In Greek mythology and popular legend, Orpheus is the musician, the poet, who could charm all with his music. Possibly the son of a king and the muse Calliope, he was one of Jason’s Argonauts; he is said to have perfected the lyre; and is credited as the composed of the Orphic Hymns, some of which survives today. He occupies an important position in Western literary culture, and has been the subject of paintings, poems, operas and many musical compositions.
One of the best known stories about Orpheus concerns his wife Eurydice. Startled by a satyr at their wedding, she falls into a nest of vipers and dies. Orpheus travels to the Underworld, and is allowed to bring her back on the condition that he not look at her until they have departed Hades and reached the upper world. He looks back too soon, of course, and Eurydice is lost forever.
Matthew Duggan, a British poet, has retold the story of Orpheus in Underworld: The Modern Orpheus, a series of 16 poems published as an e-book in late July. This Orpheus is no Greek of mythological time, but a contemporary man, in contemporary times.
And the story is just as haunting, unfolding in a series of images and scenes that are both familiar and mythological.
This Orpheus has turned 40, and his “birthday balloons drift, / like the years had quickened with time / from hardships passed to rare moments of bliss.” He has traveled far and long to find love, and he does ultimately find her, only to lose her: “…her colourful corpse lay with wingless priests / so far from the reaches of love’s blessed arms…”
As Orpheus seeks his love, even the muses weep in what is a moving, lyrical passage that illustrates the language of the entire work:
…a hunched weeping muse collects her tears
like the frequent pebbles that span a beach.
In the dead fields of weathered corn
she rests well under dappled skies of canvas,
in prayer she weeps for songs of hope
from the ghosts and gods that glisten the night.
It is Duggan’s description of Hades that sounds so familiar, so modern, a contemporary urban landscape:
In the realms of the city of the dead
the warrior of song takes a deep breath,
in charcoal towers with skies of coarse red.
Searching the high-streets burnt and bled
in old cafes of timeless death,
in the realms of the city of the dead.
In a city coloured with glossed lead…
In this Hades of “neon skyscrapers,” Orpheus finds himself a player on the stage, following the script written out for him to its inevitable conclusion. He has no choice, really; his fate has been laid out before him.
Duggan has done something wonderful here with this retelling of an old, old story. He’s given it a modern sensibility while remaining true to its mythological origins. And he’s done so using beautiful lines and images that continue to haunt long after the reading is done.