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Disturbing a Mighty Ghost

Bernard O’Donoghue

Orpheus, by Theo Dorgan, Dedalus Press, 80 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-1910251300

Of all the major personae in Greek culture, none is more ambiguous than Orpheus. Is he the archetypal figure of the artist, the musician who can charm wild beasts and move inanimate objects to dance? Or is he primarily the exemplar of uxorious devotion who wins his wife Eurydice back from the underworld after she dies from a snakebite, only to lose her again when he breaks the command not to look back to check she is still following him on his way out of Hades? In that case, is he a figure of impatience and lack of resolve? The story has been reinterpreted in every generation, from Virgil to King Alfred, from Monteverdi to Offenbach, from Rilke to Black Orpheus. There is also the second, loosely connected story of his being torn limb from limb by the Dionysiac Maenads so his head floats down to Lesbos, singing as it goes (memorably recaptured by Tony Harrison). A complicated hermetic system emerged as Orphism; and as a permanent reminder, his lyre in the sky contains the brilliant star Vega.

Theo Dorgan is much travelled in the realms of gold since Sailing for Home in 2004, and centring on Greek in 2010. He has drawn on Jason and the Argonauts and Sappho, and gestured towards Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and Cavafy’s “Ithaka”. In this latest venture on his Greek front he is disturbing a mighty ghost. The book is divided into two parts, each containing thirty-three poems in Sapphic stanzas. As the blurb says, these are “in English, one of the most challenging of poetic forms”: the stanza has three eleven-syllable lines, followed by a fourth of five syllables, with the last word of the concluding stanza rhyming with the last line of the first. Whatever its general difficulty in English, Dorgan carries it off with great aplomb. The book begins with a Sapphic line which is as effective as the famously arresting opening line of Meredith’s Modern Love (“By this he knew she wept with waking eyes”): “I stand back from the streetlight at her school gate”.

Part One is set in the current era, with the narrator’s adventures beginning with school in Cork (Mayfield, Summerhill, Winter’s Hill and Sunday’s Well earth the poems here) where the Orpheus parallel is with the attempts to perfect his guitar-playing to impress the inamorata. The myth is touchingly modernised by making the learning difficult and dedicated rather than divinely inspired:

I thought discipline meant to rein myself back,
I’d stay up all night

if I had to, ’til I had it note-perfect –
conjuring what I ached for in the shadows,
imagining her stretched there in the dim light,
nodding her respect.

Music came more naturally to Orpheus; as the blurb says, “Dorgan’s contemporary Orpheus is part-drifter, part-troubadour, part-lover ... always of this place and time.” The pursuit of his Eurydice and news of her takes him well past Cork, to Paris and New York, and to other musical worlds: to Joni Mitchell to “talk about Dylan” (whose very name causes the stanza and the line-length to break down for the only time in the book), as well as to “Scarlatti, Bach and Couperin”. This picaresque development ends at the conclusion of Part One after “the long decades passed” with the discovery that after all “you can go home again ... my city is still mine”. This surprisingly domestic first ending seems a long way from the tragedy of Orpheus:

The fates put a good companion in my way –
we have a daughter

with steady eyes who sang at her mother’s breast
I work at the old trade as many have before,
I play the cards I’m dealt. I hope to die old,
grateful, doing my best.

But this demureness sets the scene for a stunning coup de théâtre at the start of Part Two where we are suddenly in the other, more horrific world of Orpheus:

Tender they nursed me, cradled my severed head,
circling in moonlight under the spreading oak,
passed me from hand to hand, kissing my eyelids.
Called up from the dead.

This brilliant idea – that the Maenads are in love with Orpheus – recalls Wilde’s Salomé and initiates a highly effective change of tack for the rest of the story. The central leitmotif has changed, from the restless Kavanagh-like motivation “life is elsewhere” of Part One which peters out at its end, to a wonderful repeated judgement on the Orpheus-Eurydice relationship in Part Two: “I loved her, but not enough”. After Orpheus is dismembered by the Maenads, he is gradually put back together, in a mirror-image of the myth’s development. Improbably, Part Two ends with the same image as Part One, with Orpheus asking Eurydice for forgiveness for his possessiveness: “I thought you mine, thought I owed / and owned you ... Dear heart, forgive me”. And here too we end with a child and mother: “Then the child smiled with her mother’s cool grey eyes, / lifted free and clear.”

It is quite a challenge to bring something new to this complex nexus of myths, but Dorgan has done it. It is a remarkable achievement.

Bernard O’Donoghue was born in Cullen, Co Cork in 1945. His most recent book of poems was The Seasons of Cullen Church (Faber 2016).

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