The stories, characters, and settings of myth exert a powerful hold on human imagination. Magic, creatures that never existed, unearthly places: all can impart a pleasure that comes from lifting the constraints of realism—in short, myth evokes wonder. But myth also serves as a vehicle for exploring the human condition, in both its tragic and ridiculous aspects. Family relationships, war, love, growing up—not to mention human stupidity and ambition—are just a few of the themes to which myth lends itself.
Mythic, edited by Mike Allen, is a collection of poems and short stories that either draw on myth directly or else take inspiration from it. In selecting the works that were included, Allen has interpreted myth broadly. A poem by Theodora Goss plays with the story of Beauty and the Beast, for example, while Bud Webster gives us a short humorous tale—a joke, really—about a medieval monk who drives away the Loch Ness monster, JoSelle Vanderhooft gives us a witty portrait of the "real" Ophelia reacting to her modern portrayals in pop psychology and self-help books, and Constance Cooper imagines an extraterrestrial world where slaves mine ice that will be shipped off-planet as a luxury item. If it is a stretch to make some of the pieces "mythic," that's okay; it's enjoyable for the reader to ponder how each one fits into the collection's theme.
Mythic is a beautiful book, well designed inside and out. Care went into its physical production, with an attractive cover and good quality paper. No less care went into the thought in selecting and arranging the works. Most of the selections are excellent, and a few deserve special attention. Perhaps the finest poem in the collection, "The Eight Legs of Grandmother Spider" by Catherynne M. Valente, is a weaving together of two stories: an American Indian legend of how Grandmother Spider brought the sun to warm the earth, and a childhood memory of a young girl sleeping in her great-grandmother's lap on the day she died. As the two stories are slowly interleaved with each other, we see two matriarchs, one mythic and one human, juxtaposed against each other, and the humble, heroic accomplishment of Grandmother Spider also elevates the human woman in her lifetime's work of raising and supporting her children. Both parts are tied together at the end by life-giving sunshine. "The Eight Legs of Grandmother Spider" is a wonderful, emotionally honest, and touching poem.
Vandana Singh's "The Choices of Leaves" has no overt mythic content—an unnamed observer watches a group of crows on a windy day in autumn, while the birds flutter and caw in a tree that has lost some, but not all, of its leaves. The miraculous and fabulous in this poem lies in the viewer's imagining the autumn leaves undergoing a phoenix-like immolation and transformation into crows. The image of the leaves, red and gold, that
. . . still flutter
In the gaunt wood (p. 104)
suggests mankind, facing maturity, decline, and death.
. . . there are some who sigh and drop.
Browning in their thousands on the ground
Crisp as cornflakes. (p. 104)
The image is evocative and powerful, and recalls the biblical image of mankind as a field of grass, swiftly grown to maturity and swiftly cut down by death: "In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth" (Psalm 90:6). "The Choices of Leaves" also suggests comparison with Gerard Manly Hopkins's "Spring and Fall" (1918), another poem that uses an autumn tree to ponder human mortality. Singh's poem, however, presents the mythic element of immolation and rebirth as an alternative to death.
In general, the poems are richer and more intense than the stories, but there is variety here for everyone. "Cemetery Seven," by Charles Saplak, is an engrossing tale of crime and revenge, and the price that is exacted on the avengers. The son of a doctor in a 1930s West Virginia mining town becomes the fourth member of a party that seeks the punishment of a rapist when legal avenues are closed to them. A journey deep into an Appalachian wilderness, a blood offering, and an appeal to a nightmarish creature gains them the death of the man who assaulted a young deaf-mute girl. The narrator, however, is not unscathed by the revenge itself and finds his own life altered. This is a chilling tale, perfectly balanced between the real world and the supernatural.
A minor shortcoming of the book, to my mind, was that the editor did not give a raison d'etre for the collection, as an introduction or otherwise. But it is worth noting that Mythic's contents are framed by an opening poem by Vandana Singh, "Syllables of Old Lore," and a closing poem by Joe Haldeman, "god is dead short live god," because these two poems seem to best express the collection's rationale. "Syllables of Old Lore" describes the difficulty of expression, and the need to use a "symbolic tongue" in order to speak meaningfully. Haldeman's poem meditates on old gods now forgotten, predicts the end of present-day gods when they no longer survive in the minds of believers, and then questions whether science can "demand belief instill reverence conjure mystery." The poem stops at the next line (for beyond the science-god is where all conjecture is ultimately stymied) with neither question nor statement: "and what sweet god will replace it." And this, too, is where Mythic ends, having traveled from our mythic heritage, which we use to express the inexpressible, to a consideration of our future gods, in which we guess at the unguessable.
Donna Royston lives and writes in Fairfax, Virginia. Fantasy, with its grand adventure and themes, is her literary love. She has written a novel, The Unmaking, which is in search of a publisher.
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