Witness, History and Rhapsodes: A Piling-Up

image by Girts Gailans

The Throne of Labdacus, Gjertrud Schnackenberg's long poem that retells the Oedipus story (FSG, 2000), is one of those books I've had several copies of because I keep lending it out and not getting it back--which is fine, so long as it stays available in some form. Recently I picked up copy number whatever while eating breakfast and opened it to this passage from Part Two.

     For some, the tragedy unfolds without a moral---
     No how or why; no spelling out of fate

     Or sacrifice or punishment; merely the god's
     Swift brushing-by, scented with laurel.

    And for others it is only an ancient folktale
    About a guiltless crime:

    Not a judgment, not a warning,
    Not an example, not a command---

    Merely a tale in which neither the gods
    Nor the human ones can claim that they meant

    To harm or to save, to kill or to stay their hands.
    Merely a piling-up of consequence,

    With a bleeding-through of episodes and accidents.
    And, all over Greece,

    The unjudging rhapsodes ready themselves,
    Tuning their lyres, needing no evidence.

Schnackenberg's "piling-up of consequence" and the haunting image of the rhapsodes turn me again to the idea of witness and the necessity of speaking.

There is a certain resonance here with parts of Carolyn Forché's The Angel of History, which opens with this famous passage from Walter Benjamin:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is tuned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet....

Schnackenberg's book is not directly political, not directly poetry of witness. Yet it is a speaking, a performance, of exactly the sort called for by the idea of witness.

The rhapsodes need no evidence because they are not judging; they're just speaking. Well, singing. Stitching the song together. Professional performers--poets, writers, artists in all genres; athletes, scientists, researchers (why not? this work is also performance); performers in all disciplines: our present-day rhapsodes. 
image by Girts Gailans
And how necessary the speaking is. Because eventually the speaking becomes the story, and it's a story we need. Especially when speaking itself is under threat, undermined by soporific and misleading language and posturing in government and industry. 

image by Sybille Sterk

Has it ever been any different? I ask myself sometimes, feeling helpless. But falling back on that is too easy. "Episodes and accidents." Yes, it has been different. It's been better and it's been worse. And the consequences pile up.

image by Scarlet James
All images courtesy of Red Edge Images