One of the first three publications by brand-new chapbook publisher Baseline Press, run out of London, Ontario by Karen Schindler, is THE BLACK CAR, Reflections on Lethe by London, Ontario poet Christine Walde, writes between the mythology of Lethe and the poems of Sylvia Plath. As she writes in her “Afterword”:
In Greek mythology, Lethe was one of the five rivers of Hades that flowed around the cave of Hypnos and through the underworld. Some ancient Greeks believed that souls were made to drink from the river before being reincarnated, so they would not remember their past lives. All those who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness.
I first encountered Lethe through the poems of Sylvia Plath, who first mentions it in her poem “Two Campers in Cloud Country (Rock Lake, Canada),” which she wrote during her 1959 camping trip across Canada and the US with her husband, poet Ted Hughes. Overwhelmed by the landscape, at the end of the poem she writes: “Around our tent the old simplicities sough / Sleepily as Lethe, trying to get in. / We’ll wake blank-brained as water in the dawn.” I was compelled by Plath’s usage of Lethe, since it suggested to me the idea of the Canadian landscape as the underworld. Plath makes reference to this imagery again in her poem “Crossing the Water,” in which she directly names Canada: as “two black, cut-paper people” cross a black lake in a black boat, “cold worlds shake from the oar.”
Later in her writing career, Plath visited Lethe in two Ariel poems, including “Amnesiac” – “Sweet Lethe is my life” – and “Getting There,” where Plath likens the “gigantic gorilla interior” of the river to a train car – a black car – that she steps up from, reborn as a newborn baby. What profoundly resonated with me was the idea that a river in Hell could be both a source of death and rebirth.
As part of a larger work-in-progress that deals with Plath and Hughes’ trip to Canada, many of these poems directly reference some of Plath’s words and phrases, often placing Plath and Hughes directly in the landscape of my imagining. Others are meditations on forgetting, and visit other poets’ work on the subject of Lethe, including poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, H.D., and Charles Baudelaire.
There is something about the combination of Lethe and Plath/Hughes that I find intriguing in these poems, that, individually, I would find less so. The amount of poetry collections centred around either a mythological or historical figure over the past decade or two have been frightening, with so many doing little more than replicating previous material in fairly mundane, and repetitive, ways. Here is the first section of the six-part “Underworld,” that writes:
black watercuttingbeneath the boat
wishing youhad taken the oarsinstead of him
wishing youhad doneso much more
Part of what is intriguing about this lovely small chapbook, limited to an edition of seventy-five copies, is in Walde’s movement through different styles, fusing her poetic line with those of a number of other poets, providing an interesting range, but, in only nine poems, one that doesn’t really give too much of a sense of where the final manuscript might be headed.
With such a project, it could be quite easy to get caught up in the limitations of influence instead of using influence as a springboard towards something far greater. I am enjoying the teasers of these small poems, and the thoughtful lines and line breaks of some of these pieces, intrigued to see more.
The Old Simplicities
They are the accrualof the ancients: dilapidated
sins. They pushand pull
at my meager points, dullardsof insistence. O how
they tease! To be more thanthis. While I reckon eternity
in a handful of dust.The insubstantial drifts
Before their complacency,The soft slough of time.
I moult and moult, a pedigree
of shades, perfectedby lies. Each night
they resurrect meto their temple:
a paradise of yawns.Numb, I acquiesce
my captureto the beige menagerie
of the wild. There isnothing left to do. Sleepily
I dream and falter,making myths to the end.