Oracles: A Pilgrimage, by Catherynne M. Valente, is a collection of poems about modern day sibyls in cities across the United States. The journey begins in the Great Lakes region, with "The Oracle at Detroit," then moves to the coast with "The Oracle at Boston," and traces its way south, west, and north again to Alaska, then down the West Coast and over to Hawaii. The final poem in the collection is "The Oracle in Motion," which imparts both a sense that all oracles are one oracle, and that the journey never ends.
In this collection, Valente makes liberal use of the imagery commonly associated with the Greek Oracle: asphodel and sulphur, Apollo, caves, unbound hair, and bare feet. Yet paired with this common imagery are details that ground each poem solidly in its setting. "The Oracle at Detroit" is set in an automobile factory, and its stanzas are full of references to machinery:
"The silver robotic arms spread out
like hoplites on the factory floor,
and the line manager saw them arrange
themselves, banging out oracles into
sheet metal, plate glass, hubcaps ..." (p. 13)
Compare this to the flower and ocean imagery of "The Oracle at Savannah":
"Apple, peach blossoms in the scented waters
floating like stockade ships
in honeyed wine. And a single rose like a wound,
flesh as soft as tears." (p. 24)
Both of these differ from the gaudy, gilded world of "The Oracle at Los
"The cymbal-crash and the tin sheet-shake—
it brings the crowds. And the steel wool wig,
the crone costume—who would believe a twenty-something
sibyl?" (p. 55)
Each Oracle's style of using her gift, and how it and she are received,
is influenced by her locale. The power itself is the same, however, a
sense Valente evokes as flawlessly as she does each city:
"I play the old phythia-jazz in a Styrofoam temple,
but the ground cracks open just the same—
and after the 7 o'clock show, the 9, and the 11,
it's the same blond god who breaks the dark
and asks his due."
("The Oracle at Los Angeles," p. 56)
Valente has travelled extensively, which shows in the concrete details and strong sense of place with which she imbues each poem. She has also worked as a tarot reader, and she draws on this background to tie all her sibyls together in their shared experience. In fact, the poems are bookended by a prologue and afterword which allude to her tarot-reading experience, an occupation not so far removed from that about which she has written this collection.
This is not a volume to be rushed through, despite its slimness. I found myself slowing down to fully enjoy Valente's turns of phrase and vivid imagery. Searching for passages to quote in this review, I kept reading each poem all the way through, rather than stopping when I'd found the lines I wanted to cite. I found each one just as engrossing as when I first read it.
As might be expected, familiarity with Greek mythology, particularly the part the Oracle at Delphi played, makes reading this collection a richer experience. My own knowledge is more than a little rusty, so I'm certain there are layers and meanings I missed. Even so, I enjoyed the reading thoroughly, and was left with an inclination to brush up on my Greek mythology, so I would better appreciate these poems in the future. I consider that a mark of success, and would recommend Oracles to every lover of poetry and/or Greek myth of my acquaintance.
J.C. Runolfson inherited her mother's passion for collecting fairy tales, which she enjoys deconstructing. Her short fiction has appeared in Reflection's Edge. By the whim of the Navy, J.C. currently lives in San Diego, California.
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