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This is one of the greatest books ever written. To say that Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BCE- 17 CE) known as Ovid, was possessed of a monumental genius, is to somewhat understate his influence on writing, painting, sculpture, music and poetry for the last two millennia. There are few if any artists of worth, certainly of the western tradition (indeed other traditions have such geniuses from whom we could all learn), who have not been enthralled by his brilliant imagery, his insight into the human condition, the sweep of his epic narrative, his capacity to depict the depths of human depravity and the heights of love.

The cover of this Penguin edition, with its very clear and lyrical translation by David Raeburn, has a picture of Bernini’s incredibly beautiful sculpture of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne (1622), a scene from the dozens of stories in the Metamorphoses that are all threaded together by the theme of change, as life is indeed change, capturing the touching moment of Apollo and Daphne’s agonized frustrated lovemaking as she is transformed into a tree. The Metamorphoses weaves a difficult path brilliantly through Ovid’s vast knowledge of history and mythology, borrowing and rewriting Virgil, Lucretius and Homer to suit his own ends. This makes a great deal of sense, for in the life of an artist there comes a point of re-evaluation – an assessment and acknowledgement that she or he has arrived at the point they have through the influence and insights of others.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, reacting somewhat to the Roman idolized image of the gods, depicts them as deeply ambivalent beings. Some of the stories show them as monsters, vicious cruel murderers and rapists. Jove or Jupiter, is a dreadful being. As the king of the Gods with weighty responsibilities on him, he is also a psychopath, a serial rapist who uses his power to tryst with females of his fancy, fathering countless offspring to his wife’s horror and vengeful rage. This is hardly a sterling example of a moral life, an example of the kinds of godly behaviour in the Metamorphoses that leaves much to be desired.

So we are left with a dilemma. The world order, the nature of existence, is terribly out of joint. How does one live? What constitutes a moral existence? What hope is there for humanity when the gods are mad or corrupt or all too human? Ovid describes the world and leads us to the doorway of moral choice. He describes these beings, these gods, largely products of a complex evolutionary cultural anthropomorphosis, as being as capable of horrible acts as they are equally capable of heartbreaking tenderness. When the sun god, (Helios to the Greeks, also Apollo to the Romans, but Phoebus to Ovid) allows his all too overconfident ambitious son Phaeton to take the reins of his sun chariot on its daily journey round the Earth, things go terribly wrong. This is when Phaeton, filled with cock-sure ignorance, loses control of the sun-chariot and sets the world on fire, almost burning the earth, is killed by a bolt from Jupiter to stop the destruction of everything. Thus the Earth is shrouded in darkness as the heartbroken Phoebus covers his radiant being with his cloak in inconsolable sorrow at the loss of his beloved son. It is a terrible time, a tragic moment, handled with incredible tenderness by Ovid.

Pain, joy, ambition, jealousy, longing, loneliness, the burden of giftedness, overwhelming infatuation, the loss of love, lies, deceit, moments of hilarity, power politics and horrific acts of revenge – in other words the full sweep of the human condition – mark his subject matter, and in the Metamorphoses, Ovid deals more than anything else with what it means to be a human being, trapped in time, a mere plaything of the fickle and vengeful gods. He deals with this subject with a level of emotional and psychological accuracy that leaves an unforgettable mark on the reader. It’s not without significance that Shakespeare was a lifelong reader of Ovid, and returned to him over and over to seek new themes for his plays and poetry.

Rome remains the cultural centre of Ovid’s personal universe, and the glory of Rome is his joy and love. Despite all its horrors and imperial cruelties it remains his personal point of reference. It is a mark of the poet Ovid’s truly extraordinary self-assurance that at the end of this very large and very readable book, filled as it is with super heroes and gods, monsters and victims, saints and mystics, he modestly asks Emperor Augustus to immortalize him. After all, he argues, he has written the Metamorphoses. This same emperor, disdaining Ovid’s tendency to write rather explicit poems about sex and seduction and taking lovers and, moreover, how to keep ones lover, as in the Amores and the Ars Amatoria, had exiled the heartbroken poet (a banishment celebrated by Turner in a painting in 1838). Ovid, who found the world of Rome his inspiration, never got over his exile and he never stopped wanting to go home. The cliché of an artist never being fully understood in his own time is very true of Ovid, who died in what is now Romania, where he is celebrated as one of their own.

BIO ORAN RYAN

Oran Ryan

Oran Ryan is a novelist, poet and playwright from Dublin.  His poetry, short stories and literary criticism have appeared in magazines worldwide.  His novels The Death of Finn and Ten Short Novels by Arthur Kruger, both published in 2006, and One Inch Punch, his third is to be published in 2011.  His work has also appeared in the anthologies Census 1 (2008), Census 2 (2009), Living Streets, Anthology of the Ranelagh Arts Festival (2009), Dublin 10 Journeys, One Destination (2010).  His play Don Quixote Has Been Promoted was performed at the Ranelagh Arts Festival 2009; his has been shortlisted for the P J O’Connor Award; his words were performed on stage at the Stone Theatre in Manhattan, New York in 2008 and in 2010 his Radio Play Christmas 1947 was performed live as part of KRCB FM 91.1 Twisted Christmas 8 Live performance in California, as well as broadcast on KRCB over Christmas 2010.

Suppression is the road to harmony, the true way to us all getting along – myth-making the past, forgiving and loving and carrying on, sublimating the truth behind truth. Truth makes a soap opera of relations, manufacturing a hazy warm feeling of womb-like safety. It’s crucial. Truth is what we do to reality. We kill it. Truth is death. It is a prison from which there is no escape. Truth is the most addictive of narcotics. There is no cure from it. Once you are hooked, you die, with it or without it. Try fiction instead.

I remember once reading a, probably aprocryphal, quote attributed to James Joyce stating that all Irishmen secretly want to be the Messiah. I do not care if he never actually said that (he may have done – my google-fu is weak), I just love the notion of the Irish seeing Christ not as a moral example  to follow, but a position to aspire to. Catholicism is a large part of the Irish culture, its trickle-down effect one that Joyce in particular set about investigating and exposing in his work. Perhaps my recollection of this supposed quotation is a confusion of the scene from Ulysses when a group of drunken Irish ignore Bloom, who is of course a Jew, all the while loudly proclaiming that they are looking for the Messiah and would follow him anywhere.

Oran Ryan touches on Joyce in this novel, but thankfully does not feel beholden to him. There are aspects of Finnegans Wake to the proceedings, but cut with hints of Kafka as well.

We meet our principal narrator, Arthur Kruger, after his suicide in Heuston Station. This nonlife is a confusion of memories and identity, his past overlapping with alternate worlds. The ‘ten short novels’, of the title represent different levels of this existence. Arthur and his lover Aron reappear again and again throughout the novel, sometimes as ghosts haunting the other, sometimes never having lived at all. Arthur typically appears to be a frustrated writer, with Aron his muse, a free-spirited woman with a far greater degree of confidence. When Arthur discovers her sleeping in an abandoned hospital and insists that she is on top of a bomb he had previously left hidden there, she is more bemused than frightened by this evidently disturbed individual.

Each of the ten sections of the novel bear an individual title, either showing us events from a new perspective, or rewriting the lives of these two characters (think Jerry Cornelius running around inner-city Dublin). In Teaching Religion as a Foreign Language a still notdead Arthur engages in jesuitical debate about the existence of god. Policing the Dead Zone has Aron discover a rotting corpse – Arthur again – in her home that no one else can see. Genuinely Interesting People is a genuinely entertaining satire on the pompousness of the Dublin literary scene. Here Arthur in frustrated writer mode is left unimpressed by the success and pedigree of a vampiric academic.

It feels like a collection of short stories, but there is an overarching plot at work here, the theme of how fiction can sometimes be more real than life itself reoccuring again and again. Perhaps author Ryan is arguing that the Irish are haunted by a literary past difficult to live up to. The neologism ‘endbeginning’, that is used occasionally hints at the suspicion that life for authors begins after death. Much like in Alan Warner‘s Morvern Callar, Arthur’s novel is successful following his suicide. References to literature abound throughout, such as an insurance firm named Kafka & Kafka, or Arthur’s train station suicide blithely being described as an unfortunate Anna Karenin moment.

What emerges is a novel that is not afraid to adopt a quizzical tone, but also has a sense of humour about itself. Whimsy is intertwined with philosophical musings on life and death. Above all the author has pulled off the impressive feat of throwing Palahniuk, Joyce and Will Self into a blender and nevertheless producing something with a voice of its own. The prose carries the onrushing quality of free verse, which once again ties into the thoughtful style of the writing.

Intelligent, whimsically literate and definitively Irish, a fine novel.

With thanks to Seven Towers Publishing for my review copy.

Head west across the Delaware. You’ll see

a sign that reads: America Starts Here!

It rambles on to Sacramento, free

and brave, but takes a little detour near

Columbus to avoid Chicago – Ski

the Poconos! and Have Another Beer –

the billboards foliating fore and aft,

and every Huckleberry has his raft.

There’s something very communal, but also cloying, about poetry reading nights. I used to attend a weekly session in Dublin’s The Stag’s Head with quickly scribbled verse, that when I wasn’t on the bad side of the organiser (long story) would win me a free pint of red ale.

If writing for booze doesn’t sum up the college poetry scene that I was involved in, I cannot think of a better description.

I say cloying because much of what was performed in that basement bar area was fairly mediocre, but we all clapped loudly, especially if a newcomer was standing before us for the first time. By the same token the atmosphere was kindly, supportive, I was rarely aware of any competitive bickering and having attended a few book launches for well-known published Irish poets – refreshingly free of affectation.

Rick Mullin’s poem evokes the spirit of an open mic poetry evening, with its cantos divided up between different performers on a stage eulogising the life of Herbert Huncke. We visit the life of the (in)famous Beat poet, meet the famous literary figures and New York artistic scenes that he became swept up in. There are sustained riffs on the work of William Burroughs, an associate of his, as well as a style of writing credited to Thomas Pynchon (a man who enjoys inverting history in eye-popping ways).

In that regard Huncke’s life is used as a model for the influences and historical forces of America itself. The Beat poets raged against and satirised the American Dream. ‘Manifest Destiny’, has escaped the dreamers and they were left at the bottom staring upward. No wonder a paranoaic, conspiratorial tone entered their writings. The firebrand language of Paine, the revolutionary promise of George Washington, abducted and besmirched by the new ruling classes of America. Rick Mullin has the twinned symbols of corruption, Mickey Mouse and Rudy Giuliani, haunt the poem’s cantos, reappearing throughout the life of Huncke himself.

And a kid’s been trailing him all afternoon.

A schoolboy in a Catholic uniform

whose head looks like a carnival balloon

that’s prematurely balding. Not the norm

for even Catholic tikes. Well, pretty soon

the child is offering a light. Reform

school etiquette – the contrasts are uncanny.

“So, what’s your name, kid?” ‘Rudy Giuliani.”

Amusingly he also announces –

And drop the politics, for Jesus sake.

It mixes with the arts the way that rock

gets on with scissors – scissors tends to break.

We skip and jump from War of Independence to America’s jazz era and then forward again briefly to dwell upon a post-9/11 New York, but for the most part no vision of the future is offered. Huncke is absorbed into the canon of American letters, this beatnik junkie become a symbol for an idea of the nation, or perhaps just 42nd Street, that has been lost. Ginsberg and Burroughs are ghosts now too, though Mullin dedicates some verses to memory of Joan Vollmer. Her murder an accident. Burroughs saved from a Mexican jail thanks to family influence. It is worth remembering that these heroes (Mullin rejects the term – ‘There’s a hand we over-play’) were for the most part educated, middle-class and privileged. Their free-form verse often indulged in esoterica, a rebellion not so much against their class, but their elders. Yet today all mysteries can be solved with a trip online –

And so I went. To Wikipedia

to bone up on the luminary thief

and prostitute…whose online media

runs viral with a hypertext relief

that lights full paragraphs.

In a sense Mullin’s poem can be seen as an attempt to restore that mystery, the fugue of names, places and associations intended to pique an interest that can be so dismissively sated by a simple hyperlink. For that he should be commended. He also captures the feel of a poetry performance. To see Mullin’s words be read rather than read them strikes me as the preferable condition to receive them in.

So mission accomplished. I would know more about the man Huncke, as well as look forward to a less biographical work by Mullin himself.

With thanks to Seven Towers Publishers for my copy of this edition.

“Georgian Dublin”, rots in constant damp,

The way it always has, I guess – although

Only weeks have passed since I moved in,

And I’m in no position yet to know

The letter from the flashy postage stamp;

Which decay comes from without – which from within.

One of the categories I created for tagging purposes on this blog is ‘Poetry’, but sadly I have not reviewed much for the site. This is a shame, as there was a time I loved reading poems. My dad often describes poetry as ‘condensed thought’, an idea captured in verse with an exactness that can elude prose writing.

The poet is also a role more suited to an outsider than a novelist, as s/he in transcribing thought and action to verse is already describing the world in a skewed fashion. That perspective lends itself to the estranged observer, a narrator who questions what he sees far more readily. The scene is not set for the slow unravelling of plot, it is an eruption, a sudden reveal of intimate feelings that would go unsaid otherwise.

I am also curious as to why there is not more well-known poetry derived from an urban setting. So many of us spend each and every day living, working, socializing within the concrete and glass borders of cities. Surely there is plenty of material there for a poet, however, poetry today carries a nostalgic cachet, with ‘poetry lovers’, insisting on the bucolic poems of yesteryear over the urbanised sprawl. Cities have been occupied by prose stylists, let the poets labour in the golden fields of memory.

Quincy R. Lehr’s poems situate themselves directly within the city landscape. There are repeated themes of urban alienation, the suddenness of violence, the isolation of people trapped together in close spaces, with the poet just another anonymous face in the multitude. Why there is No Socialism in the United States of America neatly encapsulates the malaise that sets in on a late night on the town, with fellow commuters eyeing each other suspiciously, constantly aware of the threat posed by ‘strangers’. In New York everyone’s a stranger –

Each one of us was tired, pissed-off, and bored,

Angry at the hour and with those pricks –

That fat-assed bitch, who muttered at a cell phone,

That rat-faced airline worker at the front,

That punk-ass hoodlum, glaring at his feet,

That stuck-up twat, that sad-eyed brown-haired schmuck

Gawking at New York’s predawn, backlit blackness.

The anger that comes with this anonymity is coupled with Lehr’s own frustrations with adult life, the precarious negotiations of romance and the expectation of matrimony, as well as coming face to face with the vision of his father’s self sapped by cancer. The ugly inevitability of death throws the idealism of youth into question; all the poet’s adolescent dreams and plans seemed to have fluttered away like dry leaves caught in a gust of wind. Sex and life seem like traps, chipping away at anything individual, or distinct about the person who dreamed once about what waits in the future.

Lines For My Father addresses this disillusionment with the promises of a better life that come with youth, promises that in their heedless enthusiasm can set the older generation and its offspring at each other’s throats. When younger the poet expressed contempt for the “Ambitions of an ordinary size” of his parent, but concludes that he and his peers are even worse off, “we’re no happier than you, and can’t quite seem to sit for tests that you had failed”.

Drink and eager lust are engines for youthful action and reflecting back on them can cause embarrassment, yet those were the times the poet felt most alive, when he was “A bookworm almost trying to be mean”. In rejecting the symbols of the past, the young fail to learn how to live in the present, instead relying on pretension, shows of quick wit, or aggression.

The lonely city lives captured by Lehr, with the spirited arguments of drunks whose voices are already cracked by tobacco inhalation and broken relationships that fade in the memory (where therapy fails, a friend’s invite to watch Dario Argento giallo flicks succeeds!) display a certain kind of beauty, reminiscent of Beaudelaire’s inverted elegy to his city in Le Spleen de Paris. There’s a honesty to the ugliness on display that makes the imagery delicate and precious. Recommended.

With thanks to Seven Towers Publishing for the review copy.

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