Review by David Halperin

“Book of the Dead” in Spring Hope, 11/16/2017

By David Halperin

“This fall, in third grade, We live in Ancient Egypt
Not North Carolina, says Mrs. Long, just back/

From the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City.
She saw a little gold coffin for a king called Tut.”

Mrs. Long is one of the world’s great teachers.  She probably never existed, though no doubt she’s based on real teachers whom poet Catherine Woodard was lucky enough to have known.  She’s a character in this remarkable novella presented as a series of mostly short poems, set in the town of Spring Hope, North Carolina, and narrated by a precocious little girl whose name we never discover.  (Not Woodard herself, although whenever I read poetry, which I don’t do very often, I tend to fall into the lazy assumption that author and narrator are one.)

“Remarkable” is a stale and empty word for something as–well, remarkable–as Opening the Mouth of the Dead, published about two months ago by Lone Goose Press.  I’ll try to make up for using it by conveying, as well as I can, how very remarkable this book is.

We live in Ancient Egypt / Not North Carolina.  What Mrs. Long intends is that in her classroom, freshly decorated with hieroglyphics on the bulletin boards and a blue crepe paper “Nile” taped to the floor, her pupils will imagine themselves as ancient Egyptians.  It’s a learning project:  “We’ll write magic spells / Or rules for an Egyptian Candy Land.”  But her words carry a deeper meaning as well, and it doesn’t matter whether Mrs. Long or Woodard herself is consciously aware of it.  In the ways that count, we all live in ancient Egypt.

The unconscious, Freud says somewhere, has no clock.  No historical timelines either.  Deep in our psyche, where the important stuff happens, we live and move not in the day-to-day reality of North Carolina or wherever but in a timeless, mythic land we might as well call “Egypt.”  It’s a land where dreams (mostly scary) are real, and death is unreal yet omnipresent.  A land to be traversed by magic, where the road maps have titles like The Book of the Dead. 

And where the child narrator is an apprentice magus.

“My brother wants to make fire
When I reveal the spell
For opening the mouth
Of a mummy …

The Piggly Wiggly had no incense
So we offer MoonPies,

Two candles that smell
Like hushpuppies
To the wobbly TV tray
Beside our father’s bed.

If he lives, we will live …”

It’s an educational game turned deadly serious, for the little girl living in a terrifying realm of death.  Her father is an alcoholic and a pill addict who’s spent much of his life attempting suicide and eventually will succeed at it.  She started first grade with her mother’s instructions not to get into a car with him driving.  (“Says to scream, fall.  Kick if we must.”)  She’s frightened but not of him, or mostly not of him.  She loves the fragile man, aches to protect him.

Magus-like, she buries two lollipops in the dirt because a lollipop is the closest thing she can find to the ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life.  She dreams of her father, possibly during one of her sleepwalking episodes, as Cap’n Crunch at the kitchen table.  Or maybe it’s the “nightmare,” the mysterious disease that’s killing him, that she dreams of.  Or maybe the two are the same.  “The nightmare wipes his lips with the back / Of his hand, slaps his knee.  Half of me / Leaps into his lap. / An eye watches the other.”

The narrator’s feelings, like everything in these poems, are understated.  They have to be–if she knew how scared she is, how powerless before the inevitable, she’d be paralyzed.  In simple, direct, sometimes humorous language that masterfully evokes depths of mystery, she conveys her life in the land of dark myth that intersects and mostly dominates her life as a little girl in cheerily named Spring Hope.  She’s a child but also an entity she calls Soul-Bird, whom the Egyptians called the ba.  (We learn this last point from the glossary at the book’s end, which is an integral part of the book and conveys information about the characters that the poems leave out.)  She loves the ancient picture in which

“Soul-Bird floats over
Her mummy. … A wing fans
The mummy to get its attention.”

Ba, a.k.a. Soul-Bird.

Of course her mummy is her Daddy, his attention trapped in some alcoholic Never-never-land.  Yet Soul-Bird hugs him with her wings, and her head “wants / To slide down, rest / Under his chin.”

Woodard isn’t the first writer to attempt the challenge of re-creating mythology in modern dress–to tell a story of ordinary people who enact, sometimes but not always unaware of what they’re doing, the themes of archaic myth.  John Updike’s early novel The Centaur, drawing on Greek mythology, comes to mind.  So does Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., a poetic play within a play re-enacting the Book of Job, with two down-at-the-heels actors named Zuss and Nickles cast as God and Satan.  (Has anyone noticed that the 1983 Dan Aykroyd movie Trading Places is also a riff on Job?)  I tried to do something of the sort in my 2011 novel Journal of a UFO Investigator, with the difference that the myth in question is the present-day mythology or legendry–the boundaries are at times slippery–of the UFO.

It was my interest in turning myth into fiction, actually, that induced me to sign up for Woodard’s workshop on “Myth & Modern Magical Thinking for Mere Mortals” at the fall conference of the North Carolina Writers’ Network in Wrightsville Beach, NC, two weeks ago.  That was how I made her acquaintance, and that of her new book.  At the beginning of the workshop, she listed the “young hero,” “wise old man or woman,” and “shape-shifter” as three examples of the archetypal figures of myth, and it occurred to me that the main characters of Journal of a UFO Investigator are precisely these three.  The coincidence–I suppose Jung might have called it a synchronicity, but I prefer the more old-fashioned term–gave me an encouraging sense that with my writing I was tapping

into something wider than myself, possibly universal.  This is what Woodard has done in Opening the Mouth of the Dead.

“Opening the Mouth,” she informs us in her glossary, “was a burial ritual.  The mouth of a mummy or a statue representing the deceased was touched with a curved carpenter’s tool to restore the senses of the ka for the journey to the afterlife.  The narrator performs the ritual with a lollipop on all her dolls.”  But like Mrs. Long’s we-live-in-Ancient-Egypt pronouncement, Woodard’s title can have more than one meaning.  It sent my mind skittering off to another myth–one I read as a college senior in a course on Homer, and have never forgotten.

In Book Eleven of the Odyssey, Odysseus fills a pit with the blood of sacrificed animals in order to draw, as though a cloud of flies, the throngs of the “blurred and breathless dead.”  “Let me but taste of blood,” the ghost of Teiresias declares to him, “I shall speak true.”  That’s Homer’s myth, and it’s a powerful one.  But it’s not the myth I had in mind.

The one I remembered was expressed by Irish classical scholar W.B. Stanford, commenting on the Homeric passage.  “The ancient authors,” Stanford wrote, drawing on an earlier classicist named Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, “cannot speak fully to us until they have drunk our heart’s blood–that is till they have entered into our feelings and emotions as well as our minds.  It is then that they speak nemertea [“true”], then that their words are truly pteroenta [“winged”].

That’s what the narrator of Opening the Mouth has done: offered her heart’s blood to the long-dead Egyptians.  She’s opened their mouths to speak, brought their hieroglyphic images to compelling life through her longings and fears and lollipop- and MoonPie-rituals.  It’s a remarkable achievement on her creator’s part.

No, an extraordinary achievement.  This is an extraordinary book.

David Halperin taught Jewish history in the Religious Studies Department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill from 1976 through 2000. He is the author of Journal of a UFO Investigator, his first novel.