Eighty Wondrous Steps to Enchantment
Songs for Ophelia by Theodora Goss
Review by Malcolm R. Campbell
“The collection you hold in your hands is otherworldly, it is elegant, it is delicate. It is graceful, it is exquisite and ethereal. It is full of flowers and fairies and a piercing, thorny longing.” — Catherynne M. Valente from the Introduction.
When you open this 146-page volume of eighty poems collected into songs for the seasons, the ethereal grace of Theodora Goss’ words and themes may attract your attention first. After all, the book begins with “Spring Songs,” and they are full of rebirth, promise and a garden of dazzling delights. Were you to begin at the ice and snow end of the book, the thorny longing would be more readily apparent, and you would know why Catherynne M. Valente named her introduction “A Weaponized Elegance.”
“Spring Song” establishes the tone and compact formality of the volume:
The “Spring Songs” section dances on the page, but from “Spring Song,” to “The Willow’s Story” to “April,” deep longings arise as well as the potency of less is more. While structurally complete, each poem leaves the reader with the distinct feeling more could have been said, that the garden is still missing a flower, that the dance lives and breathes for an additional step.
Less is more always hints at a “more” that’s best left unsaid by the poet, perhaps to be supplied by the reader or to be left dynamic and open and still yearning for the ever-waiting whispers of uncertain places and the other littorals that hover between seasons, times of day, myth and “reality,” and folklore and fact.
As you sing “Summer Songs,” you may realize that somewhere in between “The Willow’s Story” and “April,” you stepped into the center of a faerie ring. In “Beauty to the Beast,” Goss writes, if not scandalously, then perhaps surprisingly:
“…when I dare watch the east
with unprotected eyes, then I dare love you, Beast.”
And, in like manner in “Song of the Lady in the Corn”:
Cornflowers bloom in the borders,
poppies suffuse the field.
He expected resistance,
I was accustomed to yield.
The poems’ large cast of characters out of myth and magic tighten the faerie ring circle around your feet because they take what you know and add to it, often going down dangerous and unexpected liminal pathways. By the time you reach “Songs for Autumn” you will have already met, among others, Queen Mab, Guinevere. Echo, Narcissus, Vivien, Merlin, the Children of Lir and Helen of Troy. The references are rich and provide infinite depth to Songs for Ophelia.
“Songs for Autumn” carries your transformative dance from “Autumn, the Fool” to “Chrysanthemums” with a noticeable and evolving change in the spirit and the mental weather as the faerie ring carries you around the great wheel of the year. We begin with:
The leaves float on the water like patches of motley.
Autumn, the fool, has dropped them into the lake,
where they rival the costume, not of the staid brown duck,
but the splendid drake.
And then, after waltzing–or perhaps doing the boogie woogie–with Orpheus, a changeling, Isolde and a witch, the Fall ends with:
As they go into the darkness,
the heads of chrysanthemums
must light their way, like lamps.
While singing and dancing “Winter’s Songs” the thorns hidden beneath the blossoms of Goss’ flowers become evident. You cannot help but prick your finger once or twice in this section beginning with “The Snow”:
Listen: The snow is falling
with a whisper to the ground,
and it settles on the grass
The beauty of those we encounter in the final section is cold, stark and unforgiving. This is where it ends, life and words, even myths, for a period of sleep until the spring returns with changing willows and a new gown. By the end of this section, you’ll dream, as “The Bear’s Daughter” dreams while walking in an empty garden:
of the south while a cold wind sways the privet,
takes off her gloves, which are lined with ermine, and places
her hands on the rim of the fountain, in which the sun
has scattered its colors, like roses trapped in ice.
At the end of winter, your enchantment is complete. The dance has suggested a larger understanding of the world and its changing seasons. But it’s all figurative, right? Not really. The joy and sorrow of Theodora Goss’ Songs for Ophelia, in addition to the power of the words, the song, the dance, and the thorns, is a sense that the book’s seemingly ephemeral uncertain places have brought you more than mere facts dare to provide.
When all is said and done with “The Singer” at the end of the collection, you will have what poet Jane Yolen refers to as “Life in Truth,” the world as it should be behind the illusion of the world as it seems to be. “Life in Truth” requires you to supply the resolution to every poem and every season of songs.
Dear Ophelia, there are never-ending wonders and lessons here for you and for the rest of us.
TITLE: Songs for Ophelia
AUTHOR: Theodora Goss
PUBLISHER: Papaveria Press (June 30, 2014)