ocean and mysterious chambers of a shell, women involved in weaving and story-telling, and the philosophical juxtaposition of beginning and ending, Finch presents this appeal to a higher power in broad strokes. The protagonist, a young woman, Lily, born of incest, leaves her family and journeys alone, repeating the ritual chant of the names of the goddesses as she goes: “Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna.” She also repeats lines from the invocation as she wanders:

One pebble left on the shore where it lands,

One plume of salt-spray thrown up by a rock-face...

There is no end if there was no beginning.

One plume of salt-spray thrown up by a rock-face.

 

The repetition of lines lends itself to musical form, reinforces cyclical nature of experiences between mortals and goddesses.

Soon she arrives at the house of Eve, an elderly artist who lives by the ocean, who invites her to stay, becomes a good friend, and then dies of old age.

Eve was a garden, and her words reached down

Into the fertile, unashamed soil

To soak up the rain of a living, long story.

Her hair tossed white patterns bare trees could have made

In long winter sunlight, she was so old––

And as each quick season passed over her body

She had learned not to fill it with anyone’s power

Except her desire––to open it freely

And let the clear goddesses make it their own.

            (Act I, Scene I, 28).

 

This portrait celebrates the integrity and independence of a woman’s sovereign existence and her mission to preserve her story to pass on in such a form that the goddesses could take it and keep it. Thus Eve preserves a piece of the past and she knows it and keeps it from oblivion. This passage also presents the feminist politics of the work: soil is unashamed, where words can thrive unaltered by overbearing judgment, and desire is solely personal, having disassociated itself from the urge for another’s power.

Each stage of Lily’s journey is marked by the presence of a particular goddess. After the death of Eve, Isis comes in the form of a young child, who grieves with Lily. Later, with Astarte, the goddess of fertility represented by a column of rosy sandstone, Lily learns to plant trees. She is raped in a churchyard by a man who accuses her of being a witch. After visiting Diana, who runs a café in San Francisco, she understands that she must seek out Hecate, the Queen of the Witches and goddess of crossroads. In the presence of Hecate she understands that she has become pregnant as a result of the rape.

Hecate, Hecate, what have you told me?

First a death, then a rape, now a pregnancy?

Hecate, Hecate, now am I pregnant?

Hecate, goddess of the crossroads

Looming above me, your face like a tomb,

As you enveloped my day with your darkness,

The oldest, haggard face of the moon

Swung into place like a sky above me,

Covering me with a solitude.

(Act II, Scene vi, 59).

 

Under guidance of Hecate, Lily will find the courage to terminate the pregnancy. In the dactylic chant “Hecate Hecate,” one can feel all the anguish expressed by the one facing this horrific challenge. Lily’s cry resonates. It is the cry of the vulnerable in need of deliverance.

This invocation to the frightening goddess Hecate, the haggard woman at the crossroads or doorways to death and life, fulfills expectations of a cry from the heart that have been prompted by the subject matter. I find that I crave more poetry like this passage to Hecate that looks inward, yet the form of the work as a whole is structured to appeal to audiences in public. The book even includes, on the last pages, a self-help guide with a list of suggestions for a post-abortion ritual, complete with the creation of an altar and sacred space, singing of songs, and saying good-byes. Does the inclusion of such an appendix, its determination to tie the text to the life, distract from the poetry? If anything, it is a sign of the times, directed at a public that has declared that the very topic of abortion is taboo. Finch reinforces the need for the ancient myths to dramatize what collectively we do not understand. She keeps her focus on a society that would forgive women who have had abortions where no other resources exist.