Friday, September 3, 2010

Death of the Goddess:
A Reading of Louise Bogan’s “Medusa”

“The ringing of a church bell to announce a death is called a death knell. The type of death knell sometimes depended on the person who had died; for example in the counties of Kent and Surrey in England it was customary to ring three times three strokes for a man and three times two for a woman.” – from Wikipedia entry on Church Bells

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” said Keats to a Grecian Urn, and few poets have demonstrated that dictum better than Louise Bogan (1897-1970). Perhaps her most famous poem, “Medusa,” published in 1923, is a veritable lucid dream in verse, one of the richest and most inscrutable in the modern canon. What gives Bogan her special haunted quality as a poet is the way she slices the meanings of words so precisely and into so many rich symbolic configurations that they might be word puzzles, anagrams, except that she has also taken great care to let all the emotions from the poetic state of grace float freely in the air. This haunting multi-valence, here and elsewhere, has left most commentators stumped, having to resort to freely writing in events from Bogan’s supposed life story to fill in the ellipses, looking at this poem as demonstrative of a “paralysis of the will” (Ellen Bryant Voigt), “entanglement with the maternal” (Suzanne Clark), or a confrontation of “her own demonic aspect” (Paula Bennett), among other manifestations of a decidedly feminine perspective.

This reading hopefully grounds that sense within a much longer and richer tradition.

First the poem itself:

I had come to the house, in a cave of trees,
Facing a sheer sky.
Everything moved, -- a bell hung ready to strike,
Sun and reflection wheeled by.

When the bare eyes were before me
And the hissing hair,
Held up at a window, seen through a door.
The stiff bald eyes, the serpents on the forehead
Formed in the air.

This is a dead scene forever now.
Nothing will ever stir.
The end will never brighten it more than this,
Nor the rain blur.

The water will always fall, and will not fall,
And the tipped bell make no sound.
The grass will always be growing for hay
Deep on the ground.

And I shall stand here like a shadow
Under the great balanced day,
My eyes on the yellow dust, that was lifting in the wind,
And does not drift away.

The conventional read on this poem is that the narrator chanced a view at some horrific but elided trauma, represented by the Medusa from Greek myth, and was turned to metaphoric stone. As a result, she is left paralyzed and silent, like a church bell frozen in mid-peal, but aware of how the world goes on without her. This explanation, poignant as it is, has never fully explained the startling choice of words and imagery, for example the first stanza before the Medusa appears, nor has it provided any context for why it appeared, or what it meant to the narrator. Without taking away from the effect of that interpretation, I'd like to expand the reading to get at some of these questions, by expanding our conception of the Medusa myth.

Medusa, from the Greek, means “sovereign female wisdom,” and represents a Mycenaean variant, imported via Crete from Libya, of the Mother Serpent God who created the world, and with it the secrets of birth, immortality (the snake was thought to shed its skin endlessly), the cycles of time, healing, prophecy, sexuality and the thresholds between worlds. She was regionally known as Ianna in Sumer, Ishtar in Babylon, Au Zit/Set/Hathor (or Isis in the Greek translation) in Egypt, Ashtoreh in Byblos, Astarte in Phoenicia, Ashereh in Canaan, and Athena in Greece, among many other manifestations. As Robert Graves summarizes it in The Greek Myths “the whole of Neolithic Europe, Near and Middle-East, to judge from the surviving artifacts and myths, had a remarkably homogeneous system of religious ideas based on the many-titled Mother Goddess,” all of whom were associated with serpents, which were usually represented in spirals signifying the movement of the heavens. The challenge the modern world has in understanding Greek or other classic myths is that they derive from the matrilineal Goddess religions but were later intentionally corrupted in the transition from the agricultural to the bronze and iron ages by attempts to impose patrilineal political structures. Thus the Goddess worship at the center of ancient myths had to be attacked and destroyed, usually by changing the myth itself to make male gods the creative force and the female gods stripped of their power. The myth of Medusa is a particularly striking example of this, turning from an oracle of the sacred mysteries (the mask of Medusa was originally erected in stone on caves and gateways at sacred sites dedicated to the Goddess and used to guard and protect women in their secret knowledge of the Divine Feminine) to the hideous head of snakes that petrifies men into stone who was beheaded by Perseus on the advice of a furious and jealous Athena.* The trouble is that most modern readers are only familiar with the perverted version, just as their knowledge of serpents is circumscribed by the Adam and Eve creation story in the Bible, which was a similar, deliberate attempt by the Levites to distort the Goddess religions’ own symbols (serpents, trees) from symbols of immortality and creation to those of death and original sin in order to suppress the Goddess religion and claim power for patriarchal alternatives.

Bogan’s poem and its strange emotional hold makes much more sense if read from the light of the Goddess-centered meanings.

The opening lines are as strange and beautiful as any in the English language:

I had come to the house, in a cave of trees, / Facing a sheer sky.”

The vowels lap over each other like waves in a forward advance of sibilants as the stately meter begins and abruptly stops. We’re left to pause and ponder the many paradoxes of this line: is this house earthly or heavenly? How could an underground cave be a sky-reaching tree? And what of that word used to describe the sky, sheer, connoting both intimate transparency and lofty inaccessibility? It begins to make sense when one realizes that caves were the place of worship in the Goddess religions, much as the church is the house of Christian worship. That is why all the leading male gods and avatars of the first patriarchal age (Apollo, Adonis, Herakles, Hermes/Thoth, Horus, Mithras and Jesus, among many others) were born and resurrected from the dead in caves. The earliest known art, often depicting serpents, also comes from caves, not only because it represents the womb, but the earth humans came from. Trees, similarly, have a rich symbolic connotation, of the sycamore fig tree of life, whose fruit was the blood of the goddess, promising life even after death.**

Everything moved.” The poem, coiled to a stop, soon lurches forward again, into the flowing dynamics of the natural order but, immediately, “-a bell hung ready to strike.” No sooner does the motion start than more stasis, the church bell that calls the faithful to worship is still and expectant, cast in terms of execution (hung) and violence (strike). The key here, as I’ve discussed in other contexts, is that, of all the many Christian symbols, the bell is the only one that was not appropriated from pagan religions.*** Whatever its import, the bell changes everything: “Sun and reflection wheeled by” implying that now, instead of everything moving, including the narrator, only the sun moves, it has been separated out (into, say, a Sun God?) and her reflections are subject to its light.

This sense of dislocation is matched in the subsequent stanza by the syntax fragmenting into verb-less description. Medusa is introduced, but not by name: “when the bare eyes were before me / And the hissing hair.” The word choice of “bare” (rhyming with hair and, later, air) is particularly significant. Naked, undisguised, without ornament. Interesting ways to describe a mask. Bare also connotes “without illusion,” the revelation of the truth beyond the maya or veil. That is precisely what the oracular Goddesses like Gaia at Delphi purported to offer, with their snakes as constant companions. The eyes and hair are “held up at a window,” implying that it is the severed head of Medusa displayed for all to see, but it is “seen through a door,” as through a portal to secret knowledge. The contrast is highly dissonant, and informs the next, equally motionless sentence, where the eyes are further qualified as being “stiff bald eyes,” highly masculine adjectives that are inapt descriptors of the so-called windows of the soul unless, of course, they are dead. “The serpents on the forehead” –the Eye of Wisdom of the collective Mother Goddess, later made masculine as the Eye of Horus, a snake emerging from the forehead/third eye to transmit wisdom – “Formed in the air.” The emphasis is on formed, which breaks the meter, and creates a strong rhyme with fore- and door. Here we are placed in as dislocated a space as the narrator. Did the serpents form the eyes? Were they both simultaneously formed? Were they already formed or form as she looked? Were they substantial or conjured from thin air? The sense of this unsettling, chimerical sentence is that the narrator feels the depth of the resonance, but is left with only an untrustworthy image.

So ends the “past” portion of the poem, or “Maiden” section in Goddess terms. It was an initiation aborted at the start, a quality of insight and belief confounded. The “present” or “Mother” section begins with the next stanza, but it is a motherhood that is simultaneously denied and elongated. “This is a dead scene forever now.” As with a dead child, the loss eventually supplants the past presence. “Nothing will ever stir,” a nice double entendre implying that the mysteries behind the mask continue to go on beyond our knowledge. “The end will never brighten it more than this” – the third irregular phrasing in a row – “nor the rain blur.” The suggestion here is of the contrast between the admitted reality and the actual reality – it is both timeless and dead, immanent and non-existent, like the Schrödinger's cat experiment, in which the cat is both alive and dead − both possibilities exist until you open the box and investigate.

That sense takes on even greater force in the next stanza. “The water will always fall” – paying off the rain of the previous line – “and will not fall.” We see two separate states or polarities, fertile and desert, male and female realities for want of better terms, which are mutually exclusive. “And the tipped bell make no sound.” The sense is of a pregnant female(s) – shaped like a bell – stopped, made voiceless. “The grass will always be growing for hay / Deep in the ground.” The agricultural prerequisite for Goddess worship – a harvest – continues, but its essence has been literally and figuratively buried.

Finally, we move into the “future” or “Crone” section of the journey: “And I shall stand here like a shadow / Under the great balanced day.” This is heartbreaking poignancy – the “I” knows she must return to what looks like the balance of nature, but must learn as a crone to recognize that because the balance of polarities has been suppressed, she can only be the impossible: a shadow.

The poem ends with even more starkness: “My eyes on the yellow dust, that was lifting in the wind, / And does not drift away.” Spirit, conveyed in its symbolic color of yellow, synecdoche of spring and sunrise, becomes a dust barred from lifting, so it floats aimless, a spoil of potentiality, a throbbing rhyme. It’s the minimalism of it that makes this poem powerful – the collective wound of the subjection of women turned into ethereal stuff.

I’ll let Bogan, from another myth-inspired poem, “Cassandra,” have the final word:

I am the chosen no hand saves:
The shrieking heaven lifted over men,
Not the dumb earth, wherein they set their graves.

* The whole sordid history of the degeneration of this myth through patriarchal power structures is detailed at the Perseus database, Tufts’ authoritative Greek myths site.
** A great resource for the history and rites of the Goddess religions - and their subsequent suppression - is Merlin Stone’s book When God Was A Woman.
*** The bell of the Goddess cults was the sistrum, an ankh-shaped, tambourine-like rattle with four bells tuned to represent the four elements. As it was shaken, serpent energies – akin to kundalini – ascended up the spine to open up the third eye to the white light of enlightenment, the inner sun. Athena, according to Aristotle and Pindar, invented the flute trying to simulate the hissing sound it made, but had to abandon playing it because it distorted the look of her face.


Hannah Stephenson said...

Bells and smoke and shifting wisdom...fascinating essay! I love hearing about Medusa (I wasn't aware of the edits surrounding the concept of Medusa, so that was very enlightening), and using that as a lens to better read Bogan's lovely and condensed poem.

The close readings are the best part of the piece, for me...I particularly like the involved readings of the opening and the overlapping vowels.

Must reread Bogan!!! And the Stone book sounds good.

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