Before you read this, it would be great if you listened to Michael’s appearance on Galina Krasskova’s Wyrd Ways Radio show (with co-host Sannion!) last week, so that you can hear some of his poems as read by him–that makes a huge difference in reading poetry, in my experience…!
Michael Routery, From the Prow of Myth (San Francisco: Vindos Press, 2013), 118 pp.; $16.00 U.S. ISBN/EAN13:0615888127 / 9780615888125. Available Here!
As someone who produces polytheist/pagan devotional poetry, I can say with some confidence that there’s not only a lot of it out there, but a good deal of it isn’t fantastic poetry; it’s almost as if poetry is an assumed artistic “talent” that most pagans think they have simply by virtue of being pagan. Granted, the poetry doesn’t always have to be high-quality to accomplish its ends, but it is wonderful when it is able to do so…
And, in case you were wondering–SPOILER ALERT!!!–Michael Routery’s poems in From the Prow of Myth are high-quality and skillful poetry, and highly effective and evocative of their diverse subjects. Every poem is suitable for usage in a ritual or devotional setting, or can be appreciated on their own as a good evening’s reading…or, better yet, recitation. (We too often forget that poetry, perhaps more than any other form of writing, is meant to be read aloud, not simply scanned with our eyes on the printed page or the flikering pixels of the computer screen.)
In the interests of full disclosure, Michael is a friend and co-religionist, both in the sense of being a Celtic Reconstructionist and fellow practitioner of filidecht, and an initiate of the Antinoan Mysteries. We’ve been in a variety of rituals together since 2007, at my first PantheaCon, as well as outside of that context when I’ve been in the Bay Area (including several at Sutro Heights Park with the statue of Diana), and when I said on the Wyrd Ways Radio show that he is one of my favorite polytheists, I was not exaggerating in the slightest. (Though, being a polytheist, I have a rather large number of favorites…!) All of that having been said, I am not simply giving empty praise here because he is my friend and colleague: I have admired Michael’s writings for a long time, and was extremely excited when he announced last February (at PantheaCon!) that he would be publishing this collection of poetry in the near future.
With the seventy-three poems in this collection, they are divided into thematic areas: thirty-one are Celtic (with the majority being Irish, plus a few Welsh/British, and a few Gaulish), twenty-eight are Greek (or Graeco-Egyptian), and the final section is of fourteen poems focusing on features of the land, mostly in California but also in Hawai’i. The book ends with a comprehensive glossary of the names of the various deities and heroes mentioned in the book, which serves as a good introduction and reference to many of them (if one has not heard of them before).
Some of the poems were familiar to me from earlier Bibliotheca Alexandrina devotional anthologies, and likewise a few have been shared in Antinoan contexts or were entered into the Megala Antinoeia agons of years passed–but all of these have “weathered well” and are just as enjoyable to read now as they were in their earlier manifestations. There are several poems that deal with Dionysos in various ways in the Greek section, and beginning with “Flower Anthology,” there is also a group of poems that deal with Antinous, several (including the aforementioned) in the long tradition of discussing him amidst other examples of mortal beloveds of deities undergoing kataphytosis. The beautiful reflections of “Hadrian and Sappho” then lead into a poem dealing with “Hadrian’s Sappho,” the poetess Julia Balbilla, as she writes to the Empress Sabina while at the Colossoi of Memnon (a festival which will be celebrated next week!). Other heroes and deity-beloved individuals are also recognized in this section, including Ganymede, Iolaus, Hylas, Erigone, and Hippolytus (the latter all-too-often forgotten, but often written about by Michael, including in the Artemis devotional, Unbound), and a number of the more well-known deities of Greece likewise receive honor in these verses.
There is a quality to many of these poems that is simultaneously reminiscent of the Orphic Hymns in their grand and traditional lyricism, but which likewise has a touch of what I can only describe as a variety of “pagan beat poetry,” in the very best sense of that set of terms. There is a Zen-like, haiku-esque use of linguistic economy and restraint that ends up being more suggestive and evocative, and nearly apophatic amidst the generally kataphatic phraseology of poetry. It’s a quality I’ve also sensed in other modern polytheist poets, including in Erynn Rowan Laurie’s Fireflies at Absolute Zero, a poet who likewise shares the CR/filidecht and Antinoan Mystery tradition associations with Routery and myself.
Famous poets from these traditions also feature in Routery’s work, including Orpheus, Taliesin, Suibhne (both in the Celtic section and in the land spirits section), Amairgen, and Finn mac Cumhaill (whose first name in proto-Insular Celtic, *Vindos, gives the name of Vindos Press!). With Taliesin, Routery’s poem not only portrayed the tale of Gwion Bach’s transformation into the radiant-browed poet Taliesin beautifully and accurately, with a sensitivity of character I’ve not seen previously, but he also resisted the tendency of too many modern pagan poets (that is likewise indulged in with Amairgen) to simply list a panoply of previously-unattested earlier incarnations and forms of the purported poets in a pantheistic fashion. The treatment of Amairgen in the poem “White-Kneed” focuses on the poet’s invocation of Ireland, as well as the often-overlooked (at least in modern pagan circles) death of the poet’s wife to drowning before his successful gaining of Ireland for the Milesians.
The section on land spirits was especially wonderful, and given the general neglect of these in modern pagan and polytheist practice, this is all the more commendable. Even though many of us do revere and honor these beings in our local geography, not many of us write truly devotional poetry to them, and so this section may be of especial interest to those who wish to see exemplary models to follow in this regard for the future.
While there are many poems in the collection that are wonderful, one which took me especially by surprise and which has become a favorite amongst this treasure-house of jewels is “A Grammar for Aphrodite,” which has that simultaneous Orphic-Hymn-and-haiku quality, as well as a playfulness and innovation with language which you simply must read and experience for yourself…!
My only critique of this book is one that will not be an issue for most readers. Some of the Irish names are not always given in consistent orthography, with missing accents or unusual spellings; however, as already stated, this will not be of concern to the non-specialist potential readers, who will recognize the names without difficulty (even if they remain Irish and thus relatively difficult for those not familiar with this language to parse and pronounce). In “A Prayer for Earth,” the Roman goddess Tellus Mater’s name is given as “Tella Mater,” which is an unusual (and, to my knowledge, unprecedented) usage. Terra Mater is sometimes found as the name of this goddess, but not “Tella.” The noun tellus (genitive telluris) is a third-declension feminine noun, rather than an incorrect or unusual second declension (usually masculine) noun ending in -us in the nominative. Living languages, however, tend to re-analyze nouns at later stages, such that Morrígan becomes Morrígu (with a genitive being Morrígain as a result), which argues for the poetry of Michael Routery–and all poetry, for that matter–being the crucible of language and new linguistic usages, which can only bode well for those of us who still use Latin and other supposedly “dead” languages in our modern polytheistic devotional poems, at very least!
Of the five books that I’ve read in the last few weeks, this one has definitely been the favorite, and the one with the least in it that can be criticized; but, even if I had read this book amidst many other favorites, I’d still regard it as an exceptional work, and one worth procuring for oneself with haste. (And, it would make a fantastic Sigillaria gift as well–so, buy four copies!)
Michael Routery/Finnchuill’s blog is here, and the website for Vindos Press is here. With any luck, Vindos Press will bring us many more wonderful writings of Michael Routery, both in poetry and fiction, in the years to come!