The Doors of the Body by Mary Alexandra Agner

The Doors of the BodyThese poems hit the spot. Yes, they’re very well done, but that’s not the whole story: somehow, too, they caught me in just the right mood this evening, after a day spent slowly walking and driving the back roads of Central Pennsylvania looking at early wildflowers, each with a mythology as rich as the classic tales Agner retells here: hepatica instead of Minerva, spring beauties instead of Sleeping Beauty, bloodroot instead of Queen Tomyris, each with a miniature armory and a brave sail. I’m not always a big fan of midrash on classic myths, but I liked where these poems took me. Here are Penelope and Telemachus, yes, but also Irene Adler goading Holmes into a debate on sexual equality; an elderly Gretel who more than anything craves another taste of candy made from children’s flesh; a Circe who spills the beans on the soldiers she turned not into swine but into female lovers; and a woman in Salem on her way, it seems, to becoming the corn goddess:

My body is maize, bled far in the future,
now ankles aflame with runner bean scratches,
my toes dug in dirt, as I drop down the seed,
wrinkled white kernels. On the horizons, the drought
of adulthood, the sweet singing voice from inside the pyre.
(“Corn Field, Salem”)

As far afield as she ranges in these 22 poems, though, and regardless of whether she writes in the first or third person, Agner maintains a consistent tone — vatic, or perhaps sibylline, with a mixture of indignation and bemusement — and avoids the usual pitfall of such collections: she doesn’t try to make all of world folklore serve some grand new myth. Because you know, reenchantment only goes so far. Some tales could stand a little disenchantment, and Agner seems happy to oblige. Penelope, for example, isn’t exactly overjoyed at the return of her trickster husband:

Gone two decades, almost ghost
in my memory, I recognize right
away the hitch in your voice, inhaling
for time to find the perfect
lie. You’re home for good.

Sleeping Beauty manages to escape her enchantment almost immediately:

Let the spurned witch-sister
and the so-called fairy godmothers
duke out what history is writ.
Poor planning lets fates devour
the happy story here-and-now.
Destiny wants purity and light
and most of all submission, so
the scullery maid fisted me to ecstasy.
The curse broke like the chiming of a clock.
(“Sleeping Beauty”)

A closer examination of delicate-seeming wildflowers reveals an earthier and more interesting reality of steamy sex and caustic chemicals, as I’ve had occasion to explore at some length in my own work. It makes sense to me that a close reading of traditional and sacred tales would turn up similar secrets. The world of dreams has its own self-consistent reality, and like the world of science, it’s a little beyond what our minds can easily encompass. And of course the sexist warp of most societies creates an acute need for re-dreaming. Agner includes an homage to all the anonymous female songwriters, poets, and storytellers, “Old Enough”:

Tying sayings up like string, rhymes of advice still practical,
sense so common, on all lips, attributed to no one maker and every maker.

A horse and a reed whistle and a vast continent are not disaster.
Eighteen verses of silk and loneliness outlast their maker.

Always so many more unnamed, unmarked and in their absence, perhaps unmade.
Anonymous, prime your pens and prick your needles. Name yourselves makers.

—Which reminds me of the translation we published today at qarrtsiluni: the only poem to survive, in a dead language, from an otherwise unknown, 12th-century female troubadour, Azalais de Porcairagues. Just one poem, plus a fanciful sketch in an illuminated manuscript! To anyone who loves the written world, it’s maddening to think of all the Mary Alexandra Agners of millennia past who didn’t even have that much to survive them. No wonder this slender volume with the glossy, perfect-bound cover seems so large and full.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

2 Replies to “The Doors of the Body by Mary Alexandra Agner”

  1. Hey Dave — just dropping in via qaartsiluni. I really enjoyed this review, which introduced me to Agner’s work. Thanks for your mention of Azalais — I hope you don’t mind a quibble — Old Occitan is only “dead” in the same way as Middle English is — it has a modern descendent:
    I mention it mainly because Occitan speakers have suffered discrimination and in fact continue to, especially in France. Thanks again for the review and the link.

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