An Ambiguous Gift: ‘giving a voice’ to Ancient Greek heroines

3 Apr 2014


Theseus pursuing a woman (probably Helen). Side A from an Attic red-figure bell-krater, ca. 440-430 BC.

Jessica Stacey


The scarcity of the female voice throughout much of the world’s literary history is, for some, an enticement to creative invention. The problem is particularly acute in the classical era; much of what survives of writing by women is fragmentary, graffitied, of uncertain attribution.[1] While there are numerous great tragedies with a female starring role, they are all written by men, and certain characters foundational to western literature – notably Helen – are without voice in the myths in which they play their part. Clare Pollard has tackled this problem in the role of translator, whilst Bernadette Mayer, in her Helens of Troy, N.Y., is working at several removes from her classical figure. The question of ‘giving a voice’ is vital to both texts, and it is worth asking what the role of feminism is in such recreations; whether an engagement with feminism need be explicit, or at least possible, in the reading encounter. Pollard, reading extracts from her translation of Ovid’s Heroides (Heroines) last summer, offered an apologia: Ovid’s presentation of wronged women from Phaedra to Sappho could hardly be considered feminist in content, but here at least is some attempt to create a female voice, some acknowledgement that such a voice might be worth hearing. In her introduction to the poems, she describes the long-standing dismissal of Ovid’s Heroides which, despite being the most popular of Ovid’s works during the Middle Ages, has languished unread or derided by critics who consider it poorly written and uninteresting, packed with whining, petty women.

Can a translation be considered feminist, where an original work is not? Is such a demand even fair? Many would perhaps think not, and I am sure that Pollard would be at pains to point out that, despite emphasising the value of presenting these female voices which have been so long neglected, she has written nothing which would amount to a claim that she has produced a feminist text. However, it seems reasonable to ask what the interest is of a new translation of a volume which (male) editors have complained of as being full of whining women, if that translation does not have some kind of feminist potential? These poems should offer fertile ground to some extent, for, composed as letters to the heroes who have abandoned or spurned them, they take as their subject the problem of finding oneself a character in a man’s story, in the role of ‘woman’.


Bloodaxe Books, 2013

What Pollard is trying to do, through Ovid, is give these women a voice beyond their function within masculine mythmaking. However, the material has so many shortcomings that the enterprise is more than tricky. The format – reproachful or pleading love letters – is evidently difficult to work with; overshadowed by the imagined male interlocutor. And within those letters, Ovid’s women exhibit little sense, and little dignity. Most of their venom is directed against rivals, continually branded as sluts, whilst the ‘heroines’ tend to describe themselves as maternal homemakers, as Hysipyle to Jason: ‘Your bride’s a shameless strumpet; / I was chaste.’ The ‘shameless strumpet’ is Medea, and her letter has, as one might expect, rather more bite, her torment at having betrayed her family – but still, abandoned in turn, ‘The limbs I saved entwine around a whore’s’. Often sensible of the fact that they have been conquered or won, as Deianira writing to Hercules, they seem deeply invested in acquiring a respectability which would keep their lovers from forsaking them for some other prize:


I was once of your many conquests too
But you made me respectable;
fought twice for your wife


Pollard has stripped these poems of ornament, perhaps to better reflect the generally sheltered lives of the women speaking, perhaps the better to access the visceral feelings expressed. This can be lots of fun: Helen is judged, ‘Beneath her elegance […] just / a slag with a thing for strangers’. But this wonderfully updated language reveals the feelings expressed to be such shallow things; though the heroines are undoubtedly tortured by them, they are often reducible to affront, lust, mild guilt. This is not to say that there aren’t some lovely, simple images. Phaedra tells Hippolytus, obsessed with hunting, that ‘a forest without passion is just trees’. Her sister Ariadne, waking alone on Naxos, abandoned by Theseus and feeling the fullness of her catastrophe, cries: ‘Faithless bed – where is he?’ And not all of the poems strike a spoiled tone. Oenone’s letter to Paris is the moving lament of a lover who has lost the man she considers her husband; not only to another woman, but to destiny – the timeless pain of realising that to the love of her life, she is mere prologue, pre-history. It is telling that the most moving of the poems, from Canace to Macareus, departs entirely from the schema set out by the others. Rather than a reproach to a neglectful lover, Canace writes a true love letter to her brother, whose child she has just borne. Her furious father has ordered her to kill herself, and will leave the baby to die out in the elements. Her letter displays strength, and righteousness, and pity. Of the sword their father is sending to perform the awful deed, she writes, ‘What a father, to bring such presents to a marriage!’

The case of Sappho, whose letter closes the collection, is a fruitful one, for we actually do have some genuine remnants of her voice. Pollard describes Ovid’s Sappho as a boasting, cougar-like figure, noting the gulf between this portrayal and that suggested by Anne Carson’s translations. Suggestion is, perhaps, the key here – what moves us in Carson’s If Not, Winter is precisely the fragmentary nature of the verses, the attractive force of a voice which we must ourselves attempt to piece together. A handful of words connected with love could have been part of a whole of great beauty or of mere triteness, but the sense of loss, of something withheld, captivates the reader. Take fragment 67A, so expressive of muted desolation when read with the lacunae forcefully marked:



And this——————–[
ruinous god—————[

I swear did not love—–[
but now because———[

and the reason neither[
nothing much————-[



The breaks, the staccato of this fragment contribute to an impression of stifled, restrained grief – ‘nothing much’. If Carson’s Sappho is so magical because so much is withheld, Ovid’s girls really don’t hold quite enough back. I can only feel the impatience Demophoon must feel when Phyllis writes, ‘Remember the mountain we visited? / I’m stood there, crying.’


New Directions, 2013

As translator, Pollard’s options are limited. By any philosophy of translation, she remains more-or-less stuck with the sentiments this male author assigned to these female characters almost 2 millennia ago. Bernadette Mayer on the other hand – re-appropriating classical myth in a text on re-appropriation – is able to go in any direction she chooses. One of the most strikingly voiceless characters from history must be Helen of Troy – Homer never even makes it clear whether her abduction is consensual or not. Mayer’s collection, Helens of Troy, N.Y. has some of the same aims as Pollard’s, in that it is concerned with women, their voices, and their stories. Mayer interviewed and photographed each of the Helens living in Troy, New York State, then created a series of poems based on those encounters. Mayer is a keen observer of voice and speech pattern, and how these are harnessed to self-creation – both on the part of the town, and the women living in it. One of the photographs (the only one not by Mayer, I believe) is an old snapshot of a naked girl,


in an attitude of exhausted posing

your hair covering breasts, lips touching sheet

welcome to the family & crux

of what it means to be a helen of troy

darkness moves around you but in this light

we can see you, knowing nothing about you       (‘NAKED HELEN CARMoDY’).


How we wrangle with our subjecthood in the face of external narratives which seek to objectify us is a universal problem, differently inflected for women, and on which a particular light is thrown in this town which sought to promote itself by appropriating the story of Troy. A great many of the women ask why their mothers would have called them Helen; others simply don’t care. One of those who thinks the question worth asking is the Helen of ‘HELEN WoRTHINGToN Bo NESTEEL’, a sweetly smiling elderly lady whose poem is, despite her distancing herself from Helen, the most mythic:


sleigh-rides to school

with a buffalo robe on


my father played the flute

with a missing finger

peddled milk


Other Helens, like ‘HELEN FULLER’ are born elsewhere, ‘just happened to wind up / being a helen of troy’, or ‘HELEN HYPATIA BAILEY BAYLY’ who, ‘besides not being from ancient troy / […] hails from australia’, but who has nevertheless taken the story of the town to her heart just as many of the local Helens have. For, just as the name Helen provokes each of these women to conceive of their own narrative through touching or pushing away an ancient myth, the town has its own tale of transformation, via the legend it harnessed to unclear purposes. The wonderful ‘A HISToRY oF TRoY, NY’, which closes the collection, tells us that the Dutch settlement was named


troy in 1789 in a move of love of

democracy & a startling ambition

for the town to be a center of commerce

not just detachable collars & happy

chocolate. there was a mount olympus

a mount ida, an ilium cafe, an antique

shop called the trojan horse, the possibilities

for play (ludum) were endless & everybody

hated the hegemony of the dutch


‘if americans / were to begin to be interlopers,’ the poem asks, ‘why not / go all the way so shamelessly troy / became troy’ – a playful take on the Trojan Horse. The poem dwells on the expulsion of the Native Americans, the way that Native American place-names remain, alongside Dutch ones. Naming the town Troy was, perhaps, a way to overcome this shameful past by referencing – pastiching – an older legend. Over the course of the poems, one gains a sense of the way in which this original need was surpassed by the creation of new, properly American legends. Uncle Sam, we learn, is Troy’s legend: ‘sam wilson of troy used to pack meat for men / in the army. the meat was stamped U.S. so he / became known as uncle sam’. And then there are the places which make up the fabric of the town’s identity – Proctor’s Theatre, mentioned by so many of the women, was the site of a fire which is one of the defining moments of the town. In ‘HELEN HYPATIA BAILEY BAYLY’, we learn that, ironically given the place both the theatre and its fire occupy in the town’s imagination, Proctor’s ‘is to be razed / depriving trojans of their heritage again’. Proctor’s Theatre contains a mural of the musical, Helens of Troy, New York, but, as we learn in ‘HELEN REZEY SESTINA’, ‘now everything is much more different / […] you don’t get too many people / interested in your name’.

‘Helen’ is enmeshed with other women’s names in this collection, from a more recent era. Mayer writes of Emma Willard School (where Jane Fonda went),


emma willard was a feminist.

the women who starched the detachable collars

started a union, one of the first in the country, organized by kate mullaney.


Some of the women talk about college, the opening up of the local polytechnic to girls – in ‘MARoo N MUCKLE N ME’, the subject and her sister were the first girls of their family to attend university, even though ‘in our family college was thought a waste for girls / they just type, do steno, answer phones / besides they’re supposed to have babies’. There are gusts of freedom in the best of the poems – in ‘MARoo’, the narrator reminisces ‘i met an orphan named helen who’d escape to proctor’s / she’s as smart as a whip, clear as a bell’. This clearly refers to the second Helen of the collection, ‘HELEN CRANDALL WHALEN VILLANELLE, her life summed up as:


it’s been rough
my favorite color’s maybe yellow
everybody died
i took off, it was fun, i loved it


It would be misguided to make a value-judgement comparing two entirely different projects. However, it is worth asking, within the context of translation, interview and creation, what the different constraints on the project to ‘give a voice’ to a person – to a person as a woman – are. There is something of Canace from the Heroines in those last two lines, which form the repeated refrain of the Helen Crandall Whalen Villanelle’s poem. Here, the classical world provides the lens through which to examine the ordinary – these Helens could be anyone, and Troy could be anywhere, but we would never have learnt anything about either without the borrowed glory of the name. The resonance of a shared name lifts both place and person above the ordinary, but what is poetic is drawn not from the Iliad, but from the fabric – sometimes extraordinary, sometimes guilty, often banal – of American myth.




[1] See ‘Attested Women Writers of the Graeco-Roman world’ in Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology, edited by Ian Michael Plan, University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

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