Medusa Retold, Sarah Wallis
Fly on the Wall Press, 2020 £5.99
Overturning male-centric myths
Sarah Wallis dares you to catch her drift. She turns the Greek myth of Medusa into a contemporary long-form poem.
The main character, Nuala, much like Medusa, is portrayed as daring and difficult. She’s brought up by a single mother, who
has never known how
to handle her headstrong girl with her outsize
feelings for the sea.
On a school scuba trip, Nuala is separated from a beloved schoolfriend Athena, who is lost at sea, possibly dead. This leads to the Nuala's metaphorical metamorphosis into a monster
of jelly stings crackle on her skin, the one with the welts
and purple rivulets, curating the skin she’s been living in
Nuala is not, however, a victim of her transformation. After losing Athena, she ‘[wields] the maggoty hate in her heart’ into ‘dancing thoughts of revenge spinning spiders in her head’. Medusa’s headful of snakes becomes a metaphor for Nuala’s anger and grief.
Nuala’s voice is heard for the first time in the final section where Wallis overthrows the conventional absence of female perspective in mythical narrative. Nuala’s first words to her reader struggle with the male gaze:
And now there’s a man thinks he knows me,
wants what’s in my head, I can’t think I believe him
think it’s my body he wants instead
In this way, Wallis creates a contradiction between body and mind. Nuala evades the snakes inside her head through the physical use of her body and attempts to define herself through male desire:
he wants me
I’m good for something and it shuts out
the snaking voices in my head
But then Nuala rejects male control, and rises up. The poem ends:
I was made for more than this,
so much more than this,
and only to Athena will I bend and yield.
‘Athena’ at this point seems to combine concepts of friendship and goddess. This is a heroine who no longer hides beneath the surface.
In the tradition of oral storytelling, myths often demonise and victimise women. Sarah Wallis allows neither. Medusa Retold puts the female heroine at the centre of her narrative. I highly recommend reading this epic female myth out loud.