Review of Caught in the Myth by Alison Stone
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:
The soldiers rushed away like water
dammed, then freed.
The second poem that works on multiple levels is Jezebel. Seventeen short lines tell a complicated story. The opening lines stunningly provide the background of Jezebel’s place in biblical history:
Always one religion
always the new god
hungry for blood.
Jezebel was given in marriage to an Israelite king as political expediency without regard to her own religion. Many modern scholars claim that she got a bad rap based on one small sentence in her story. In the style of the times, she had little sympathy for those who opposed her actions as queen. She was ruthless. Eventually, her opponents have her tossed out of an upper-floor window, she is killed and her body is eaten by dogs. This poem again uses simple, tight language with just enough detail to retell the story. And Jezebel gets her chance to point an accusatory finger at the people who wrote the “record” -
of any prophecy’s decided
by those left alive.
This poem asks us to take another look at Jezebel’s situation, perhaps to look at the patriarchal prejudices that existed then (and now) and to reconsider how a strong, brave woman became a symbol of depravity.
In Mary Magdalene the author explores guilt and forgiveness, a poem that seems like a real memory, still fresh and vibrant. The mask here feels almost invisible, as it exposes the price of redemption. And the penultimate line - so close to cliché - is itself redeemed in the ending.
They say love heals.
First it shows what’s broken.
Alison Stone has succeeded in creating a fine collection of poems built on mythology, history, legend, and even pop-culture. Her masks in the persona poems make the characters find new life while helping to explain our own. She offers a few lessons in the most interesting ways possible and without ever over-selling the message. This is a balanced collection of poems that entertains and offers some opportunity for enlightenment. Read Caught in the Myth and discover some new ways to think about old tales.
Jim Bourey is an old poet who divides his time between the northern Adirondack Mountains and Dover, DE. His chapbook “Silence, Interrupted” was published in 2015 by the Broadkill River Press and won first place for poetry chapbook in the Delaware Press Association writing competition. His work has appeared in Mojave River Review, Stillwater Review, Blue Nib, Paddock Review, Broadkill Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is also a regular contributor of book reviews for The Broadkill Review. He has been an adjudicator for Delaware Poetry Out Loud and can often be found reading aloud in dark rooms.