on writing, rewriting, & taking notes

Review of Wake, Siren from The Key Reporter


Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung

Nina MacLaughlin. FSG Originals, 2019. 352 pages. $16.00.

By Indira Ganesan

You will open Nina MacLaughlin’s (ΦBK, University of Pennsylvania) rapturous, incendiary Wake Siren, and read six, ten, sixteen stories without stopping. Here are the names you know, and stories you thought you knew: Daphne, turned into a laurel tree; Arachne, turned into a spider; Echo; Io; Sibyl. Some of the stories you have recently read in other modern retellings, like Scylla’s, in Madeline Miller’s Circe, but this one in Wake, Siren, in seventeen, swift  pages, contains emails, girls talking while one brushes another’s hair, full of the hesitations and self-blame young women infuse their lives with, and, perhaps in a nod to Richard Brautigan, the word mayonnaise. It is like all of the mythological lives retold and indeed, resung by MacLaughlin from Ovid’s The Metamorphoses: vivid, sharp, clear; painful, and riveting. You continue, and almost cannot, cannot read, but you must, must read, the story of Philomena, who was a child, turned into a nightingale, told by her sister Procne who became a swallow, and the insidious horror done to them by one man. As you continue to read Wake, Siren, maybe in bursts, maybe all at once, you will become convinced of what a genius is Nina MacLaughlin.  

This was my experience in reading Wake, Siren. Not all the stories are about rape, but most of them are. Some are also stories about not knowing the harm one does in daily life, in not knowing the stories each blade of grass can contain. She writes that the stories came to her rapidly, first as an exercise “to write a story in [Callisto’s] voice, moving through Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of Ovid nearly twelve-thousand-line poem, depicting over two hundred tales of transformation.” Here are the stories of the women forced against their will by the Greco-Roman gods, half-gods, monsters, and men. MacLaughlin retells almost all of them mostly in the voice of the woman who experienced the rape, recounting the surprise, the fear, the violence, sense of betrayal., and the aftermath. And though the actors are ancient, we know their names could be contemporary. We have seen the trials of women who have been raped, the laughter and mockery spewing forth from of the accused, the hostile, contemptuous scrutiny faced by the women as if it were they who are on trial, the rewards given to the accused, the wealth, the honors, the laurels. We see how a man accused of rape becomes the very one who will later judge future rapists. As ordinary, intelligent women and men, we watch the proceedings, and read the paper, and open our eyes rape culture. These men in power must know their Greek myths; these men have read Latin in their schooling. And if the inevitable fate attending hubris escaped them, the boys club did not. If Jove could rape a girl, turn her into a cow to deceive his wife, why couldn’t any man do the same, and get pats on the back for it? Boys will be boys, we hear; fifteen minutes of horseplay doesn’t deserve prison sentences. Oh, reader, of course it does.  

But sometimes acts of faith and generosity are rewarded, and even women are treated right. Remember the old couple who lovingly feed tired strangers with the poverty of their meagre provisions, not knowing they were gods? That section soothes like a balm. We see that some gods, well, the same gods, these gods who have so many other lives, are capable of kindness. And some of the stories are told by friends, by sisters, by brothers. Everyone has been affected. Well, I don’t know if the rapists will read this book, but everyone should. Really, everyone should. Nina MacLaughlin has written an amazingly good book, a stellar book, a book whose time has come. Nina MacLaughlin’s excellent Wake, Siren evokes tears in me, still.

Novelist Indira Ganesan was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Vassar College in 1982. Her books include The Journey (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), Inheritance (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) and As Sweet As Honey (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).
(Posted on 11/7/2019 )


This day is unlike any other we have had a long while.

I wrote that in October, but it can apply to any day.

That October day: After days of tranquil mild weather, when the landscape is so achingly beautiful, and fall transforming itself to a summer that still lingered, it rained in a winter’s way. In Maine, they are expecting snow. Here, on the Cape of Cod, the balmy warmth of the day gave way to grey and drizzle, the kind that brings up images of salty sailors in yellow fishing gear, the loneliness of lighthouses, and a vacant fog. My throat itches, as if the change in weather heralded the end of reliable health for the sniffles of autumn.

I feel a pull, a desire to nap, eat honey and hibernate, and wake refreshed to my own spring step.

This day, meant for oyster crackers and warm soup.

Any day, soup.

And any day knowing that happiness is a pursuit, a possibility to be worked at, and harder still is a settling of self. An acceptance of what and where one is.

Here below is To Autumn by John Keats:

(copied by the Poetry Foundation website)

(And a thank to the WordPress happiness agent to helped me today.)

To Autumn

by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 

   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 

Conspiring with him how to load and bless 

   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; 

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, 

   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 

      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells 

   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, 

And still more, later flowers for the bees, 

Until they think warm days will never cease, 

      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells. 

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store? 

   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find 

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, 

   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind; 

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, 

   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers: 

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep 

   Steady thy laden head across a brook; 

   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look, 

      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?

   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,— 

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, 

   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue; 

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

   Among the river sallows, borne aloft 

      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; 

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; 

   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Recovery, Reverie

The day was going to be different. Isn’t that always the case? I was going to go in to Boston for my weekly class, but because a guest writer was giving a reading, we were going to use the time after to write. News of a nor’easter came, and I woke to find the power gone. I wrote to my class to enjoy the reading without me,waxing poetic about the rain and wind, and how this was the kind of weather to birth pages of words.

But instead of clearing my desk, I noticed that the radio station where I volunteer at needed someone to cover a shift. Well I could do that, I thought, driving over. Somehow I managed to cram three hours of business donor ads into an hour, play some music, overturn a loose leaf folder which emptied its pages onto the floor. A listener called to gently correct my prunciation of an artist’s name. I managed to continue to miss cues, knock my headphones apart, suffer three coughing fits, and finally gather my raincoat to exit.

One reason I thought I’d cover a shift was because I woke in acute pain from the shingles vaccination I’d had the day before. As I write this, with mild fever , a fuzzy head, and achy body, already in bed at a quarter past seven, I wonder what fresh hell is this? Let’s roll out all those cliches. Being sick on your own is no fun. Who can you call for comfort? These days it is all texting. So you take some Advil, a teaspoon of honey because a friend of yours makes it with her bees, and wait for the morning.

How many nights do I just wait for morning? Tonight, I made a dinner out of a can of vegetable soup a friend recommended, adding some rasam powder, garlic, and mustard seed I fried in a small amount of olive oil, and several pieces of corn tortillas. I watched an episode of Doc Martin, wishing it was The British Baking Show, and finally made my way to bed.

It seems to me that I should host a dinner-making party, where every one gathers to make food for the week. Of course, it would have to be vegetarian in my kitchen, and there will be two curious cats around. And I’d have to scrub everything down to keep the dander away, and already the thought has exhausted me.

Somewhere in this essay is a cry, muted, but hovering: vaccines hurt; the immunities lower, the eyes get weepy, the body aches. I am grateful for a full belly, a warm bed. I want more, but this enough. Yesterday was different,as I listened some truly amazing music on the radio throughout the day and night in the car, went to a play, and came home to stay up until past midnight googling the play I had just seen. Tomorrow will be different. Outside, it not raining, but only the sound of wind filling the air.

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