Classical Greek and Roman Mythology entered my life, many years ago, when I studied Latin as a high school student. That was also when I became acquainted with emperors and other figures from the historical records of ancient Rome. Biblical characters were introduced in religion and literature classes. Alison Stone seems to have a deeper understanding of those myths, legends, saints, and evil-doers than I. And she brings that understanding to Caught in the Myth, as she uses the stories to build poems that explore character, emotion, modern political issues and even a bit of philosophy. But not all of these poems use classical references. Stone uses Disney-created modern mythological characters; Cinderella and the characters from Frozen appear in a few selections. Two Olympians, one college athlete, and a presidential daughter are also present in the collection.
The majority of poems in this collection are persona in style. The author enters a character and speaks in that character’s voice with his or her particular point of view. Most of the poems are free verse though a few use formal forms. A couple of pantoums – Mythology and Pretty Little Pantoum - are exceptionally fine. The author also uses some unusual structure to effectively convey emotional movement. This is most apparent in Wounded Amazon and Ivanka Trump’s Body.
At first reading, I was skeptical about the effectiveness of mythology as a persona device. It didn’t seem to me that it could carry the bulk of a collection. Persona, from the Latin word for mask, allows the poet to reveal while, in essence, she is hiding. Louise Clifton’s collection Voices is a wonderful example of innovative, touching, and often very amusing persona poems. Clifton was able to effectively use the masks of Aunt Jemima, a horse and dog, and raccoon, and Scrooge, among others, to reveal her own thoughts, emotional connections, and wry outrage. As I spent more time with Alison Stone’s collection, I began to find more and more hints of the poet behind the mask. In Emperor Augustus, the titular character discusses feelings about his father. This might reflect the poet’s experience. Or the poet could be touching on a universality about fathers and their children.
Three poems in this collection stand out as examples of success with the persona device. In Judith, the poet uses the heroic biblical character to point out both the plight and the power of a woman devoted to a cause.
Still, my village gray with dust, our crops
dying like prayer
in the earth’s parched throat.
A woman does what she must.
And then Judith goes on to slay the commander of the Assyrian army. In this poem the author also uses a lovely economy of language to tell Judith’s story even to the ending retreat of the enemy’s army: