BMCR 2021.07.28

Homer’s daughters: women’s responses to Homer in the twentieth century and beyond

, , Homer's daughters: women's responses to Homer in the twentieth century and beyond. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xviii, 341. ISBN 9780198802587 $100.00.

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[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Homer’s Daughters illuminates a significant but understudied aspect of Homeric reception: the diverse responses by women writers of the past hundred years. Editors Fiona Cox and Elena Theodorakopoulos have assembled 15 individual contributions, prefaced by an editors’ Introduction and concluded with an Epilogue by Emily Wilson of Odyssey-translation fame. There is no explicit order to the chapters, but the first five treat women writers in dialogue with the Iliad, and the following ten focus on women responding primarily to the Odyssey.

This review will focus on thematic threads and tensions in the volume rather than individual chapters, but I pause first to note two contributions that I found particularly worthwhile: Emily Spiers on Kae Tempest[1] and Emily Wilson on translating Homer as a woman. Spiers introduces readers to Tempest’s ‘post-literate’ poetry, which draws on the myths of elite Classical literature and the sounds of contemporary hip-hop, interrogating and subverting the masculinities of both genres. The analysis draws on a ‘future studies’ framework, and the chapter offers a fresh perspective on questions of orality, literacy, and the cultivation of community through performance. In her Epilogue, Emily Wilson delineates seven strategies for feminist translation and exposes the insidious misogyny in typical renderings of three key passages from the Odyssey. Clear, engaging, and unapologetically feminist, this should be required reading for all students in upper-level translation courses and all instructors who assign translations of Homer in Classical Civilization courses.

As for the volume as a whole, Homer’s Daughters will undoubtedly be a valuable resource for scholars and instructors looking for examples of women writing back to Homer, but it does not cohere into more than the sum of its parts. In their Introduction, Cox and Theodorakopoulos highlight patterns that emerge over the course of the volume: for example, women writers often “[slant] the works of Homer, so that they speak of the experiences and concerns of women” (2); and they affirm, as if in answer to the silencing of Andromache and Penelope, that “yes, war is women’s business, and yes, speech is women’s business too” (20). While foregrounding these unsurprising shared insights, the editors neglect the far more interesting tensions between the various contributions. In combination with an almost total lack of cross-referencing and inter-chapter engagement, this consigns to near silence the important conversations that might have unfolded across the volume.

The most significant of these regrettably muffled conversations concerns what constitutes a ‘feminist text’. It emerges that several of the authors discussed—including Simone Weil, Christa Wolf, Margaret Atwood, and Adèle Geras—were or are wary of applying the label ‘feminist’ to their writing. Contributors dance around the question in turn, evaluating the ‘feminism’ of their chosen texts but rarely articulating or interrogating their criteria. While acknowledging Wolf’s own rejection of the feminist banner, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz uncovers feminist presences in Cassandra, including an experimental aesthetic, the citation of first-wave texts, and a utopian vision of a “non-white, feminist third space” outside both Trojan city and Greek camp (78). Jasmine Richards, by contrast, does not acknowledge Atwood’s hesitancy towards feminism, and concludes that the Penelopiad is an unsuccessful feminist rewrite of the Odyssey because it stages as conflictual the relationship between female authors and their predecessors, both male and female. The unspoken implication that feminist texts must be utopian in their representation of women and gender relations surfaces again in Francesca Richard’s assessment of Geras’ Ithaka. Richards comments that the novel “might be classified as feminist,” but the reality is “more complex” because, as a children’s author, Geras felt duty-bound to represent accurately the limitations placed on women’s autonomy in the Odyssey (231). Carolin Hahnemann presents Alice Oswald’s Memorial as ‘feminist at second glance’, and differs from other contributors insofar as she explicitly lays out her criteria. For Hahnemann, a text qualifies as feminist if it “(a) questions or undermines male prerogative; (b) reinserts women’s presence and perspective…; or (c) exonerates a female character that had been used as a scapegoat” (92). Murnaghan and Roberts take the most sophisticated approach in their chapter on Circe in modern women’s poetry, acknowledging that representations of women that do not conform to feminist ideals of autonomy and generosity can still yield “searching and often sharply critical accounts of ancient and modern gender arrangements” (195).

Along with these divergent attempts to police the boundaries of the ‘feminist text’, various contributors imply that feminism itself can be a limited and limiting position for authors and critics alike. Genevieve Lively offers to “[move] beyond” the straightforwardly feminist readings that have dominated analysis of H.D.’s poetry to date (21). Catherine Burke calls the category of feminist reworkings “reductive,” suggesting that the Iliad-inspired texts of Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff demand to be situated in the “more fruitful field of twentieth-century translations” (71). In a similar vein, Cox and Theodorakopoulos comment in their Introduction that women’s rewritings of the Iliad often “stretch beyond feminism” in their “focus on humanity and empathy” (13-15). Even Hahnemann, who sets out to demonstrate that Oswald’s Memorial is indeed a feminist text, concludes that “the label seems too narrow:” the poem is properly humanist or even post-humanist since at its core stands “a vision of humanity inseparably embedded in the natural world” (104). The long-standing debate over the relationship between feminism and humanism goes unmentioned in all of this, as do developments like ecofeminism (which might have been especially relevant to Hahnemann’s reading).

To be sure, there is nothing inherently problematic about contributors differing in their conceptions of feminism and feminist writing, provided that each position is clear, conversant with the relevant theory, and set in dialogue with the rest. In this volume, however, the authors operate as if in silos, and the result is a significant missed opportunity. Had the authors been encouraged to engage substantively with one another’s work and the wealth of feminist literary theory, Homer’s Daughters might have contributed a productive debate over the nature of the ‘feminist text’ and its value as a critical category.

The volume’s second major dialogue manqué centers on lineage, to use the metaphor for reception adopted in the title. Living and writing in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the authors discussed in this volume are rarely responding to Homer alone. Genevieve Lively focuses much of her chapter on H.D.’s poem Helen in Egypt, which weaves together threads from Stesichorus’ palinode, Euripides’ Helen, and the Homeric epics. So too Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, discussed at length by Rabinowitz and briefly by Hahnemann, responds to not only the Iliad but also Aeschylus’ Oresteia (the text is narrated by Cassandra as she is about to enter Agamemnon’s palace). In other cases, modern texts form the prism through which the Homeric epics appear.Polly Stoker argues that Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles re-views the Iliad through Keats and Shakespeare. Victoria Reuter analyses Francisca Aguirre’s Itaca, which is primarily a response to Cavafy’s Ithaca—so much so that it is unclear from the chapter whether Aguirre was familiar with or interested in Homer at all. Finally, Burke gestures towards the significance of authors like Weil and Bespaloff for subsequent women’s explorations of the Homeric epics, including those by Cook, Oswald, Glück, and Wolf (all appear elsewhere in the volume, but without any reference back to Weil, Bespaloff, or Burke’s discussion).

The relationships between these authors and the Homeric epics are thus complex and mediated: writing back to Homer also entails writing through the predominantly male canon of his literary epigonoi. Jasmine Richards paints a pessimistic picture of a woman author undertaking this project, claiming that Atwood’s Penelopiad manifests and inadvertently reinscribes a discourse of “female creative anxiety and inadequacy” vis-a-vis both male and female predecessors (141). Stoker is more optimistic, proposing that Cook’s Achilles envisions a “matrilineal chain of influence [that] puts a novel spin on the role of the epic poet in the warrior’s pursuit of kleos” (46). How do the other texts discussed in the volume stage the relationship between female authors and the multi-vocal, multi-temporal Homeric nachleben? This would seem to be a crucial question, but in the absence of further reflection by editors or contributors, readers must suss out the answers for themselves.

Much could have been done to make the chapters of Homer’s Daughters speak to one another more productively: explicit thematic or chronological groupings; cross-referencing, especially when contributors treat the same themes and passages; a subject index, so that readers could look up ‘feminism’ and easily find the various discussions. This is a failure to make the most of what is present in the volume, but there is also a grave absence. One of the volume’s stated goals is “to represent a range of cultures” (12), yet there is not a single chapter devoted to an author of color or an author from the global south. Of the fifteen women writers discussed at length, six are British, three North American, three French, two German, and one Spanish; all are white. The neglect of more diverse voices is all the more incomprehensible because there is no shortage of texts by women of color engaged with the Homeric tradition, among them Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Anna Julia Cooper, Lorna Goodison, and Linda Lê.[2] Their exclusion impoverishes the volume and perpetuates a deeply problematic misrepresentation of the Classical canon as the inheritance of white Europeans and settlers.

To sum up: Homer’s Daughters initiates an important and long overdue conversation about women’s receptions of Homer, and readers interested in specific authors will find much of value in individual chapters. The volume also leaves much to be said, and one hopes it will inspire others to undertake more theoretically engaged and inclusive explorations of women’s responses to the epics and their afterlives.

Authors and Titles

Fiona Cox and Elena Theodorakopoulos, Introduction
1. Genevieve Lively, ‘After his wine-dark sea’: H.D. in Homer
2. Polly Stoker, Romantic Encounters with Homer in Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles
3. Catherine Burke, Female Homers: A Feminist Nostos?
4. Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, Christa Wolf’s Cassandra: Different Times, Different Views
5. Carolin Hahnemann, Feminist at Second Glance? Alice Oswald’s Memorial as a Response to Homer’s Iliad
6. Emily Spiers, Kate Tempest: A ‘Brand New Homer’ for a Creative Future
7. Jasmine Richards, Rereading Penelope’s Web: The Anxieties of Female Authorship in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad
8. Georgina Paul, Excavations in Homer: Speculative Archaeologies in Alice Oswald’s and Barbara Köhler’s Responses to the Iliad and the Odyssey
9. Elena Theodorakopoulos, Between Night and Day: Barbara Köhler’s Lyric Odyssey
10. Isobel Hurst, Monologue and Dialogue: The Odyssey in Contemporary Women’s Poetry
11. Sheila Murnaghan and Deborah H. Roberts, The Forecast is Hurricane: Circe’s Powers and Circe’s Desires in Modern Women’s Poetry
12. Victoria Reuter, Iberian Sybil: Francisca Aguirre on Cavafy and the Journey Out of Ithaca
13. Francesca Richards, ‘Cut down to size’: Female Voices and Adventure in Adèle Geras’s Ithaka
14. Ruth MacDonald, ‘Health isn’t making everyone into a Greek ideal’: Overcoming Abjection in Gwyneth Lewis’s A Hospital Odyssey
15. Fiona Cox, ‘Thinking through our mothers’: Cixous and Homer beyond the Third Wave
16. Emily Wilson, Epilogue: Translating Homer as a Woman

Notes

[1] Formerly Kate Tempest, they came out as non-binary and announced their chosen name Kae in August 2020, after the publication of this volume. (The Guardian).

[2] My thanks to Harriet Fertik and Mathias Hanses of Eos and Chris Waldo of the Asian and Asian American Classical Caucus, for their help in generating this by no means exhaustive list. Readers interested in Black women writers’ receptions of the Classical tradition might begin with T. Walters, T., African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition: Black Women Writers from Wheatley to Morrison. New York: 2007.