If I were to pick the most influential books of my childhood years, I would choose two books I received when I was eight years old: D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths (a gift from my dad) and a children’s poetry collection called Amelia Mixed the Mustard (a gift from my mom).
The title Amelia Mixed the Mustard comes from A.E. Houseman’s poem by the same name. How could any third grade girl not love a poem that begins:
‘Amelia mixed the mustard
She mixed it good and thick
She put it in the custard
and made her mother sick.’
The Book of Greek Myths initiated my lifelong fascination with mythology; the gods and goddesses, the oracles, the Fates and Titans – it’s easy to identify these archetypes in everyday people. So many poets have been drawn to them, and each interpretation is valid in one way or another if the poem is any good. The goddess and female monsters (hybrids) are the most interesting to me. I was first introduced to Pandora in the poem ‘Pandora’ by Myra Cohn Livingston in Amelia Mixed the Mustard.
There’s this thing about Pandora’s box.
This wondering. This curiosity.
There is was, this box,
Not locked or anything.
And Pandora was bored.
You’ve heard the rest.
She opened it.
Out came everything bad–
Evil, Famine, Crime, War, Greed
In a great black cloud.
The only joker in the lot was Hope.
I recently discovered Louise Bogan’s ‘Medusa’ – a poem that captures the frozen scene of Medusa’s lair.
I had come to the house, in a cave of trees,
Facing a sheer sky.
Everything moved, — a bell hung ready to strike,
Sun and reflection wheeled by.
When the bare eyes were before me
And the hissing hair,
Held up at a window, seen through a door.
The stiff bald eyes, the serpents on the forehead
Formed in the air.
This is a dead scene forever now.
Nothing will ever stir.
The end will never brighten it more than this,
Nor the rain blur.
The water will always fall, and will not fall,
And the tipped bell make no sound.
The grass will always be growing for hay
Deep on the ground.
And I shall stand here like a shadow
Under the great balanced day,
My eyes on the yellow dust, that was lifting in the wind,
And does not drift away.
(You can hear Bogan read it here.)
Another favorite is Robinson Jeffers’ poem ‘Cassandra.’ The older I get, the more I sympathize with Cassandra.
The mad girl with the staring eyes and long white fingers
Hooked in the stones of the wall,
The storm-wrack hair and screeching mouth: does it matter, Cassandra,
Whether the people believe
Your bitter fountain? Truly men hate the truth, they’d liefer
Meet a tiger on the road.
Therefore the poets honey their truth with lying; but religion—
Vendors and political men
Pour from the barrel, new lies on the old, and are praised for kind
Wisdom. Poor bitch be wise.
No: you’ll still mumble in a corner a crust of truth, to men
And gods disgusting—you and I, Cassandra.