What Can We Steal From Megan Peak’s “The Cassandra Complex”?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Authorial Intent
This poem quickly establishes its first person narrator, a man or woman who describes what seems to be a complicated and often unpleasant romantic relationship. I’ll elaborate further in the essay, but this poem seems particularly open to interpretation–a very good thing. Me? I’m thinking the narrator is in love with a partner who is literally or figuratively abusive. The “swollen lake” around the “ring of my eye,” the “warning signs/ on the tips of your fingers.” Does the final stanza indicate that the partner has returned after an absence and that the narrator has reached some kind of catharsis with respect to the situation.
Now, I don’t happen to know Ms. Peak, but she seems like a very cool person. I have no idea what she was thinking when she wrote “The Cassandra Complex,” but you can see how thoughtful and well-crafted the poem is; she certainly had SOME big ideas swimming in her head. People who have been writing for a long time definitely understand that, upon publication, a work belongs to the world in some way. Readers are going to interpret and discuss your work and you may not always agree with the interpretation. You have to be okay with that. Writer Corey Ann Doyle kicked off a bit of a to-do in 2012 when she involved herself in some Internet drama surrounding Emily Giffin, NYT-bestselling writer. Fans of Ms. Giffin did not like Ms. Doyle’s negative (but fair) review of one of her books, so they descended upon Ms. Doyle like the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys. Ms. Giffin and her husband even involved themselves in the drama.
Here’s the bottom line: your work is not going to be received with 100% love and people are going to have interpretations of your work that differ from your own. Maybe Ms. Peak wrote this poem about a weeping willow tree in the back yard of her childhood home. That interpretation of the poem is fine. And my interpretation is equally valid. When I talk with students about a poem such as Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” they sometimes want to stop their analysis after they find out about Poe’s sad history with women. “Why, his wife died of tuberculosis. Anabelle Lee must have died of tuberculosis. He must have been thinking of her when he wrote the poem.” This may well be the case, but Mr. Poe gave us the right to decide for ourselves when he published his poem. It could be about his wife. It could be about a capsized boat. It could be a description of what he saw in an opium-fueled nightmare. Who knows? Your ideas about the poems are just as valid as those of Poe. (Especially so if you have evidence from the text to support your claim.)
Ms. Peak hits us with a big concept right off the bat. Don’t know what The Cassandra Complex is? Here’s what Wikipedia says:
The term originates in Greek mythology. Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the King of Troy. Struck by her beauty, Apollo provided her with the gift of prophecy, but when Cassandra refused Apollo’s romantic advances, he placed a curse ensuring that nobody would believe her warnings. Cassandra was left with the knowledge of future events, but could neither alter these events nor convince others of the validity of her predictions.
The metaphor has been applied in a variety of contexts such as psychology, environmentalism, politics, science, cinema, the corporate world, and in philosophy, and has been in circulation since at least 1949 when French philosopher Gaston Bachelard coined the term ‘Cassandra Complex’ to refer to a belief that things could be known in advance.
Remember…we never stop our research with Wikipedia, but the site offers a good overview. The title seems to indicate that the protagonist has offered several warnings in the past…all ignored. (Perhaps this concept is what primed me to think about domestic violence.) What else does Ms. Peak earn with the title she chose? A connection to concepts and ideas that have been around for thousands of years. Go ahead and write that poem about Kim Kardashian’s behind. The odds, however, are not very good that the poem will be on the lips of readers in 2525. (If man is still alive…still alive.)
Much of this essay is about all of the BIG IDEAS that Ms. Peak’s poem brought to mind: a compliment in itself. I certainly don’t want to fail to point out what I loved most about the poem. Look at how beautifully she plays with language in “The Cassandra Complex.” The poem’s stanzas are of irregular length and there doesn’t seem to be a regular rhyme scheme or meter that can easily be charted. (The meter is there, to be sure, but it’s not as easy to discern as the meter in a limerick, for example.)
Let’s take a detailed look at the poem’s first stanza:
The neck of me glows hard, glares
long. Wreaths of hot breath shudder
each curve of your signature
down the length of my spine.
“The neck of me” is an odd phrase, isn’t it? Ms. Peak must be using it on purpose. What does the phrase accomplish? We learn that the poem is in first person. The phrase also seems a little bit passive, doesn’t it? So we can guess that the character may be somewhat reticent to discuss what the poem is about; it must be something “difficult” or “embarrassing.”
Look at the two GL sounds in the first line. Don’t those two sounds seem powerful in the poem? You read them aloud, right? You can really punch those sounds; a contrast with all of the S sounds that follow.
And look at that image. (Ms. Peak has a number of powerful images in the poem.) The signature down the length of the spine…the other character has, essentially, taken possession of the narrator in some way, right? Isn’t that what it means when you write your name on something?
It’s hard for me to quantify, but the way that Ms. Peak uses language in the poem just FEELS good. It feels as though she’s in control and the lines SOUND like poetry. If I could tell you exactly what I mean…why, then I would be as good a poet as Ms. Peak!
What Should We Steal?
- Understand that your reader’s interpretation of your work may vary wildly from your own…and that’s okay. Writers are like parents who send their children off to college. We’ve done all we can to make our babies the best they can be, but the world will evaluate them as it will.
- Entwine your work with those of great thinkers. We still talk about concepts given us by the Greeks because the ideas are complicated and powerful and true. Oedipus’s swollen foot still treads the boards because the play and ideas are still provocative. Five years from now, people will have forgotten about the Miley Cyrus VMA performance that pushed the poison gas attack in Syria off of the front page of CNN.
- Include “odd” phrases that somehow seem perfect in retrospect. Every writer who has written about baseball has described the “crack of the bat.” What new phrase can you use that will also FEEL right?