1. Could you tell us the name of a book you love, and why?
The name of the book I love is the Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (PSGR) by the Cambridge Ritualist Jane Ellen Harrison. First, as a book its content serves as an appendage, dense with beings more potent than my own. Hefty as an object itself, with titillating sentencing, it is so so textual: footnotes, original Greek complete with etymological forays, figures of vases, coins, frescoes, and poetry broadcast throughout the book. Even as a reprint, it is an entryway.
The book offers a type of reading that is revisionist, multi-lateral, and intuitive. One senses for certain they are cusping breakthrough intellect—an inversion of dominant thought toward the human. Myth is an outcome of ritual, as opposed to ritual stemming from myth. Restoring our cultural ancestors to the primitive, the book suggests rightly that Western thought was not the ideal we have voraciously consumed, but rather was immersed chthonically.
It also has everything I want from investigation, it is dirty; evidenced but still speculative. Indeed, containing narratives I had already known, here I found them even more slant and of the shades. Previously I had only encountered such clarifications in her colleague Karl Kereyni and others inching in that direction via new age exposures, memes, and modicums.
Estranged from my first love of poetry, not knowing how to refract my mind’s musical score, I was deeply involved with mystery and its images.
A decade ago I was a staff artist at the Vermont Studio Center, while also working for Americorps, shuttling up and down the hill between working artists and teenage boys whose home and homes had been devoid utterly of art. In my staff studio there—an old church that houses the painters—laboriously I cut the unknown from magazines, pinning them in rainbow-colored order around the studio, micro and macroscoping about. I had scrutinized and coordinated the collage to allow the photographs to resort to—and fork over—their patterns as a flattened Pangaea on white corkboard walls. I always loved the portal-power of Bishop’s National Geographic in her waiting room, so why not.
Distinctly, I remember inviting guest poet Donald Revell for a studio visit, embarrassed I had no poems really to share. Standing amidst walls of ruins, with stained glass casting about, stately and immediately, Revell revealed: “Why, this is Poetry!”
There and then, I was found and dumb-founded, glazed in permission. He scribbled down some wonderful titles that were a marble promenade on a slow recourse to the home of poetry. PSGR lunged at me—I must have ordered it later from Ryan Books.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
Enormously so, though the book was already so much a part of me…. it seemed to mirror my notebooks and collections, an ongoing investigation into humanity of myth and its contemporary qualities. But PSGR became about Jane’s life, her work, womanhood… and imagining her disposition, her affairs, her burned papers. So wonderfully, a book about what was “dead“ and the threat of the dead, became face-kissed by her proximity and attempt. I am so curious about her, her friend the poet Hope Mirrlees, and how she navigated the circle of male-dominated archeologists, finding ways to talk about her deep knowing, disguising it in this vein and becoming our first full-fledged female academe.
Importantly, she is standing there in the potsherds and seeing something: her eye for ritual as a playstage for etymology as story. Her declarations of what can’t be grasped must be felt is importantly radical and continual. That feeling-as-looking is so potent as methodological writing here—and brings up other texts that were to soon change me enormously into accepting viewing as restoration work: Hilda’s “The Walls do not Fall,” (had she read PSGR?), Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates, and my father’s Chapel in the Sky, all revolutionizing the way to look at ruins, whether temple, human, or extant building.
Harrison says in her 1925 autobiography, “Great things in literature, Greek plays for example, I most enjoy when behind their bright splendors I see moving darker and older shapes”. That is a motor of a motto.
PSGR affirms why I teach and pursue poetry—to listen, to sneak, to spook—to show poetry as a means of fighting logic.
As an object, it gave me strength as a familiar/as a safety book—I took it on a trip to Greece. The duration of how I wanted to stare was shaped by company in human time, so this provided an extra entrance while on the boat or bus. Also, a group of my friends were suffering an unjust witch-hunt, as nearly literal as it can be presented. And extremely painful. So I was going around with prayerful anxiety, blowing on statues to see if there was something consubstantial inside. Whispers to and from the stone. There were so many kore/kouroi around, it was quite fun. When we got to Delphi, I tore a page out of PSGR, messaging for help, and left it in climbing ivy.
Harrison’s life-affirming treatment of the Dionysian is especially refreshing, her attentiveness to the Dithyramb, a re-reading of Plutarch, and advocacy for its rightful place at Delphi. Given the extremity we always want to apply to kultus (seen most recently in the hyper-maenadic Season 2 True Blood), it’s important act of vitalism.
Ritual sacrifice and its seasonal parallels are oriented to purification, as is any good calendar or moon cycle; PSGR importantly endows Victorian female a purity-through-intoxication via sexual and metaphoric acts—a notion to be lived, felt, and used as fertilizer.
So, the Prolegomena assigns reason to dance, and confirms the purpose of my dance. Additionally, Ms. Harrison gave interdisciplinary lectures, using journalism, slides and likely intonations to enliven the archives. That sounds right up my dream alley.
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
Here are some textures—
“However much the Macedonian men disliked these origies, they were clearly too frightened to put a stop to them. The women were possessed, magical, and dangerous to handle.” (398)
But Jane was always sure to show all our sides, allowing poetry and image to take the place of argument. See an excerpt here. She assigns voice to figure, phrase to vase—it’s fantastic! And she was sure to get down on the animal level:
“The Greeks of the sixth century B.C. may well have been a little weary of their anthropomorphic Olympians, tired of their own magnified reflection in the mirror of mythology, whether this image were disoriented or halo-crowned. They had taken for their motto; ‘Know Thyself,’ but at the fountain of self-knowledge no human soul has ever yet quenched its thirst. With Dionysos, god of trees and plants as well as human life, there came a ‘return to nature,’ a breaking of the bonds and limitations and crystallizations, a desire for the life rather of the emotions than of the reason, a recrudescence it may be of animal passions” (444).
Then, she excerpts The Bacchae, for we are sharing this love of Euripides, doot de doo, only to Euoi! encounter the rendering! But here, in this book, is affirmation of what any earth-keeper in their right mind would do. Thus, I might say something like this:
I, too, tear the head of patriarch,
I bemoan my son born of my womb
Having fallen prey to capital. Agave, I’d stop it too.
Madly do I dangle this stand-in in my hands
Better than biocide,
Why be shocked—I’ve undone the man.
5. Who did you send this book to, and why?
Why, to Rachel Abramowitz, who walks where Jane walked, and who traveled with me with this beloved book to Greece! But, because it is an expensive book, as is shipping to England, she will just have to come home for it.
Katherine Factor lives mile high in the San Jacinto mountains of southern California, where pinecones have maenadic claws. Recent poems appear in Quarterly West, thermos, The Equalizer, and in audio here.