Urban Myths and Legends: Poems About Transformations ed. by Rachel Piercey & Emma Wright

– Reviewed by Bethany W. Pope – 

Urban Myths and Legends is an ambitious, fascinating, largely successful reworking of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that approaches the subject with a modern slant. In her introduction, Emma Wright describes the feel of the stories that Ovid told, which she sought to reproduce whilst editing this book:

He (Ovid) whisks the reader from one myth to the next, telling his tales with relish and moving us along from each tragic outcome with ironic asides.

Part of me finds this callous, but equally, last week I leant out of a first-floor café window to watch a fight break out on the street below, giving a running commentary to the people behind us who couldn’t see. ‘She’s pulled a pointy bit of fence out of her car! She’s waving it! The other one’s thrown a ketchup bottle! It’s gone everywhere! Now her Uber’s arrived!’ Whether or not one agrees with the ethos expressed in this passage regarding the behaviour of observers and storytellers (in the real world, of course, if a person is in trouble it is the responsibility of the observer to act), this excerpt does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the poems presented in these pages.

True to the malleable nature of the original verse, some of the poems are almost surreal. Others reveal a sudden change of perspective, a flashing revelation which utterly alters the view of subjects which were thought to be understood. ‘John The Bear’, by Richard O’Brien, is representative of the former type of metamorphosis (I could almost pick one at random, as the quality of these poems, across the board, is high). The poem describes the fairy-tale subject of the shape-shifting spouse in rhythmic, rhyming quatrains which seduce the throat and tongue into speaking it aloud:

A wife and husband lay in bed;
They’re whispering and kissing;
By the time that one awoke
The other one was missing.

After a few lines spent following a trail of discarded garments out into the garden, we discover where the lover went:

She’s gone into her own backyard;
She’s seen a silver beech;
She’s seen a dark shape climbing up
Until it’s out of reach.

The playful rhyme is deliciously undercut by ominous imagery and an appropriately mythic sense of danger.

The other side of revelation – the more ordinary-seeming (and more deeply unsettling) shock of discovering that something familiar, even loved, was never exactly what we thought it was – is represented by Joe Lines’ ‘The Foundling’. An unnamed couple discover a puppy in their garden:

When we heard him cry out from the dark garden
we thought he was a bird or the wind nagging the gate.
He insisted: we went to check.
A form slumped in the grass, eyes agog,
his flaring ears; how thin he was,
and russet in the kitchen light.

It isn’t until much later that the proud new owners have the obvious pointed out to them while walking in the dog park:

An old lady came by. Eyeing him, she said
that one of them had been sniffing round her bins,
and weren’t they getting very fearless — and
wasn’t that one very tame.

This poem is rhythmically complex and the imagery is both clear and intriguing, allowing the reader’s imaginary lens to shift and unpeel a new layer of reality.

Like most books released by The Emma Press, this anthology is filled with lovely, ink-sketched illustrations by Emma Wright. She depicts the usual metamorphic subjects – a boy sprouting the horns and hooves of a deer, people melting into trees – but they are charmingly done in a style which would feel at home in a Roald Dahl children’s book. These images reinforce the poems without detracting from them, contributing, in a playful but meaningful way, to the whole.