My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In Literature and the Gods, Roberto Calasso notes that the Romantics’ interest in the Greek gods was focused on the gods’ own subjection to the divine law of fate:
It is the immediate that escapes not only men but the gods too: “The immediate, strictly speaking, is as impossible for the gods as it is for men.” Hölderlin is referring here to the lines where Pindar speaks of the nómos basileús, the “law that reigns over all, mortals and immortals alike.”
Contemporary American poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg also dwells on this aspect of the gods’ experience in her book-length poem on the Oedipus myth, The Throne of Labdacus (2000):
Laius, don’t have a child. But the god
Cannot choose who is born.
Past and future tangle in his strings
Together with oracles crushed under wheels
And resin powder squeaking against wood,
Dusting the ivory and silver and carved horn
Of the lyre with the squeak
Of the pegs, like the foot of Laius on the night
He crossed Jocasta’s threshold…
The god in question is Apollo, “hero” of the poem as he attempts to sing of Oedipus’s story despite its incomprehensibility and awfulness. This extract gives a sense of the poem’s method: it is comprised of free verse couplets, terse, imagistic, and often aphoristic, with irregular rhyming (sometimes internal and sometimes at line ends; sometimes slant rhyme and sometimes not) and plenty of subtly managed alliteration, assonance, sibilance, and other such effects. The tone of the poem is high and austere as well as oblique, something like late Eliot: there is none of the Poundian swagger of Christopher Logue or the Steinian whimsy of Anne Carson, to cite two perhaps better-known contemporary poets who have turned to Greek myth or classics for their material.
Like many readers, I first encountered Schnackenberg through her frequently anthologized “Supernatural Love” (1982), a formally dazzling poem about the speaker’s childhood remembrance of piercing her hand with a sewing needle as her father traced floral etymology in a dictionary back to Christ’s Incarnation. While The Throne of Labdacus echoes “Supernatural Love” in large and small particulars (from the focus on the fragility of the flesh to the sonic imagery of plucked strings and dissonant squeaking), the later poem seems to be without the earlier’s Christian consolation, though I will argue eventually that it is present by its absence, its invisible contour formed by the poem’s jagged melancholy.
Divided into ten brief cantos, The Throne of Labdacus does not tell Oedipus’s story in order—though Schnackenberg does so in her notes in the back of the book—but brings it to us in shards as Apollo tries to assemble it, only after trying to efface it. Apollo received the myth, we are told, from “ice-crowned Necessity,” and upon receiving it,
The god touched the tablets like a blind man,
Then wiped with his palm
The tale of Oedipus into a smear
And substituted, on behalf of Zeus, a law
That vibrated in the heavens
with Zeus’s pity:
The human being, in the end, is an injured body.
An injured body that lies where no law
Can touch it. An injured body that lies unburied
Outside the bourn of right and wrong.
The implication here is that the gods are no less aghast than is humanity by what Necessity decrees and would rather choose pity for the fact of the human plight than narrative about that plight. This passage connects to many other motifs of the poem. Injury, for one—blindness is expectedly emphasized, but so is Oedipus’s name, which means “swollen foot,” deriving from his father’s attempt to hobble him in infancy to prevent him from fulfilling the oracle that predicts his eventual parricide. Schnackenberg cites Artemidorus’s book of dream interpretation: “A foot signifies a slave, / An injured foot, a failed escape—” The foot, being the body’s lowest member, represents the ultimate baseness and subjection of humanity, and an injured foot emphasizes our vulnerability; this motif, taken from Sophocles (not only Oedipus but also Philoctetes), resonates at the end of the 20th century with Beckett’s chastened awareness of frailty and futility, as I’ve observed elsewhere—except that Beckett is funny and Schnackenberg is not. Likewise, the injured eye represents the failure of vision—its inability to bear the sight of the unendurable, its inability to see the transcendent beyond the given.
“The bourn of right and wrong” is a recurring phrase in the poem, its echo of Hamlet on death (“from whose bourn no traveller returns”) bringing Oedipus nearer to us, and it first occurs early on in the brilliant aphorism about necessity’s amorality: “What is: a leaking-through of events / From beyond the bourn of right and wrong…” Tragedy is beyond good and evil, a state of affairs the poem laments through its anguished Apollo.
A related theme is that of language. Apollo’s desire to extirpate the story is such that he destroys writing among human beings, but “The story floated forward. / As if the story were telling itself.” The poem’s most bravura canto, “The Alphabet Enters Greece,” roots each letter of the Greek alphabet in the most painful aspects of the Oedipus story, so that iota is a “fever-laden mosquito,” theta is a “human infant’s face / Crossed out,” lambda “like a lame man leaning on a stick,” and so on. With this alphabet, the story is told again, and then mounted onstage. The effect of this is to de-moralize humanity by converting it into a spectator, as the gods are:
…the Greek letters,
Waiting in silence to be arranged
Into the comedies and tragedies,
Waiting to turn the people into gods
Who gaze at things tied
Into sequences of knots they can’t undo,
Things to discuss, brood on, or quarrel over,
Helpless as gods to intervene…
We become interpreters of a story that, we are told on the second page, “The meaning of which nobody knows / Or whose meaning is that nobody knows..”
Schnackenberg explains in her notes that legend credits Oedipus’s city of Thebes with the introduction of writing, from Phoenician sources, into Greece; it is as if the horrible myth itself generates writing so that it may be represented, but what end does this representation serve? Schnackenberg seems to see our arts as evasions, turning us callous as the gods, learning a moral helplessness that is the poem’s chief ethical worry, the squeak that mars its lyricism. It is significant here that Schnackenberg makes Apollo and not Dionysius her hero. I think of Tim Park’s recent thought-provoking essay against the provocation of feeling through fiction.
The chilly austerity of this poem—its Mount Olympus is snow-covered, which Schnackenberg admits in her notes is not faithful to the Homeric vision—seems more Nordic than Greek, unless I am misled by the poet’s elaborately Germanic name; its vision of necessity without reason or redemption (there is no thoughtful chorus, no political deliberation, no ideological debate as in Antigone, no saving miracles as in Oedipus at Colonus), is grim and terse as an Icelandic saga. (Lending credence to my fanciful thesis of a Northern-Southern conjunction, I notice on the copyright page that the book design of the first-edition hardcover is credited to one Gertrude Achilles.)
But the poem does have a countervailing discourse to its vision of pitiless necessity and inadequate artistry. A one-page canto is given to the slave who, ordered by Laius to expose Oedipus on a hillside, saves the child instead, turning his gaze from the outward world and only meeting the gaze of another, pleading solidarity and compassion over obeisance to the supposedly necessary:
I knew what the god had said.
I covered my eyes with my hands.
But there are things we do
Not for the sake of the gods
But for other men.
At the sight of the infant’s gaze
I was riveted, chosen, beguiled.
I knew what the oracle said.
And I rescued the child.
Later, we find the slave in the company of Apollo—because all humans and all gods are slaves of Necessity—and we also find a recurring image of the child in Apollo’s arms as the god averts his eyes, like Benjamin’s angel of history, from the spectacle of the tragedy. In the final lines of the poem, Apollo echoes the slave, or becomes one with the most vulnerable, and suggests a higher purpose for art than sensational spectacle or occasion for criticism, namely, the rescue of the innocent, even as Schnackenberg’s concluding image brings us at last out of Greek myth (or Northern saga) into the “supernatural love” that saved baby Moses from the bulrushes, the infant Jesus from Herod’s massacre of innocents:
Far up in the glinting, undefiled
Cleft of Delphi, music is being made
By the god, who turns from the sight
And closes his eyes—
I was riveted, chosen, beguiled—
The god who, delicately,
As if plucking a single fate
From a help of entangled fates,
Touches a string and replies:
I rescued the child.
Perhaps The Throne of Labdacus is a Christian poem after all. It is also a brilliant one, if a bit too strained and severe, too free, in the end, of a Sophoclean grandeur and largeness of vision that the 20th-century poet has no doubt seen far too much to allow herself. Though who knows what Sophocles saw?