Orpheus and Eurydice: The Way to the Underworld, by Janet Hamill

[On Sunday, August 26th, I’ll participate in the “Spoken Aggregate” poetry festival at the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale from 1 to 4 pm. Three of us–Chris Wheeling, Janet Hamill, and myself–will present works inspired by the Underworld. Here, Janet previews her piece.]

When asked to contribute something on the theme of the underworld for this year’s reading at the Widow Jane Cave, I was immediately excited. The theme, given the setting, is entirely appropriate. Caves, caverns, steep descents, water, mist and mystery fit the universal descriptions of the underworld, or night journey, as treated by the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, ancient Greeks and Romans. In addition, the cave has the best acoustics a poet or musician could hope for, something that would have pleased the first poet, Orpheus.

When deciding what to write for the occasion, I gravitated to Orpheus. He is a timeless figure. Not only is he the first poet, but he also made a descent into the underworld. His myth may be the creation of ancient Greek myth, but his story has been a favorite of artists throughout the ages. In the world of literature there are Rilke’s sublime Sonnets to Orpheus; as well as more contemporary retellings by poets such as Charles Olson, Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Simic and Alice Notely.

Then, too, there are the great cinematic treatments of Orpheus. The films of Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy, Blood of the Poet, Orpheus, and the Testament of Orpheus and Marcel Camus and Vinicius de Moraes’s Black Orpheus. The Cocteau films are set in Paris, while Black Orpheus takes place in Rio during Carnival. Because I’m a rather eidetic thinker, I was especially drawn to the films for inspiration, and like the filmmakers, I wanted to create a telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set in a contemporary location, in my case New York City. Beyond the films and the original myth, my other sources of inspiration were direct experience and a painting. The former was a recent trip to Governor’s Island, reachable by ferry, to read at the New York City poetry festival, the latter Arnold Böcklin’s famous 19th century painting of a shrouded figure being ferried to the underworld.

In addition to making Governor’s Island the underworld, my piece, The Way to the Underworld, takes other liberties. Orpheus is the one who has died and been sent to the underworld, and Eurydice is his poet-lover who travels to the depths in hopes of bringing him back to their apartment in lower Manhattan. Finally, after struggling to put write this story as a poem (I don’t do epics), I decided to write a short fiction.

This year’s reading at the cave may be the 20th in a series of annual reading, but it will be the first to emphasize themes and drama with four grouping of three poets each. I’m honored to have been paired Will Nixon and Chris Wheeling for this underground adventure.

–Janet Hamill
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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges available on-line.

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