Sunday, January 1, 2012

Circe in Myth and Comic Books

How to Paint a Goddess in a Few Easy Steps

When we speak of cultural heritage, that phrase can mean a variety of things, from abuela's recipe for Christmas tamales to the inclusion of the Pyramids in the movie Despicable Me.  One of the legacies that we all have collectively inherited from the Greek and Roman traditions, besides toga parties and the architecture for the White House, is the enduring masterpiece, The Odyssey by Homer.  I still have my copy that I used at Glendale College in 1978.  (See image, below.)  Recently an AVC faculty member has published a delightfully provocative book about as aspect of this story, prompting this quick tour now.

Very very briefly: after ten years, the Greeks have won the Trojan War (as described in The Iliad), but various heroes have ticked off various gods, and in the case of Odysseus, his return home to his wife Penelope will take ten years.  Originally an orally delivered poem whose immense length requires memory tricks like the repetition of the phrase "wine-dark sea," this core tale lives on in many, many translations.  One of my personal favorites is this movie:

The movie adapts much of Homer but does not fully retell all of the original plot line.  It leaves out the episode where Circe, daughter of the sun and a sexually voracious and utterly captivating woman, first turns the warriors into pigs, and then later spends a year distracting Odysseus with wine and sex.  (Like most men, apparently he finds that combination hard to resist.  She probably also had a good selection of ESPN channels on cable.)  While the movie uses some of that narrative in a brief and delicious "Sirens" episode, no overt reference to Circe appears.

A more faithful response to Homer's story is by James Joyce, whose 1922 novel uses the Roman version of the name, Ulysses.  This 700+ page book takes place on June 16th, 1904, in Dublin, and the hero, salesman Leopold Bloom, has the ten years of adventures compressed into a 24 hour day.  Unlike the Cohen Brothers's film, Joyce's book does includes Circe, named in the book "Bella Cohen" (no relation to the directors, though they would have liked the pun).  She runs a brothel in which hallucinatory actions nearly undo our main character. 

This is arguably the most important novel of the past 100 years, however like other examples of "High Modernism," (T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, for example, or Picasso and cubism, or the music of Stravinsky), it is not an initially accessible book.  It is a funny book, a sad book, a frustrating book, and a musical book, but it is not an easy book.  Joyce keyed each chapter to a portion of The Odyssey, but for all of its brilliance, it's the kind of book that often needs a study guide the first time through.  Some of us may prefer a more direct response to Homer.

How about the comic book version?

My wife got this for me for Christmas, and the illustrator, God bless him, is not afraid to show us a PG-13 sexy side of the various figures, including, as seen below, Circe herself.

Obviously there have been a lot of jokes over the years that it couldn't have been that hard for her to turn the crew into pigs; most men are half way there already.  There is a moral here of course, and important one, about not trusting strangers, and not allowed yourself to be easily seduced by intoxicating meals.  Stay on guard and don't trust women with plunging necklines.

That message informs the many turns and twists of Nicelle Davis's first poetry collection, titled simply Circe.  Davis is an adjunct instructor in Language Arts, and a popular one --- once on a whim she stopped in on one of my English 099 classes, to do a guest lecture on punctuation.  She could only stay half an hour, but after she left, the students were all staring at me, saying, "But... But.... where did she go?  She was so NICE.  We want her back, not you, we don't want you.  Bring back that nice poet lady!"

Sorry, you can't have her, but if you go on Amazon, you can have her first book.

Reviews of the book as well as the blurbs on the back cover focus on the writing, on Ms. Davis's energy and imagination, and on the successful way she blends myth, imagination, and the experience of motherhood.  The person who has been slighted though has been the illustrator, whose name doesn't even merit inclusion on the cover.  (Shame on the press.)  Cheryl Gross upholds a small but vital tradition, that of the illustrated poetry book.  We could compare this to Blake or to the work of Anne Sexton, or, in for a much lesser text (though not lesser art), to the ways that Christine Mugnolo's work enhanced my book, Bombing Ploesti.  They do not reproduce well here in the blog format, but here's a taste of the work in Circe.

Whimsical and exquisite, these small pen-and-ink style illustrations not only help to reinforce themes and plot lines in the book, but they also provide a place to rest in between challenging and intense linguistic moments.  The best visual art always impresses me with how much it can convey with a few quick strokes. I know that it takes a lifetime to master this kind of compression, yet on the page, it looks inevitable and easy. 

And to be honest, I had been a 'no' vote on this.  Initially, seeing the book in manuscript form, I had not thought that it needed the addition of art, but now that the book is out, I am a convert, and think that they make this important book all the richer.  Nicelle Davis has several more book publications pending, and her next books may turn out to be even more significant than this one.

For more of her poetry, she publishes widely in online journals.  And for Circe in popular culture, while Wikipedia can be hit or miss on many topics, on that one, it has a very thorough survey.  Davis is an AVC graduate (and, after that, a graduate of CSU Bakersfield / AV), a fact that makes me wonder which of our students enrolled now will go forth a extend and enrich our cultural heritage.  Somebody going to school at AVC this fall could turn out to be working on a symphony or a set of architectural plans or a design for a new kind of wedding dress that will knock us all for a loop.  

I look forward to that.  Until then, I need to find out from my wife if there's a graphic version of The Illiad, and, after that, James Joyce's Ulysses

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