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Apocrypha Paperback – July 1, 2005
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This is my seventh attempt to write this review. I doubt it will be my last.
It is rare that a book leaves me flummoxed. Apocrypha has done so. I finished reading it-- for the first time, anyway-- almost three weeks ago, and I still haven't found a way to put words to how I feel about it. I might simply not try, if I hadn't promised the author I'd proselytize the term "mythpunk," which she coined to describe the wonderful new movement coursing through fantasy these days, of which Valente and Sonya Taaffe seem to be the twin progenitors. (I believe their spiritual mother to be Wendy Walker, but what do I know?)
This is fabulous stuff. And "fabulous" is a horrid word to be using here. It's vague and meaningless. But to be honest, I could go on for thousands of words about myth, legend, art, craft, eroticism, wit, the lush and the spare, poetry and prose, and explain to you as best I can why this book is so good, and at the end we'd still be nowhere. I can dance around it and point to it all I want, but I cannot convey to you the sheer visceral pleasure of reading this stuff.
"It's stood for years, this little wooden asylum,
a grotesque sugar-house chuffing licorice smoke into my eyes,
and I am a witch, child, coal-fed oven--
I lean in and shove myself inside,
I burn my flesh to intricate blisters, I scrape the
grille with molten teeth. Here there is only I
repeating into infinite planes, refracted
into haloperidol windows, cathedral-stained and weeping."
(--"Geography of the Unheimlich")
A fantastic collection. Very highly recommended. *****
Some mythologies present themselves more readily than others: "The Dance of Uzume-no-Ama" narrates a Shinto solstice ritual, while "Achilles and Penthesileia" fuses Eros and Thanatos in one stream-of-consciousness encounter. The celestial lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi ride the Yokohama night train in "Suzuri" and the three women of "Song for Three Voices and a Lyre," separated by time and history, wait for their lovers to come home from war. Elsewhere, myth bubbles up more slyly -- in the misheard word that transforms an unremarkable hill into the court of the Moon in "The Emperor of Tsukayama Park," the wistful paradox of "Memoirs of a Girl Who Failed to Be Born from a Peach," and the carnality of a former lover's new and inconstant flame that assumes legendary proportions in "De Naturis Bestiarum."
Whether retelling her own life or others', Valente's allusions -- as befits a poet whose back-cover praise situates her firmly in the classical lyric tradition -- are assured and multifold. Nor is she limited to Greek or Japanese mythology. "Shantih" installs the narrator within the desolation of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land; "The Shield of Achilles" transfers Auden's own inversion of the Iliad to the female characters of Homeric epic. In the title poem, the narrator draws her catalogue of lovers from Old and New Testaments alike. Yet however confessional, Valente's poetry never sacrifices its oracular richness. The matched cycles "Vitia Capitalis" and "Cardinales Virtutes" may be read for their dense and physical imagery alone -- and the epic, abcedarian "Z," in which the letters of the alphabet chart the ouroboros relationship of writer and reader, has sheerly no precedent. (Prepare to be devoured.)
After two novels and a chapbook, Apocrypha is Catherynne M. Valente's first full-length poetry collection. One can only wonder where her passionate and personal vision will take her next.