The Book Club

Giving Mind and Movement to Homer’s Static Women

Dear Nell,

So, what should pop up on my morning Web site browse than this quote of the day from Philo of Alexandria:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Good advice for anyone, especially a book reviewer. And more especially one who comes to address Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles.

When I heard about this teensy-weensy, 107-page (minus the glossary) tilt at the underpinning work of Western literature, my initial reaction was, why?

Why would anyone want to do this? Who wants a minnow-sized Moby Dick? An “Eroica” re-scored as a five-minute piece for the kazoo?

And these questions came to me when I thought Cook’s retelling was limited to the Iliad. When I opened the book and found myself in a scene reimagined from the Odyssey, I really started to feel the ash spear quiver in my hand. But now I lay it at the lady’s feet, along with tripods and skins of finest wine and robes of every silken stuff. This book is a tiny treasure.

If, as they say, every generation demands its own translation of Homer, Cook brings us here a Homer for the MTV generation. I don’t say this disparagingly. I’m thinking of those singular music videos that are mini art films, the ones that marry sound and sight until the senses reel. Cook is a master of the rapid, the dynamic, the intensely compressed, of arresting images layered one upon the other. This book is not a translation; it’s a distillation. The wine was fine to begin with; now she has reduced it to a few drops that sear the tongue.

Yes, I missed the Homeric hand-holds—the wine-dark seas, the rosy-fingered dawns, the islands low and away. I missed the soothing repetitions that gave the singer pause for breath and the audience time to assimilate the story. I was surprised to learn that Cook wrote this originally for performance. It does not read that way to me. Her prose is as relentless as a Greek army marching. Present tense, active verbs, concrete nouns. There is no respite here.

So, what is she up to?

The Iliad famously begins in medias res, nine years into the Trojan War. Cook starts her tale later still, much later, the war long over and weary Odysseus, desperate to get home, summoning the dead for advice on how to do so. And so we first meet Achilles as a hungry ghost, longing for news of the world he renounced. When he made his famous choice of a short famous life in war instead of a long, sweet, anonymous one, farming his father’s lands with his son at his side, he sentenced himself to this sad, gray realm of the non-senses.

Cook flashes back then to the rape of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, and this swift scene is, to me, typical of the strengths in what she does. Here, and elsewhere, she gives mind and movement to the women who are usually so static in Homer—posed like prizes on plinths, waiting to be won or bartered or snatched or sacrificed. Thetis, stalked like prey, rejects victimhood. She fights as snake, lion, cuttlefish (oh, for the ability to turn into a cuttlefish!) until Peleus longs to let her go, to get away, and at that point, she refuses to let him: She turns the tables and takes him. Later, Cook imagines that other famous rape victim, Helen, and this time there is no redemption. Driven into herself by others’ incessant wanting and taking, Helen has become catatonic, incapable of any action in her own right.

Two favorite images from pages dense with possibilities: “Achilles looks at the man who killed Patroclus and feels the hatred spread through his body, slowly, luxuriously, like cream.”

Later, when Achilles is dead and his grieving soldiers come to shear their hair and lay it on his bier: “Your body under this soft piled blanket of black and brown, russet and gold. The wind detaches and lifts some of the locks. Bright hairs separate themselves and float in the air like strange insects.”

Homer would have liked that, don’t you think? But what would he have made of the Keats chapter?