myth and poetry

MP Review
Elizabeth Terzian, Sweet & Sour: For The Free Spirit
$9.95 / 67 pages
ISBN 978-1-4401-2273-6

Sweet & Sour bookjacketbookcover
reviewer: Stephanie Pope
Bio for Stephanie Pope



The Freeing Spirit  In The Freed Speech of Sweet & Sour

When I first see the title of this poetry book, Sweet & Sour: For The Free Spirit by Elizabeth Terzian, I think of Sappho’s adjective for Eros, glukupikron, a sweet bitter or glucose prick and I wonder could the soul of this work carry a kind of weaving of myth in the poetizing speech of its language-making. I’m thinking of a freed speech in the sense of an old yet newer ‘found’ language, something that appears to one where erotic images rise to surface in the gap between poem text, poem to poem. The author intends her poetic images to touch the heart, prick it with a paradoxical breath: a breath of consciousness, a breath of emotion, a breath of perception. Such a prick can be the beginning of something, something ' Young in years/ Old in pain'―a soul that is a freed speech like is this line from “The Cry of the Tree.” (6)

A former teacher mentions Anne Carson’s Eros to me when working poetic imagery in another matter. Literary Eros is a Platonic invention. Just as the mind of man moves from an oral tradition to a written one, literary eros seems to desire expression in new ways through the gap between traditions. The Greek alphabet is man’s newest technology in this moment. With it comes a change in the story and storytelling ways poets have for telling sensible things. The literary story weaves its telling through a myth of wings.

The poets accomplish this transformation in poetic expression in a play on the word pteron meaning ‘wing’. Pteros introduces a desire in the heart of language-making it calls a wing-growing necessity. By placing a ‘pt’ in front of the word ‘eros’ changing the god’s name in the Phaedrus, Socrates breaks with the metrics of the older, oral, poetic tradition at the same time he remains within this tradition. How so? Eros is the mortal name for desire. The immortals have another he says. This idea, too, belongs to the older tradition. Carson says Homer mentions it several times and Socrates boldly asserts this in the Cratylus.1 This practice of storytelling is mythoplokos, the weaving and reweaving of fictions.

I tuck Carson’s image of Eros underneath my thinking and begin to look first where the author’s note suggests the poetry in this volume of poetry is influenced by three French eighteenth-century authors. Of the three, I would like to focus briefly on the ideas of Jean de La Bruyére before returning to the image of Carson’s Eros and its relevance to the found language and freeing spirit in Elizabeth Terzian’s poetry.

Jean de La Bruyére

La Bruyére is first to revive Theophrastus’ writings in France.2 Hodgart, in Satire: Origins and Principles, tells us La Bruyére works for a time for the noble Condé family and so has opportunity to observe nobility and courtly life. He doesn’t belong to the aristocracy’s spiritual milieu but he also remains every bit a part of French society as he develops his writing practices in criticism of social customs. Hodgart says La Bruyére “becomes bitter”. In other words, his eye sours toward the hypocrisy of the French monarchy’s social rigidity and he writes using satire under guise of moral treatise to criticize society as much as he dare. He’s using fictitious names and other cautionary techniques of representation as does Terzian in Sweet & Sour. This is how both get around the collective psyche of their day.  La Bruyére’s day is literally the era of the Sun King, Louis XIV. His contemporary, Jean De La Fontaine, and also another of the inspirations for the poetry in this poetry volume according to the author, develops the art of the fable to do something of the same thing. He is just as encumbered by the restrictions of the ancien regime.

Elizabeth Terzian tells us on the back cover she is using lyrical verse and satire in a similar way as La Bruyére does to get around the grave nature of literalism in the modern reader’s egoic stance. Terzian wants to get around the ego as censor. In trying to activate in our imagination a breath of perception, emotion and consciousness she holds up a mirror upon which a paradoxical sensation ought take shape. From such a space we might as readers recognize ourselves differently. Should we feel here a double taste of some emotional mix-up, our experience might become something of a mixture, too, either sourly sweetened or more sweetly bitter.

It is as if this paradoxical situation might cause us to laugh at our reflections because we suddenly recognize ourselves as we take what is reflected more deeply to heart in an impersonal way.  I am reminded of Guggenbühl-Craig’s comment about seeing the shadow and staying within it.3 Paradox allows us to work from within our tradition more deeply. It is an old poetic inheritance that helps us to see the opposite of a little truth that is a lie and the opposite of a big truth as another big truth. Here, then, is the beginning of Eros. Eros is no little cupid! For this is the beginning of a freeing spirit that empowers our language through the soul-making in our words.

Perhaps, something of La Bruyére’s portrait of woman and his chapter on fashion gets mirrored in the poems “Woman” (10), “A Woman’s Heart” (31), Lady Walrus (11), and Los Angeles, 1995” (26).  Should we stay in the shadow of each we might recognize the manner of our own fashion trends, habits and novelties (as varied as they might be) for what they truly are in their erotic reach behind our egos for something our knowing lacks. This moment takes place in a now of desire that promises itself is the real beginning. It is, says Carson, what Socrates knows. He wants to know what he doesn’t know. He wants to go for an experience in the way he lacks insight. It is indeed, for Socrates and us, the moment when Eros begins. It is a glimpse of the beginning of a soul.4 It is here, Terzian’s poetry suggests we might further extend the erotic empathy to include our environment…

Every birch will tell you/ If you listen carefully/ Keeping an ear close to the trunk…/…Many had fallen victim/ Under the axe.../Amputated of their limbs/ They sing the sorrow of their loss  
                                                      -Birches Don’t Need Pruning.

The Sorrow of Our Limbs

The poet’s lines mirror Anne Carson’s idea of Eros as edge. “…Eros: the boundary of flesh and self between you and me…When I desire you a part of me is gone: my want of you partakes of me,” reasons the lover at the edge of eros she says. (30-31) She goes on to tell a story found in the speech of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium.5 The first human lovers were round souls whom Zeus splits in half. Now each of us hunts for that part of themselves. “Eros is expropriation. He robs the body of limbs….”(32)

Carson says the truth is we are provoked to notice beyond ourselves from a new vantage point. And, when we do, we see a hole. The hole comes from the way our perception habitually classifies what it sees. Desire for something one never new one lacked, says Carson, takes on a desire for what remains a vital or necessary part that is already oneself. It isn’t a new acquisition. (33) In other words, two lacks form a hole.

A subterranean skin splits wide like the skin of a chrysalis splits from inside out and something emerges. Or like the heart of an oak

A gentle cracking sound I heard/ From the heart of an oak/ Whose there? I asked surprised/ A little green gnome/ Hiding behind an acorn replied/ “It is I…

…I work in silence, underground/ For my love of the earth is profound.”

                                                      -The Little Green Gnome, p.1

Elizabeth Terzian’s poetry is a work taking place in the deep silence rising up from our undergrounds to show a kind of green movement emerging from out the sorrow of our limbs. Where our limbs loosen is right where human thinking reaches to know and care for more than just the quality of our own lives but the quality of life that is Earth herself. These poems let our desire open where the winged shape of a necessary and poetizing fiction from out itself informs.

1Carson, Anne. Eros: The Bittersweet. New Jersey: Princeton, 1986. pp. 159-164.

2Hodgart, Matthew. Satire: Origins and Principles. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2009, p.166.

3AGC said, “The more I see the shadow side of something, the more I attempt to remain within it.” (p. ii) and “We human beings are paradoxical beings and human psychology, therefore, is paradoxical.” (pp. iii-iv) From The Wrong Side: A Paradoxical Approach To Psychology. Trans. Gary V Hartman, Connecticut: Spring, 1995.

4Carson, p.157

5Plato. Symposium: Collected Works, 4th Edition. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953, 189d-93d.
accessed July 26, 2010.

additional links

Elizabeth Terzian
Ph.D., Mythological Studies, Pacifica Graduate Institute
AREAS OF EMPHASIS: Mythology; Sacred Art in Christian Traditions; Aesthetics; Phenomenology; Archetypal Hermeneutics of Cultural History

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