Everybody Must Get Stoned

My first introduction to Medusa came in the form of that ludicrous 70s show, Land of the Lost, where Uncle Jack saves his boneheaded niece from the vain monster by holding up a mirror, which causes Medusa to turn herself into stone. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, she dies when Perseus beheads her. He then gives the head to Minerva (Athena in Greek). As an afterthought, in Ovid’s version, the reader learns about Medusa’s past. Here’s where it becomes difficult to chalk her up as just another Gorgon: Medusa used to be a hot-looking human with gorgeous hair. All the men used to fight over her. Then, along comes Neptune (Poseidon in Greek) with his male-god privilege, and rapes her in Minerva’s temple. In true blame-the-victim form, Minerva punishes Medusa by turning her into a mortal Gorgon and changing her beautiful hair into snakes, to add insult to injury.

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The Huntington Garden Sculpture in San Marino, CA

In “Medusa’s Slumber Party,” I wanted to portray her as a multi-dimensional person, not just as a monster in her final moments with Perseus. The first stanza begins with the notion that the snakes were metaphor before they were literal:

I had always known
the snakes, long before
the incident in the temple. Long
before the sailors dropped their nets
wrong when they saw her on
the rocks, hair a foamy wave.

This first stanza also gives background to the myth of Medusa. In the second stanza, the reader can imagine Medusa’s childhood as average. I wanted to humanize her history by setting it in modern times, while keeping the myth in tact:

We were childhood friends. Slept
together under a makeshift tent in
her parents’ den, waking each other,
turn by turn, with nightmares and
mumblings. The blankets, pitched
high around our small bodies, glowed
in the morning, converting the dark
cloth red. She burrowed deeper.

In this stanza, although the dramatic situation is innocent, darkness (literal and figurative) permeates the room. The speaker and Medusa suffer from nightmares and restlessness. The light turns the dark blanket red, a color that foreshadows her future bloody death. Medusa turns away from the light and burrows deeper into the literal darkness of the “makeshift tent.”

By the third stanza, Medusa is living as a Gorgon; however, Medusa’s feelings are mixed. She feels the snakes as “a rush, the heavy / crown on her head” but also as “absolute aloneness.” Medusa is different from the other Gorgons, not just because of the snakes, but because she is mortal.

The speaker finds her “After the curse…/ aging in a garden, the snakes for all / to see. Her toga looser than before and / the curve of her collar bone.” Medusa appears weaker and vulnerable. Still, the speaker feels for her and manages “to kiss her mouth before a snake” nips her ear. If the reader is to take the snakes as both literal and figurative, it may be inferred that Medusa cannot let the speaker close to her, even though she seems to appreciate her visit: “I left as she waved / to me from the shade of an oak tree. It smelled like rain.”

The last stanza takes the reader into the future, and continues to keep the narrative modern, with a cocktail party as the setting:

Even decades later, at the awkward
cocktail party where Athena flashed us
the head, tastelessly tacked to her
shield, I stayed fleshy. My blood,
a hot spring, a peaceful grin on my
face. Her limp snakes, informing my
darkness. Teaching me
to let in the light.

Here, Athena is humanized, although the presentation does not flatter: she is awkward and reckless, whipping out Medusa’s head, knowing that it could turn people to stone. Nevertheless, this thoughtless act does not affect the speaker. One gets the sense that her understanding of Medusa renders her immune to the dark powers of Gorgons (or at least of this particular one). The speaker knew about Medusa’s darkness, as a child, and also visits her in the garden, post-curse, without incident. Despite her intimacy with Medusa, it is the speaker’s awareness of Medusa’s tendency to turn toward the dark that teaches the speaker “to let in the light.”

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Halloween 2009: pipe cleaners and googly eyes

This poem first appeared in the Kerf, Fall 2012.

 

Medusa’s Slumber Party

I had always known
the snakes, long before
the incident in the temple. Long
before the sailors dropped their nets
wrong when they saw her on
the rocks, hair a foamy wave.

We were childhood friends. Slept
together under a makeshift tent in
her parents’ den, waking each other,
turn by turn, with nightmares and
mumblings. The blankets, pitched
high around our small bodies, glowed
in the morning, converting the dark
cloth red. She burrowed deeper.

It was a rush, the heavy
crown on her head, the buzz of her
absolute aloneness.

After the curse, I found her
aging in a garden, the snakes for all
to see. Her toga looser than before and
the curve of her collar bone. I managed
to kiss her mouth before a snake
nipped my ear. I left as she waved
to me from the shade of an oak tree.
It smelled like rain.

Even decades later, at the awkward
cocktail party where Athena flashed us
the head, tastelessly tacked to her
shield, I stayed fleshy. My blood,
a hot spring, a peaceful grin on my
face. Her limp snakes, informing my
darkness. Teaching me
to let in the light.

 

Featured Image Photo Credit: Ignasi Monreal

 

 

 

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