“Caduceus? Oh, that’s the snake thing,” says my older daughter.
This is not the answer I am seeking just at the moment, as I’m looking for my copy of Sorina Higgins’s poetry book—the one with the blue sky and Hermes, set against a white cover.
My fourteen-year-old goes on, interrupted at intervals by my twelve-year-old.
Caduceus is the staff. It’s held by Hermes. He’s the messenger to the gods. The girls talk over one another with all manner of information, save the information I need at the moment: the location of the book.
No matter. It’s a fertile conversation, and I’m set to wondering how many people know their mythology like these kids do. Raised on Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians, they’re walking encyclopedias of facts about the gods—from heel-wings to mischief-doings.
I wonder vaguely how Sorina Higgins was raised. While some of us were sleeping through the Odyssey, had she already begun to wear the wings of either the caduceus or its bearer?
The staff, often mistakenly interchanged with the medical symbol of a single snake with no wings, has two snakes intertwined, crested with wings. Hermes himself also wears wings near the ankles. Has anyone ever wondered how all these inadequate feathers did the job? Neither the span on the staff nor the span on Hermes’ winged heels seem fit to bear a being of that weight. It is a miracle that Hermes ever rises.
Higgins will face the same issue, and she recognizes it from the outset…
My little heel-wings are not made of feathers:
they are made of tongues…
They whisper I am, I say, making me
play all the characters this writer writes…
and in the end, their clamor just might run me mad.
Maybe she will never get off the ground and will simply be a writer run mad, all the while holding that staff with its dual realities, entwined, entwining. The pressure, suggests the poet in a hike poem called “Croagh Patrick,” can be overwhelming:
The enormous pressure of empty space behind
nearly broke my little mind. I panted to hold the panic back.
Making her way towards the sky, or trying to, she is all too conscious of her groundedness. Says Higgins, “Between annihilation and me/a crumble of granite, pebbles stacked by a laughing titan/sloping up into exclusion, complete and indifferent.” We sense the tension, the terror of the question, even as she seems impossibly grounded: what if levitation was eventually possible? Would the wings hold? Would we find inclusion, a joining with the divine or something larger than ourselves? Maybe, maybe not. And so “the soul takes each step and knows each strain.”
Higgins, like those two snakes on the staff, will demonstrate a duality throughout her collection. Entwining themes and images of fate/not-fate, space/bridging or filling, eternity/finiteness, the form of her poetry itself is a statement about these opposites that somehow co-exist in our experience and consciousness. She works with classic forms like the sestina and the sonnet on the one hand; yet, on the other hand, she breaks form, thus bringing to light the struggle of opposites through the very structure of her work.
An accessible example is found in the sestina “The Curse of Co-Inherence,” where Higgins pushes the teleutons (repeating end words) to both inhabit and trespass coherence. Vanity becomes veins becomes vain becomes veined. Similarly, in the sonnet “Idol-Making,” she breaks form at the end of the poem by cutting the thirteenth line in half and shifting it downward, creating space and the illusion/reality of a fifteen line poem which is technically still fourteen lines.
Ultimately, it is this kind of form- and mind-play that a potential reader must enjoy in order to appreciate this complex collection, where Higgins’ “kitchen [is] a game of chess,” as is her approach to poetry and to some very deep questions about existence and our place in it.
Even so, I’m fairly confident that my sestina and sonnet writing older daughter, raised on Riordan’s gods, will find something to love here again and again (a collection like this will benefit from many readings); but then, she also likes the Odyssey, so if you slept through it, just don’t mention it to her, or to Higgins.