Friday, February 22, 2013

Thaliad: Upside Down From Us

Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Decoration for "Gabriel the Weeper"

We found a sourwood tree that had been killed
By something, but the leaves still drooped in place,
Though every one had faded into brown.
When we came closer, leaves burst into wings –
The tree was green, the death was butterflies,
Alive and pouring like a waterfall
But upside down from us.

So says Gabriel, the weeper, before they abandon him. His abandonment is one of the discomforts of this epic. The gloss tells us that deserting him “sealed the end of innocence” for the children: but you know, I don't trust that glossator for beans. What innocence, and how sealed? It feels less like a sin to me, in the narrative – no one more than briefly really tries on guilt or expiation for it – less, I say, like sin than like sacrifice: and if one is to look for the meaning of that sacrifice, it has to be in the difficulties, the contradictions the sourwood tree.

First of all, it's lost and falsely found:

One day I walked
Up there With my father. I'm sure it was
The place. It could have been... It looks the same.

We are sure that it is not the place: Gabriel of course is simply desperate for any shred of anything like home. Home is gone forever, and Gabriel can't, or won't, still his grief.

The tree is not really dead. There is a sort of miracle that returns it to life: all its dead leaves fly up to heaven, and it's green and living after all. But brown butterflies are a far cry from, say, the brilliant butterflies that populate García Márquez's Soledad. These, coating the tree, giving it a deathly look, are more in the register of moths: and what might with a dab of color or two have been a joyful ressurection remains a disturbing inversion. Death and life may not be what they seem, but there's nothing reassuring about this upside-down waterfall. One thinks more of ashes rising. Gabriel, I think, had to be sacrificed in a more ugly sense, a sense that Homer's audience would have grasped at once: the gods aren't satisfied yet. The fire wants one more.

The deepest kinship of this epic, formal, emotional, and moral, is with the Aeneid. There comes a time, reading that poem, that an acute reader suddenly realizes that Augustus Caesar was sold a bill of goods, and that Virgil, despite all his show of politically correct patriotism, was not really sure that Rome should ever have been founded at all. A similar dismay and foreboding runs through the Thaliad: its beauty is wounded and dark, from beginning to end.


Paul Digby said...

A rose is too sentimental without the thorns, perhaps?

I feel a camaraderie with all those who have read, 'Thaliad' when it comes to Gabriel.
How Marly Youmans could have done such a thing to him is quite beyond me. It reeks of cruelty and... realism! This is exactly the sort of thing that would happen, and I think that is a bit of a shock to us all?

I have enjoyed reading your blog postings on 'Thaliad', Mr Mole!

Beth said...

I think she had to do it. It would have been an entirely different poem without the Gabriel incident. I've never asked Marly about her ideas on "original sin" -- Idoubt she accepts it -- but I think she needed to place the children squarely within the flow of flawed and cruel humanity, not simply as innocent victims of the actions of evil adults. Without an action to be somehow internalized, considered, paid, how can there be redemption -- in this or any true epic?

Dale said...

Oh, certainly she had to do it! No question there. But you see the action as redeemed? I really don't, though I'll be watching for that, as I go forward. Even less do I take it as original sin, though. Partly, as Paul says, it's just something that happens; and more deeply, they just can't afford a mourning commensurate with their loss.

Dale said...

(Of course, people mean remarkably different things by original sin. "Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward" -- I'm sure all three of us, and Marly too, would agree wholeheartedly on that!)

Marly Youmans said...

Very interesting! I see that you are all reading a slightly different poem--which is the way with poets and poems and readers.

Something I read today which has relevance and is something I believe:

"If an author interprets a poem of his own he limits its suggestibility... Ultimately meaning in art--both meaning of literary symbol and of that greater symbol the work of art itself--is a joint achievement of artist and audience. As the artist pounds into his symbol all the richness he can summon, as he 'takes a word and derives the world from it,' so the symbol the intelligent reader brings all of the past he has been able to gather into himself."

Marly Youmans said...

Oops--"so to the symbol"