It was only by chance I started reading it at all. A good friend of mine, the poet David Tait moved to China a couple of years ago and asked me if I would look after some of his poetry books. I picked them up in a large purple suitcase that now sits in my hallway cupboard like an obedient dog. One of the books was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which I’d been vaguely aware of, mainly through reading contemporary poetry that referenced it in some way. It was one of those books that I always felt like I should have read but had never quite got round to.
The Metamorphoses is Ovid’s major work. He finished writing it around 8 A.D and shortly after it came into circulation he was ordered into exile by Augustus – although the exact conditions that caused his exile are unclear, Ovid himself wrote that it was ‘carmen et error’ – a poem and a mistake of some kind were responsible.
When I dutifully started reading Ovid a couple of years ago I didn’t expect it to have any real relevance to my life. I was three quarters of the way through writing my collection – half-way through a central sequence of poems about domestic violence that had been painful, but necessary to write. I was casting about reading other poets that wrote about trauma and trying to find my own way between them – poets like Moniza Alvi and Pascale Petit and then I started reading Ovid. It is no coincidence that Moniza Alvi has also been influenced by Ovid, most obviously perhaps in her collection Europa, but without asking Pascale Petit directly I would guess that her shape-shifting poems, that are full of animals, birds and insects, also have the shade of Ovid standing behind them as well. Ovid became a map that I could follow to work out my own way of writing about violence and coercion, power and control, freedom and the pain of being trapped.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses consists of over 250 transformations – both men and women (but predominantly women) are changed into animals, stones, fish, birds, trees and constellations. Ovid presents story after story of transformation until we have no choice but to sit up and pay attention to the loss of self and identity which becomes the ultimate act of violence.
It’s easy to see how the transformation of the body, whether it is the transformation of the self or another has massive parallels in our modern world. We will be exploring these themes, but we won’t be limiting ourselves to this. I’m also interested in how we can subvert the expected and write about the act of transformation as a positive thing. Liz Berry’s uplifting and exuberant poem ‘When I Was a Bird’ explores the act of transformation as a positive rite of passage.
Perhaps the worst thing to befall a human in Ovid is not just the transformation of the body but the resulting loss of speech. This has disastrous consquences. Acteaon is turned into a stag and cannot call off his own hunting dogs before they tear him apart. Callisto is turned into a bear and is unable to beg for help from Jupiter or speak to her son before he kills her. During the course we will be looking at times in our own lives or in the lives of others when the power of speech has been threatened or lost.
Our bodies transform all the time, throughout our lives. They change shape when we gain or lose weight. They sink into illness or are transformed through exercise. They change just through living but they are the ultimate conundrum because we are truly stuck with them, for better or worse. We will be writing poems about and to and from the body, exploring what the body knows and the stories it can tell.
Ultimately we cannot write about the body without conjuring up the soul, or the self, or consciousness, or spirit, or a thousand other names we could use. We will be writing and reading poems that explore the division between the body and the soul, that make us aware of that division. Ovid does this: the human soul carries on existing inside the body of the animal or the tree; Callisto is changed into a bear but is lonely in the forest and frightened of the wild creatures. We will be venturing far and wide, using Ovid as our touchstone but following where ever the path leads us.
Searching for new creative identities? Create poems of transformation, from your body to the next, on Kim’s new online course ‘The Act of Transformation’. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.