I felt very honoured by this thoughtful and appreciative review - and it's great to know it makes readers laugh out loud!
Review of Artemis, the People's Priestess by Dilys Wood, ARTEMISpoetry, Iss 19, Nov 2017
Myth now spells freedom. Were there times when writers dare not meddle? Now myth is freely re-shaped to focus on key contemporary issues, while serving as a means of escape from directly confessional poetry. Cora Greenhill’s Artemis, The People’s Priestess evokes a modern ‘goddess’ – Diana, ‘The People’s Princess’. This may be adventitious, but this lively book-length verse drama pivots on the role of woman, explored in a way that’s both many-layered and ‘no holds barred’, with particular attention to women who refuse to conform, who have ambiguous (not always hostile) attitudes to sex and tradition, who are perhaps, ultimately, tradition-makers. The emphasis is on flesh and blood employing modern vernacular. Characters include Artemis, tom-boy and rebel, her more conformist twin, Apollo, Kallisto, a tragic female figure, and Maya (Earth), who keeps the substructure firmly in view while others lose themselves in aspects of the superstructure – rituals, art, meddling in politics. There’s nothing diagrammatic about either plot, characters, or the rich Cretan setting (well-known to Greenhill). The debate around woman’s role could have been thin and schematic with the thrust towards easy victory for Artemis the rebel – it isn’t. The background of ancient mores (clothes, make-up, rituals, based, it seems, on wide research) gives colour. The power and beauty of nature is a sub-theme: “massive / olive trunks threw purple lines / across the dappled tracks. // ‘Look at that mountain!’ I whispered, / pointing at a profile chalked onto blue” (Arrival). The plot is deliberately labyrinthine and this matches the handling of ideas. These are juggled, kept in the air: no preaching here. Ultimately, the protagonists vanish into the future with their questions. A fine achievement and enjoyable read with ample laugh-out-loud, edgy humour.
Sunday, February 18, 2018
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
This fabulous review is published in Tears in the Fence in February 2018. Thanks to Rosie Jackson and to David Caddy for commissioning it.
Artemis: The People’s Priestess by Cora Greenhill
(Three Drops Press, 2017, £8)
In the present climate of fraught sexual politics, where years of backlash against feminism are finally having some kind of day of reckoning as male privileges and abuse of power are being called to account (in the film industry and elsewhere), a verse drama which takes us back to the very beginnings of patriarchy – and an evocative reminder of all it lost and subdued – could not be more timely. Yet Cora Greenhill’s long poem never surrenders to mere polemics or abstract feminist thesis; this is a vivid, dramatized exploration of what it means, and has meant for centuries, to inhabit a male or female psyche, and the lasting cultural effects of both, ever since Greek mythology first represented our gendered identity in its various gods and goddesses, and told of the love and warfare between them. You need only look at the full title of Artemis: The People’s Priestess, to know this is going to be a deft blending of classical myth with contemporary reference. Artemis, goddess of hunting in Greek mythology, became Diana to the Romans – hence the jump to Diana, the people’s princess, sliding into the people’s priestess. This typifies the treat of irreverence, irony, subversion, wit, and an artful blending of ancient and contemporary, which run throughout the poem.
The drama begins with a Prelude in 1450 BC, when a volcano on Mount Thera lays waste the island of Crete, destroys fleets and leaves the populace more open than ever to the controlling powers of religion. Born that night of a union between Leto and Zeus, the twins Artemis and Apollo come to represent the split between matriarchy and patriarchy, the (elder) female strong but enabling the man’s strength, the boy weak, but taken care of by his twin sister, their growth less a complete split than a complicated co-dependency:
I wouldn’t let go of him, so he survived
and wouldn’t let go of me. Original
co-dependency. Start and end of story.
Could neither split nor live in harmony.
Artemis becomes goddess of the wild, of remote, lonely places – Aeschylus called her ‘lady of the wild mountains,’ - and Greenhill captures in a brilliant, unromanticised way, her passion for birds, animals, the untamed outdoors, dance, freedom of movement, foraged food, sensuality, fertility. Where Artemis is mythology’s ‘arch-outsider’, beyond the rule of man-made law, ‘all she ever cared about was feathered or furred,’ her brother Apollo, by contrast, is elevated to the god of civilisation, of harmony, proportion, transcendence, music, living by the rules he has invented to suit himself, - ‘There’s no place now for a woman without a man.’ This is a a superficial and destructive order in his sister’s eyes, easily degenerating into war, the abuse and rape of women, not inherently civilised at all. Thus their perennial conflict and some of the most telling lines come from the siblings’ descriptions of themselves and each other, each aware they are the other’s shadow, the edge of their identity, constantly at odds in their values. ‘You’re hunted, sister, not hunter now. Your subversive teaching is a threat.’ In their ‘last sibling spat’, Apollo, who admits he ‘Bigged up my brilliance…. I never did get mystery…’ asks:
What exactly was my original sin? Being a BOY?
Or going with those who recognised my worth?
And Artemis puts down Apollo for his not knowing the less visible way, the road less travelled.
Of course you’d have been lost!
That’s the point. Don’t you get it yet?
To be lost in love would have made you a man –
Following the labyrinth’s way, losing yourself to be found.
Indeed, it is their never ending spat, still going on in our culture now, which underlines the power of this work as a feminist epic, a kind of poetic allegory, huge in its ambition and reach, and that is how it lingers in the mind and imagination long after its ending.
Thanks to many clever contemporary references, the story is constantly pulled into our own day in other ways too: a satire of diplomacy in the Knossos council; a critique of modern farming methods and carnivores; a warning of climate change; an attack on relying only on charity and handouts; men pursuing profit rather than sustainability – ‘they are harming/the balance of our land with all their farming.’; men reckless with their own seed too; and dire Handmaid’s Tale warnings of the punishment facing girls who don’t toe the line ‘Your little girls will be rounded up like rabbits,/ cured of their strange notions and uncouth habits.’
Perhaps all poems can only come from the highly specific combination of personal and cultural factors that go into their making, but this strikes me as conspicuously the case with Artemis. Cora Greenhill had English parents, but grew up in rural Ulster, where she felt to be on the edge of a culture. Like me, she studied literature at Warwick University in the heady days of Germaine Greer’s teaching there, and could hardly avoid the lasting influence of Greer’s powerful and unique brand of feminism. Then she taught in Nigeria and lived and worked in Crete, whose history of shamanic, pre-patriarchal ‘Minoan’ society became inspirational. Add to this twenty years of practising and teaching Gabrielle Roth’s 5 Rhythms dancework, marriage, motherhood, travel, a home in Crete as well as Sheffield, combined with writing, art, theatre, and the developing of her own distinct poetic voice in The Point of Waking (Oversteps, 2013) and Far from Kind (Pindrop Press, 2016), and it’s hard not to see Artemis as the happy, even inevitable, fruition of these various strands of experience and intellectual history in Greenhill’s rich creative life.
If the feminist darts come thick and fast -
You see, they just made things up
to create male supremacy –
‘s how they invented so-called history.
Wait ‘n’ I’ll put the records straight.
to create male supremacy –
‘s how they invented so-called history.
Wait ‘n’ I’ll put the records straight.
they also reveal the possibility of a different way, less visible than the linear and logical – wild, mysterious. They leave me with a renewed desire to learn more about matriarchal culture and the exact origins of patriarchy, so I’m now dusting off my old copy of Ann Baring and Jules Cashford’s wonderful study The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (1991), which Greenhill quotes as one of her seminal texts. Is it true, for example, that when the huntress women removed their boobs, it was not for ease of shooting arrows, but to reduce their market value in slavery?
Personally, I found the rhyming couplet contributions of the chorus (priestesses) and some of the other characters – Kallisto, Daphne, Hyacinthos, the Greek traders – less compelling than the dialogues and monologues of Artemis and Apollo, as this is so vividly and memorably their story, with all it has come to embody and represent in layers of mythology around gender and the psyche ever since. (Though, of course, everything might be transformed when the work’s in performance rather than being read on the page, and I would have loved to see the production in Sheffield at Off the Shelf’s Festival of Words, 21 October 2017).
Nevertheless, this is a formidable achievement, especially in a poetic culture where the long poem has often been considered a problematic genre for women writers, its roots in epic traditionally making it (despite works like Aurora Leigh) a predominantly male form. How wonderful, then, to have a long poem by a woman which not only holds it own, but radically addresses some of the very questions which have locked us inside unhelpful notions of gender and power imbalance for far too long. In Artemis’ last words -
a labyrinth will always leave
its ghostly pathway for those
who know how to walk between the worlds.
Amen to that.
For Notes on Contributors
Rosie Jackson left a successful academic career at the University of East Anglia and elsewhere to pursue a creative writing life. Her poems The Light Box (Cultured Llama) and her memoir The Glass Mother (Unthank Books) came out in 2016. In 2017 she won 1st prize in the Stanley Spencer poetry competition and 3rd Prize in the Hippocrates. She is a Hawthornden fellow.