canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Adagios: Orestes’ Lament
by Judith Fitzgerald
Oberon Press, 2004

Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston

In this, the second slow-movement in a four-part epic, Fitzgerald mourns brilliantly the breakdown of contemporary civilization, from economies, wars, famines, to the environment, against the background of the Homeric Oresteia, and does it with dense imagery, rich with biblical and literary undertones. Orestes’ Lament resonates with the language of Lamentations: ‘How deserted lies the city, … Once great among nations, now become a widow; once queen among provinces, now put to forced labour!/ She weeps bitterly in the night … … Her friends have all betrayed her; they have become her enemies.’ (Lam.1:1-2) Thus Jeremiah cries pain for his world and those who have been deported.

Fitzgerald mourns the separation between individuals, the lack of hope:

Horrors accumulating, our house collapsing in crises,
I endure dislocations to find talismans by firelight,
curl inward in my obsidian cavern, clutch certainties,
barter for better days, and pray mourning begins at midnight. (p.26)

Her meaning is, on occasion, shrouded and mysterious, as Fitzgerald speaks from the depth of the human heart where grief cries in an agony without words.

This is also an extended poem of madness, Orestes being chased by the Erinyes, those mad goddesses, serpent-haired, dog-headed, bat-winged, sometimes regarded as pangs of conscience, with an underlying reminder of Lear’s madness and despair:
We live in a world bearing down on being, a whitened world
where, following full brightness, the moon falls apart in our
falls victim to our obsessions with grave sights invisible …
Biblical echoes are frequent in the poem, ‘Give us this day our portion/ of poetic grace …’ (p.9) which reminds the reader of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ but asks for freely given, mysterious, covenant love rather than the practicality of everyday food.

Then Jesus’ statement ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ in John 14:6 is recalled in the ‘shimmering images of the way, the truth, and the damned facts’ (p.20). Here Fitzgerald emphasizes 20th century dependence on facts though these may not be the inner truth. There is also a satiric echo of Ecclesiastes 8:15 ‘Eat, drink, and be merry’ in Fitzgerald’s ‘Eat, drink, go fishing’ (p.40).

Few 20th century disasters have been been omitted, if any, from ‘profligate propaganda or scabrous disinformation dispersed’ (p.39), to Ethiopia’s famines: ‘our hunger’s so vast only gods can wholly comprehend it ­ ‘ (p.30); or with this one-letter twist on ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5:5):

… but, there’s no place like Hell and the meek
shall inherit the dearth; here, on this amusement-park planet.

In other words, the meek will inherit scarcity and lack the means to sustain life, while everyone else plays.

She writes scathingly of our treatment of the environment:

The breaking sea’s endless wreckage incurs stilled calamities,
settles scores, silences voices raised against harsh enemies
teaching harsher lessons vis-à-vis our lists of things
to doom.
Why must we ­ pitiless you and me ­ provoke gods?
… This carnage eclipses all meaning.

The death of fish stocks and species used as revenge between peoples, nuclear waste, all of which creates havoc on land and sea. She pulls no punches in this endless threnody.

And on to 9/11 ‘with the disastrous crash of towers crumbling in noxious flame’ (p.38).

The hard-hitting language of the lamentation, sharp consonants and short vowels, give immediacy to the poetry, while the biblical echoes give spiritual depth and broaden the perspective on grief. Fitzgerald uses internal rhyme: ‘in the shameless jaws of attritions or death’s disquisitions’ (p.26); end rhyme:

I wrestle with terrible angles among grief’s indifferent
rail against matricide and mourning’s bloated revelations.

She incorporates alliteration: ‘bled-red edges of sense -/ glorious refrains ­ going, grinding, gone…’ (p.30) with a musical expertise that creates syncopated rhythms which interrupt the flow of images and add emphasis to the theme of a broken world.

Fitzgerald challenges awareness to the depths. She twists the knife with precision in First World conceptions as she moves through the madness of Orestes’ journey to that place where the reader must ‘stay the course until the moon rises to reveal the blood on its underside.’ (p.51)

Joanna M. Weston -- THE WILLOW-TREE GIRL for ages 7-11






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