Poems allow the reader to discover and to challenge her emotions and her understandings. Both a poem’s words and its visual structure reveal new truths and understandings to the reader. In “Myth” by Natasha Trethewey, the poem’s form serves as a both a map and a vehicle for the reader’s understanding of the transition from one stage of being to another. The multi-dimensional nature of the poem encourages the reader to impose her own thoughts onto the speaker’s words and to challenge those very same thoughts. It a space devoted to discrepancy and change which finally aids in the creation of a comprehensive truth.
Every artistic decision in “Myth” is telling. The speaker laments, “It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow / I make between my slumber and my waking / the Erebus I keep you in, still trying / not to let go” (Trethewey 923)* Sleep is the rift or hollow between life and death. Even in the first and last lines of the poem, “I was asleep while you were dying,” the speaker equates sleep and death as two different representations of the state between life and death. In many religions, death is often referred to as “eternal rest.” On many Christian epitaphs, the phrase “requisat in pacem,” or “RIP” is written, which literally means “may he rest in peace”. Rest being the most important word. Word choice, along with the way the words relate to each other, informs the meaning of the poem. Even the speaker is aware of this. Upon waking from his sleep (waking being an important symbol in itself– a realization, a change in outlook or behavior, a resurrection–), the speaker keeps the “you” alive by writing about him. Though he may be physically (or even spiritually) dead or gone, the “you” is still present because he is represented by words on paper. The speaker introduces the “you” to the reader and therefore creates a new life in the poem.
This “you” exists as an abstract idea despite his lack of form. Because of the first person structure and the fact that the ambiguous “you” is never named, the reader can assign the role of the “dead” person to anyone, effectively bringing him back into a state between life and death. This phenomenon reveals that the world of the poem is just like Erebus: it is a plane of being between formal life and death. The reader’s and the speaker’s thoughts are present and changing and living, but, especially in the poem’s line breaks and whitespace, they are not specifically articulated. The reader is conscious of the whitespace and line breaks, but not of which words appear next. Therefore, he imposes his own thoughts and emotions onto them, connecting the breaks and coloring the white space with the gossamer strings (no matter how thin or how fleeting) of his own consciousness. The poem houses the reader’s and the speaker’s “you” in a fluid plane between life and death.
Ancient Greeks believed that the dead entered into the underworld and entered into the afterlife there. Though the soul and the body were believed to depart, family members would place a coin under the tongue of the deceased so that he may pay Charon for his journey through Erebus into the afterlife. Much like the Abrahamic religions, for many people, death does not equate to the cessation of life; it is merely a change from a worldly life to a metaphysical one. The tradition of leaving offerings for the dead, especially to make their time in the afterlife more comfortable, was widely practiced throughout the world and still is today. For example, in the tradition of the Dia de los Muertos, the mummification process, and even the epitaph, which not only sent the dead off, but helped others who were left on earth remember them. In all of these cases, people offer items, memories, and remembrances to the dead in order to send them off to a new realm of life. The middle line,“again and again this constant forsaking” marks the turning point between the two main parts of the poem (9, 10). The first time it appears, the “dead” person forsakes the speaker because he does not follow. Perhaps the speaker is angry because he tries so hard to bring him back, but he cannot succeed. He feels abandoned by the dead person. But when we see this line repeated again, it changes meaning. This time the speaker is the one forsaking the dead person. Even though he tries “taking / not to let go” (13-14), the dead person always slips through the rift because the speaker was “asleep” (1, 18). Perhaps this means that the person was not paying attention to the dead person as he was dying. Perhaps this person is not actually dead, but transitioning into a different way of life or a different person. Because of this change, biological or emotional, the speaker mourns some kind of loss.
The palindromic form of this poem forces the reader to re-encounter lines in a new way just as the changed person encounters being in a new way. The same words are used in a different order to evoke different emotions. For example, after reading “again and again this constant forsaking” for a second time, in the context of the second part of the poem, it seems that the speaker is the one doing the forsaking. this changes– even subverts– the reader’s understanding of the first part of the poem. However, because the last line – “I was asleep while you were dying” is the same as the first, it holds that the discrepancies in meaning were intentional.
Trapped within the world of the poem are many different memories and feelings—as many as the reader brings to it, as many as the speaker brings to it, and as many as the dead person created by the speaker and the reader brings to it.The nature of grief is often complicated and conflicted. Within the world of the poem, and within the consciousness of the reader/speaker, jumbled emotions and memories inform each other such that a singular definition of a life is incomprehensible. In “Myth,” the poem guides the reader through necessary transitions of thought and understanding so that she may reconcile the transitions inherent in being.
* From now on, I will cite the poem using line number only, since it would not be helpful to only repeat the poem’s place in the Norton.
Trethewey, Natasha. “Myth.” Norton Anthology of Literature. Ed. Richardson-Jones, Christine D’Antonio. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016. 923. Print.