Melissa Dickson's brilliant Sweet Aegis: Medusa Poems is deceptively titled. Yes, this is a clutch of masterwork poems concerning Medusa and the other mythological denizens whose stories are interwoven with her. But these poems do not trumpet the long-hailed heroism of Perseus as he hacks off the Gorgon's head; nor do they decry Medusa's oft-presumed evil, serpentine nature. Not at all. The entire tired myth of Medusa is laid out on the morgue table, and, under Dickson's attentive tools, it is dissected down to the bones and remolded into new life. Sweet Aegis presents Medusa not as the familiar serpent-locked fiend of Greek mythology, but as a many-wronged girl, a young, vibrant beauty who was raped by a god, indifferently metamorphosed to wear her pain upon her face, and cruelly slain by a boy out looking for kicks on a Saturday night. Make no mistake. Dickson sets out to do no less than reevaluate the Medusa myth. The result is an astonishing blend of high-caliber poetic craft shot through with a sharp social commentary which challenges readers to ask themselves: "Who, exactly, is the monster?"
Dickson's wordsmith skills are beyond contestation, but the masterfully crafted wordplay also provides enthralling bedrock upon which she builds her interrogation of mythy figures closest to Medusa. No syllables of glorious heroic deeds sing from these pages; indeed, Perseus is here little more than a boastful boy, easily imagined as clutching a bucket of beer at the local pub as he prattles about his famous beheading. Disenfranchised, sorrow-spent figures haunt these poems--Medusa's grief-crazed father, her bereft sisters, an empty Andromeda, an agonized Atlas. Medusa herself is the alienated other, a presumed villain whose apparent evil actually begets good. Indeed, as Dickson writes in "The Medusa Effect":
I bestow beauty:
the coral reefs, amethyst, moonstone, onyx,
the diamond ring with which you mark your wife
--my gifts to you.
Additionally, in "Medusa Argues Her Virtues," Dickson shows Medusa granting more than usable, workable stone, but cold, beautiful immortality to those who look upon her:
Only I can turn them
into the best of themselves.
Marble. Granite. Shale.
Just as intriguingly as Medusa is redeemed, Poseidon is found to be the advocate of rape-culture rhetoric, the collective ideas which, monstrously, objectify and blame victims of sexual violence. Indeed, in "Poseidon Testifies," he familiarly spouts: "She knew what she was up against." What's more, his divine sister, Athena, as the sight of the violated, weeping Medusa, indifferently states: "Please. I have my own problems." The stances of these divine siblings reflect a very real callousness present in our own society which, more often than not, gets swept under the rug. In both myth and reality, the victim becomes vilified to protect the powerful, and Dickson makes this point with painful clarity.
Melissa Dickson's Sweet Aegis: Medusa Poems is more than just an expertly-wrought postmodern perspective on one of the most enduring mythological figures. It is, in many ways, a powerful social and political critique. It is a challenge to forsake stereotypes and the dangers of otherness, to see the world through an untold point of view, and to ultimately realize that the monsters we know are the monsters we create.
Copies of Sweet Aegis: Medusa Poems are available from Negative Capability Press.