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Poem of the week: Actaeon by George Szirtes


A version of the Greek myth, refocused through the eyes of an ageing 21st-century man, retells the story suggestively slant

From Victorian times at least, women writers have been retelling classical myths and folktales from a woman-centred or feminist perspective. In this week's poem, "Actaeon" by George Szirtes, the myth is experienced intimately from the male perspective. The larger parables that emerge concern bodily limits and mortality. The hounds that run Actaeon into the ground may be those of time as well as desire.

The epigraph draws attention to Donne's enthralled and enthralling "Elegy XX", (sometimes numbered XIX), "To His Mistress Going to Bed". After a slow, perhaps imaginary, feminine disrobing, "O, my America, my Newfoundland", expresses the lover's delight in the vision of his mistress's newly undressed body, and in the forthcoming conquest. Actaeon's untouchable "America" is, of course, Diana, the "chaste and fair" goddess of the hunt and the moon. Any conquest is all hers.

In Ovid's account in Metamorphoses, Book III, Actaeon breaks the taboo unintentionally. He doesn't deliberately set out to spy on Diana, any more than Oedipus set out to kill his father and marry his mother. Actaeon merely wants to find a quiet resting-place after the morning's hunt, when he comes upon the grotto with its secret pool, and the astonishing presence of Diana and her nymphs, bathing. Retribution is almost immediate. The outraged goddess splashes his head with water and curses him, transforming him into the stag who, now without human language, will be chased across the forest and torn apart by his own hounds.

Numerous painters have depicted the crucial scenes. In the poem, that reference to "a washing line/ I shoved aside without thinking" seems to allude to Titian's Diana and Actaeon. Complete with "strange red shirt", Titian's scene is much as the Szirtes narrator describes, and the irreverent approach to a great painting, as with Paul Durcan's "National Gallery of Ireland" poems, spices our appreciation. But the function of that throwaway domestic description, I think, is to deliver Actaeon solidly into the back-garden of the 21st century.

The point of view throughout the poem is Actaeon's. The question "does desire have thoughts or define/ its object, consuming all in a glance?" seems like a disguised plea of Not Guilty. The logical answer is no: desire itself is not violation. The poem's answer, as it evolves, seems to be that Actaeon's metaphysical theft and the literal destruction Diana unleashes are equally necessary "fatal flaws" in the moral scheme.

Actaeon rephrases his question. He seems angry and combative. "You, with your several flesh" evokes a disturbing, almost grotesque image, with the nymphs like lumpy outgrowths of Diana, flesh of her flesh, and multiplying the threat she represents. In a collection which, as the title Bad Machine implies, considers the faults and limits of the body, there are more interpretative possibilities to "several flesh". You might think of bodies gone slack and adipose, or, at worst, developing tumours. The moon-goddess herself, "drinking night water", seems to be slaking some private and unhealthy thirst – perhaps enhancing her powers, perhaps swallowing medication. The speaker sharpens his earlier challenge with the crucial, negative-riddled question, "What can't we let go/without protest?" This implicates Diana and her prized virginity but then turns back on the speaker, Actaeon, now forced to let go of himself.

The "dangerously toothed" nocturnal pursuers of Actaeon seem to assault him from within. "And so the body burns/as if torn by sheer profusion of skin/and cry." Burning and tearing, in everyday speech, often describe physical pain, and, in poetry, they're traditional tropes associated with love. The tormenting packs come together in "Skin/ and cry", a vivid coupling that recalls "hue and cry", giving us the belling of the hounds as they close in, the confusion of so many bodies, and the impossibility of separating the hunted from the hunters. The more skin we have, as lovers, as ageing bodies, the more, perhaps, it will make us cry.

Actaeon's body "grows contrary" and no longer seems a comfortable fit. This adheres to the Ovidian narrative, while evoking a metamorphosis of ageing in terms of increasingly ragged and un-flesh-like flesh, a loss which has psychological ramifications: "So flesh falls away, ever less/human, like desire itself…"

The poem's structure helps reveal the paradoxes. The stanzas, though uniform in length, have an odd number of lines, the five quintets making a pattern which complicates symmetry. Rhythmically, there's often an impatient forwards-rush, while the "sheer profusion" of rhyme checks it and creates a back-and-forth movement, as the rhyme-word of one stanza's third line is picked up in the first and last lines of the next. It's an innovative and intricate form, and one that seems organic to its subject. Between the stases of desire and death, the hunting dogs rush and circle.

In the fifth stanza, Actaeon, it will be revealed, is finally looking straight at himself. The last word of the poem, rhyming pointedly with "dress" and "less", is "nakedness" (his). The "O, my America" quotation, now with a lower-case "o", has become grimly ironical and, more importantly, part of an address not to a lover's body, but to his own. In discovering his own, isolated male nakedness, Actaeon breaks another taboo. He has no alternative, as before, and no further story, except, perhaps, that he will be forced (by loneliness or ill-health) to get to know this nakedness more intimately. His body may be a Newfoundland, but it's one which can be greeted only with irony. He's not even a stag any more.


O, my America, my Newfoundland
John Donne, "Elegy 20"

O, my America, discovered by slim chance,
behind, as it seemed, a washing line
I shoved aside without thinking –
does desire have thoughts or define
its object, consuming all in a glance?

You, with your several flesh sinking
upon itself in attitudes of hurt,
while the dogs at my heels
growl at the strange red shirt
under a horned moon, you, drinking

night water – tell me what the eye steals
or borrows. What can't we let go
without protest? My own body turns
against me as I sense it grow
contrary. Whatever night reveals

is dangerously toothed. And so the body burns
as if torn by sheer profusion of skin
and cry. It wears its ragged dress
like something it once found comfort in,
the kind of comfort even a dog learns

by scent. So flesh falls away, ever less
human, like desire itself, though pain
still registers in the terrible balance
the mind seems so reluctant to retain,
o, my America, my nakedness!

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