Psyche’s Scroll. By Karla Linn Merrifield. Beaverton, OR: The Poetry Box, 2018. 149 pp. $18.00.
In classical mythology, the oracle prophesied that Psyche, the youngest and most beautiful of three royal daughters, would be wed to a fearful dragon or snake who would harass the world with fire and smoke. Alarmed, the king decreed that Psyche be arrayed in funeral attire, carried to a mountaintop, and exposed. Marriage and death merged into a single rite of passage, as Psyche was conveyed by the west wind to a meadow and came to a splendid palace where a disembodied voice bade her enter. Alone, she ate and drank, was entertained by music, and guided to bed, where under the cover of darkness, she was visited by an unseen being who seduced her and fled before dawn. Night followed night, and she grew attached to her unseen lover. Tempted to learn his identity, Psyche lit a lamp and was startled to discover that he was not a monster, but the handsome Cupid, son of Venus, who, in defiance of his mother, had fallen in love with her. Outed, Cupid fled, and Psyche’s real sufferings began. Whipped and tortured by Venus’s handmaidens, Worry and Sadness, Psyche was set increasingly difficult tasks, which she accomplished with the help of intercessors. Culminating her demands, Venus sent Psyche to the underworld with a box in which to obtain a dose of beauty from Proserpina, Queen of the Underworld.
The myth of Cupid and Psyche is found in Apuleius’s second-century CE novel, The Golden Ass, in which Lucius, the first-person narrator, recounts the story as it was told to him by an old woman who was kidnapped and held captive in a cave.
Merrifield’s version also features a first-person narrator, Edie Seaver, who, hiking with an ex-beau in western New York State, finds an ancient urn embossed with the Hebrew letter “chai” (meaning life) in a she-bear’s abandoned den. The treasure inside the urn is a scroll of Psyche’s poems and prose poems that document, dramatize, and illuminate her searches and struggles, defeats and triumphs. This manuscript is the book we are reading, Merrifield’s version of the dose of beauty gifted by the Queen of the Underworld.
In the scroll, Psyche depicts herself as a split and tragic being in the Freudian terms of Superego, Ego, and Id seeking to heal her spiritual, physical, and emotional wounds. Superego figures include her father who punished, abused, and brutalized her for her crime of being female and left-handed, as well as other men, including her oppressive brother and “Joe the Dude Poet” who belittled her in a drunken swagger: “To the Superegos—all egos are illegal aliens/in need of severe restraints…” (p.25)
The Ego is her conscious self, a/k/a E.E. (Ego Everypoet), “a wildling enraptured raptor” (p.25), the phenomenon or object of the self’s perception, in Kantian terms, to the Id a/k/a JoJo the Poet, or noumenon in Kantian terms, the unknowable thing-in-itself. Elsewhere Merrifield refers to Ego and JoJo as “rudely surgically separated…Siamese twins,” (p.28), “birds of an aberration,” (p.29) joining forces together, “laughing/to develop a higher tolerance/for pain.” (p.44)
Other presiding characters—real, mythical, or imaginary—appear as inspirations for Ego and JoJo: Zenobia, the third-century Palmyrean queen who challenged imperial Rome, and Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, “revolutionary, feline con artist with a clandestine message.” (p.128) The Hopi Kokopelli, a muse with a water snake (touchstone to the Psyche myth), is reimagined as a trickster spirit driving a 1965 Corvette convertible. There are multiple references to icons of Sixties counterculture and other memes transmitted by replication and repetition, protests on the frontlines of the Occupy movement, and records of dreams culled from decades of notebooks. The writing brims with witty aperçus, poetic references, and word play, such as “Ego’s crib notes for her keynote at the National Atheist Literary Society Convention:”
I join you in working for old religion’s diminishment and establishment of music, poetry, and painting as truly humanistic religion, worlds without end. Ahmen and Ahwomen, and Ah, living things, and Ah, inanimate things. Ah—and awe.” (p.98)
Not all of the Superego figures are male. G.G. or “Gizmo Girl” is “an über-feminist superego…who covets techno necessities and their glitzy peripherals…as cyberspace gypsy hip-hopping in black beret, black cape (lined with red satin), and armed with a blingy tablet, G.G. tells fortunes.” (p.77) The most complex of the Superegos, G.G. personifies Merrifield’s love/hate affair with technology, sometimes distracting JoJo and causing her to neglect Ego or confuse her, but also enabling a remarkable access to “places where there are entirely new labels to…weave into the scroll of life.” (p.79)
Yet for all the cacophony of contemporary life clamoring in Psyche’s Scroll, among myriad influences is the presiding genius of Wallace Stevens. Merrifield refers to his poem, “The Rock,” as “an intelligent/imaginative/emotional/way of dying” (p.115), and the way that Psyche’s Scroll is structured, the reader is like the reader who “became the book” in Stevens’ “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm:” “The words were spoken as if there was no book,/Except that the reader leaned above the page.” Yet it is Stevens’ “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” which casts the net of influence most widely over Psyche’s Scroll. Stevens provides a gloss for Merrifield, and Merrifield elaborates Stevens: “The poem goes from the poet’s gibberish to/The gibberish of the vulgate and back again./Does it move to and fro or is it of both/At once?”
Stevens could have been referring to Merrifield’s Psyche, tragically divided and finally united:
I am the woman stripped more nakedly
Than nakedness, standing before an inflexible
Order, saying I am the contemplated spouse.
Speak to me that, which spoken, will array me
In its own only precious ornament.
Set on me the spirit’s diamond coronal.
Clothe me entire in the final filament,
So that I tremble with such love so known
And myself am precious for your perfecting.
Then Ozymandias said the spouse, the bride
Is never naked. A fictive covering
Weaves always glistening from the heart and mind.
(from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”)
Anne Whitehouse is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Meteor Shower (Dos Madres Press, 2016) and a novel, Fall Love. She received the 2018 Prize Americana for Prose. She lives in New York City. http://www.annewhitehouse.com
Olympic National Park Poetry Walks
The North Olympic Library System (NOLS) is again partnering with
Olympic National Park to offer Poetry Walks along four park trails for
National Poetry Month (https://www.nols.org/poetry-walks/).
I walked three of the trails – the short, wheelchair accessible Madison Falls Trail, The Living Forest Trail, and the Peabody Creek Trail. Like the diverse forest ecosystems embodied by the Park, from Pacific Coast beach to rainforest to treeless and snow-covered high alpine, the range of poets and poems selected by NOLS and the Park displayed on poster boards stuck in the earth like campaign signs were astonishing and surprising. Haiku, short poems, longer poems. Poets included Emily Dickinson, Shel Silverstein, Gary Snyder and Carlos Castaneda (speaking through Don Juan!). My favorite trail was Peabody Creek because it was the longest and offered the most solitude. The Pacific wren hidden in a cedar that ruptured the forest silence with its lovely trill just as I encountered Castaneda’s Conditions of a Solitary Bird deepened my experience of this trail too. If you find yourself in the vicinity of Olympic National Park through May 31 take a hike and a read!
Editor’s Note: Thank you so much Michael for sharing this.
I’ve always wanted to be a philanthropist. When I was ten years old I saved up my money and joined the Bronx Zoo. I was partially motivated by the promise of a garden tea with a platypus. Indeed, the amazing creature swam in a tank as I ate fancy chocolate cookies. Old ladies in big hats smiled at me–I was certainly the youngest person there.
But I had to struggle to hold on to my vision. Before I bought the membership, my grandfather got wind of my stash and tried to get me to donate the money to plant trees in Israel. He yelled and loomed over me until my dad had to pull him off. Since that important experience, I really don’t like being bossed around in terms of my giving.
When Notre Dame burned, social media bombarded me with opinions. A Jewish chat group took the position of not donating, because (breaking news here) medieval Catholicism was anti-Semitic. Other groups suggested I donate to other causes instead, as if charity were an either or situation.
Well, I donate regularly to Catholic charities that support immigrants on the border. I don’t look for perfection in organizations I give to. Rather, my practice is to give as often as possible. A Hassidic teacher once instructed me to “accustom yourself to give.” I count the acts of giving, not the amount. So telling me to give to A instead of to B doesn’t make sense.
In addition, I give from the heart. As a rule, I give locally, and to organizations that fight hunger and homelessness. I give so that my neighborhood will feel liveable. I don’t want someone to freeze to death camped out by the acequia. However, I also realized that one of the main sources of happiness in my life is a small but lively performing arts center five minutes from the house. It brings the world of music and theater to me affordably, with street parking! And so I give there as well.
If I feel moved to give, I do so. I think it is a destructive impulse to tell others not to give to some cause. Yes, philanthropy may reflect class, education, religion, and more, but why shouldn’t it? I love Facebook fund raisers for the opposite reason–they encourage me to give more widely.
The Jewish philosophy is to give with an open happy heart. If that isn’t attainable, to just give. Along with prayer and study, it is the basis of the religion. Therefor I appreciate being encouraged to give. But my grandfather got not one penny from me by attempting to dominate me.
This, an acoustical kiss,
played with twenty two strings–
The sense of hearing is what fuels this haiku, and also a twist of phrase. I thought the “kiss” was the sound of a harp, but it turns out it is from an unusual guitar. The listener is filled by the music, the ear and its perceptions seem actually “kissed” by sound. My favorite park of the haiku is the last line. The sound is complicated–played on twenty two strings. But it also reminds me of how when people say “it’s complicated”–often about relationships–it means they don’t want to explain further. The complication remains private.
And yet shared in the poem.
When Maternal Mitochondria was asked by a gallery for an artist’s book, we did not have one on hand. Our work over the past year has been mostly ephemeral installation in public spaces. But we were intrigued. After all, we often combine suminagashi and text.
We are not traditional book artists so we decided to play with the form of a book– keeping the interactive and narrative elements, and evoking the sense of wonder that comes from opening a volume for the first time. A box, like a book, holds the unknown. Working with sculptural elements instead of a traditional printed book gave us the opportunity for the narrative to be carried through to the outside form, offering a tactile experience that serves as a link to memory.
The poem came first. It is 36 stanzas of linked verse, in the tradition of the Japanese renga. As a homage to its origins, the renga opens with our translation of Basho. In addition, this renga is divided into thematic sections which include travel, home, the Gothic, astronomy, and the seasons.
We wrote it collaboratively over a two day period, alternating stanzas or links. Each section of poetry responds to the previous one, both reflecting it and breaking away on its own. The sculptural element can be viewed as the first and last stanza in the poem, or even a kind of shadow that tags along, something that stays with the viewer while they are engaged with the text.
The text was then printed on to two decks of 18 cards each. The cards follow the poem, and include suminagashi done in the traditional approach with black ink.
The box is collaged with Japanese paper. It references boxes of cake found everywhere in Japanese train stations. The treat is taken home to share and the box serves as a memento.
The title “Souvenir” evokes both memory and immediacy. How do we perceive and express the moment? Can that expression also be what reminds us of where we’ve been?
The poem was written collaboratively by Miriam and Isabel. Concept by Miriam. Fabrication including printing, design, suminagashi, and collage by Isabel.
this spring, again
the traveler’s song
songbird’s tiny egg
in chicken yard
under a cactus
skull, gently resting
on petrified wood
hang brightly at dusk—
the door propped open
crickets chirp in the moon
separates the lovers,
you take my hand
waiting for the dawn
on the roof, trespassing
children move rocks
in the arroyo,
wish upon a penny
an eyelash, a sidewalk crack
woman in white
stares at us through the window
glowing red eyes
the grownups won’t believe us—
pinky swearing our secret
wears the canyon down
as time does me
a mushroom peaks through the snow,
no fairy rings this time
the drip drip
of patient water
cracks run through the earth
like memories, like words
too hot too soon
we sleep with windows open,
edge of the bed
chat about divorce
love in Ohio
spring storms, trees and wires
litter the streets
open mouthed kiss
under the truck, shadow
in the shade
traveling across my land
coyotes eat the berries
leave me some lettuce
a bull snake in the tree
is carefully relocated
a woman wailing
or just the wind?
an old story
to scare bad children
a fox cooks udon
in mist, only the hungry
can find him
the witch’s house
turns on chicken legs
New Year’s day
everyone on the train
is going home
a single pink mochi cake
the kami return
to the mountains,
cranes start flying
huddled in the kitchen
sustained by hot tea
In a strange land
the rabbit’s ear twitches
car radios’ oldies
aren’t old enough for me
going nowhere fast
I feel limitless
who are you?
just another pilgrim
staff blooming in spring