Helen or My Hunger, by Gale Marie Thompson,
is an unusually difficult book to review.
The difficulty arises when one tries choosing a few lines to represent Thompson's style or subjects. The poem comprises 59 sections, one to a page, without titles, possibly in several voices, all of which explore the nature of female identity, beauty, the many versions of Helen of Troy (the titular Helen). As the poet H.D. puts it in one of the book's two epigraphs, "Helen—Helen—Helen/there was always another and another and another."
The poem is unified by the quiet, compelling voice, the often enigmatic—nearly surrealistic in many passages—language, the consistent tone, and the rich imagery. The central figure is of course Helen. "They called you Hated Helen./They called youEidolon/Eikon." Eikon is the Greek root of "icon," and Helen has been—to use an overused but in this case, highly apropos term—iconic since her first appearance in the Iliad. An alternate reading of her story was given in Pallinode by a poet of the same era as Homer, if not a contemporary, named Stesichorus of Sicily. This poem asserts that Helen was never in Troy but rather was taken by Zeus to Egypt and that "Helen of Troy was a double, an Eidolon (specter or phantom). H.D. drew on this version of the story for her masterful epic, Helen in Egypt, which in turn Thompson draws on for her intense
meditation on the figure of Helen and her own female appearance and identity.
"I wait to come to good," the poem begins, "I wait carved/from the same war." Further, "To name her is desire./To name her is a violence." These are truths universally applicable to all the ways women are objectified, left searching for their own identity, their own being. "I didn't want to find Helen.//I never find Helen.//I want to write to the Eidolon.// I want a place/person/name toward whom to address the breach."
The poem moves along slowly with a quiet grandeur as the speaker looks inside herself—peeling away layers and encrustations both physical and symbolic—and outside to other women, other eras. "Mermaid, myth, bloom of breast and carpenter: always/Helen, you drown, lose your shiny peel of memory, mark/frame and frame by indecision.//In dreams I carry women on my back." The burden and struggle of the speaker attempting this task often daunts, perhaps even threatens her equilibrium: "I want to drop my stones to the ground, to see the grafted disorder of Helen/for what it is: fragrant and good. Instead I build and build consequences,/become too tired to be valuable."
The poem closes ambiguously, ambivalently. "Dear Helen, our dead/names are on your tongue/each gape a wound/of gold thread//I wait until this hunger comes//…I deserve/this riddled hunger."
In order to gain further insight into the background and creation of this book, I reached out Gale Marie Thompson, who was gracious enough to answer a few questions.
Thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions about
Helen or My Hunger.
First, a question about you: Your credentials, so to speak, are somewhat unusual in that you have an MFA and a PhD that includes both literature and creative writing. How did you come to take that path?
I graduated right between the two eras of academic job requirements—between the era when just an MFA (and a book) was the requirement, and the one we're in now, where an academic job almost requires a Ph.D., MFA, and at least one book. So, it is a bit less unusual these days due to the job market being so competitive! I wasn't 100% certain I would get both degrees, but I knew I was interested in both. I was also interested in going to Veterinary school. When I was in my MFA program at UMass Amherst I was able to take graduate lit courses and I realized that I was not only interested in studying poetry on a more critical level, but that I also probably wouldn't be awful at it! So I decided to apply.
Did Helen grow out of some part of your studies? Had you been thinking about the themes of the poem for a long time, or did you experience an epiphany?
Yes! Helen was my dissertation. The creation of Helen was thanks to a combination of several random events during my Ph.D. coursework. I had just completed a course on Virginia Woolf and Feminism, and so was already bouncing around ideas of mythology, icon, and oppression. I had also just finished a course on British poetry that had almost no women writers in it, and the frustration of this no doubt exacerbated my rage at W.B. Yeats (one of the poets we read in that class) for his treatment of Helen in "No Second Troy." ("Why, what could she have done, being what she is? / Was there another Troy for her to burn?").
Then I started a course on the work of Adrienne Rich, which lead me to thinking about the relationship between form and activism—the choices I made as a writer, and how it communicated with my choices as a human being, with the materials of the world, and vice versa. I was fascinated with Rich's later serial poems—"Contradiction: Tracking Poems" in particular— and how the unfolding of the poetic sequence allowed for so much: incongruities, varying scales, and attention to change at the root. The question in "Contradiction" becomes how "to connect, without hysteria, the pain / of any one's body with the pain of the body's world"—and it was this attempt at gathering and communicating sameness, all while acknowledging difference, that led me forward.
So I had been writing a bunch of separate poems that didn't quite have a home (some with names like "Antigone Loop," so I was already thinking about mythological women icons who deserve better, haha). Then one day in early spring, I found myself reading Helen in Egypt—one poem in particular—and I had a realization of what form I might take to tackle this huge, blurry concept I was thinking about.
One of the nice things about reading the book—aside from the pleasure it brought—is that it sent me to H.D.'s Helen in Egypt, which I had never read and am enjoying immensely. Was her poem a starting point or inspiration or did you come across it while writing?
I'm so glad you're enjoying it! It's a little bit of both, really. I was in the space mentioned above, where I was generally troubled about the historical oppression of women, and how it reveals itself through language and narrative. My anger at Yeats and defensiveness of Helen of Troy led me to H.D.'s Helen in Egypt. So one early spring day I was reading it at a park in Athens (which I now call "H.D. Park") and came upon this poem written entirely in questions:
Did her eyes slant in the old way?
was she Greek or Egyptian?
had some Phoenician sailor wrought her?//
was she oak-wood or cedar?
had she been cut from an awkward block
of ship-wood at the ship-builders, //
did the blue afterwards wear away?
did they re-touch her arms, her shoulders?
did anyone touch her ever?
I loved (and was terrified by) how the questions negate any truth, yet build a precise version of what is not there. And even in this poem, Helen isn't a person but a crafted object! The character of Helen is so well-known, yet so abstracted, that it is reasonable to say that no one had ever even touched "her." And that's when I knew I would write about Helen. I wanted to get at the precise visible erasure of this person-turned-symbol. That day I wrote a poem imitating these questions, and it basically just grew from there. All of
the other poems sort of began to find themselves gravitating toward Helen after that. For a few years after that, I would write poems and only later realize they were Helenpoems all along.
The book has two epigraphs. The lines from Helen in Egypt set the stage for your poem. But the second, from Emily Dickinson, is somewhat unexpected. It sets up the theme of hunger, but struck me as slightly ambiguous. The image is startling, even frightening, and yet implies that perhaps the hunger is also necessary. Am I groping or is that part of your design as well?
I think that's a great read of this quote! The epigraph is: "I found/that hunger was a way / Of persons outside windows/The entering takes away." It's definitely ambiguous, and I think even contradictory, and I saw it as a sort of metaphor for how the book tackles language and desire, perhaps. In Dickinson's poem, the speaker has been hungry for "all the years," and yet finally when it came time to eat the big dinner, it was all too much and too new: she felt "ill and odd," and so found that what you hunger for, and what exists after the satisfaction of that hunger, are two totally separate entities. What you hunger for cannot exist in the same way once you've eaten. Metaphorically and literally, I suppose.
In that final stanza (the epigraph), I imagine being on both sides of the window at the same time, perhaps—needing that exact moment of desire between sides. And that desire, in real life, can only happen when you haven't had it yet. But imagine being able to access the tiny, infinitesimal nanosecond where you take the first bite of your favorite food, but riiiiiiiight before (or as soon as) you taste it. That's the best moment, yes? Because what you desire is just about to be accessed, you're accessing it, but you haven't yet satisfied it. Imagine being able to stop that moment and live in that moment forever! It's that crossroads of contradiction, being on both sides at the same time that I'm obsessed with. Anne Carson uses Dickinson's poem in her essay "Decreation: How Sappho, Marguerite Perete, and Simone Weil Tell God" as a way to talk about the contradiction
of speaking and/or writing about mystical experience. So I was fascinated with this dichotomy of hunger and desire, both as a vehicle of shame and the body, but also how language itself can enact this contradiction: the desire to access something huge and meaningful that it will never be able to access. And I saw this as exactly my struggle with trying to "access" Helen. How do I access something with language when language is what destroys it?
Are there other forebears besides Homer, H.D. and Stesichorus' Palliniode for your poem?
Yes! First, Claudia Rankine's Don't Let me Be Lonely was foundational to how I wanted to "get at" Helen, and the failures I will inevitably encounter, and needed to encounter, while doing so. This book helped show me how to hold several experiences all at once, and grapple with the sometimes painful contradictions that inevitably exist. Rankine makes so much space in this book, even as she frames stories or ideas. She asks these horrifying questions we encounter every day in small, but compounding ways: what is a human being worth? are some worth less than others? What can language hold?
Bhanu Kapil's Ban en Banlieue also works in this same way for me: how do you knit together an unraveling? How can you begin a book that you know already is a failure? The book moves its own center as you read it, which was exactly my experience of trying to get to Helen's story, or lack of it.
As I mentioned above, I was also deep into the work of Adrienne Rich as well here, particularly her longer series. I admire Rich in general because she was constantly recalibrating herself as a human, activist, and writer. Always in dialogue with her past self, she let that self evolve and grow—without shame, without pity—throughout her life. This recalibration/dialogue reveals itself in her poems, in all its realness and materiality. Those contradictions, I believe, show up in these longer poems the most. She writes in a later essay: "Poetic imagination or intuition is never merely unto itself, free-floating, or self-enclosed. It's radical, meaning root-tangled in the grit of human arrangements and relationships: How we are with each other." I may not be succeeding with Helen, but I sure was writing thinking about this idea of how we are with each other.
Anything else you'd like to say about your book or your work in general?
I don't think so! I'm so grateful to KMA Sullivan and YesYes Books for taking Helen on. I've really enjoyed my time with YesYes, even with (and perhaps because of) the pandemic. They have a whole slew of new books out this year along with mine, and I highly recommend them! lukas ray hall's loudest when startled has just debuted, and I really love it.
Again, I'm very grateful for your taking the time to talk about Helen, and, more important, for writing it in the first place.
Thank you again for reading this book and for asking such great questions!
* * *
A single review and handful of samples can hardly do justice to the power and beauty of this poem. Each page, sometimes each line/sentence, must be read slowly, more than once. This is not a drink-at-one-gulp book. A long, slow savoring will be repaid many times over.
For more about the poet, visit her website:
http://galemariethompson.com/about-1. For a longer interview and Q&A with Gale Marie Thompson, go here:
To order the book, go to YesYes Books: