Today, one week before he visits BWS and exactly a year after he launched his second collection, Floating Life, we profile poet Moez Surani.
In the infancy of this blog, I’ve asked each writer how he or she would like to be introduced to the audience, and the results have been wide open; to date, we’ve had an interview, a guest post, and a dispatch from a book launch.
And now, for something completely different, (as Monty Python’s Flying Circus used to say): Moez challenged me to write a personal response to Floating Life!
So: below are a few (too many?) words about one of my favourite poems in the book, “Theseus & Aegeus” (read it here, it’s on page 21), and its awesome allusion to Greek mythology.
I. THE MYTH
Aegeus, king of Athens, meets and marries his wife, Aethra, outside of the city-state. She bears a son, Theseus, fathered by both Aegeus and Poseidon, god of the sea. Upon discovering the affair, Aegeus returns to Athens, burying his sword and sandals under a giant rock before leaving and promising to recognize Theseus once the son is grown enough to uncover them.
In Athens, though, Aegeus falls under the spell of the witch Medea and marries her. Together they have a son, Medus. Theseus grows up, discovers his lineage and brings the sword and sandals to Athens, but does not reveal his identity immediately. Medea finds Theseus out before Aegeus recognizes him, and fearing for Medus’s inheritance of the kingdom, she tries to have Theseus killed, first by sending him to fight the Marathonian Bull, and later with a straight-ahead poisoning — but just when he’s about to drink the poision, Theseus is recognized by his father, who slaps the cup from his hand.
Aegeus and Theseus seem to get on fine for a while, until the Pan-Athenian games, in which Androgeus — son of Minos, the king of Crete — defeats Aegeus in every event. Out of jealousy, Aegeus arranges to have Androgeus killed, and in revenge Minos declares war on Athens. Accounts of the peace agreement vary, but the condition is effectively that Athens must give Crete seven young men and seven young women. In some versions of the myth, the hostages are to be fed to the Minotaur, Minos’ other son, who is half-bull and half-man, and imprisoned in Daedalus’s labyrinth.
Theseus volunteers to sail to Crete and set things right by killing the Minotaur. He’s helped by Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, who has fallen in love with him. Unable to bear the suspense of the battle, and the suspense of the boat crossing the sea back to him, Aegeus asks that a black sail be raised if his son has died, or a white sail if his son lives. Theseus succeeds, escaping with Ariadne as well as her sister Phaedra. The goddess Athena wakes Theseus the next morning and orders him to leave the women sleeping on the beach, and in his sadness at abandoning his new love, Theseus forgets to change the sails; upon seeing the black ones, Aegeus commits suicide by plummeting into the Aegean Sea, thus giving it its name.
II. THE METAPHOR
Moez’s “Theseus & Aegeus” opens with a tense power relationship: the speaker is “determined to be a success,” and embarks on a quest of his own, collecting his poems and submitting them for publication, but still enters the superior’s home cowed. The image, along with the statement that the speaker’s life has been lamented by the other, echoes one of a child wanting to make a parent proud, and feeling perhaps that this goal hasn’t yet been achieved. We then move to the other side of the lake, where the speaker has greater power, and with victory achieved — an acceptance letter, the “white-flagged flapping ‘yes'” — the speaker returns home to find that the one’s whose recognition was sought has been stricken by cancer.
The poem has a personal dimension to it, as Moez discusses in this interview at Open Book Toronto, and is part of a group that came together, he says, over a four-year period in which “there was a lot of uncertainty in [his] life.” But from a more thematic angle, the metaphor is no less apt, and it reminds me of James FitzGerald at the September BWS, quoting John Fowles — “If you want to be a writer, you have to kill your parents” — as well as Colm Toibin’s 2012 essay collection about writers and their families, titled New Ways to Kill Your Mother.
Ask any writer you know how their parents feel about their offspring’s choice of career, (or worse, the work itself), and just watch the uncomfortable squirming begin. But there’s more to this myth, and to Moez’s poem, than seeking a parent’s approval; and beyond the Freudian frissons, Toibin observes, parents in narratives can cause practical problems: “Mothers get in the way in fiction; they take up the space that can better be filled by… the slow growth of personality.”
The myth of Theseus shows us a young hero coming into his own, (and some might say, replacing his father), over a period of years; for instance, elided from the (overly long) summary in the first half of this post are the six trials Theseus underwent on the way to Athens, each bringing growth and learning of its own, and his coming of age is gradual, so that when his overly concerned father kills himself — worrying that his son is dead — what we in fact have is a Theseus that we don’t need to worry about: he has proven he has arrived at adulthood, and is ready to step into the father’s tragically vacated place.
Moez’s poem renovates and modernizes the myth by adding two elements: speed and chance. The death (or at least, implied or coming death) is not chosen like Aegeus’s, it’s random, and it throws the speaker into a position atop the familial order that he may not be ready for. Theseus and Aegeus could never be king at the same time; succession just doesn’t work that way. But confronting one’s sudden occupation of the top position, without knowing so clearly as Theseus that this is his destiny — and despite flying a white sail of his own — the speaker is left feeling both the presence and absence of the superior, (the “father,” if you will). The final effect is to bring to light perhaps the most chilling realization that accompanies a coming of age: taking your parents’ place is inevitable, and ready or not, you’ll have to do it one day.
Moez Surani visits the Brockton Writers Series May 8, 2013 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with Andy Sinclair, Mahlikah Awe:ri, and Elizabeth Ruth.
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