There ought to be in every hand a well-thumbed and annotated copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It should be found – splayed, its leaves fattened with moisture and sun – wedged between windshields and dashboards. The work’s perfect spine should be cleaved. The book-length poem ought to be rummaged through like an over-stuffed suitcase for a daily dose of myth, magic, and wonder. We ought to all speak a little Ovid. Never mind the 12,000 lines of hexameter found in some translations; never mind the work, sometimes in blank verse, at other times in prose, simply undulates like a fulsome river through fifteen books and flooding a landscape that begins with the source of creation, transitions through successive epochs of moral decay, deluge and seismic shifts, and ends with a plea for continual rejuvenation. Never mind the incredulousness one must endure tripping along the unpronounceable place names and personages here; there are gods here too and creatures whose nomenclatures sing as sublimely as the names of fungi. Never mind the oddity of people turned into beasts, into trees and rock over the two hundred and fifty episodes of transformation at times grotesque and churlish, and often shocking.
For this is our song.
Who among us has not changed?
I recently attended “A Marathon Metamorphoses,” a two-day reading of Ovid’s classic poem at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in Saint Louis. Over seventy readers from the area read the poem aloudin its entirety over a weekend.
The poem begins with the great metamorphoses – our emergence from chaos to form. Then Ovid focuses our attention on the transformation of the human race through its ages, from gold to bronze; from high morality to a lowered form. Creatures and folks are transformed, and the changes are wrought by their own egregious agency or at the caprice of persnickety gods. There are roughly two hundred and fifty transformations and many recognizable tales. Here you’ll find Cupid and his quiver of dubious arrows. Here Apollo chases Daphne who is turned into a tree by her river god father. Here survivors of the flood re-people the earth with rocks. Here the baseness of humanity is writ, but also its yearning for what ought to be. Here when the world is made anew of all the creatures of the clay and muck, humankind were the sole formation made to look up at the firmament.
During the marathon reading, each Ovid reader is to do the task in fifteen minute intervals. There are no introductions for the doctors, the priests, the poets, and publishers. One person blends, morphs, into another. White hair, black glasses. Pink dresses, dark skin. Bow-tied. Bangles and baubles. Voices rise and undulate through varied octaves. No one person hears it all over the course of a weekend, but perhaps in a lifetime. It’s one song, though. Our song.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses reminds us our lives can change in an instant. We can lose loved ones, time, ourselves. But the ancient poem is not simply a mourning meter of what can be lost. Ovid reminds us of the capacity to change. To renew. To open ourselves to magic. To acknowledge our shortcomings and their attending sufferings. Ovid reminds us of what ought to be.
We were made to look up and sing in the key of flux.