Fiona Cox takes her subtitle from May Sarton’s evocation of “writing women and strange monsters” (4), and in her new book she charts the many ways in which contemporary women writers articulate strangeness and estrangement through reference to the works of Ovid, primarily the Metamorphoses. Such notions of strangeness are grounded both in the self and in culture; Cox insists throughout on the cultural and political resonances of the representations she tracks, and locates them firmly within the agendas of third-wave feminism. That is, she identifies her authors as moving beyond the recuperation of women’s voices to speak about social and cultural inequalities and injustices. Her “strange monsters” are not strange because they are women writers, but because they adopt a gendered position from which to speak—through fiction, poetry, theatre, and memoir—about social and political issues. Cox traces the reworking of Ovidian themes in representations of ecological concerns, the plight of refugees and immigrants, bodily transformations in illness and in war, the terror of social and financial precarity, and the exploration of sexualities.
Ovid’s Presence is organized as a series of eleven chapters, each devoted to a different author or pair of authors. Each chapter is highly descriptive, tracing explicit and implicit citations, reworkings, and engagements with Ovid’s writing. Chapter 1 examines Ali Smith’s 2012 lectures on literature, and especially literary form, gathered in Artful, along with two works of fiction, Public Library (2015) and Autumn (2016), and Cox ends her discussion of transformation, life, death, and books in Smith’s works with a brief consideration of “True Short Story” (2008). Chapter 2 turns to Marina Warner, whose Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds (2002) deals directly with Ovid and to which Cox returns more than once for Warner’s claim that “tales of metamorphosis often arose in spaces (temporal, geographical and mental) that were crossroads, cross-cultural zones, points of interchange on the intricate, connective tissue of communications between cultures” (17). Throughout her study, Cox insists on metamorphosis as a way in which writers imagine encounters with different worlds, and in this chapter she focuses her attention on Warner’s novel, The Leto Bundle (2001), in which a story of metamorphosis and loss speaks about homelessness and the plight of refugees in the modern world. Chapter 3 focuses on Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada. Cox begins by highlighting Tawada’s description of the dislocation of inhabiting foreign cultures and languages, articulated in a set of lectures published as Verwandlungen: Tübinger Poetik-Vorlesungen (1998), and she emphasizes Tawada’s stress on the possibility of invention, which she also locates in the experience of living in relation to the foreign. Cox shows that both are at play in Tawada’s exploration of being between two worlds in Opium für Ovid: Ein Kopfkissenbuch von 22 Frauen (2000). In this novel, Tawada blends Ovid’s Metamorphoses and The Pillowbook of Sei Shonagon, transposing characters from Ovid’s epic onto the streets of modern-day Hamburg, where they negotiate the city as immigrants, and explore gender roles. Chapter 4 offers a short reading of voice, song, and rivers in Alice Oswald’s book-length poem Dart (2002), and in Chapter 5 a discussion of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, first produced in 1998, focuses in particular on the use of water in the staging.
With Chapter 6, Cox turns to Saviana Stanescu’s “GOOGLE ME!” (2006), an extended poem that imagines letters written by a Barbarian woman, Tristia, to Ovid. In the second half of the chapter, Cox discusses Stanescu’s play, For a Barbarian Woman (2011), an extension of the poem in which Stanescu imagines a modern-day couple to parallel Tristia and Ovid, and personifies the Black Sea as a protagonist. Chapter 7 focuses on Jo Sharpcott’s Of Mutability (2010) and returns to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the way that Sharpcott refigures the text to speak of her changing experience of self after a breast cancer diagnosis. Chapter 8 turns to Marie Darrieussecq’s 2008 translation of the Tristia and the Letters from the Black Sea in Tristes poniques, which Cox reads as offering a response to the insecurities and losses of the modern world. Chapter 9 considers two poetic responses to the Tristia: Josephine Balmer’s The Word for Sorrow (2009) and Averill Curdy’s Song and Error (2013). Balmer’s book puts Ovid’s concern for his own renown in relation to the experiences of the weary veterans of World War I, and Curdy maps contemporary America onto the songs and legacy of Ovidian exile. In Chapter 10, Cox studies Michèle Roberts’s The Book of Mrs. Noah (1987), which retells canonical stories from the Bible and from the Western classical tradition, and Clare Pollard’s Ovid’s Heroines (2013), which Cox describes as a “translation-cum-adaptation” of the Heroides (205). Finally, chapter 11 turns to Jane Alison’s Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid (2014) and Alison’s memoir, The Sisters Antipodes (2009), where Ovid’s stories of metamorphosis offer insight into emotional turmoil and bodily changes of adolescence.
A short conclusion reiterates some of the volume’s broader claims: women writers experience the pull of longing for stability and home, yet they also celebrate the possibilities of transformation and reinvention. For Cox, these writers retell Ovid’s stories in order to comment upon and activate social and political change, a desire Cox associates throughout with third wave feminism, though she acknowledges that her authors do not all explicitly identify themselves or their work as feminist.
Ovid’s Presence in Contemporary Women’s Writing offers exactly what it promises: a detailed account of contemporary women writers’ rewritings, adaptations, and translations of Ovid’s works. Close readings, along with extensive citation, give life to what are often lengthy summaries, and a perceptive attention to language grounds the analyses of debts to Ovid. As should be obvious from the chapter outline, Cox’s perspective is very broad, and the series of chapters organized by author offers more of a catalog than a cumulating argument. To be sure, Cox highlights themes shared among the texts she studies: the experience of change, of course, but also the experience of loss in change, the experience of possibility, and indeed, the transformation of loss into possibility. The frequent appeal to Echo among Cox’s authors is perhaps to be expected; the several appearances of Iphis may be more surprising. I myself was surprised by the importance of water: pools, rivers, and, especially, the Black Sea all appear centrally in a number of the works Cox studies. But despite some common threads and characters, the texts Cox examines remain fairly distinct from each other. Rather than make a claim for a common project or a shared reception of Ovid’s works, Cox demonstrates the diversity of engagements with Ovid among her authors. For me, the primary lesson of Ovid’s Presence is not so much that understanding the Ovidian references supports a better reading of contemporary women writers, but that reading the works of contemporary women writers might make me a better reader of Ovid.