Book Review: 'Black Metamorphoses,' Shanta Lee | Seven Days Vermont

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Book Review: 'Black Metamorphoses,' Shanta Lee 

Published March 15, 2023 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated March 18, 2023 at 6:16 p.m.

click to enlarge Black Metamorphoses by Shanta Lee, with brush-and-ink illustrations by Alan Blackwell, Etruscan Press, 102 pages. $17. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Black Metamorphoses by Shanta Lee, with brush-and-ink illustrations by Alan Blackwell, Etruscan Press, 102 pages. $17.

The Roman poet Ovid lived from 43 BC to 17 or 18 AD, during the reign of Caesar Augustus. His works, along with those of his contemporaries Virgil and Horace, are among the most enduring and influential of classical Latin poetry.

In his early fifties, Ovid offended the emperor and was banished from Rome to a remote town on the Black Sea. Many historians think Augustus condemned Ovid for the purported obscenity of his Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a poetic guide to seduction.

In exile, Ovid wrote his most famous work, Metamorphoses. Beloved to Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Bob Dylan alike, this is a multilayered verse epic melding the natural and supernatural. In Ovid's volatile cosmos, things — magically, erotically, sometimes violently — transform into other things. Gods and people mingle, and a human might suddenly change into a plant or animal.

In her new book Black Metamorphoses, Vermont poet Shanta Lee has opened what she calls "a 2,000+ year-old phone line to Ovid." In "Blessed Black," she describes herself as "Applying Ovid's / Pythagorean theory: / Black bodies shapeshift."

Lee, who lives near Brattleboro, is the author of a previous book of poems, Ghettoclaustrophobia: Dreamin of Mama While Trying to Speak Woman in Woke Tongues, winner of the 2021 Vermont Book Award for Poetry. Lee's creative endeavors go in multiple directions; she is also a visual artist, performer, filmmaker, journalist and curator. Her exhibit "Dark Goddess: An Exploration of the Sacred Feminine," featuring photos and video, is on view at the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum of Art through May 20.

Lee has an undergraduate degree in women, gender and sexuality studies from Trinity College, an MFA in creative nonfiction and poetry from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and an MBA from the University of Hartford. She teaches media studies at the Putney School, and she's a Vermont Public reporter-producer and regular contributor to Ms. magazine. In 2020 she was appointed by Gov. Phil Scott to the Vermont Humanities board of directors.

The Ovidian idea of continual metamorphosis meshes with modern views of change in nature, both on vast evolutionary and astronomical scales, and also in minuscule: genetic, microbial and molecular. All life's in transition.

In her new book, Lee creates a synthesis of mythology with history. She finds parallels in Greek myths and the testimonies of formerly enslaved people collected by the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s. She juxtaposes the Greco-Roman fable of Daedalus' labyrinth with "this maze / called America."

In Ovid's Metamorphoses, the artist Pygmalion renders in ivory a female form so lifelike he falls in love with her. The goddess Venus turns the sculpture into a living woman, whom her "creator" impregnates. In Black Metamorphoses, Pygmalion's studio dais is a slave trader's auction block: "The sculptor molded and sculpted, // blind to the way sun and moon took turns / to witness audacity of a self-styled Zeus."

In "Flight From Pygmalion's Pedestal," Lee renovates and reinvigorates the story: That sculpted woman isn't a conquest but suddenly frees herself, as "Warmth gave way to blood, // gave way to adrenaline that enlivened feet to flight."

In her poem "The Witness Tree," Lee infuses another classical motif with fresh life. Echoing Ovid's story of Daphne turning into a laurel tree just before Apollo grabbed her, Lee makes the assaulter no mythic deity but an American plantation owner presuming a claim on the bodies of his female property. Yet, as in Ovid, a might-have-been victim escapes by transformation:

I heard first crack, nothin felt pon my hardening back. Started
at my toes, crawled the length of my legs,
arms turned wooded limb, body ripened into widening trunk.
Fingers now branches twisting signs toward sky
My naked bark, kissed by sun
My shadows, my fissures of rage

In recent years, feminist scholars have challenged modern readers to think carefully about how dozens of rapes in Ovid's Metamorphoses are portrayed. Does the revered poet valorize male brutality? Actually, Ovid's scenes of violence against women pivot on his female characters' points of view. In the New Yorker in 2018, Katy Waldman observed, "Ovid's epic positions female pain as the beginning or the hinge of the story, not the end; victims are transfigured, their suffering made new and strange."

Consider Philomela, assaulted by a brother-in-law who cuts out her tongue to ensure silence; like Ovid, Lee gives Philomela a tapestry to weave, where the truth is visible beyond words: "Read between time, appear the missing / Read unwanted, bargained // Follow the loops over and under / Age 220 years // Take me out of the archive. Place me in the open / Let your tongue go missing."

Reading Black Metamorphoses is hard work. These poems don't veer from the violence in their literary and historical sources. Lee's prosody is often jagged, the phrasing interrupted from what's anticipated in ordinary prose syntax. Her stanzas jump across the page, with darting indents and divided columns of type. Recognizable personages from myths appear here — Persephone, Hermaphroditus, Medusa and the Minotaur — yet for Lee they're not just allusions but beings of ferocious vitality and passion. This is also how she approaches language, as very old and ever new.

She lauds a poet's ability to serve as "the throat that be the ferry between // Shadowlands and Land of Sunshine."

Ovid's Metamorphoses still exists because readers keep finding connections between those poems and our lives now. As a 21st-century multimedia artist, in print and in practice, Lee is creating fresh relationships with an archaic text.

What matters most isn't just the survival of that old book but the relationships we can discover with it — and what new art can be made of ancient ingredients.

From Black Metamorphoses

Changing Places With the Devil

I allowed this stroll. My stop, his stop

Footfall matched footfall, the moon that night?

Mindin its business, drunk off itself

His skin lit, a bold white like a Magnolia

against corpse quartz threads, a derby hat,

and fresh plucked feather

On the seventh night, he spoke

For your time, your never mind, what's your want?

Gimme, I demand, your gift of shapeshifting,

wily wit to trick the world. Make me invincible

in this land of spirits, and gimme...

Mama and Papa warned when want is spoke,

it must be true. Hunger must match crave

Wishin ain't it, but askin will learn ya good

Askin' ain't nothing to play wit

Corpse quartz threads line my closet,

A fresh feather plucked for full moon

I've followed a soul for two nights,

weighed the footfalls

It's been found wanting

Permission to include "Changing Places With the Devil" from Black Metamorphoses (copyright 2021 by Shanta Lee) provided by Etruscan Press.

Lee will give a reading on Wednesday, March 22, 5:30 p.m., at the Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont, in Burlington. uvm.edu/fleming

The original print version of this article was headlined "All Things Change | Book review: Black Metamorphoses, Shanta Lee"

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About The Author

Jim Schley

Jim Schley

Bio:
Contributing writer Jim Schley has edited nearly 200 books in a wide range of genres and subject areas. He leads book discussions around the state for Vermont Humanities. And as a theater artist, having toured internationally with Bread & Puppet and the Swiss troupe Les Montreurs d’Images, currently he’s performing with Parish Players and BarnArts. He lives in Strafford.

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