Versecraft

"Athena" by Amy Clampitt

August 16, 2023 Elijah Perseus Blumov Season 4 Episode 6
Versecraft
"Athena" by Amy Clampitt
Show Notes Transcript

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Read text of poem HERE

Topics discussed in this episode include: 

 

-No Versecraft next week! :(

-R.S. Gwynn

-On late-bloomers in poetry

-What Krishna meant

-The life-changing power of the unicorn tapestries

-The Amy Clampitt Residency Program and Virginia Konchan 

-The "Tails To Heads" Maneuver.

-"The Eumenides" by Aeschylus

-We're gonna need to see some Id

-Pathos, Bathos, and whoever the other musketeers are...
-Alicia Stallings' wonderful essay on the Parthenon,  "Frieze Frame

-I just really wanted an excuse to say "apotropaic"

-Every culture on earth seems to have beef with snakes

-The cultural appropriation of Chaos

-You Kant always get what you want

-The deep logic of tragedy

-We are ourselves both god and monster. 

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My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Versecraft 3-6: “Athena” by Mary Clampitt

 

Welcome to this week’s show everyone— there’s just a few things I’d like to address before diving in today, and then we can get this show on the road. Firstly, there will unfortunately be no Versecraft next week, as I’ll be going out of town for a couple days. During those couple days though, I’ll be putting together a surprise for all of you that I think you’ll really enjoy, so stay tuned. 

Secondly, I’d like to thank the poet Sam Gwynn, professionally known as R.S. Gwynn, for reaching out to me about last week’s episode with a couple of illuminating comments. He keenly pointed out that the word “keen,” which Wilbur used to refer to the bluefish, can mean not only intelligence and eagerness but literal sharpness as well, and that bluefish do indeed have very sharp teeth and a strong bite. Unlike Sam or Richard, I’ve never actually gone fishing for blues, so I admit I was ignorant on this point. Sam also pointed out that while it’s true that Wilbur and Hersey did live side by side in Key West, and could conceivably have been fishing there, Hersey actually kept his fishing boat up at Martha’s Vineyard, that it’s likely that the poem takes place there. I suppose it is left to the reader to picture this lovely poem either in the tropics of Florida or off the crisp coast of New England. Thank you again Sam for your prodigious background knowledge, and for listening. 

Thirdly, I’d to remind everyone that if you like what you hear, there are so many ways that you can help support the show: you’ll find a link in my show notes where you can purchase a paid subscription or leave a one-time donation; on that site, you’ll also find the options to purchase a personal poem analysis or original poem from yours truly, and if you’re interested in studying the art of poetry one on one with me, please email me at versecraftpodcast@gmail.com. You can also purchase a Versecraft hoodie, t-shirt, tank-top or sweatshirt at the new merch store, the link to which you can also find in the show notes. Finally, you can help spread the word about the show, telling people far and wide about where they can get their fix of metrically-focused, in depth poetry analysis, which I’m sure all your friends are desperately hankering for. Thanks so much. 

Today’s poet had not only one of the most powerful and dominant styles of the late 20th century, but also had one of the most unique and inspiring career trajectories in the entire history of poetry. Of all the literary arts, poetry has the greatest reputation for producing young geniuses: The teenage wunderkinds Lucan and Rimbaud, the precocious twenty-somethings Keats, Shelley, Plath, and Hofmannsthal, to name a few. Especially since the late 18th century, when poetry came to be associated with, in Wordsworth’s eyerolling phrase, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” there has been a sense that youth, because it is the time of fiery passions, is the most poetic period of life, and therefore the most conducive to producing poetry. Granted, it has always been true that poets tend to grow in stature as they age, but there is nevertheless an ageist sense in the poetry world that if you’re not a poet when you’re young, you never will be, and that youth produces the most authentic and vivid poetry of one’s career. There are of course plenty of exceptions to this silly Romantic bias—Wallace Stevens famously didn’t publish his first book until he was forty-four. No exception gives the lie quite so dramatically however as Amy Clampitt, who didn’t publish a full-length work until she was sixty-three. A quirky little ex-librarian, she rose meteorically to become the toast of the American poetry scene for the next eleven years, until her untimely death from ovarian cancer. Hers was a brief and explosive career, tragic in some ways, wonderful in others, and proof that while there is never any guarantee of success in the arts, there is never a time at which one should stop trying for it. 

I mentioned Clampitt’s career in a recent conversation with Matthew, and he was skeptical that a career like hers could be replicated in our day, when mainstream poetic success is so focused on youth, charisma, social media clout, and hipness to the zeitgeist: figures like Ocean Vuong, Amanda Gorman, and Rupi Kaur spring to mind. On the flip side however, you have figures more known for their world-wise elderly personas, like Billy Collins, Wendell Berry, or the late Mary Oliver, who remain just as popular as ever. Even if it is true that our culture favors the young, I think that to a certain extent it always has, but that mature talents, with a combination of luck and skill, have always been able to break through, even when the cards are stacked against them—Clampitt herself broke through not only the obstacle of her age, but the obstacle of the age she lived in—her baroque neo-romanticism was lightyears away from the plain-spoken idiom of her day, and yet she found her audience. We must also bear in mind that times change, never more rapidly than now, and that what is popular today may be ancient history in ten or twenty years. The fight for recognition must weather every storm. As artists, the best we can do is strive to produce the most profound and timeless work of which we’re capable—hopefully it is recognized in our lifetimes, but even if it isn’t, we can rest in the conviction that our work is good enough to stand the test of time, and we can go to our graves knowing that we have done due diligence to our lives and our language by producing the greatest of which we’re capable. As the Bhagavad Gita reminds us, we must cleave to our dharma—commit to action without hope for tasting the fruits of action. The action itself is what must fulfill us. 

Amy Clampitt, who lived from 1920 to 1994, was born to Quaker stock in New Providence, Iowa, and both her Quaker sensibility and her Great Plains upbringing would remain with her throughout her life and her writing. After attaining a degree in English from Grinnell College, Clampitt moved to New York City with the intention of becoming a novelist, and supported herself by working first for the Oxford University Press, then as a librarian for the Audubon society, then as a freelance editor, and finally as an editor at Dutton Publishing. She completed three novels, none of which she was able to publish. At the age of 36, she had a religious experience while looking at the Unicorn Tapestries at the Met Cloisters, and for a time became a devout Episcopalian, and even flirted with the idea of nunhood. I couldn’t help but smile when I discovered this fact, because my fiancée Laura also had a lifechanging experience looking at the Unicorn Tapestries—it’s what made her want to become a Medieval Art historian, and so by extension is the reason why we live in Cleveland now. 

It was around the time of her religious conversion that Clampitt transitioned from writing novels to writing lyric poetry, which she began to gravitate toward as the proper genre for exploring intense experiences and complex trains of thought. Years later, she abandoned the church for being insufficiently involved in the political issues of the day, and dedicated herself to antiwar, feminist, and housing rights activism, but never stopped writing poetry. In 1977, she enrolled in a poetry course at The New School, and committed herself to self-identifying as a poet and performing at readings around the city. A year later, one of her editorial clients and president of Dutton, Jack Macrae, asked to take a look at her work—her poetry floored him, and he secretly sent one of her poems, “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews” to Howard Moss, the poetry editor at The New Yorker. Moss published it in 1978, and the rest is history. 

Here we might pause to note the incredible luck of this— if Clampitt had not, unbeknownst to her, had a direct line to Howard Moss, and if Moss had not liked her work, would she have ever become known to the world? Perhaps not. As with Eliot and Pound, it goes to show not only how unpredictable success is, but how essential connections are to even have any hope of success.

Once The New Yorker had exposed Clampitt’s work to the world, she instantly found both fierce admirers and stern detractors. Her work, which was rooted in an early and abiding love of Keats and Hopkins, was lush and intricate, sensuous and elaborate, emotionally indirect, and peppered with literary allusions, serpentine syntax, and a dizzying vocabulary. In other words, the opposite of nearly everything in vogue at the time, which some found refreshing and others outrageous. There were those who found her language not only self-indulgent but atavistically Victorian, with Mary Karr going so far as to say that Clampitt sounded like “Swinburne on acid.” Others, like the Romantic critics and tastemakers Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, saw in Clampitt a unique talent more visionary and ambitious than could be found in nearly any other poetry of the time, and used their influence to advance her prestige. With the publication of a string of overwhelmingly well-received books in the 1980’s, Clampitt’s career skyrocketed, and she began accepting offers to teach at William and Mary, Smith College, and Amherst College. In 1982, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a life-changing MacArthur Fellowship in 1992. Though she took to her new fame and influence with tireless enthusiasm and endearing high spirits, this bewildering climax to a life of obscurity was short-lived— shortly after receiving the MacArthur fellowship, and using the prize money to purchase a new house in Massachusetts, Clampitt received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Though she bore herself nobly, she quickly declined, and died in the September of 1994, at the age of 74. With funds from her husband’s family, her new home which she had acquired just two years before her death was turned into housing for the prestigious Amy Clampitt residency program. My fellow Cleveland poet Virginia Konchan is staying and writing there as we speak, and it was she who turned me on to Clampitt’s work—a wonderful discovery, so thank you Virginia! 

Our poem for today, “Athena,” is my favorite piece of Clampitt’s that I’ve read, and the one that I feel most overlaps with my own sensibilities—written in a high style, it is nevertheless clear and coherent, metrical, if loosely, and is in terza rima, one of my favorite forms. Furthermore, it is mythological in subject, and uses this mythological subject to explore existential themes. Those who know me know that this is a Blumovian formula. The poem goes like this:

 

Athena

 

Force of reason, who shut up the shrill

foul Furies in the dungeon of the Parthenon,

led whimpering to the cave they live in still,

 

beneath the rock your city foundered on:

who, equivocating, taught revenge to sing

(or seem to, or be about to) a kindlier tune:

 

mind that can make a scheme of anything—

a game, a grid, a system, a mere folder

in the universal file drawer: uncompromising

 

mediatrix, virgin married to the welfare

of the body politic: deific contradiction,

warbonnet-wearing olive-bearer, author

 

of the law’s delays, you who as talisman

and totem still wear the aegis, baleful

with Medusa’s scowl (though shrunken

 

and self-mummified, a Gorgon still): cool

guarantor of the averted look, the guide

of Perseus, who killed and could not kill

 

the thing he’d hounded to its source, the dread

thing-in-itself none can elude, whose counter-

feit we halfway hanker for: aware (gone mad

 

with clarity) we have invented all you stand for,

though we despise the artifice—a space to savor

horror, to pre-enact our own undoing in—

living, we stare into the mirror of the Gorgon.

 

 

Like the last several poems we’ve looked at, this poem is 25 lines long, but is otherwise quite different. Aside from the concluding quatrain which is in rhyming couplets, the poem is in terza rima, the form must famously used in Dante’s Divine Comedy: stanzas of three lines each, called tercets, that have rhymes that intertwine from one to the next: ABA, BCB, CDC, and so forth. Because terza rima is so closely associated with Dante, any use of it by a subsequent poet will partially evoke his ghost and impart to the poem an attitude of spiritual seriousness. We will notice however that this is not Dante’s terza rima: though some of the rhymes are perfect, many of them are considerably slant: “on” and “tune,” “folder,” and “welfare,” and “author,” “talisman,” and shrunken,” etc. 

Clampitt has availed herself of modernist looseness in the meter as well. Though many lines scan as perfect or slightly tweaked iambic pentameter, nearly half the lines are actually in iambic hexameter, including the entirety of the ending quatrain, and therefore it is perhaps most appropriate to say that the poem as a whole is in mixed meter. Furthermore, line 15 is tetrameter, and lines 6 and 9 are so riddled with substitutions that they do not scan as iambic at all. In line 6, “(or seem to, or be about to) a kindlier tune” could be scanned several different ways to reconcile it to the pentameter, but I’ll leave it at the fact that it sounds to the ear like an amphibrach, a tertius paeon, an iamb, and an anapest. Line 9: “in the universal file drawer: uncompromising” sounds to my ear like: anapest, iamb, amphibrach, iamb, amphibrach. It’s unclear why Clampitt allowed herself these latitudes, though it’s possible that her abundance of iambic hexameter in particular was meant to call back to the dactylic hexameter which was the standard meter of much Greco-Roman poetry. 

One interesting trick that Clampitt employs, which one might call the tails-to-heads maneuver, is following a feminine line with an acephalous line— the extra unaccented syllable at the end of the first line in effect fills in for the missing unaccented syllable in the beginning of the next line, and therefore creates a seamless rhythm which tumbles from one line into the next. This demonstrates that enjambment can happen not only on the level of the sentence, but the level of the metrical foot as well. We find this technique used in the transition from lines 9 to 10, 15 to 16, and 20 to 21. 

Splitting the poem in two halves, let’s go back and read the first twelve and a half lines again: 

 

 

Force of reason, who shut up the shrill

foul Furies in the dungeon of the Parthenon,

led whimpering to the cave they live in still,

 

beneath the rock your city foundered on:

who, equivocating, taught revenge to sing

(or seem to, or be about to) a kindlier tune:

 

mind that can make a scheme of anything—

a game, a grid, a system, a mere folder

in the universal file drawer: uncompromising

 

mediatrix, virgin married to the welfare

of the body politic: deific contradiction,

warbonnet-wearing olive-bearer, author

 

of the law’s delays….

 

 

We can immediately see that this poem takes the form of an apostrophe to Athena reminiscent of a Homeric hymn: an address to the goddess, describing her exploits and attributes. Clampitt begins by describes Athena as a “force of reason,” and so establishes from the get-go that the goddess is to be conceived in simultaneously literal and allegorical terms—in the poem that follows, Clampitt will be describing Athena, but will also offering a commentary on the human faculty of reason. Clampitt goes on in the first two stanzas to discuss a mythological episode found in Aeschylus’s play The Eumenides: at the end of that play, Athena convinces the Furies, the chthonic goddesses of vengeance, to cease their ferocious bloodlust in exchange for a shrine at Athens—there, they will cease to be the furies, but instead become the Eumenides, the “kindly ones,” which Clampitt references in her phrase, “a kindlier tune.” Athena succeeds in domesticating these dark and horrifying spirits, thereby representing a triumph of reason over chaos, of civilization over the occult mystery and savagery of nature. 

Clampitt tweaks the story for her own purposes: in reality, the shrine to the Eumenides was not found in a cave within the acropolis—though there are caves there dedicated to other gods— but adjacent to the Areopagus, the law courts where Athena supposedly confronted the Furies at the trial of Orestes. By placing the furies within the depths of the acropolis however, Clampitt creates a striking allegorical picture: the image of dark, horrifying forces being imprisoned beneath the Parthenon, the emblem of rationality par excellence, mirrors Freudian psychology: the ego, the conscious mind, strives to be rational and present itself as rational, and in so doing surpresses its dark, primitive urges, the id, and ignores the unconscious mind, often to its own peril. 

Clampitt herself has doubts about the ego’s, and Athena’s, efficacy: she says the furies “seem to, or are about to” sing a kindlier tune, as if the conquest over the furies might be insecure, or even a sham, the furies merely playing nice until they can strike again. Clampitt says that in her dealing with the furies, Athena “equivocates,” using a term to mean one thing and then another, and thereby paints Athena less like a righteous goddess than as a slippery sophist, which is probably somewhat fair given not only Athena’s suspect legal proceedings during the trial of Orestes, but also her frequent role as an accomplice in the machinations of Odysseus.

 Finally, Clampitt calls the acropolis the “rock your city foundered on.” This is a pun on the fact that Athena was considered the patron and in some sense the founder of the city of Athens. The verb “to founder” however means to struggle and fail. Despite Athena’s blessing, Clampitt sees Athens as a city that failed, perhaps due to its inability to adequately regulate its furies, its irrational side. Why Clampitt views Athens as a failure is unclear, but I think she’s likely referring to the fact that Athenian democracy, the form of government supposedly begun by the vote at the trial of Orestes, was unstable and short-lived, being twice interrupted by oligarchic insurrections, and later destroyed by the Macedonians. She may also be referring to the catastrophic defeat of Athens by the Spartans, a decidedly undemocratic people, in the Peloponnesian war. 

Clampitt then pivots to refine her vision of Athena’s allegorical valence: she is emblematic of the mind that “can make a scheme of anything,” the mind that organizes, systematizes, and compartmentalizes reality. Clampitt mocks this rationalist impulse through bathos— the feeling of a comic anticlimax created by the abrupt transition from grandness to lowliness— comparing the mind’s ordering of reality to the drab white-collar task of creating and sorting folders in a file drawer, a task Clampitt would have been intimately familiar with as a former secretary and librarian. Here of course, in her cheeky hostility to rationality, Clampitt reveals her Romantic sympathies. 

Clampitt calls Athena a “mediatrix,” meaning a female mediator, a term which is usually reserved for the Virgin Mary in her capacity as an intercessor between humanity and God. Clampitt no doubt picked up this term from her time in the Episcopalian church, and very punningly makes this connection explicit in her phrase “virgin married.” One finds such puns hidden sneakily throughout Clampitt’s work. There are indeed several intriguing connections to be made between Athena and Mary—not only are both famous divine virgins, but just as Mary functions as an intercessor between humans and God, so Athena in Homeric literature often functions as a go-between for mortals and gods, advocating to the latter on behalf of the former. As Clampitt might have known, and as Alicia Stallings has pointed out in her recent essay, “Frieze Frame,” the Parthenon, which literally means “temple of the virgin,” was in the early Christian era very easily transformed into a church dedicated to Mary, and the worshippers in the temple probably barely even noticed the difference. 

Clampitt continues to pun, saying that Athena is married to the “body politic.” Athena has no physical husband, so she must make do with the figurative body of the democratic state. It is interesting to think about how the rationality fits into all this: rationality, or perhaps hyper-rationality, is virginal in the sense that it seeks to make calculations without being influenced by sensual desires. It is also a mediator in the sense it negotiates the relationship between the human being and everything else: the outside world, interior feelings and desires, and also between people, as in the creation of government. 

Clampitt calls Athena a “deific contradiction,” pointing out that she is a goddess of war but also that she is the inventor and bearer of the olive tree, a symbol of peace. This contradiction however can be easily resolved: unlike Ares, who is the god of belligerent warfare, of frenzied violence for its own sake, Athena is the goddess of wisdom and strategy, and represents war-craft pursued with the aim of achieving greater peace, as with the Pax Romana of Augustus. Though Clampitt has described Athena as uncompromising, and she can indeed be fierce, we see that in this capacity she is in fact the emblem of compromise— she represents the justification of desired ends by less than ideal means, and so too represents the rational mind divorced from sentimental idealism. We should also note that in Ancient Greece, the olive branch was not the universal symbol of peace that it is today: it was sometimes used to indicate peace, but it was also often used to symbolize victory, and sometimes mere holiness. 

The term “war-bonnet,” by the way, is typically used to refer to the headdresses of Plains Indians, which, like Greek helmets, made use of plumage to achieve a grand effect. The comparison is a touching detail that calls back to Clampitt’s childhood in Middle America. 

In a hymn which now appears to be something of an anti-hymn, Clampitt goes on to describe Athena to be author of the “law’s delay.” We recognize this phrase from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, and understand that Clampitt is accusing Athena of one of the most repellent vices of civilization: legal wrangling and bureaucratic inefficiency. For Clampitt, rationality is at best a double edged sword: it may be the foundation of democracy, but it is also a source of hypocrisy and bureaucracy, to say nothing of suppression and compartmentalization which distance us from ourselves, the world, and the immediacy of living. 

Let’s now begin the poem again, this time reading all the way through:

 

Force of reason, who shut up the shrill

foul Furies in the dungeon of the Parthenon,

led whimpering to the cave they live in still,

 

beneath the rock your city foundered on:

who, equivocating, taught revenge to sing

(or seem to, or be about to) a kindlier tune:

 

mind that can make a scheme of anything—

a game, a grid, a system, a mere folder

in the universal file drawer: uncompromising

 

mediatrix, virgin married to the welfare

of the body politic: deific contradiction,

warbonnet-wearing olive-bearer, author

 

of the law’s delays, you who as talisman

and totem still wear the aegis, baleful

with Medusa’s scowl (though shrunken

 

and self-mummified, a Gorgon still): cool

guarantor of the averted look, the guide

of Perseus, who killed and could not kill

 

the thing he’d hounded to its source, the dread

thing-in-itself none can elude, whose counter-

feit we halfway hanker for: aware (gone mad

 

with clarity) we have invented all you stand for,

though we despise the artifice—a space to savor

horror, to pre-enact our own undoing in—

living, we stare into the mirror of the Gorgon.

 

Clampitt devotes the rest of the poem to a discussion of Medusa, whose head is famously found on the aegis, the shield of Athena. According to the myth, Medusa was once a fair maiden who was ravished by Poseidon in one of Athena’s temples. Enraged at this desecration, and powerless to punish Poseidon himself, Athena turned Medusa into a hideous monster with snakes for hair who could turn anyone she looked upon to stone. Despite unjustly blaming the victim, and punishing her severely, Athena’s rage toward Medusa did not abate, and she eventually guided the hero Perseus, my namesake, to Medusa’s lair, and instructed him to survive her gaze and slay her by looking at her indirectly through the reflection of his shield. This Perseus did, and in commemoration of her victory over her hapless adversary, Athena made Medusa’s face the emblem on her shield, an apotropaic device to ward off evil. 

            It is this fact which Clampitt refers to in the fifth and sixth stanzas, and we may note that the word “totem,” like the phrase “war-bonnet,” further establishes Clampitt’s connection between Native Americans and Ancient Greeks. The Medusa head is a talisman because it wards off evil, but in what sense is the Medusa head a “totem” of Athena? A totem is a symbol which is representative of those who bear it. In Greek religion, like many other pagan religions, snakes were often used to represent the earth, and by extension, the chthonic forces of darkness, black magic, irrationality, and chaos. Just as with Apollo’s vanquishing of Python, or Zeus’s vanquishing of Typhon, or Heracles’ vanquishing of the hydra, Athena’s victory over the serpentine Medusa, like her conquest of the Furies, who are also often described as having snakes for hair, indicates the triumph of reason and order over chaos and terror. Medusa herself is not the totem—her decapitation is the totem. In the process of conquering chaos however, the champion of order gains new powers: in Apollo’s case, the oracle at Delphi, in Asclepius’s case, the technology of antivenom, and in Athena’s case, the terror of Medusa’s face, used to ward off evil just as the masks of demons ward off actual demons at Halloween. Chaos is never entirely destroyed by order, but is instead appropriated and domesticated into a new strength.  

            Clampitt calls Athena the “cool guarantor of the averted look,” a reference to Athena’s advice to Perseus not to look directly at Medusa’s face. Remembering Athena’s allegorical status however, we could interpret the inverted look as representative of how reason turns a blind eye to that which it does not understand, or else how reason attempts to understand reality, like Perseus, only indirectly, through the use of logic and concepts, and does not attempt to confront reality in terms of raw experience. Finally, because Clampitt has associated Athena with bureaucracy, moral pragmatism, and deception, we could interpret the “averted look” as the fact that Athena and the exercise of reason both often turn a blind eye to the harm they cause in their advancement toward their goals. 

            Clampitt says that Perseus “could and could not kill” Medusa, a literal reference to how Perseus did indeed slay the monster, but she nevertheless retained the power to kill with her gaze. Just as Perseus then weaponized Medusa’s head against his enemies, so too does reason make use of chaos, which can never be entirely eradicated, for its own purposes. 

In the penultimate stanza, Clampitt moves for the first time from implicit to explicit allegory: she calls Medusa the “thing-in-itself none can elude,” a reference to the Kantian concept of the ding an sich, objective reality as it is, without perceptual interpretation; reality stripped of all illusion and rationalization, the bare essence of being. Many since Kant have interpreted the “thing-in-itself” to be the realm of divine truth, or even the face of God, hidden by the veil of mortal illusion. Clampitt seems to mean something like this mystical interpretation, perhaps with the suggestion that it is reached in death, and thus “cannot be eluded.” To a mortal mind endowed with reason, this thing-in-itself, which transcends all reason and calls for the destruction of the ego, is terrifying—to look it in the face is to face annihilation. Nevertheless, we cannot help but want to glimpse it indirectly, and this sublime encounter with a counterfeit of mystical annihilation is something we “half-way hanker for.” We seek it because, paradoxically “mad with clarity,” we have used reason to deduce that reason itself is not only insufficient for grasping the world, but that reason cannot function except by producing illusions. In our quest for truth, we have discovered only necessary fictions: “we have invented all you stand for, though we despise the artifice.” Reason then seeks to go beyond reason, to flirt with its own destruction, seeking “a space to savor horror, to pre-enact our own undoing in.” By experiencing the horror of death vicariously, and coming to terms with the insufficiency of reason, we hope to gain the wisdom necessary to face our actual deaths and our actual failures of reason with acceptance. 

This should all begin to sound quite familiar. In the beginning of this poem, Clampitt alluded to a tragedy by Aeschylus. Here at the end of the poem, she refers to the function of the tragic genre as outlined by Aristotle: to induce pity and fear in order to produce catharsis, to exorcise our anxieties about the human condition by viewing them played out through an artistic lens, which, miraculously, we experience as something beautiful and profound. This is, in the last analysis, the ultimate triumph of reason—to use the head of the gorgon for our own purposes, to use the reality and horror of death and chaos as a means to produce a more sensitized, moral, and balanced life, at peace with the existence of death and uncertainty. We stare into the mirror of the Gorgon— she who, like us, is at the mercy of the cruel gods— and the abyss looks back into us. 

Let’s now encounter this poem one last time, as an old friend:

 

Athena

 

Force of reason, who shut up the shrill

foul Furies in the dungeon of the Parthenon,

led whimpering to the cave they live in still,

 

beneath the rock your city foundered on:

who, equivocating, taught revenge to sing

(or seem to, or be about to) a kindlier tune:

 

mind that can make a scheme of anything—

a game, a grid, a system, a mere folder

in the universal file drawer: uncompromising

 

mediatrix, virgin married to the welfare

of the body politic: deific contradiction,

warbonnet-wearing olive-bearer, author

 

of the law’s delays, you who as talisman

and totem still wear the aegis, baleful

with Medusa’s scowl (though shrunken

 

and self-mummified, a Gorgon still): cool

guarantor of the averted look, the guide

of Perseus, who killed and could not kill

 

the thing he’d hounded to its source, the dread

thing-in-itself none can elude, whose counter-

feit we halfway hanker for: aware (gone mad

 

with clarity) we have invented all you stand for,

though we despise the artifice—a space to savor

horror, to pre-enact our own undoing in—

living, we stare into the mirror of the Gorgon.