Ovid's Presence in Contemporary Women's Writing: Strange Monsters by Fiona Cox
Contemporary studies which set out to engage with, and challenge the meaning of, the work of the Augustan poet Ovid are not uncommon. Indeed, the innumerable ways in which Ovid's imagination can be re-interpreted and re-formed lends itself to renewed analysis by contemporary scholarship. However, where Fiona Cox's contribution to this trend differs is in its specific focus on Ovid's presence in the work of thirteen contemporary female writers. In this [End Page 139] volume, Cox judiciously engages with, and analyses, the presence of Ovid in each of her chosen case studies of fiction, drama, and poetry.
With eleven such case studies on female writers, it would be easy to categorise Cox's work as an attempt to reclaim a female voice and write one into a male-authored tradition. However, Cox deftly negotiates this problematic issue associated with women writers and second-wave feminism, addressing the issue directly in her introduction. She acknowledges that studies which evaluate the influence of contemporary feminism on readings of classical poets face a continuing risk of being labelled partisan and exclusionary, speaking only to a limited few. Thus, in an attempt to circumvent this issue, counter this exclusivity, and offer a broader dialogue, Cox sets out to examine her suite of female writers through the lens of third-wave feminism. This solution allows her to tread the fine line of exploring issues of gender, as written by these female writers, but also to write from a consciously gendered position about wider political, ecological, and social concerns. This nuanced approach further affords Cox the chance to explore what she has identified as another unifying theme: the way in which so many of the chosen authors "experience themselves as monsters, either as freakish, or as prodigies of nature, or both" (4). The subtitle of the volume, Strange Monsters, refers to this theme, with Cox drawing attention to how each of these women are transformed from "monstrosity into the marvellous" (24), expanding and challenging the boundaries of the classical tradition, thanks in part to their dialogue with Ovid.
Cox organises her investigation into eleven chapters, each focusing on the work of a particular prominent female writer, or pair of female writers. Throughout each chapter, and the volume as a whole, Cox offers a nuanced examination of the ways in which these contemporary female writers intersect with Ovid; how each writer responds to and adapts the Ovidian narrative to fit with their particular genre; and in turn how each writer retells Ovidian myths in order to comment on issues besetting the modern-day world such as the financial crisis, disease, the NHS postcode lottery, Brexit, terrorist attacks, and female body image. Furthermore, Cox creates a sequence of chapters that is considered, ordered, and well-connected: when one chapter ends, it signals the themes and narratives that will be explored and considered in the next.
Cox takes as her starting point for her analysis the Scottish author and playwright Ali Smith, whose "Ovidianism is nourished by a third-wave agenda" (25), and whose short stories and lectures "enact the magic of transformation and of survival" (44). For Cox, Smith's use of the story of Echo is particularly evocative, allowing the writer space to spark a conversation about disease, anorexia nervosa, and also highlight issues of postcode lottery within the NHS. Ovidian echoes, and how they have shaped contemporary meditations on particular myths, is a theme that Cox continues in the second chapter on Marina Warner, an English novelist, short story writer, and historian. Cox examines The Leto Bundle (2001) and the extent to which Ovid has shaped Warner's fiction: "as he shapes her meditations upon literary survival and tradition, she enables him to speak also of the blight of [End Page 140] homelessness and the plight of refugees in the modern world" (62). These themes and concerns are also shared by Yoko Tawada, a Japanese writer living in Berlin, whose reworking of Ovid affords her the opportunity to negotiate contemporary issues of living within a foreign culture, the immigrant's experience, and refugees. While Tawada re-situates Ovid in the streets of her adopted city Hamburg, the poet's journey continues in the hands of the writers in the next set of chapters. British poet Alice Oswald transports Ovid to Devon and the river Dart; Mary Zimmerman, American playwright, while continuing with the theme of water, uses her play Metamorphoses (first performed in Chicago in 1998) to speak to Americans after the horror of 9/11; and Saviana Stanescu returns Ovid to the shores of the Black Sea.
Cox's investigation continues with award-winning English poet, editor, and lecturer Jo Shapcott, and here Cox returns to the intersection of Ovid, health, and women's experiences of the body, which was introduced in the first case-study of Ali Smith. Cox demonstrates how Shapcott uses Ovidian myths and themes in Of Mutability to share both "a deeply personal autobiographical response to serious illness, as well as . . . [to voice] her anger about war, about the financial crisis, about our mistreatment of the earth" (152–3). Marie Darrieussecq, a French novelist, also uses emotion as a catalyst for responding to contemporary society. In Cox's assessment of her work, Darrieussecq responds to the heartache provoked by the modern world in her translation of the Tristia, a work that is infiltrated by Ovidian echoes yet allows Darrieussecq the chance to articulate her anger against a society that "continues to exclude its most vulnerable-the working class, women without clearly defined roles, the grieving whose raw sorrow is embarrassing" (172).
The penultimate two chapters of the book focus on two pairs of writers. With the first pair, Josephine Balmer, a British poet, and Averill Curdy, an American lyric poet, Cox explores how each poet invokes Ovidian songs of exile to comment on the horror of war and terrorism, and reflect the atrocities, both historical and contemporary, that threaten our world. It is in the following chapter, however, which focuses on the second pair (Michèle Roberts, a British writer, novelist and poet, who is paired with poet and playwright Clare Pollard) where Cox comes closest to addressing issues of gender and reclaiming the female voice, topics which have shaped the development of second-wave feminism. Both Roberts and Pollard offer responses to the challenges of reworking Ovid's Heroides, exploring the fluidity of gender in the authorial voice (for they are women translating a man adopting the mindset of a woman), Ovid's appearance in the contemporary guises, and how these guises remind us of the power of "Ovid's understanding of the complex psychology of his heroines, and his empathy towards those who are so deeply damaged" (217).
In the final chapter, Cox turns to the work of Australian author and translator Jane Allison, who provides her own translations of Ovid's work. Here, Alison's response to Ovid is prompted by a sense that his myths were depicting familiar predicaments, in particular the feeling of dislocation, both from the family unit and [End Page 141] from her native country, which "enabled her to feel a natural affinity with Ovid and his experience of exile" (229). So too, the journey of Ovid's work comes to an end, with the boundaries of his reception, both geographical and metaphorical, expanded by the female writers Cox studies in this volume.
In each chapter Cox has provided a close, in-depth analysis of the text, or texts, chosen for that writer, whether that be a poem, play, or indeed translation of Ovid's work. By drawing on such a wide variety of genres, from writers located across the world, Cox offers a convincing argument for the global reach of Ovid, his afterlife, and his narratives. Indeed, throughout her examination of these writers, Cox shows the flexibility of Ovid's work and its capacity for endless reinvention not only in contemporary times, but in contemporary women's writing. These women writers are connected in the way they attempt to forge a modern-day Ovid, a 21st-century Ovid, suitable for the internet age, and Cox's analysis shows that, in creating this new dimension of Ovid, it allows readers to make sense of, and explore, an array of febrile political, social, and economic landscapes.
The investigation is rigorous in its approach, and this work should not be viewed as an introduction to Ovid and his corpus of material. Although translations of the Latin, French, and German (where appropriate) are provided throughout the book, there is an assumption on Cox's part that the reader will already be familiar with the ancient texts to which she refers. As a result, at times it can be difficult to wade through, but the reader will be rewarded for their perseverance. For Cox does not simply provide a list of modern poems, novels, plays and translations that mention, reflect, or draw parallels with the Ovidian corpus. Rather, Cox's engagement with, and investigation of, each writer and their work is so thorough that it leaves one considering the full extent of Ovid's journey in the hands of these contemporary writers and how each female writer has contributed to the expansion of the boundaries of Ovidian reception in the 21st century. In a packed forum, Cox has managed to find an innovative angle to explore, and contributes a persuasive, valuable study on the subject. [End Page 142]