Review of The Psyche Trials by Stephanie Laterza (USA: Finishing Line Press, 2019)
by Kendrick Loo
The earliest record of the tale of Psyche and Cupid appears in the ancient Roman novel The Metamorphoses by Apuleius, possibly written as early as 150s CE. In the tale, Psyche is a mortal woman of such beauty that she makes Venus jealous. The goddess orders her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a monster. Instead of doing so, Cupid falls for Psyche and marries her. All is well until Psyche steals a look at her husband’s face despite his warning. Hurt by this betrayal, Cupid leaves his wife, but Psyche undergoes a series of arduous trials set by Venus to regain him. Cupid is so moved by her devotion that he petitions Jupiter for help, and Psyche is granted immortality.
Cupid and Psyche's tale has resonated far beyond Apuleius' Roman audience. Its mythic elements have recurred in fairy tales, such as Beauty and the Beast, and Bluebeard, as well as in poetry, famously John Keats’s "Ode to Psyche.” The endurance of such a tale is unsurprising, but it is always a delight to see how contemporary writers refashion myths to their own ends. The Psyche Trials, a chapbook debut by Stephanie Laterza, speaks to the modern age by chronicling the challenges of long-distance marital love. Blending heartbreak and healing, Laterza depicts what a modern Psyche may endure, refashioning the old myth to speak in the voice of the woman herself.
The Psyche Trials begins with bliss. Opening with "Eros,” Laterza evokes the pleasures of love, the speaker declaring almost breathlessly that "words don't need to come as often/ because you have/ found me as I have become, without history.” The poems that follow center around this notion of union so whole that it is eternally present, not subject to questions of the past or future. From the aubade poem "Morning," which imagines the lovers entwined like "young roots/ sprawled across/ a warm earth,” to the coyly erotic "Guitar Strings,” Cupid and Psyche are seen as a wonderful conmingling of the divine and the natural, a song of desire skllifully composed.
The lush imagery in Laterza's opening sequence of poems recalls a similar sensuality in John Keats's "Ode to Psyche,” whose speaker also employs a rich lexicon of flora and fauna. Unlike Keats’s Psyche, however, Laterza does not settle for the position of mere observer. Laterza's speaker dispenses with the homage to the epic form that Keats uses to open his ode ("O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers...") to speak instead from within Psyche and Cupid's relationship itself. This voice, at times, emanates from within the body:
I breathe inside the hollow of your insides;
you breathe back—
I fold myself like a flattened rose
between your palms...
The confessional "I" breathes a freshness into the tale of Psyche and Cupid, as does the use of free verse. Not only does it allow a feminist re-envisioning of Psyche's tale, but it encourages the exploration of psychological landscapes beyond Apuleius' original narrative. Time itself becomes unmoored at points, as Laterza's speaker gains prescient insight beyond the erotic union that she is enjoying. In "For Eros, Love Psyche", for example, Laterza's speaker anticipates the end of the romance, and so diverges from the original myth, in which Psyche is unaware of the consequences that she would suffer should she see Cupid's face. In contrast, Laterza’s speaker can see the future when her lover
will become a stranger
and end the stop
The speaker refuses to contextualize these visions, her enjambment alluding to the moment of severance without giving it any mundane particulars beyond the declaration of Cupid's culpability in its final line. If there is a mystery in The Psyche Trials, it is not in the nature of Cupid's face.
By changing the narrative riddle to a psychological mystery, Laterza rejects the trope of women being punished for their curiosity. This misogynistic device—unavoidably part of Apuleius' narrative—finds antecedent in the myth of Pandora's box, and is reproduced in the fairy tales Beauty and the Beast, and Bluebeard, where female characters suffer as direct result of their investigations into the questions they encounter. In The Psyche Trials, this pitfall is averted, the mystery changed. In "Moon Crown", the very identities of the speaker and the lover are rendered interchangeable:
To greet the moon... is to remember words
you spoke when you loved me, when you were me, I held you
as much as I could gather in my lap and let you cry out
the doubt from deep inside the first woman you ever loved
who left you when she left your father and you
were old enough to remember
but not old enough
not to need her...
Composed as continuous utterance with only temporary breaks allowed by punctuation, "Moon Crown" is a search for definitive mystery that is frustrated by a series of revelations. Under the lunar image, the poem's speaker blurs the line between "I" and "you,” the poem's desire to pin blame deferred continuously via the introduction of new information in each enjambment. As a poetic strategy, "Moon Crown" transforms the original mystery that plagues Psyche into a nebulous, but ultimately modern take on pain. Whereas Apuleius assigns blame to Psyche, Laterza shows that blame and betrayal cannot be so easily placed.
If the opening sequence of The Psyche Trials anticipates Cupid's disappearance, the middle section focuses on the aftermath of a lover's departure. In the absence of a vengeful Venus, Laterza's Psyche does not embark on a quest to earn her lover back. Rather, she expresses the slow and painful process of learning to live by oneself again. In "Bitter End,” the speaker wanders alone among crowds on New Year's Eve. Of particular strength is the poem "The Same Cold,” whose repetition of the words 'same' and 'new' across stanzas creates a shifting landscape of associative memories:
I smell the cold winds
from the back porch in this new room.
It's the same wooden staircase
where I smoked the same cigarettes
drowned in rain on the back porch.
It is the same
cold wet wind
but I am nowhere
near the ocean
Alternating between memory and present moment, "The Same Cold" dissects the emotions that are embedded in the speaker's sensory associations. Though the speaker admits to smelling the wind, the memories she describes belong to another time and place entirely. Instead, it is the recurrent image of the cigarette smoke that links both past and present into a cohesive whole, while simultaneously symbolising the apparition of Psyche's departed lover. These moments of solitude act in counterpoint to Psyche's original myth, allowing space for Laterza to explore the experience of heartbreak, although admittedly they slow down the collection's momentum.
Laterza’s strongest innovation in the myth of Cupid and Psyche is the exploration of Psyche's world after her marriage to Cupid (who, we infer, is a different lover from Eros, who opens the collection). In Apuleius' version, Psyche's reward for overcoming Venus's trials is to be conferred immortality and a daughter, Pleasure. The Psyche Trials, however, subverts this happily-ever-after by depicting the complex politics of domestic life in its poems "Rain Arrangement,” "Doors," and "Anniversary.” These poems, which showcase her gift for line break, attain a luster not found elsewhere in the collection. Consider the opening of "Rain Arrangement,” which discloses that Psyche is now married to her lover.
I wake up before becoming
the worker mother wife
far from the husband who took
that last minute business trip to Europe
as though it were involuntary
every time he says
everyone wants to go home.
Each line of the poem appears almost grudgingly, its terseness evoking the speaker's bone-deep exhaustion while simultaneously blaming her husband for their failing marriage. This is a different mode of speech compared to that in the earlier poems: rather than declare, Psyche speaks obliquely, the truth appearing in reveal after reveal.
Also in these poems is the consideration of other characters besides Psyche, Eros, and Cupid. The meditation on Psyche's son and parents in "Rain Arrangement" and "Doors" explores notions of motherhood and familial memory, a welcome shift in topic from erotic love and romantic despair. It is a shame that these other characters as well as the context of a wider world were not introduced sooner, for they would have enhanced the collection's breadth and scope. Could more have been done to explore the figures of Psyche's child and parents, or to ground the poems in the contemporary landscape of Brooklyn? Unfortunately, the closing segment given to exploring Psyche's marriage is hazy about details, at times indulging in a mixture of recollection and regret that feels like a return to familiar ground.
Still, there is an attempt to rally in the collection's final two poems—"Appendix Heart" and "Cherimoya Heart.” Rather than granting Psyche a new wholeness, Laterza presents a healing that scarcely mends. The heart, after all, is "an organ born to ruin,/ sutured only with the promise of undying/ love, turned prickly sweet.” By describing the heart so, Laterza complicates and deepens the binary between love and loss. This bittersweet note resonates with this reader. The Psyche Trials demands to be read as a whole rather than a loose assemblage of poems. It is a promising debut.
Kendrick Loo is an English & Management undergraduate at University of St Andrews. His poetry has been published in SingPoWriMo '16, The New Paper, and L'Ephemere Review. He is part of the ATOM writing group and publishes poetry reviews for Singapore Unbound. He can be found tweeting at @stagpoetics.