A Glimpse of the Immortal
The Throne of Psyche by Marly Youmans
Luisa A. Igloria
Marly Youmans' most recent book of poems, The Throne of Psyche, is an ambitious work which inquires into the nature of the soul, into the nature of work and time, of love and ardent pursuits (including poetry and art)—and in so doing, simultaneously courts danger and the sublime. The danger lies, of course, in its embrace of themes and questions regarding the ineffable—an undertaking which, in lesser hands, might quickly dissipate into a series of mere abstractions. Its pursuit of the sublime is no less bold, especially because one knows instinctively that such a goal is by nature situated always just ahead, just out of reach, companion to prophesy and vision.
But the poet meets these challenges with a hand sure of its craft, in lines whose tempered and beautiful cadences provide fitting context for the exploration of subject matter that is almost unavoidably metaphysical. She grounds these questions against the core narrative of Psyche and Eros, in the lapidary poem sequence from which the book draws its title. The poems do not offer a simple retelling of the myth and its countless variants of how a mortal girl is brought as sacrificial offering to a promised, mysterious bridegroom; is persuaded by her sisters to try to discover his identity; then singes his shoulder with oil from the lamp so that he departs from her.
The poems deploy from the outset a voice and sensibility that guides and engages readers so that we, like the girl-child Psyche, might hope to grow the gifts of indigenous yet stumbling intuition into a deeper and more complex understanding of human nature. What do we do when what we love most becomes withheld from us by circumstance? Is it love, or duty, which changes us for the better? Having known love, why is loss and death so much more difficult to bear? And finally, what is the cure for the soul which longs for itself?
I admire how, in formal, measured stanzas both lyrical and precise, Marly achieves depths of characterization delivered in swift and compact measures. For instance, waiting to be taken to the mountaintop, away from her family and people, young Psyche is told her fate is to be singular in this way; we see her compliance, but also that she does not flinch from telling of her fear, or of her slight resentment: "gods grew angry, as / They will—yet why, since time is always on / Their side?" Rightly, she "guessed perhaps there was more than one way / to be consumed." Towards the end of the sequence, when Eros consummates the marriage with Psyche, the poet's language and imagery superbly capture the paradoxical nature of desire's fulfillment as both a dying and shattering, and the scaling of an apex: "I lay within a nest of shattered twigs. / A shape with wings was sobbing on my breast, / Some wall between us battered down to dust. / I touched the face invisible to me. / His serpent pinions beat convulsively."
The opening sequence of poems gives way to four other generous sections which connect the myth to the poet's various worlds: the world of the poet's southern origins from which she sometimes feels exiled, the world of artists, writers, children, and other beings touched by fire, the world of motherhood and domesticity. In each of these sections, whether she is considering the difficult birth of a child, the "lovelessness and scorn" of the twentieth century, figures from fairy tales, the allegory of the phoenix's birth by fire, blurbs of poets, or the "Princess trees" (Paulownia tomentosa) of North Carolina, her journeys come to embody that same "peril-quest" that Psyche set on when she went to meet her great love. Taking stock in "At Cullowhee," she says: "How little I have made that's worth the keep! / My soul, much rinsed, is threadbare, fine as lawn." But surely she is mistaken, because in these poems there is abundant evidence of "one for whom the word / Could conjure vision." I'm grateful for how Youman's poems make me feel a little less alone, a little less terrified; instruct "[o]f how to forge through death, return to sun / . . . [pack] the coins for Charon, honey cakes" as I attempt in my own life to turn toward the face of the immortal.