Monday, February 20, 2012

A Review: Among the Goddesses by Annie Finch

Here is a review that got caught by the system. Though I have titularly shifted reviews off-site, I am bringing this review home because the work is just that good.

Among the Goddesses: An Epic Libretto in Seven Dreams
by Annie Finch
2010, Red Hen Press, $17.95

Among the Goddesses is a conflation of two works by Annie Finch, an epic poem: "Marie Moving" and a libretto: "Lily Among the Goddesses." While this sounds normal--two longish works to make one book, right? it's slightly different--"Marie Moving" was an unpublished epic that Finch turned into "Lily Among the Goddesses" at the request of a composer.

Since the opera remains unfinished, Finch has merged the two texts so as to tell a complete and compelling story. The texts are presented in different typefaces, allowing for three possible readings (epic, libretto, and "epic libretto").

Stylistically, the poetic section of the epic is in the vein of Beowulf: dactylic tetrameter with some variations. The libretto is unstructured, though rhythmic in feel; there is a manuscript page from the score in the front matter of the book that gives a hint to how the libretto should be read.

While this juxtaposition of form is not as distracting as the form of Alice Notley's Descent, the format may pose a challenge to the casual reader. I would caution, however, against rejecting Among the Goddesses because of this challenge--the format works to pull you through the archetypal journey of Marie/Lily.

Among the Goddesses, like H.D.'s Trilogy invokes the chthonic, earthly tradition of primordial religion in order to connect, not with a specific tradition, but with deeper, universal themes. Unlike a verse-novel, Among the Goddesses is difficult to parse into this or that excerpt as a critical review would call for. Instead I will focus on how Finch treats her universal themes and weaves them into a coherent, if unorthodox, text.

The main character of Among the Goddesses is Marie/Lily. In the epic poem she is Marie; in the libretto, Lily. In these naming choices, we hear a brief hint of Eliot: "The Waste Land's" "Marie, Marie hold on tight" is echoed in section one's: "Look, Marie," "Open your eyes!" and Four Quartets is also important to this work. But more deeply we hear names born from the Judeo-Christian tradition: Lilith, the gnostic witch and monster and Mary, the mother and lover.

The symbolism of these names is striking throughout the poem, as Marie/Lily embraces her body's ability to both destroy and create life.

The "epic libretto" follows a straightforward narrative: Marie/Lily, an outcast, meets and moves in with the elderly Eve (who is "a garden"). After Eve's death, Marie/Lily has a vision of Goddesses and goes across the country in search for herself (and Eve's friends). On her journey she is raped, becomes pregnant, and must search out the Goddess Kali for an abortion. The epic ends years later with Marie/Lily and her newborn she has named Eve.

As with the structure, some may be challenged by the subject matter of the epic. I can only say that Finch handles the rape and the abortion with deft honesty and gentle care. As with the structure, the subject matter fits.

With this subject matter, the epic hearkens far more back to the traditional EPIC, that of Milton and Homer--a story we know deep in our bones, translated for our time and all time. It is not an idiosyncratic novel-in-verse but an archetypal story, presented here for our ears. The epic, however, is not an epic of men, but an epic of women. Men in this poem are rapists--indeed, the father of Marie/Lily's child Eve is simply absent. While this is perhaps a fair criticism of Finch's work, one would do well to remember that women in traditional epics often get the short shrift of stock characters.

The major difficulty in writing reviewing Among the Goddesses is that the epic cannot be excerpted with any significance; its value is in its totality and the totality of its experience. Unlike a novel-in-verse, it requires a submission to the text (which is a delightful conundrum when you consider that the work is overtly feminist). A scant 60 pages long, it must be consumed in one sitting. It is clear that Among the Goddesses calls for performance. It is, in Wagner's tongue, a total work (Gesamtkunstwerk), though as unperformed, it is unfinished. Though it is difficult to imagine today's poetry reader allowing themselves to be immersed wholly into a text, Finch's work rewards such faith.

Unfinished as an opera, however, I would reiterate that the work presents a finished whole as a text. As a text, the work is an excellent and moving feminist epic, standing with Trilogy and Descent as bright additions to the canon. Like any poet of worth, Finch produces beautiful lines, by themselves worth the price of admission:

The other heart has begun its beating
in the rich cave, the long silence
the hoping morning that was my womb.

But in the same way that a spray of color on a canvas may be individually beautiful but ultimately incomplete, the beauty of the work is in its entirety. You simply must read this text--Finch's Among the Goddesses is not Georgia O'Keefe focusing to distraction on the interior of a flower but Gaea herself, embracing the world.

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