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Marly Youmans' Thaliad

I eagerly anticipated my copy of Marly Youmans' Thaliad. Thaliad is the newest title out from Phoenicia Publishing, the same house which brought out my collection 70 faces, and just based on its editor (Beth) and its author (Marly) I knew it would be excellent. As an added bonus, I knew it was illustrated by the Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins, whose work I also admire.

Here's how the press describes the book:

Thaliad is a book-length epic poem written in accessible, beautiful language that reads like a novel. It tells the story of a group of children, survivors of an apocalypse, who make an arduous journey of escape and then settle in a deserted rural town on the shores of a beautiful lake. There, they must learn how to survive, using tools and knowledge they discover in the ruins of the town, but also how to live together. At the heart of the story is the young girl Thalia, who gradually grows to womanhood, and into the spiritual role for which she was destined.

But for all that I couldn't wait to receive my copy, once it arrived, I found myself reading it slowly, drop by drop, and pausing frequently. Not only because each page is so rich with images, but also because its subject matter turns out to be difficult for me to take in. I keep needing to pause to breathe and to soothe my own heart.

Thaliad begins with an invocation to the muse, as any epic poem ought to do; and then it dives headfirst into the tale of the seven children who survived nuclear apocalypse. They were on a field trip, in a cave, and although rocks fell and they were trapped there, the cave itself protected them. Once they found their way free from their unintentional second womb, they found the world forever changed. This is our narrator, Emma, telling the story of Thalia:

In later years, she never would describe
Her feelings, finding streets emptied of life,
Where shadows of a tree, a woman's hand,
The reaching arm of a young child were burned
Onto sidewalks and walls -- not one of them
Found family at home, unless they were
Corpses, and the rest evaporated
As if they'd flown to some bad fairyland.
I do not know, but Thalia became
The one who urged them through the town to search,
Who had them raid a shop that stank of meat
And threw a picnic underneath a tree,
Who hijacked grocery carts to gather food,
Who kept them close, who made them hide and seek
On commons ground that once had been alive
With daily to and fro but now was gloom --
And then she told them that the act was done,
How they'd no time to wail below the lour
Of skies that wept in ash and turned the day
To twilight, an uneasy, changeless dusk.
If we stay here, we will die, she said,
As everyone we ever loved has died.

Can you see why, as the mother of a three-year-old, I might quail at such description? I'm not generally conscious of the shadow of the fear of nuclear annihilation, but Marly's powerful verse makes this horrific scenario all too real. The world reduced to ash, and children caring for children. Some tender part of me wants to turn away.

This is not a poem which shies away from awful realities. There is violence here, and rot, and fear, and cruelty. Fortunately there is also hope, just enough hope to keep me reading, to keep me trusting that somehow, against all odds, this small band of children will survive to begin the world again.

Here's our narrator, Emma, born years after the apocalypse, pausing to tell a bit of her own story:

Eleven, I was brought before the Clave
That is the forum of full-grown adults
Because each child of age is charged to learn
One mastery from all that's meaningful
And needed by our tribe -- of medicine,
Of roofing and repairing cottages
And buildings, of our waterworks, of wood
That fuels our houses in the wintertime,
Of speaking to the world beyond this world
And catching souls in nets of liturgy...

Emma is anointed, chosen to become the community's bard, "to speak of us in words / translucent to the people," to become "High Storyteller of the fallen world." I love these lines, with their glimpse of how the children in the stolen van must have survived, must have rebuilt. And I love the notion that "catching souls in nets of liturgy" and telling stories clearly are among the masteries which are meaningful and needed by the human tribe, as of course I believe that they are.

Of the seven children who survive the cave-in, one is quickly lost -- kicked out of the vehicle by the others who cannot bear his crying, but when they relent and return for him, he is nowhere to be found. (There's a hint of Lord of the Flies in that moment of unthinking childish exclusion.) Then the first living adult they meet proves to be both violent and on the brink of death. The first trustworthy grown-up they encounter is Doctor Thorn, sixty-three, who finds them once they have chosen to settle beside what I suspect is Otsego Lake, which James Fenimore Cooper called Glimmerglass.

Doctor Thorn is a wonderful grandfather figure for a short while. I love brave young Thalia demanding that the Doctor teach them what he can of medicine, everything they need to know in order to survive. And her impassioned plea:

And maybe we can make a finer world,
One more alive with beauty, where the soul
Can flourish like a tree beside a stream
Despite the poison cast like shadow leaves
From canopies of boughs made pale with ash.

Isn't that what we all yearn for, in the end? To make a finer world, one more alive with beauty, where the soul can flourish?

There's still more tragedy to come. As though the desctruction of civilization as we know it weren't enough, there are also the inevitable sufferings and jealousies of this tiny band of children. There is violence which comes from outside (in a twist I won't spoil for you), and violence which comes from within. But in the end, there's just enough hope for me to cling to.

The epic poem form is not an easy one, and in lesser hands this audacious project would have failed...but Marly makes it work. The subject matter, postapocalyptic survival, is grand enough to merit the form she's chosen -- and the children's journey is told with deep sentiment but no cloying sentimentality. This is a beautiful and powerful book -- worth owning, worth reading and rereading. I am so glad that it exists in the world and that I can turn to it, time and again, glorying in the language and the hope:

The promise harvest years would be ahead,
For conifers and oaks, the hickories
And walnuts, spruces, pines were blossoming
And clouding air with fertile shining silt
That somersaulted in a beam of sun,
That changed the spiderwebs to something rich,
That kissed the surfaces of Glimmerglass
And turned its scalloped border into gold,
That moved across the air as if alive,
The landscape's bright epithalamion,
The simple golden wedding of the world.

Thaliad can be purchased directly from Phoenicia in hardcover or paperback, or from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon Europe -- find links to all of those at Phoenicia.