Softcover $12.95  ISBN 0-9705049-2-6


ISSUE 39/40
May 2003

Here is how Renée Ashley begins her third book, The Revisionist's Dream: "Old as seawater. And the dream as large as a sea./ We dream like that. And longer than that. Wider." The words situate us immediately at both the beginning of time and in our present. But lest this dream sound too lovely, seven lines later we read "And the prison we choose/ is narrow, and we swear we never dreamed those walls." So here we are in myth-time, that which has the ability to shift through history, the psyche, our bodies, and the heavens (&hells), while still rooted to that elemental "prison" from which neither mortals nor immortals can escape: Desire. In this book Ashley's Revisionist dreams us through the juicy soap opera lives of the Greek gods and goddesses, while always keeping a hand on the metamorphic shape-shiftings of who we are.

Reader, in case you're wondering if the myths have any relevance in our lives, if they can be brought forward in fresh language that is not in need of dusting (like some translations of the myths), listen to these lines from "Nostos: Not a Retelling at All," where Odysseus is spoken to at the moment of his turning back toward his home, and back to Penelope at the loom:

...Go home.
Drag your wishful bones over the boiling sea
To the shallows that wear your name: Absence
And Self like an inverse sky...

You are beautiful and mean. You are old.
And you have been gone too long...

Your wife .... She weaves your hours. Listen:
From the rock where you weigh your misfortune,
You can hear the breathy swing of thread against thread,
The shuttle of her sigh. She is waiting, but weary
With waiting; she is taut with love, and she has slept
Alone. You have lain with witches and whores: your goddess
Is a sun and you rise and fall with her; she weaves, as well-
A finer cloth, and brighter.

The voice here is so assured, so smooth, and also so freighted with longing that we are transported to that other world without leaving ourselves behind. Like Odysseus, we feel like we're back on that wine-dark sea with the ancients, the salt wind in your faces, the spars creaking. In the second section of this extraordinary poem, we are told

Heroes are made from envy,
Not return; they're strung like a bow with whispers
And the long apostrophe of wind at their sails. Tell the story!
Give the rhapsode a glimmer of the fairer truth, then
The fateful sailing. Lend him your deepest tale, the one
Nearest candor: the deft poverty of the body alone,
The abject rag of the carcass railing at the edge of the difficult
Sea, a tide of sorrow beneath that cicatrix moon.

With lines this good, so fluently blended with image, narrative, and rhetoric, one is tempted to keep quoting, letting the language speak for itself.

The Revisionist's Dream is made of three sections, each beginning with a numbered title poem which introduces its readers to the theme that will be explored and imagines. In Part One, Ashley re-imagines the stories of women - Leda, Nemesis, Demeter, Penelope - in such a way as to both subvert and enlarge our previous notions of them. Here, for example, is how she begins the telling of Leda's dubious pleasure with Zeus, when he came to her in the form of a swam and made love with her, in the poem "What She Wanted":

Not what you think. She imagined
Love, yes, and the wings thrashing...

Leda's desire is, "she will tell you,/ like a deft honing in cool water. She wanted him /like that... And she liked the word /tread, the idea of the watery fuck..." The poem goes on to list the "risks" that she wants him to take "any small thing - his life for instance," and finally for him "to own all that: the depths of need /and the body's fallible knowledge." Oh, the poem nearly exclaims in the closing couplet, "How far one might go for love,/and the waters one crosses to get there."

In each of these poems, Ashley's Revisionists tells us, "We are nothing we know for long," alluding to, along with our mixed and fallible views of ourselves, the fact that we are all targets of "the onslaught/ of desire." But rather than simply confine us (Ashley doesn't let us forget that we are flesh), such an "onslaught" deepens us, enlarges us, and reveals the complexities of our ever-constant wrestling (including that of sex) with the angels of history and our psyches. Rilke said, speaking of one who has wrestled with the Angel of the Old Testament, "Winning does not tempt that man./ This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,/ by constantly greater beings."

Part Two takes us back to the beginning of time, pre-myth, pre-language, imagining that language must first have been dreamt - in images - before we could begin to tell the stories of the soul. At the heart of this section is the seven-page poem, "First Book of the Moon," and here we are taken through the imaginative journey that the ancients may have experienced when they physically sensed, incanted, and ultimately imagined the elemental power of the moon (I speak of the imagination as a faculty - as one of our senses - and not of mere "fancy"). In the Prologue, the ancients say of the moon: "It was bigger than us and it had ideas; we heard it sighing./ And the dark, too, with its big ears, heard the whisper, the white breath/ hanging overhead, the long road throwing its broken shadow, the sliver of light/ between. We were all restless, lunatic, stunned." Ashley captures the haunted quality that the future myth-makers might have felt, charging her language with such physicality and precision of diction and tone, that we can't help if we are swept into the timeless scene of her rendering. In the poem's second part, "Increscent Moon (Moon as Incantation)," she writes

Its window of light swung open; the timorous rind
followed on the great bronze rump of the sun - antiphons of light and light -
and the white heartbeat carried us on its back, memory like a pulse, the leaping
river in our veins ...
We sang its name over, sang
in bright waves, driven by the moon - moon barely there, a rent in the sky,
and the moon unfurled: meniscus, half-eye, moon like a fist -
and the white mask turned toward us, its silhouette sharp as chipped horn....

The other poems in this section, too numerous to discuss here, continue to imagine the mythic and earthly trials of mortals and immortals, both animal and human, including a brilliant sestina entitled, "Lost Dogs." One note on this form, and a confession: Most sestinas I dislike because, even when written by normally capable poets, the repeated end-words feel ... repeated: anchored; static; forced. Where most often go slack in areas, committed as they are to going the distance of seven stanzas - like a marathon runner flagging for a mile here or there - in Ashley's sestinas (there are five in this book), these words develop something, whether a narrative arc, or a theme whose ideas are deepened with each repetition.

The final section, the shortest, begins with the Revisionist dreaming the following lines, which end the poem: "No point: to argue/ with the gods in their difficult/ clothes, no hope of setting traps// for what we imagine fire to be./ We are all outside the center./ The only way in is to burn." ("The Revisionist's Dream, (III)"). The water images developed in section one which gave way to the consuming/illuminating fire - the fire of love; the flames of the dying body, "washed in burning;" the embers of regret; and the mutually dependent energies of light ("the moist/yellow sun, its poultice heat"), and the dark which "we are all rowing in." In these we are lit (consumed and illuminated) by our lives, and the choices we make, as we attempt to navigate through "What We Don't Understand," the title of the book's last poem. And while the myths are not left behind here, they exist more as echo of the daily, in poems that bespeak the wrangling and depth of more domestic relations (to father and husband, for example). Here there is, perhaps, a deeper sense of contemporary grounding.

In The Revisionist's Dream, Renée Ashley - after the absolutely remarkable books which precede it (Salt, from 1991, which won The Brittingham Prize; and 1998's The Various Reasons of Light) "easily manages the cosmic scale, from the head voice of prophetic authority through the middle tones of spousal intimacy, tender and resentful, all the way down to the large-eyed silence of dogs, so often her symbol of the blunt, impenetrable life that knows, even when we don't, that we belong to it," as James Richardson writes, succinctly, on the jacket. Her books deserve a greater readership, so unique is her style and voice, so deftly honed is her art.

-- Kenneth Hart



Revisionism still raises the eyebrows of skeptics in English departments, despite the fact that new historicism has gotten past its vexed reception in the literary-theoretical community. Poets, however, have long known that casting a critical eye on the characters and stories of the past reveals a great deal about both the subject and the controlling consciousness of the writer. Poets interested in re-visioning the history of women, in particular, have mined male-authored narratives for the silenced voices of the women in myth, legend, and poetry. Renée Ashley's The Revisionist's Dream wades into this stream with poems about Arethusa, Nemesis, Penelope, Leda (with a long glance at Yeats), and other unnamed women whose appearances here transform familiar Greco-Roman story.
    Ashley does not limit herself to female speakers, but her poems, from long-lined sestinas to short poems in tight couplets and tercets, almost all push toward myth-making. "On the Death of Proteus," part elegy, part celebration, part Ovid, part Shelley, is a single ten-line stanza on the quality of mutability. The poem moves quickly - now you see it, now you don't - and hovers between assertion and denial: "You have wrestled with change/ and are not changed. The tide/ is and is cast, then recast/ .../ becoming is being." Its refusal to close, ending "You are everything;/ you are already gone," suggests not just the present absence of Proteus but also double-faced Janus at the gates of Rome.
    At the opposite end of the formal spectrum, the lovely "First Book of the Moon" is in six parts, including the two-part prologue. This meditation on language creates a moon that is both originator and object of speech, both vehicle and tenor of the metaphoric heart of all utterance. The "lesser light," the moon nevertheless generates the "bright/ tongue" of human speech, and its appearance causes the spontaneous expression of simile and personification:

It was moon like a brittle saucer, like
a severed pearl. It was bigger than us and it had ideas; we heard it sighing.
And the dark, too, with its big ears, heard the whisper, the white breath
hanging overhead . . .
. . . We were all restless, lunatic, and stunned.
. . . We praised its shallow lisping;
we dreamed its center: we gave it a heartbeat and its dense white bone.

A note of lament rings through much of Ashley's work, and the two epistolary sestinas, "Lost Dogs" and "Letter to a Husband," are not exceptions. Both find, if not resolution, then some satisfactory containment of the tensions inherent in experiencing and remembering loss. "Lost Dogs" revitalizes the separation poem, confusing loves and dogs, dogs and self: "It's difficult to see clearly here./ .../ We've lost// the knack of the smooth stroll.../ .../ Sweetheart, we stay home to keep from getting lost." The very long lines of "Letter to a Husband" push the sestina almost to its limit. Any longer, the poetic lines would be indistinguishable from prose. Their equally loose rhythms, much like those in "First Book of the Moon," find their form in lists and long clauses joined by conjunctions. Here, too, Ashley opts for the threshold as the poem's emotional locus: "the shore is a shifty, ambivalent margin: it leads to the sea, leads to/ our woods, as well." In this poem, finding oneself on a margin becomes almost a call to action - "we're armed/ for inconsistency!" - and one senses the uneasy joy that strikes a major chord in the final gestures - never quite conclusions - of Ashley's poems.
Not surprisingly, that double tone marks most of the re-visioning of female characters. "What She Wanted" tells Leda's story again, and it's "Not what you think." This is a different Leda from either Yeats's or Maxine Kumin's. This Leda is in the human body - she likes "the word/ tread, the idea of the watery fuck" - and she wants the god to experience her reality: "She wanted him// to own all that: the depths of need/ and the body's fallible knowledge." "Nemesis" goes so far as to suggest that change is lodged in humans as a residual link to the divine. "We are nothing we know for long," but Zeus is variability itself, and "what changes/ is the open eye, the urgent insatiable heaven." Love, with its "divided tongue" ("Arethusa"), drives many of Ashley's female subjects into multiplicity; Demeter, separated from Persephone, is first, "gray/ and hard," the "gold/ and red ... ermine," then "truly gold." She is "waiting to find out who/ she might be and what she will know when it ends" ("Some Demeter"). In "Another Weaving: Her Voice," Penelope bemoans the mystery of men's mind, deciding there are "No answers there: they're moved by gods, for heaven's/ sake!"
    The best resolution to such radical instability is, finally love. Penelope demands, "Place/ your ear here, in the curve of this breast - hear the whisper? That tells/ more than seaborne men can ever know." The divine finally comes down to the human; "It's the heart," Penelope claims, "that is the sturdy god." And this heart, linked to language, can stay, at least momentarily, the mutability that governs human life. "Some Other Woman" tells Elpenor that "[n]o contrivance/ is beyond love." She rewrites his story, holding him "passive in the air with ... stars." This stasis, however, demands that he not "think of gods or of fate with its nasty// smile"; nor can he look to men ("they leave you") or to "the wide, insatiable hips of the earth rising to meet you." In other words, the "other woman" has created a "comely magic," but a sterile existence.
    The three "Revisionist's Dream" poems, each introducing one section, tie Ashley's book neatly together. It's a remarkable consistent book in terms of subject and attitude, but the lushness of the language makes The Revisionist's Dream feel endlessly layered. The second "revisionist" dreams, "and the dream was of language.../ words had yellow wings, had a thousand delicate fingers,/ had big tusks, had balls --." But it's not this simple: "you can't take// her literally, and the story changes all the time." It is, however, this beautiful, and the book itself feels like the third revisionist's dream: "The only way in is to burn."

-- Sarah Kennedy

Read a poem from The Revisionist's Dream
The Various Reasons of Light  |   Reviews of The Various Reasons of Light
SALT by Renée Ashley  |  Read For Brigit In Illinois
Renée Ashley  |   Books

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