‘Echo and Narcissus’ is from Siân Thomas‘ Ovid’s Echo, a stunning collection of poems retelling stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Please note, you don’t have to be an expert in classics, or even to have read Ovid to enjoy this collection. Several of the stories are known to most people and there are notes on the poems at the end of the book to help you. It’s worth buying the book simply to have the brilliant potted versions of Ovid’s stories, so you can sound clever at dinner parties, or while having sausage & mash with your mates at Spoons, whichever is your comfort zone. I found it extremely difficult to choose one, but was helped by the decision that it had to be one of the poems with one of Johnny Marsh’s poignant illustrations. I eventually chose ‘Echo and Narcissus’. Here’s the note from the end of the book, and then the poem below, both reproduced with the kind permission of the author:
“Jove employed witty Echo to distract Juno from his infidelities. When Juno found out, she cursed the nymph, so that Echo could only repeat what other people said. Narcissus, Echo’s beloved, was a proud young man. Another nymph who loved him too was so hurt by Narcissus’ lack of attention that she prayed to Nemesis to make him feel the same pain he had caused others. Nemesis cursed Narcissus and he fell in love with his reflection in a pool. Echo, who had followed Narcissus, could only repeat his words of self-love. She became a disembodied voice and Narcissus changed into a daffodil.”
(Apologies – the poem covers two pages, so a big gap, which should just be a stanza break, appears between the two where I’ve scanned so that you can see the lovely font and illustration.)
Now the purpose of this blog is not to dissect the poem, or review it, but to help you (and me) to write our own poems. I shall therefore point out some of the poet’s super-clever ideas. I may jump up and down a bit, because Siân’s ideas make me a little excited:
- Quite frankly, Ovid’s Metamorphoses is crying out to have poems written that are inspired by it. It’s a great idea to go hunting for stories – from any genre or period – to help you find ideas to create your own poems. I’ve been floundering for inspiration for one I need to write about a particular mental illness for a new pamphlet, so I’m going to use the story idea and go looking as soon as I’ve finished this blog entry.
- Look at the poet’s compelling use of the second person, addressing the poem to you to grab your attention,
- and the imperative – she orders you, “Find him…Reach for him…unbutton him”!
- Look how sensual the words and images are; the undressing, unzipping, pressing, holding.
- Back to, “Titian reaching for the hand of Christ”. This gives the poem a depth that’s Biblical, historical, ancient and important, all in a seven-word phrase, which is also desperately sad and conjures the hopelessness of the unattainable.
- A “diptych” ( a folding, two-part hinged art work, often an icon, found in churches), also has some of this ancient importance to it, but is so useful in showing a connection and folding together between Echo and Narcissus, or, indeed, between you, the reader and whoever you might want to fold together with. Gosh!
- “Cast a circle” makes me think of magic and adds yet another dimension.
- “so sharp you could cut a falling feather” is frankly, sublime.
- ‘Art gives you what you cannot have’ is breath-taking, and the last stanza,
- “Now untie your life. Leave it by the pool. You can breathe under water,” literally takes you breath away.
There is so much to this poem. It has clearly not been chucked on a page in an afternoon, but mulled over, slept on, developed. The poet has collected ideas and words to create a feast of ideas and feelings. And the effort has paid off. I’m running out of adjectives, so I’ll desist.
A note on the actual, physical book. It’s published by Paekakariki Press, a letterpress printer. It is gorgeous to look at and hold and would make a lovely gift. Have a look at Paekakariki’s website, where they explain how they came to be and how they chose to print poetry (of course they did):
You can buy this sumptuous collection from this link: