I’ve changed my hairstyle so many times now; I don’t know what I look like.
– Talking Heads, “Life during Wartime”
There ought to be in every hand a well-thumbed and annotated copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It should be found – splayed, its leaves fattened with moisture and sun – wedged between windshields and dashboards. The work’s perfect spine should be cleaved. The book-length poem ought to be rummaged through like an over-stuffed suitcase for a daily dose of myth, magic and wonder. We ought to all speak a little Ovid. Never mind the 12,000 lines of hexameter found in some translations; never mind the work, sometimes in blank verse, at other times in prose, simply undulates like a fulsome river through fifteen books and flooding a landscape that begins with the source of creation, transitions through successive epochs of moral decay, deluge and seismic shifts, and ends with a plea for continual rejuvenation. Never mind the incredulousness one must endure tripping along the unpronounceable place names and personages here; there are gods here too and creatures whose nomenclatures sing as sublimely as the names of fungi. Never mind the oddity of people turned into beasts, into trees and rock over the two hundred and fifty episodes of transformation at times grotesque and churlish, and often shocking.
For this is our song.
Who among us has not changed? For us changelings and transformers this is our blog; Metamorphoses’ tales are the loquacious updates from a better-educated, better-read Twitter friend. This is the sound your blood makes.
It is a Saturday morning, clear and bright with a hint of autumn in the air. I am taking another journey into a strange city to be amongst those I don’t know. Having resided in three countries and numerous cities over the last twenty years, I wonder as I drive along I-70 who I’ll be for them, for me. It’s a modern art gallery today – the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, a concrete and glass modernist edifice perched, iconic and cold, in the Grand Center district in Saint Louis, Missouri. I am attending “A Marathon Metamorphoses” a two-day reading of Ovid’s classic poem. Over seventy readers from the St. Louis area will read in fifteen-minute intervals finishing the poem in its entirety the over a weekend. The event is in conjunction with its exhibit Ideal (Dis-) Placements: Old Masters at the Pulitzer, which includes Dutch artist Joachim Wtewael’s “Cephalus and Procris (The Death of Procris), which is said to be inspired by Book 7 of Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses.
I am no classicist, but my home library shelves do hold a few volumes of Homer, Virgil and a Loeb reader or two. Latin poet Ovid is a recent acquisition, to be honest (each reader has their blind spots). Publius Ovidius Naso was his real name – the last name ‘Nose’ for all intents and purposes a family inheritance from a relative with a big, you guessed it, nose. Ovid was born 43 B.C.E. in Sulmo, and died in 18 C.E. Ovid’s popularity waxed and waned in his and our lifetimes. It is for the poem The Art of Love that Emperor Augustus expelled Ovid in 8 A.D. out of Rome to Tomi on the Black Sea. I teach English at a local private Catholic university and Ovid’s The Art of Love is one of the texts we are reading. Metamorphoses is arguably Ovid’s most ambitious and well known verse. The title of the poem is Greek for “changes in shape.” The opening line, “My mind is intent on singing of shapes changed into new bodies” establishes a charge the poet fulfills over 12,000 lines composed in hexameter the meter used for Homer’s songs to Achilles and Odysseus. The hexameter was a change for Ovid, from his usual line of the elegiac couplet. It is said Ovid destroyed the work before he died, only to have the poem resurrected by one of those proverbial friends who had a copy and rescued the classic from the flames of obscurity. Its popularity peaked and bottomed out over the years depending on milieu. A modern translation came in 1567 introducing the work to modernity and Ovid has beguiled and beat up readers ever since.
The poem begins with the great metamorphoses – our emergence from chaos to form. Then Ovid focuses our attention on the transformation of the human race through its ages, from gold to bronze; from high morality to a lowered form. Creatures and folks are transformed, and the changes are wrought by their own egregious agency or at the caprice of persnickety gods. Here you’ll find Cupid and his quiver of dubious arrows. Here Apollo chases Daphne who is turned into a tree by her river god father. Here survivors of the flood re-people the earth with rocks. Here the baseness of humanity is writ, but also its yearning for what ought to be. Here when the world is made anew of all the creatures of the clay and muck, humankind were the sole formation made to look up at the firmament.
Over the first six books the changes are for the most part the result of divine action. In the next six, gods do the changes, but is the result of human passion and crime. Greek myths are used in the first part of the book, but these give away to Roman. For me, the surrealism gives way at the end to political opportunism when Ovid gives Pythagoras a 400-line speech on the nature of the universe, which ends, perhaps famously, with the poet proclaiming: “Wherever Roman power rules over conquered lands I shall be read, and through all centuries, if poets’ prophecies speak truth, I shall live.” Or in another translation “then in my fame I will live.” Or in the one read during the marathon, “I shall have life…”
The Pulitzer marathon is based on the painting that depicts the unfortunate end to jealousy and misunderstanding between Procris and her husband, Cephalus. The section of the poem and the painting illustrates what happens when mortals and gods interact. The dawn goddess fell in love with Cephalus and he was tempted, but stayed with his wife Procris. But his love of dawn expressed aloud one morning and overheard by his wife, Procris results in irrational jealousy and death. Procris hiding in nearby bushes, cries out when she hears Cephalus praising the dawn, and in the process is mistaken by her husband for quarry. Cephalus throws his javelin and it pierces Procris and kills her.
As I watched the novelist give way to the preacher who gave way to the poet and then the journalist reading, as best they could, their fifteen-minutes of Ovid that Saturday I recalled a line from a play by Mary Zimmerman I’d seen in New York a few years back.
It has been said that myth is a public dream, dream are private myths. Unfortunately we give our myths side scant attention these days. As a result, a great deal escapes us and we no longer understand our own actions. So it remains important and salutary to speak not only of the ration and easily understood, but also of enigmatic things: the irrational and the ambiguous. To speak both privately and publicly.
This has been a year of transition for me; if that sounds too clinical I can say this has been a year of change. My mother died in February at the age of seventy-seven of lung cancer. Still to this day her passing is hard for me to fathom. My father, in the process of losing the partner he’d been with for sixty years, lost a lot of strength and diminished right before our eyes. This is the year of my new back. For almost nine years I suffered with chronic back pain with the occasional acute paroxysm that left me incapacitated. My spine was cleaved. An eight-hour operation repaired pinched nerves and replaced back discs for new ones. Today I have inside me rods and screws of titanium; I have synthetic bone marrow. I learned German this year. I learned how to read five books a day preparing for my PhD comprehensive examination. We change, that’s what we do.
I learned that time devours.
Each Ovid reader to the task. Fifteen minutes.
There are no introductions for the doctors, the priests, the poets and publishers. One blends, morphs, into another. White hair, black glasses. Pink dresses, dark skin. Bow-tied. Bangles and baubles. Eyes down on the open book before them, stationed beneath the art gallery’s Ellsworth Kelly “Blue Black,” while nearby a painting of a gap-mouthed Saint Jerome, the patron of librarians, sizes up the scene. Outside a twenty-four tall steel spiral torque by Richard Senna oxidizes in the sun. I sit, alone, together with others and take in the faces around me.
We have been nighttime travelers
Traversing a vast wine dark sea of glass
The nearly-drowned swimmers fetched
From the drench and placed atop the peaks
Where water does not go.
We are hooded and humble, we
Hold in our cupped hands
The weight of our salvation.
We should all speak Ovid.
Her skin the color
Of light delphiniums
Javelin piercing her breastplate
Wreath of leaves. Sudden horns. Of thorn.
Readers move one into another, blur. Voices rise. Fall. Many octaves. No one person hears it all.
One song though.
Never mind: we continue unabated, undaunted. In our quiet way, we make it through the transformations, through the new channels borne of spiral torque, quietly oxidizing. New places to grow.
The universal is personal. We all speak a little Ovid. Not in the tongue of Latin, but in the tenor of the music.
We shed every cell in our bodies and renew each one over a period of seven years; we sing the changes.
There ought to be in every hand a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses – that curious and mind-numbing 12,000-line poem reminds us our lives can change in an instant. We can lose loved ones, time, ourselves. We can lose lions of the senate and kings of pop, and teachers and bearers of ash; we can lose resplendent angels and stalwart talking heads. And that’s the way it was… But the ancient poem is not simply a mourning meter of what can be lost.
Ovid reminds us of the capacity to change. To renew. To open ourselves to magic. To acknowledge our shortcomings and their attending sufferings. Ovid reminds us of what ought to be.
I lost so much this year. We all did.
I have so much ahead of me. We all do.
We all speak a little Ovid. We all do.
Different octaves. Same song.
Nothing is immune from change. Times devours.
Yet we were made to look up and sing in the key of flux.