What better way to start the New Year than with a trip to the Underworld? If ever there was a patron saint of poetry (as well as music), Orpheus is certainly a leading candidate. Though the reference to Orpheus in T. Rex's glam tune "Dandy of the Underworld" isn't overt - there are some who believe that it is after the Tennessee Williams play, Orpheus Descending - the reference to the Oz books of L. Frank Baum is, so it makes it onto the ongoing Litrock list.
As to the above portrait, well there's lots that could be said. It is a portrait of Cosimo de'Medici as Orpheus by the Italian artist Agnolo Bronzino. It resides in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and here's what they have to say. Orpheus taming Cereberus on his way to rescue Eurydice, eh? In celebration of a new ongoing era of peace and in the romantic spirit of a new marriage, you say? Is that the bow of your lyre in your right hand, or are you just happy to see me, darling Orphée? No, wait, do lyres even have bows? Not a liar, er, lyre, you say - a viola, perhaps, because, oops, it's too large for a violin and, oops, too small for a cello. Somebody, help me out I'm lost in the underworld of my crass ignorance.
Glam rock, indeed.
In any case, there are innumerable references to Orpheus in poetry, way too many to recount. There's a list someone ought to compile. Of course, Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus is one of finest and most famous.
My favorite treatment is in film rather than verse because I am a stoned child of the 60s: Jean Cocteau's Orphée. Here is the scene when Orphée is led into the underworld through a mirror. Pre-digital, no doubt, but ingenious, lyrical, and mythic all at once, which is about as good a summary of the work of Cocteau as one might get.
This week's feature poem comes from Lilliput Review #129, March 2003, and has a touch of myth to it; more precisely, it provides instructions on how to make myth real. Go ahead, give it a try.
It's more than worth the effort.
When you sense you are close
climb to a high place and look down
at eucalyptus groves and
Japanese maples of fire red.
Say the word eucalyptus out loud,
but say it in the Greek way:
Make it your mantra on the descent,
the red leaves your compass,
eucalyptus your song.
No eucalyptus or Japanese maple, you say? Lilac and ailanthus will do.
so is haiku hell
translated by David G. Lanoue
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