The glass-fronted cabinet in my parents’ lounge contained two volumes that enthralled throughout my childhood. They were red, hardbound dictionaries of classical mythology, and within their covers were lurid stories of gods and goddesses, fauns and nymphs, warriors and heroes, many of whom died terrifically violent deaths, or who were transformed into stone, or flora or fauna, by some vengeful deity. Goodness knows why they fascinated me, and they probably wouldn’t be considered suitable reading for a 7-year-old these days, but I’m grateful to my parents for allowing me to lose myself in these thrilling tales of metamorphosis.
Fast forward to 2017 when once again change seemed to be the watchword on everyone’s lips. Commentators speak of transformed political landscapes; there are regular accounts of blurred boundaries, whether between fact and fakery, or various gender identities. Public discourse is increasingly polarised and we don’t have to look too far for our marauding gods and satyrs, our gorgons with the ability to turn people into stone with a single stare.
So when I read an online article that 2017 was also the 2,000th anniversary of the Roman Poet, Ovid, I paid particular notice. In AD 17 (or possibly 18), Publius Ovidius Naso, to give him his full name, died in exile in the Black Sea port of Tomis (now Constanta in Romania). His sin had been to offend the emperor, Augustus Caesar, for verses that may have alluded to the scandal-riven Imperial Court, and from which he was dismissed in AD 8. The grief-stricken poet burnt his manuscripts, including the work that he would become most famous for. Luckily for us, his friends had earlier received copies of Metamorphoses, and they ensured its survival.
Having read the article, I took myself off to Facebook, surely the 21st-century equivalent of the Roman Forum in terms of the gossip spread, political scandal discussed and general chatter shared. I began a status update, wondering whether there might be interest in a new anthology of poems celebrating Ovid’s anniversary. I suggested a 21st-century version of Metamorphoses, with poems that incorporated the concept of physical transformation in some way. I added that I had no idea if any publisher might be interested in such a project but wondered if any of my poet friends would be anyway.
That stray update got an immediate and enthusiastic response. It turns out that many writers have a deep fondness for Ovid’s famous work, and several mentioned having copies of both the original anthology, and also versions by Ted Hughes (Tales of Ovid) and Michael Hoffmann and James Lasdun’s anthology from the 1990s (After Ovid).
The most significant intervention came from my friend and old colleague, Paul Munden, a poet from the UK who had recently moved to Australia to work at the University of Canberra’s International Poetry Studies Institute. Paul suggested that he might be able to source a publisher and, in a follow-up Skype conversation, mentioned that the Canberra-based publisher Recent Work Press would be interested in the project. Paul agreed to join me as co-editor of the anthology and, within 30 minutes, we’d begun to identify those poets whose work we knew and admired and who might be interested in contributing to an anthology. We even came up with a title: Metamorphic. 21st century poets respond to Ovid.
Our ideal number was 100, and we swiftly drew up a list of potential contributors from Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. We spent the early summer contacting those writers and got a tremendously warm response; it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but we soon reached our target number and knew we had a real anthology on our hands.
The brief was flexible; poets could write new versions of Ovid originals, or they could write poems that took the original text simply as a starting point. Many re-imagined the stories; others found analogues in other cultures, ancient and contemporary, be they accounts of death squads in the Philippines, social media morality tales or drawn from Chinese legend, or mother and baby homes in Ireland, as Anne Fitzgerald’s poem Change of Use so strikingly evokes. It opens:
If Neptune be the marriage of Heaven
and Earth and McQuaid God's man
on the ground, then Neptune House is home
for his deep rooted sleight of hand, populating
the Earl of Clonmel, aka Copper Face Jacks,
Georgian hideaway at Temple Hill, with little
children born of women without men to bind
them in the bands of holy matrimony, at sea
in a world of illegitimacy saved by life-buoy
McQuaid. With his eye on the main chance
J.C. sends in the Sisters of Charity to usurp
M.J. Cruice's abode for fallen girls, creates
St. Patrick's Guild and Infant Hospital, prices
each child's head, surer odds than McGrath's
The anthology is a fascinating mix of voices, styles and forms, by writers from Ireland, the UK, Italy, South Africa, India, Singapore, the Phillipines, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada.
What is most clear from the poems contained in this anthology is that the idea of metamorphosis is as current now as it was in Ovid’s time. If we have learnt anything in this somewhat extraordinary first 17 years of the 21st century, it is that nothing remains constant. The public discourse is dominated by transformation, as our understanding of what is true and what is not is constantly turned on its head. Old certainties have been thrown out, and this atmosphere of constant change requires new responses, new ways of navigating a world we no longer recognise. We are in a state of flux, as the poems in Metamorphic memorably demonstrate.
In the anthology’s introduction, Munden writes that “there is a renewed questioning of how and why gods should affect human thinking and experience. Part of our current political anguish is driven by religious difference, while at the same time, it is clear that humans are exerting an unprecedented level of influence over Earth’s evolution”. The poems in the collection respond to those challenges in varied ways, with varied tones, light and shade, tragedy and comedy. They also demonstrate the ongoing power of myth in this secular and scientific age of ours.
The House of Rumour
by Damian Smyth
They always tell us it's the centre of earth:
San Francisco: the planet ripping itself apart,
Finding fault everywhere with soil, sea & sky.
Hollywood Bowls: you watch the world go by
Kept under surveillance, hear everything said
Like the old days, gossiping like Louella & Hedda
Spilling on the stars in Beverly Hills. Difference now is
We're the stars & spill on ourselves. Millions
With a dozen ways to keep our ears open
& our mouths as well. As one hemisphere tires
& satellites drift, the other comes online, brawling
Sparrows under eaves, constantly bickering.
We can always join in. It's low octane mostly:
The odd time a god condescends to share & 10 million
Acolytes echo instantly against nobodies:
Some farmer shouting at those lonely as herself.
Sure sometimes the Emperor will ban souls to exile
Or the Pontiff broadcast crosswords on sex
& that's news. But as even news proliferates
Our facts get replaced by identical ones
Equally implausible. By the time it's known nobody died
In the fire or 80 or a thousand did, it's too late:
The child's dead already by the time his face
Reaches the screen in the palm of your hand.
Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram: the gods
Can't untell their own fabrications & neither can we.
We keep on knitting thread after thread
Till it makes sense but still isn't true.
No one credits what anyone says, no matter who they be.
Even away from the source of the slabbering
We feel the disturbance in the digital force
& have to get to it. What's being said? How many? Where?
"This." "I be like." "Who knew?" "Sad."
The car's still a write-off. Your cappuccino's cold,
iPhone discreetly trembling: a low hum
As if it's the ocean in the shell of your clutch.
That muttering on the bedside table,
A death missed overnight, message waiting.
"Facebook Live or it didn't happen." It happened. It happened.