Giving Mind and Movement to Homer's Static Women
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 25 2002 11:32 AM



Dear Nell,


So, what should pop up on my morning Web site browse than this quote of the day from Philo of Alexandria:

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.'' Good advice for anyone, especially a book reviewer. And more especially one who comes to address Elizabeth Cook's Achilles.

When I heard about this teensy-weensy, 107-page (minus the glossary) tilt at the underpinning work of Western literature, my initial reaction was, why?

Why would anyone want to do this? Who wants a minnow-sized Moby Dick? An "Eroica" re-scored as a five-minute piece for the kazoo?

And these questions came to me when I thought Cook's retelling was limited to the Iliad. When I opened the book and found myself in a scene reimagined from the Odyssey, I really started to feel the ash spear quiver in my hand. But now I lay it at the lady's feet, along with tripods and skins of finest wine and robes of every silken stuff. This book is a tiny treasure.

If, as they say, every generation demands its own translation of Homer, Cook brings us here a Homer for the MTV generation. I don't say this disparagingly. I'm thinking of those singular music videos that are mini art films, the ones that marry sound and sight until the senses reel. Cook is a master of the rapid, the dynamic, the intensely compressed, of arresting images layered one upon the other. This book is not a translation; it's a distillation. The wine was fine to begin with; now she has reduced it to a few drops that sear the tongue.

Yes, I missed the Homeric hand-holds—the wine-dark seas, the rosy-fingered dawns, the islands low and away. I missed the soothing repetitions that gave the singer pause for breath and the audience time to assimilate the story. I was surprised to learn that Cook wrote this originally for performance. It does not read that way to me. Her prose is as relentless as a Greek army marching. Present tense, active verbs, concrete nouns. There is no respite here.

So, what is she up to?

The Iliad famously begins in medias res, nine years into the Trojan War. Cook starts her tale later still, much later, the war long over and weary Odysseus, desperate to get home, summoning the dead for advice on how to do so. And so we first meet Achilles as a hungry ghost, longing for news of the world he renounced. When he made his famous choice of a short famous life in war instead of a long, sweet, anonymous one, farming his father's lands with his son at his side, he sentenced himself to this sad, gray realm of the non-senses.

Cook flashes back then to the rape of Achilles' mother, Thetis, and this swift scene is, to me, typical of the strengths in what she does. Here, and elsewhere, she gives mind and movement to the women who are usually so static in Homer—posed like prizes on plinths, waiting to be won or bartered or snatched or sacrificed. Thetis, stalked like prey, rejects victimhood. She fights as snake, lion, cuttlefish (oh, for the ability to turn into a cuttlefish!) until Peleus longs to let her go, to get away, and at that point, she refuses to let him: She turns the tables and takes him. Later, Cook imagines that other famous rape victim, Helen, and this time there is no redemption. Driven into herself by others' incessant wanting and taking, Helen has become catatonic, incapable of any action in her own right.

Two favorite images from pages dense with possibilities: "Achilles looks at the man who killed Patroclus and feels the hatred spread through his body, slowly, luxuriously, like cream."

Later, when Achilles is dead and his grieving soldiers come to shear their hair and lay it on his bier: "Your body under this soft piled blanket of black and brown, russet and gold. The wind detaches and lifts some of the locks. Bright hairs separate themselves and float in the air like strange insects."

Homer would have liked that, don't you think? But what would he have made of the Keats chapter?



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.