Theodora Goss’s poetry collection Songs for Ophelia is, in many ways, a paradox. It is compact yet sprawling; readable but deceptively complex; delicate, even spare, yet commanding and rich in imagery; Romantic, with a nineteenth-century sensibility but relevant and contemporary. As Catherynne Valente says in “A Weaponized Elegance,” her introduction to the collection, “Goss’s language fits together like gems in a complex crown, a diadem of images and motifs, resting gently on the head, but with a deceptive weight. Ethereal willows . . . ponds, moors, woods couple with moments of intensely human, domestic realism . . . to create achingly genuine scenes” (p. xiv). Valente uses three words—otherworldly, delicate, and elegant—as touchstones to describe Goss’s poetry, noting how it reclaims and revitalizes these characteristics, too often considered too feminine (and therefore negative), to create quietly powerful verse. As Valente acknowledges, “Women who write, most particularly those who write poetry and prose that dances with poetry at the town hall every Friday night, are often critically caged in that pretty prison of otherworldly, delicate, elegant” (p. xiii), and while Goss embraces this aesthetic, her words “tap the heart with a hundred tiny blows of a glass-maker’s hammer until it shatters” (p. xiv).
Theodora Goss is one of the most exciting writers working with the fantastic today—a composer of both poetry and short stories, her work is representative of the stereotype-shattering directions the fantastic genres have been moving in over the past several years. Drawing upon and playing within the realms of fantasy, science fiction, folk literature, and weird fiction—always with a literary sensibility—Goss deftly bends genre. Her poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling Award several times, winning in 2004 for “Octavia is Lost in the Hall of Masks” (Mythic Delirium), and in 2008 her short story “The Singing of Mount Abora” (Lightspeed Magazine) won the World Fantasy Award. A collection of her work has been long awaited and this one does not disappoint.
Songs for Ophelia is divided into four sections—Spring Songs, Summer Songs, Autumn Songs, and Winter Songs. While the poems are collectively linked through recurrent themes, language, and references to a mythic, haunting willow tree, each song season has its own distinct tone. “Spring” is largely concerned with the new and uninitiated. In “The Elf King's Daughter,” a poem evocative of the English ballad tradition and fairy lore, Goss invites you,
Mortal, [to] stare
at her small feet shod in leaf-green velvet
her small hands pale and fay
among the wood anemones
in early May (p. 6)
Echoing the poetry of William Blake, innocence wars quietly with lived wisdom as Goss’s spring trembles on the edge of experience.
Goss’s skill with structure, meter, and rhythm is also apparent from this first section. Several poems demand to be read aloud. “What the Ogre Said” trips across the tongue in a particularly pleasing way—
Call to me, darling,
I’ll make you an answer
you cannot despise,
the wildest romancer
with loveliest lies
inspired by your eyes,
my pretty, my starling,
my sorrowful prize (p. 9)
The “Summer” songs are livelier and more daring, with a violent edge to them. In “The Ophelia Cantos,” one of our favorite poems in the collection, Goss offers a critical yet poignant reflection on the trend of men painting Hamlet’s doomed lover, in which the virginal, objectified girl regains her subjectivity:
surrounded by the water-lily stems
her face appears an enigmatic mask:
a drowned Medusa in her snaking hair.
The lilies gape around her like pink mouths
telling us nothing we can understand (p. 39)
That which is unknowable, particularly with regard to nature, is a theme of several poems here, including another standout of this section, “The Stones by the Stream.” In this balladic poem, a woodsman attempts to impose a particular vision of femininity upon a fae woman, only to realize, too late, that she cannot be known or tamed.
The “Autumn” section carries a sense of warning, the chill of death in the air, but the poems remain robust, in love with life and new experiences. Among our favorites of this section are the “Red Riding Hood” retelling “What Her Mother Said,” in which Little Red’s mother advises her, “When the wolf finds you, remember:/ be courteous, but evasive. No answer/ is better than a foolish one” (p. 66), and “The Witch” where supernatural power is tempered by loneliness, impracticality, and forgetfulness.
The collection ends with Goss’s “Winter” songs: cold, frosty poems that often imagine the warmth of the spring to come. In “The Bear’s Daughter,” for example, the child of Beauty and her bear-beast wanders through her father’s silent, icy castle and “dreams of the south . . . she dreams of pomegranates and olive trees” (p. 100). “Winter Scene,” however, more fully embraces the soft enchantment of winter itself in a dreaming, short poem that recalls the end of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.”
The recurring motif of the willow tree serves many functions in the collection. It is suggestive of witches and witchcraft, and more generally, of feminine power. The willow tree, often associated with grief, has been used by many authors to signify impending tragedy and death for female characters—notable Shakespearean examples include Ophelia and Desdemona. In her poems Goss acknowledges this literary/historical trope but reclaims the willow as a feminine source of strength.
The folkloric resonances throughout the collection are strong and varied. Goss brings new life to very old stories—“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Children of Lir,” ideas of phantom lovers and ghostly brides, mythology from various cultures, and more. She often gives voice to the “otherworldly” and marginalized, to the characters that have been silenced in traditional lore, instilling both her poetic aesthetics and subjects with a quietly feminist slant. “The Witch-Wife,” for example, links a woman’s freedom to being a witch, a fact which does not escape her entirely earth-bound husband. Equally striking is the way in which Goss’s poetry seems to frequently be in conversation with that of the nineteenth century. Goss has a PhD in English literature, a fact made apparent by her insightful responses to some of the most famous work of the Romantic and Victorian periods. One of the best examples of this is the piece “Vivian to Merlin,” in which she speaks from Vivian’s perspective and completely rewrites the story Alfred Lord Tennyson presents in his own, well-known “Merlin and Vivien” of 1859. In this poem, instead of casting Vivian as a heartless temptress responsible for Merlin’s downfall, Goss absolves her of blame and reveals the truth of her love for the wizard. Indeed Goss’s choice to spell “Vivian” with an “a” seems to be an early indication that the woman of this poem will not be the woman we think we know. The poem “Lucy” offers a similar revision, evoking William Wordsworth’s “Lucy poems” and throwing a quite different spin on them. While Wordsworth’s Lucy has no subjectivity—his “Lucy poems” explore the poet’s memories of an idealized young girl after her death—Goss’s Lucy is active and vital: “Far off in the towns the men are dreaming in their degrees/ but above the forest the death’s-head of the moon sails on and sees/ Lucy, laughing and prancing among the dancing trees” (p. 79). Goss also alludes slyly to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” noting how the scene is like “animated . . . artwork on an urn”—but here “truth” and “beauty” are the province of exuberant life rather than eternal stasis (p. 78).
Though Goss’s poetry is richly informed by folklore and the work of her nineteenth-century predecessors—and there is something undeniably nostalgic and distantly “once upon a time” about her verse—her poetry is also distinctly her own. She reworks traditional themes and materials with conscientious innovation, bestowing her own “otherworldly, delicate, and elegant” perspective while re-imbuing the familiar images with new strength.
Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman are PhD candidates at the Ohio State University, where they specialize in folklore and nineteenth-century literature. They are also creative writers—their work can be found or is forthcoming in Apex, Goblin Fruit, Ideomancer, and others. They blog at saracleto.com and brittanywarman.com.