Sunday, May 15, 2016

Leda In My Kitchen

Some Girls by Janet McNally

The myth of Leda is an old and beloved one, especially for writers and artists. Leda was a Greek princess, daughter of the king of Aetolia, Thestius. She was the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta. When Zeus saw her he fell in love with her. Transforming himself into a swan he raped her. Earlier that same night she had also lain with her husband. As a result, she was impregnated by both. From two eggs, two sets of twins were born; the first was Helen and Clytemnestra, the second Castor and Pollux. 

While undoubtedly many people know the outlines of the story, it is surely through Yeats’ famous poem “Leda and the Swan” that the story is now best known.   

Now here is McNally; admire the tender twist she has given this tale:

Leda in My Kitchen

With her fingers flat on the table, her hands
feathered like a pair of wings, tips pointed,
a silvery shade of white I recognized
from somewhere else. Alabaster, or the concrete
spread of sidewalk soaking in moonlight. The idea
of a cloud in childhood, more insinuation
than weather. Book-ended, always,
by wakefulness and sleep.

She closed her eyes and said, What bothers me most
is that I can’t remember. She held the curve
of her belly and I saw her fingers
were bone and skin again, pressed together
like a prayer. For a moment, we pretended
the egg in front of us had lost its terrible promise,
cradled no life in its calcium shell. 

The warp and weft of “Leda In My Kitchen” is hardly the exception in this smart and graceful collection in which—to quote the poet Paula Meehan—“the grammar of myth and fairytale is real.” Indeed such names as Circe, Eurydice, and Penelope abound in these poems, charging the prosaic if mighty struggles of contemporary women and girls with the force and radiance of the mythical, mystical past.

Here are two more poems from the collection:

Persephone Has a Secret

Everything’s about to pop. The pollen
shakes like confetti form the long, red throats

of trumpet flowers. The air burns gold.
In this version, Hades is bayou Louisiana,

and the underworld drips
with rainwater and dew. She’s the one

who’s done it, loosed this place
from its ashen dusk the minute that child

started swirling beneath her rib cage, pulsing
like a flock of juncos winging in the trees.

Tonight, Luna moths gather on the screens, their chartreuse
wingspread fragile as rice paper. The have

no mouths, no stomachs, and will live a week
and die. You’ve come to the right place,

she tells them. Here, you can go right on breathing
after you’re dead. Not that she plans on staying.

For now, she’s naming the flowers
as they sprout: pink stars of seashore

mallow, white jasmine trailing leaves
in brackish water. Hibiscus so red it slows

the amnesia flutter in her blood, lets her remember
the single bloom that stole her soul in the first place:

narcissus, pinwheel blossom, sepals
and petals both crushed in her astonished grasp.

From the turntable, Nina Simone sings
“Lilac Wine.” Another flower she’ll show

her baby, another word she’ll spell
when they step out of this place stone free.

Hecuba and Gravity

When she was young, she saw Hokusai’s prints of Mt. Fuji,
its peak a gentle slope in red ink and gray. Snow-pink
spring trees, diamond-sharp kites on fine black strings.
She wanted to unfasten the clouds, peel the whirling birds
away from their updraft spins. She couldn’t quite love
two dimensions. so she folded squares of paper
into animals—here, a pointed shoulder, there,
a triangle of ear—and set them on a windowsill.
Sometimes the wind made them flutter to the floor.

Which is to say, she always knew what would happen,
if only in her sleep. In her dreams, the baby falls
like the cherry blossoms she’s never seen.

Writes poet Eavan Boland, “These poems chart with a rare grace and lyric skill the traffic between the plainspoken, ordinary moment and the visionary one.” I encourage you to read them for yourself.

Janet McNally is a poet and novelist who teaches creative writing at Canisius College. She has a Master of Fine Arts in fiction form the University of Notre Dame and has twice been a fiction fellow with the New York Foundation for the Arts. Some Girls is published by White Pine Press.

Peter Adam Nash

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