- The Female Homer: An Exploration of Women’s Epic Poetry
Downes is one of those rare scholars writing from a position where competing interests intersect—The Classical Tradition, Genre Studies, Feminist Criticism and Theory, English and American Literature Studies, and Creative Writing. Living a double existence as a creative writer and an academic, Downes is well-suited to offer a much-needed redefinition of the epic as a genre in literature, especially in light of much contemporary poetry, and to uncover a women’s hidden epic tradition. His tasks, which he finds personally fulfilling, are to identify or create (vis à vis Judith Shakespeare) the female progenitor of woman’s epic poetry, Anyte, the Female Homer; uncover the multiple lineages of women’s epics; and identify the consistencies and mutual “affinities” in these varied works. The chapters that follow one another do not fail to inform on Downes’ seemingly straightforward thesis, but they demonstrate and perform the fragmented, sometimes chaotic nature of such an open, experimental approach as reconsidering Eastern and Western, oral and written, prehistoric and dated narratives in three hundred pages. But certainly, this too is part of Downes’ thesis: for contemporary scholars and writers of epic to seek a history of women’s epic writing on their own—without a trailblazer—is to hazard such an arduous journey that they risk never engaging the genre or the tradition at all.
The organization of The Female Homer is provocatively experimental, and its twenty-two chapters contain discussions that move backward and forward in time and that shift from setting to setting (from Sumerian prehistory to American modernity). Moreover, because the chapters are more like strands in an intricate braid, picking up and dropping discussion as though Downes were weaving, a traditional summary of the chapters will not do for this review. While its chapters seem random, The Female Homer consistently offers two critical practices for scholars: first, viewing a “difference” in the traditional elements used in women’s epic, and second, attending to new elements that crop up in women’s epics. Examples of “difference” in women’s use of traditional elements include a hero’s descent into hell but with the difference of her eventual rebirth(s), and correspondingly, an emphasis not on linear time but on cyclical and even monumental time; a focus on war but from the vantage point of the domestic sphere; an epic hero who values communal interdependence over solitary independence and who occasionally shares the spotlight with other “heroes,” a quest that privileges love over war and produces a hero’s interior growth as well as her community’s social growth; and contemporary epics’ intertextual appropriation of not merely earlier epics but fore-mother epics.
More exciting are the new elements Downes considers representative of women’s [End Page 81] epics. For instance, women writers’ familiarity with textiles means studying the degree to which a figurative “quilting” influences construction of epic, the augmented role of clothing (rather than battle gear) in epic, and a reconsideration of how quilts, tapestries, and fascicles are themselves epics. Also fresh is Downes’s attention to paternal and maternal influences over the creation of women’s epics. A character’s ambivalence over father-figures often parallels her writer’s ambivalence over a real father who initially may have supported then stymied he daughter’s creative efforts (161). Maternal influence means attending to how later writers like H.D. are writing through their literary foremothers by redeploying, for example, Aurora Leigh’s structure or point of view or turning to Psyche’s quest to recover Cupid as an ur-narrative. Finally, attention to the way many women writers make material the body in epic as well as the body of their work is a welcome “new” reading practice. Women’s epics often foreground the relationship of women’s bodies to the men and children around them, calling attention to bodily processes like breastfeeding, menstruating, or even masturbating. Linked to an analysis of how the body functions anew in women’s epic is Downes’s discussion...