The Cortland Review

Eleanor Wilner
"Entering the Labyrinth," an essay on the persona poem.

Eleanor Wilner
Four persona poems: Minos, Ariadne, Daedalus, and The Minotaur.


This marks an author's first online publication Michelle Boisseau

This marks an author's first online publication Annie Boutelle
Christine Casson
This marks an author's first online publication Carolyn Creedon
Claudia Emerson
Daisy Fried
Diane Gilliam
Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Kathleen Jesme
Ilya Kaminsky
Marilyn Krysl
David Lee
Gary Copeland Lilley
Maurice Manning
Alicia Ostriker
Alicia Jo Rabins
Tim Seibles
This marks an author's first online publication Heidy Steidlmayer
Book Review
"Tourist in Hell" by Eleanor Wilner—Book Review, by David Rigsbee.

Eleanor Wilner

Eleanor Wilner is the author of seven books of poems: Tourist in Hell (U. of Chicago, fall, 2010), The Girl with Bees in Her Hair (Copper Canyon, 2004), Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon 1998), Otherwise (U. of Chicago, 1993), Sarah's Choice (U. of Chicago, 1990), Shekhinah (U. of Chicago, 1985), maya (U. of Massachusetts, 1979), a translation of Euripides' Medea (U. of Pennsylvania, 1998) as well as a book on visionary imagination, Gathering the Winds (Johns Hopkins, 1975). She has taught at many colleges and universities, most recently at the University of Chicago, Smith College, and Northwestern University. She currently teaches in the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
Eleanor Wilner – Entering the Labyrinth


I ask the indulgence of the reader while I speak of how I came to write the poems in this issue of the Cortland Review, voices that rose out of an ancient underground—voices that, though originating in the myth of a distant era, necessarily carry a 21st century view of history and nature radically different from the time and events that produced the myth. How to liberate and borrow the power and energy of these stories that make them enduring, while freeing them, and ourselves, from what is time-bound and regressive in them? That, viewed in hindsight, became the venture of these poems.

But what called these voices forth to begin with was no such intention—but rather, friendship. The friend was Enid Mark, a book artist and lithographer of the first water, with whom I had collaborated before, whose beautiful hand-set, hand-bound books were always designed and illustrated in conjunction with poetry, the other art she loved. One day several years ago she announced that the next book would be about the Greek story of the Labyrinth. I pronounced myself finished with that myth, in a poem dating back to the late '70s, whose gentle beast, discovered at the heart of the Labyrinth, had long since become my companion. But Enid had made up her mind, and so friendship trumped inclination, and, on her account, I entered the Labyrinth again to see what might happen.

Greece is no Classical allusion for me: it's an often-visited place where lizards have reclaimed the ancient ruins and stretch in the sun; where the rivers disappear in summer, their dry beds filling with pink oleanders that draw their color from what moisture lurks below ground; where dry air gives the light a clarity so acute it makes you feel that you are finally about to understand what had eluded you for years; where the argument form prevails but bears no resemblance to Platonic dialogues; where, in the tavernas and inns, there are no 'servers' but only hosts; where METAPHOROS is what it says on the little transport trucks and STASIS on the bus stops where a bus seldom comes. In short, Greece is a place of real weather, not the mythic realm which time and Western culture have made it. And perhaps the most traditionally Greek of the Greek islands is Crete, the place that was once, before the catastrophic event around 1500 B.C.E., the home island of the Minoans, and the site of Knossos, the palace of Minos, and the site of the fabled Labyrinth.

The setting sun is a burnished glow on the high crescent of cliff on whose far crest, seen from below as the ferry approaches, sits the gleaming white town that crowns it. Just 70 miles from Crete, this is the volcanic shell of the island of Thera (also called Santorini), what remains of it after the long ago mega-explosion that changed the power arrangements in the Aegean. A line of donkeys waits to carry the passengers up the steep cliff path to the town, and, as the climb goes on, and you look back and down, the lagoon far below is the drowned caldera of the huge volcanic eruption that buried Thera's city of Akrotira, darkened the skies for months and scattered ash across the Aegean and North Africa, raised tsunamis that smashed the ports and maritime fleet of Crete, and ended, whether at once or in its aftermath, the Minoan civilization. These facts are well known; I learned them on my first visit to Thera, and they revived in the voice of Ariadne, who speaks as one of the survivors of that catastrophic event, altering, as she speaks, the Greek legend as we have it from Ovid.

I hope that the old story is still known: of the Minotaur, half-man and half-bull, lovechild of the Minoan Queen and a bull, hidden away by King Minos in a labyrinth in the palace at Knossos, a maze cunningly devised by Daedalus; of the Greek Theseus who was sent as tribute from Athens to the more powerful Minoan kingdom, and was meant for sacrifice to the blood-thirsty Minotaur; of Minos's daughter Ariadne who fell madly in love with him, and gave him a clew (an older word for thread) which he unspooled going in and which, as he ravelled it back, led him out of the labyrinth after he had killed the Minotaur. Theseus abandoned Ariadne on an island on his way back to Greece where, because he forgot to change the black sails for white, his father, the old king, thinking his son dead, threw himself off the cliff into the sea.

On the island of Crete, in late summer, when the grass is drained of color and the land bone dry—the hot Southern wind, the Sirocco, blows from the nearby lands of North Africa; it sets the nerves on edge, and stirs the dust until the air is thick with it. It was somewhere in the mountain villages of Crete, the Sirocco in full force, that a spectral group passed us by—a funeral procession on foot, blurred by the dust-filled air, as if a line of ancient mourners could be glimpsed through a magic scrim before the past swallowed them back. It was as if from the glowing dust clouds and dim figures of this remembered scene that the almost inaudible voice of Minos rose, opening the Labyrinth of time, though himself unable to escape it. Old kings carry faded energies and the dead hopes that power once held engenders, and Minos, the legendary king of Crete in the story, speaks with the husk of a voice and a deep world weariness, "pleasure" only a word now, a place to pause and wonder where it all went. These four poems began with him, who speaks from such old age that he has come full circle, and knows in what way "we end/ at the place of beginning." I could not make an audio of his poem, as his voice echoes only in memory's inner ear, and is too hushed for the electronic devices of our world to record.

In so many myths that arise when one culture's power replaces another, the daughter of the old power goes over to the new—the more usual rape, forced union or enslavement fictionalized as desire and choice, even as Ariadne in the myth adores and aids Theseus, the Greek prince, representative of the new dominant power in the Aegean. And—another pattern in mythic makeovers of history—the gods of the older group must be demoted, made monstrous, their magic turned malign. Post-modern Ariadne knows that winners write history, that the fiction was always a Greek story, that only in the conqueror's mind would she, daughter of Minos and a priestess of a religion worshipping a Goddess and a Sacred Bull, fall helplessly in love with the manly embodiment of a foreign power—betraying father, brother and the Goddess herself.

For the ancient Greeks, "man was the measure of all things," and their Olympian gods were indeed humanized, being remarkably, and revealingly, like ourselves—except for the greater power of their capricious will, and their inability to age or die. The old animal gods, objects of worship in earlier religons, including the Minoan Bull Cult, fell victim to the new heroes, whom Joseph Campbell called "the shining righteous deedsman of autonomous human will"—dragon slayers all: Apollo slaying Python and taking over the Delphic Oracle, Perseus beheading the snake-haired Medusa, Theseus killing the Minotaur. (And recall, across the Mediterranean, the Eden story that demonized the snake in the garden). In that dawn time, the old worship of cyclical nature was to be thrown off like chains.

The last vestiges of the older deities among the new Olympian gods were the hybrids: the satyrs and centaurs. The greatest of them, the Centaur Chiron, half-man, half-horse, and teacher of the heroes of this new world, would be the last to die. When Eros desired that his beloved Psyche, personification of the soul, join the immortal gods on Mt. Olympos, it was Chiron who gave up his place to her, desiring to die because of a terrible wound which would not heal, and so he chose death over endless suffering. Indeed, or so it seems, that wound marked the place where, under the new dispensation, the join of human to animal nature had become a source of unending pain.

Following a tortuous way through harsh rocks and scree, through the treeless, sere mountains of southeastern Crete, just dust and a waste of dun-colored stony cliff walls rising beside you and falling away behind; the road enters a pass, and suddenly, spreading out before you like a vision—green meadows dotted with the red of poppies in bloom, the air filled with the downy fluff from the trees like a shaken snow-globe, and everywhere, hundreds of small windmills, their white sails turning in the wind. This is the Lassithi plateau—a place irrigated by its windmills, rich in almond and apple trees, white goats looking up with their gold-slashed eyes to stare at us as we made our way through this abundant plain to Mount Dicta on the far side, in whose cave, according to local legend, Zeus himself had been born.

Years later, perhaps twenty-five or more, we took the same high road, anxious to share with friends the visionary surprise of Lassithi. But time had entered the view, and the epiphany was of a different sort—of the mortality of beauty. The plateau was dry and colorless, the air filled with nothing but dust, the windmills no longer turned, and the place as we entered, seemed derelict, deserted even by the goats. As we wandered among the ruined windmills, their skeletal arms stilled, we met only one other person—a ragged woman who approached us to beg some drachmas to help her old mother who was ill and needed medicine.

Surely Ariadne's nostalgic memory of a lost idyllic world owes much to both the original and the desolate Lassithi, and the loss of its prospect as a peaceable kingdom. The Minoan world, in fact, gives evidence of having been a relatively peaceful one—from Egyptian records, they were traders who had brought oils and wood; the palace of Knossos had no fortification walls, but inner walls given to artistry, and what has been recovered of the murals in Akrotiri as well as Knossos suggests not sacrifice to a bull god but rather acrobatic bull dancers, along with leaping dolphins, fisherman, saffron gatherers, elegant ladies and an equally elegant goddess holding a gold snake in each hand and wearing the moon crescent on her head. But then, there is wishfulness in all such reconstructions, even as lost cities always seem to contain perfections only dreamed of in the mundane present. But peace is a sweet dream, and if we can imagine it in the past, perhaps we can believe in its possibility in the future.

For the Greek and Minoan worlds here are only pre-text for a larger story; for the Labyrinth has become, after so long, human time itself—the dark and mazelike intersections where real history and myth meet, and when we follow Ariadne's thread it leads us to the legions of women who suffer catastrophes natural and manmade, left in the ashes of aftermath: Lot's wife, the trümmerfrauen, the women of Bosnia, of Nagasaki, of the ghettos of Europe, of Guernica, of Vietnam, of Iraq, of Gaza—all those from a world destroyed, who look up into the eyes of their conquerors—and who also may find themselves, in the time after, falsely depicted as characters in a fiction that flatters those who are their destroyers or the beneficiaries of their destruction.

Daedalus, of course, after Joyce's Stephen in Ulysses, was bound to become emblem for the artist, and (with some embarrassment at so much allusion) for those literary figures whose great and intricate works, like the journey through the labyrinth, end in some explicit way where they began, though all is changed; as T.S. Eliot famously said, "And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time." So Daedalus invokes these great voices here: Dante, Proust, Joyce, Eliot, though with some irony; for he, being contemporary and still lost in his own invention, has not found his way back, or out. What he has found, along with its power, are the limits of art—the architect who comes home to a ruined house, the scatter of feathers on a sun-struck ocean.

Ah, but I hadn't reckoned on the Minotaur. Given our own time, and the long-term consequences of all these centuries of the triumph of the will, who can help discovering in an old figure a new hero, one who embodies a demonization undone, a wound healed, the reunion of humanity to its animal being, the anima back in animal, Psyche down from the mountain. Not a neo-primitivism, but a post-Darwinian second chance. Digging into the earth to fuel our new engines, we discovered the history of nature, and of ourselves embedded in it. The human will that brought us to a cul-de-sac had also given us a way out through the knowledge of evolution and biology, and with it, the chance to alter the dreamscape of the childhood of the race, and to embrace what we are.

I had no idea that the Labyrinth poems would turn out as they did, nor that the energy of the imagination would be seized by the hybrid Minotaur. The voice of Theseus is never heard in this passage through the Labyrinth; he has become obsolete, a figure without a function—and the clew, the long thread of connection to the beginning, which is also the way out, is in the Minotaur's hand. I did not notice that as the Minotaur pulled toward himself the figure holding the other end of the thread, and the lines narrowed to the single words we/ are, the pronoun changed from he to you, because, of course, it was you—the you who is all of us—being reeled in. This happened outside of my intention and even my attention, for the figures we call forth from the imagination are not ours to control.

You will note the visual arrangement of the lines in the poems: while the Daedalus poem suggests a labyrinth, the lines of both Ariadne and The Minotaur are wound on a strong central axis, Ariadne's suggesting a pivotal image in the poem—the thread wound on a spindle; while the shape of the Minotaur's lines, though he invokes the double helix of the DNA that we share with the rest of life on the planet, was action-driven by the narrowing at its center, and seems to me to resemble an hourglass in which the sands at the bottom are freed from the containment of the glass, for if the past is foreclosed, the future remains open-ended.

But the real reason for this formal innovation takes us back to the inception of the project that produced the poems. I was thinking not of the pages of the usual paperback in which poems appear, but of the 10 1/2 by almost 14 inch format of Enid Mark's artist books, books that had me thinking formally in a visual field from the first, and which freed me from the conventional constraints of line and punctuation.

But what neither Enid nor I could ever have imagined, when we set out on this project together, was that she herself would, mid-way through the work on the book, enter the labyrinth of modern medicine, and that she would not live to see the book completed. She had finished a rough layout for the pages, had produced images for the soft yarn-like thread that wound its way through the four poems, had chosen two facing photographs leading in and out of the Labyrinth, a verse from Ovid for the epigraph, and had drawn a double-page spread of the Labyrinth itself to be placed at the center of the book, a drawing complete except for a small white space in one corner, which speaks with quiet eloquence of the absence of its maker. The book will be published by her husband, Eugene Mark, and ELM Press—to the high standards she set for all her handmade, classically beautiful books.

And in the way of an artist ending at a place of beginning, Ariadne's thread was prefigured in the first book in which Enid set the poems of others into an enduring work of art: The Bewildering Thread, whose poems and visual images all dealt with the female arts of the thread, its title taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson: "Who is to blame? The Weaver?/ Ah, the bewildering thread!/ The Tapestries of Paradise/So notelessly—are made!" It is to Enid Mark that these poems owe their existence, and it is to her memory that I dedicate them now.

The voices in this issue of The Cortland Review, different as they are, share an essential characteristic: none of them are the voices of the poets writing the poems. In every case, if I may speak for the others as well as myself, the persona of the poem, the not-I who is the speaker, permits the poet a creative freedom gained by the distance between poet and character, an enlargement and deepening of view by the shifting of perspective, and the gaining of access to what we did not already know or did not expect to find, and which, without the eyes and voice of another, we could not have seen or said.



© 2010 The Cortland Review