“Alcestis in the Underworld,” by Nina Murray

Nina Murray

Reviewed by Joshua S. Fullman

Despite the social division, even antagonism, between the various city-states and polities that made up the Greek world, Hellenism nevertheless found a measure of cultural cohesion in their religious narratives. The myth of Alcestis, to cite but one of these narratives, required a poet no less skilled than Euripides to dramatize its redemptive action. As he describes Alcestis travelling to Hades as a substitute for her husband, we may imagine the Athenians praising the virtue of wedded romance, even if they might have cynically criticized her unrealistic homecoming. The story asks how long a journey we might travel to save the soul of our beloved. Life is infinitely better than afterlife, the Greeks must have thought, if one would first descend into death but find love sufficient reward to return to life. Nina Murray frames this recent anthology of poems on the classic story, drawing on her own experiences in Russia as parallel to suffering, death, and return.

Reflective of an Aristotelian plot movement to reproduce the classic tale, the book is divided into three parts. Part One focuses on the Russian city, the cultural divides between citizen and alien, the double-consciousness of being American in a foreign nation. Here we feel strongly the psychological tenor of the expatriate; one experiences the thrill of moving abroad, but soon the excitement dissipates, the culture shock sets in, and the loneliness becomes a ubiquitous companion. One enters this exotic locale with the baggage of expectation and spends her time exploring the dissonance between imagination and reality. For instance, her second piece, “surveillance detection reports,” captures the displacement of the stranger with a twinge of the paranoiac. To become the outsider in a land with a history of totalitarian oppression, every act becomes witnessed through varying levels of fear. Westerners will quickly recognize the Russian character as embodying the mutually harsh and dismal legacies of imperialist high culture and communist idealism. The immigrant may find much to appreciate in these works, as the poet successfully gives voice to the fearful foreigner within. Both “a mediated Christmas” and “all the cards say the same thing” highlight this disquieting feeling of displacement, where she draws on familiar memories contrasting the immediate strangeness.

Part Two is a different kind of collection, each poem apparently sparked by historical events in the places the author travels. The land remembers—and what it forgets is recalled by poetry, secondhand reflections on what might have been, or what might have never been. Here we read the titular poem, “Alcestis in the Underworld,” which, even in its brevity, successfully binds memory and belief. Our perceptions of truth are limited to our understanding, the speaker reminds us, and we are naturally subjected to the subjective. One of her most captivating works in this section is “letters,” reproductions of the writings of Ukrainian immigrants settling in Chicago. These voices give a vicarious ear to the worries of men abandoning home and identity, carrying with them the domestic worries and religious anxieties of the old world to the new. Ending with a poem about dead spies and the corpse pose of Alcestis, the author reaffirms that history, while about discovering unspoken lies, must ultimately conclude in death—for us the living and for the dead. For while poetry may make the dead speak temporarily, they must nevertheless return to dust.

In the third part, Alcestis returns from the Underworld, forever changed by the experience of death and forever mutable. Stasis, once overcome by motion, cannot cease its progress. Part Three focuses on a reacquaintance with life: the explorer is quiet, and the resigned observer sees the new not as a crux of crisis but as uniqueness to be appreciated and loved in its own way. For instance, in “reduced circumstances,” the speaker’s “loose-haired valkyries” have been “banished,” leaving a hollow cathedral and “vacant confessionals” (57). The return to the world above, at the completion of catabasis, is an emptying of the self and a filling with a new power. In “Alcestis returns” she writes of being reembodied, which may perhaps be as dissociative and dismembering a feeling as its predecessor—to the point at which identity is unknown and unknowable. Even her “inventory: labeled boxes” suggests that, though moving to a new locus can be poetic, even epic, catabasis may be equal parts pedantic.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this book is that its poems are drawn together by intermittent collections of “memory theatre,” snippets from the speaker’s life (or speakers’ lives), collections of material culture impacting the psyche, including everything from images of Ronald Reagan and LeBron James to musings on a painting by Bogdonov-Belsky. These reenactments of life’s seemingly insignificant remembrances piece together a picture of life before the underground—or at least when one can rise above its oppressive odor. Such poems are often raw and more personal than the other pieces, with memory holding together an identity fractured by life below.

Murray’s writing style is at once refreshing and perplexing. She speaks with direct simplicity to create an image but provides little clue as to the meaning of the image. She employs a minimalist approach to punctuation that urges us to feel as if her consciousness is raw and untrammeled, but her speakers seem too self-aware of their own double consciousness for the language to feel entirely spontaneous. She establishes a contemplative tone which permeates all of her pieces but varies the tone so little as to feel, at times, redundant. We almost feel that we, like Alcestis in the underworld, have entered Russia with her but lack understanding of what we’ve learned from the journey.

Reading this collection, one cannot help feeling as if something critical is missing. For according to Joseph Campbell in The Hero with A Thousand Faces, the hero must respond to adventure by crossing the threshold, wait in the belly of the whale, and atone before he can complete his apotheosis. But to return home he must also refuse the apotheosis and cross the threshold again. Only then can he be renowned by the tribe as a warrior, perhaps a tyrant, or—if he truly completes his transformation—a world redeemer. Murray’s Alcestis gives us no such triumph. In truth, she may be merely displaced—certainly confused—by the journey. This may not be a failure of art as it is a failure of the character to achieve illumination in the return home. Similarly, we also observe that, despite the many references to the mythical Alcestis, there is no sacrificial woman depicted in this collection, no self-effacing wife who saves her husband. Alcestis, then, becomes a persona for, we presume, the poet. She becomes another Orpheus, another Ulysses, another Aeneas. Perhaps the poet connects to Alcestis rather than these other, more famous underworld wanderers because of their shared femininity, though we need not assume such an elementary connection. Whether on the basis of sex or other means, the collection is lacking in that Grecian nobility represented by its namesake.

These are perhaps the minor complaints of a critic seeking more than just the reproduction of reflective sentiment. Too often we seek a primer to experience, a map to chart the unknowable. Yet having lived in the underworld for a time myself, I can state confidently that returning from such a dark, unfamiliar place changes the wanderer, though not always in tangible, comprehensive, or moralizing ways. Were we to find the words to express how we’ve changed, those who stay behind cannot fully understand. What remains in the poems without these elements, therefore, is simply impressionistic experience. If the recreation of experience is Murray’s goal, then the experience is provocative and charming. Yet literature should have as its raison d’etre both instruction and delight, if the poets from Homer to Chaucer and Eliot be our guides. We long for the fulfillment of Plato’s myth of Er or a hopeful message from Orpheus after his return journey. But such simple articulations of the metaphysical world are not for us the living. In this way, Murray’s writing is both discouraging and reaffirming. What, we want to ask, did she learn from her journey?

But perhaps such questions cannot be answered. Or, if they can, perhaps they can only be answered through the dialogue of poetry.

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