Why Myths Matter

August 12, 2013

Contributor’s Marginalia: Kristin George Bagdanov on “Actaeon” by Michael Bazzett

Most poets are well schooled in mythology. We drool over the metaphor and music of Orpheus, we wallow in the depths of Dido’s despair. But why do we insist on writing about, into, and from these myths again and again and again? Other than the obvious compact beauty of Michael Bazzett’s “Actaeon” in 32 Poems 11.1, I was first drawn to this poem because I, too, had chosen to write a poem for this issue from the place of myth.

Now, I want to spend the majority of this post talking about the deft hand of Bazzett, but I also want you to consider (though not in any particularly Archetypal Lit. Crit. fashion), why myth endures the re-writing and re-writhing of poet after poet? Why write another poem about Actaeon when A.E. Stallings already has, or when Titian has already painted the story so many years ago? Or when so many ancient cultures have already tweaked his fate in so many different ways? That is the power of myth, I suppose—the irresistible call to unfold and refold the shape of it in hopes that by solving its riddle we might somehow solve our own.

Let me first start by refreshing your memory about the basic elements of Actaeon’s story. Actaeon, a great hunter, is in the woods (you guessed it), hunting. Artemis (or Diana) is bathing in the middle of the woods. Actaeon stumbles upon her quite on accident and as punishment for seeing Artemis naked, is turned into a stag, then chased and killed by his own pack of hounds. There are divergent versions of each of these details, however, which is why Bazzett’s poem isn’t simply a re-telling of the myth, but a re-creation.

One quality that makes Bazzett’s re-creation of Actaeon required reading amidst the other versions is his re-casting of the story by way of allusion. For example, when describing Actaeon’s transformation from human to animal, Bazzett subtly alludes to Jesus of Nazareth’s crucifixion: Actaeon’s “human /  shadow grew its crown of horn”—“horn” here so slightly off from the expectation of “thorn” that we subconsciously begin to compare Actaeon’s fate with that of Jesus’s. In this slight alteration, Bazzett shows how Actaeon’s experience in suffering, in transforming from the known human into the unknown “other,” parallels one of the most distinctive stories about the human’s pain in confronting the divine. This use of allusion opens up a new possibility: that upon viewing Artemis’s bare and “god-charged” flesh, Actaeon was so altered by her divinity that his human body, unable to contain or bear the experience, was transformed into something neither human nor god—the stag served up for sacrifice to his own pack of hounds.

In addition to this stunning use of allusion, Bazzett hints at Gerard Manley Hopkins by mirroring his language and rhythm in the lines after Actaeon’s transformation occurs. Artemis’s “god-charged water / spatter[s] his forehead collarbone skin into dappled hide.” If, as Hopkins writes, “Glory be to God for dappled things,” then where is the glory in Actaeon’s impending fate and to whom does his death bring glory? Drawing on Hopkins’s biographical information—that he was very much at odds with his faith and prone to deep doubt and depression—further enriches this allusion.

It is easy, when writing poems, to exhaust allusion. Sometimes we use them as distraction—“look over there—and stop thinking about what’s happening in this lousy poem.” But Bazzett’s select and subtle allusions within a story that, itself, is so often alluded to, demonstrates, in the best possible way, why and how we need to revisit these stories—the ones that always remain a mystery, their unanswerable question the key, we hope, to our own human condition.

Kristin George Bagdanov

Kristin George Bagdanov is an M.F.A. student in poetry at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO, where she is also a Lilly Graduate Fellow. Her poems have recently appeared in Redivider, Cutbank, 32 Poems and other magazines. You can find more of her work at www.kristingeorgebagdanov.com.

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