Monday, August 6, 2012

Singing the Voice of an Ancient Muse

Julia Older, Tales of the Francois Vase: A Poem

The François Vase gets its name from Alessandro François, an amateur archaeologist who discovered this rare Greek krater in an Etruscan tomb in 1848. How a hand-glazed Greek vase decorated with scenes from Homer’s Iliad wound up shattered in northern Italy remains a mystery to this day. But its history since its rediscovery almosts tops that, as controversy and violence have circulated around it for 150 years.

American poet Julia Older, who lived for several years in Italy, discovered the François Vase, not in its place of public display, but in the diaries of Alessandro François. Its story fired her imagination. So she recreated it over the course of the centuries: who are the craftsmen, Ergotimos and Kleitas, who created this artifact? How did it cross the Adriatic? How did it wind up entombed, shattered, recovered, restored, and shattered again—twice?

Older’s subtitle calls this “a poem,” as though she has crafted a single forty-page verse. But her intersecting voices, building urgency, and cycles of destruction and recreation resemble more a verse drama. Her characters talk over each other, diverse and contradictory, not the sound of one poet telling several stories, but several identities in orbit around one nucleus. Consider this story of the man who found an orphaned fragment, “Seduction”:

When I picked you up
I remembered my remorse.
You looked so lonely, so lost.
A hip, a breast. Gently I caressed
that fragment of you—earthen, burnished
like the essence of Sophia.
Though I could imagine my college professors disparaging the feeling in this passage as “sentimental,” I find it subtle and understated, a sense of the humility most thinking people would feel holding a millennia-old artifact in their hands. The shapeless verse reflects the fragmentary thoughts any of us would feel with something so ancient in our own mortal hands.

The François Vase
Older uses different verse structures to create different moods. Compare the blank verse above with this, from her speculation on how the Greek vase wound up hidden for the ages, in “Entombed”:

My heart is pounding. I ran
before they could rape me—
and escaped. We
have done what we can
to protect our dwindling race
from the Tiber warriors.
I load the mirrors
and my Mistress’ cherished Vase.

The form does not jump out and demand the reader’s attention, as it does in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” yet its short, graceful lines and subdued rhyme reflect that these lines are spoken by an ancient Etruscan, a member of a race as old and enigmatic as the vase itself. The use of form conveys just how old the poet means us to perceive this voice.

Despite the age of her subject matter, Older does not craft a mere museum piece. Her language creates a view not just of the people she spotlights, but the time and the social position they represent. “Interior Cracks” presents the words of the conservator who sought to restore the Vase after it narrowly evaded the Arno River flood of 1966, which destroyed the Uffizi Gallery:

Just look around if you deny
that destruction comes easily!
One day the sun shone on Florence.
The next, she took a quantum leap to ruin,
and a gift in abundance turned us to beggars.

I can’t call this verse drama perfect. Though the individual poems created excellent voices that reflect their place and time, the linking narration is uncomfortably declarative and seemingly doesn’t trust us to follow the transitions, some of which cover centuries. That voice, presumably the voice of the Vase itself, lacks the subtlety of the verses it binds:

Through the hole in my side
I peep at hads and veiled faces
Where am I? I ask the Sphinxes
on my handles who are good
at such riddles.

Notwithstanding the choppiness of that linking narration, Older creates an arc of poetic identity complex enough to sustain readers’ interest. Her high degree of introspection nevertheless resists the solipsism that has left me disappointed with so many recent poetic journals and magazines. And she creates characters who have human depth and feel complete, even though we glimpse them so briefly.

The conceit of following an artifact over three millennia could devolve into silliness or cheap sentiment. Especially where we have gaps of knowledge—and in this case, the gaps are huge—it would be easy to fill them in with pseudo-mythological nonsense. Julia Older holds the line, presenting a story of real depth and intricacy, mining the human nuance of a true historic treasure.

No comments:

Post a Comment