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Downes, Jeremy. The Female Homer: An Exploration of Women's Epic Poetry.

Downes, Jeremy. The Female Homer: An Exploration of Women's Epic Poetry. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010.

Downes is one of those rare scholars writing from a position where competing interests intersect--The Classical Tradition, Genre Studies, Feminist Criticism and Theory, English and American Literature Studies, and Creative Writing. Living a double existence as a creative writer and an academic, Downes is well-suited to offer a much-needed redefinition of the epic as a genre in literature, especially in light of much contemporary poetry, and to uncover a women's hidden epic tradition. His tasks, which he finds personally fulfilling, are to identify or create (vis a vis Judith Shakespeare) the female progenitor of woman's epic poetry, Anyte, the Female Homer; uncover the multiple lineages of women's epics; and identify the consistencies and mutual "affinities" in these varied works. The chapters that follow one another do not fail to inform on Downes' seemingly straightforward thesis, but they demonstrate and perform the fragmented, sometimes chaotic nature of such an open, experimental approach as reconsidering Eastern and Western, oral and written, prehistoric and dated narratives in three hundred pages. But certainly, this too is part of Downes' thesis: for contemporary scholars and writers of epic to seek a history of women's epic writing on their own--without a trailblazer--is to hazard such an arduous journey that they risk never engaging the genre or the tradition at all.

The organization of The Female Homer is provocatively experimental, and its twenty-two chapters contain discussions that move backward and forward in time and that shift from setting to setting (from Sumerian prehistory to American modernity). Moreover, because the chapters are more like strands in an intricate braid, picking up and dropping discussion as though Downes were weaving, a traditional summary of the chapters will not do for this review. While its chapters seem random, The Female Homer consistently offers two critical practices for scholars: first, viewing a "difference" in the traditional elements used in women's epic, and second, attending to new elements that crop up in women's epics. Examples of "difference" in women's use of traditional elements include a hero's descent into hell but with the difference of her eventual rebirth(s), and correspondingly, an emphasis not on linear time but on cyclical and even monumental time; a focus on war but from the vantage point of the domestic sphere; an epic hero who values communal interdependence over solitary independence and who occasionally shares the spotlight with other "heroes," a quest that privileges love over war and produces a hero's interior growth as well as her community's social growth; and contemporary epics' intertextual appropriation of not merely earlier epics but fore-mother epics.

More exciting are the new elements Downes considers representative of women's epics. For instance, women writers' familiarity with textiles means studying the degree to which a figurative "quilting" influences construction of epic, the augmented role of clothing (rather than battle gear) in epic, and a reconsideration of how quilts, tapestries, and fascicles are themselves epics. Also fresh is Downes's attention to paternal and maternal influences over the creation of women's epics. A character's ambivalence over father-figures often parallels her writer's ambivalence over a real father who initially may have supported then stymied he daughter's creative efforts (161). Maternal influence means attending to how later writers like HD. are writing through their literary foremothers by redeploying, for example, Aurora Leigh's structure or point of view or turning to Psyche's quest to recover Cupid as an ur-narrative. Finally, attention to the way many women writers make material the body in epic as well as the body of their work is a welcome "new" reading practice. Women's epics often foreground the relationship of women's bodies to the men and children around them, calling attention to bodily processes like breastfeeding, menstruating, or even masturbating. Linked to an analysis of how the body functions anew in women's epic is Downes's discussion of recriture feminine--how texts perform the body and twist traditional syntax with a "nonverbal wildness" (252).

Critics will no doubt comment on the brevity of the chapters, the overlaps appearing in their discussions, and the critical practices that allow Downes to appropriate texts usually considered a part of a more masculine epic tradition, but their open-ended and flexible nature is meant to echo what feminist theory has found so significant in many disregarded texts. Disruptions of and play with the expectations of genre are hallmarks of women's literature, since family life so frequently interrupts or interferes with women's artistry. Downes deverly attends to this in chapter 4, a chapter about the hybridization of lyric, drama, and prose in women's epics, and in situating his own critical discussions in the context of his fictive fatherly duties and housework. By beginning chapters as meditations on doing the laundry or hearing his father's words in his mouth as he speaks to his make-believe child, Downes enacts Audre Lorde's criticism that we attend to writing that has been disrupted by women's traditional duties and find value in writing shorter in form, with a voice that begins again when it is "broken" in thought. While he could extend his discussions in various chapters, his point is frequently to propose new methods for studying women's poetry and then leave room for other scholars to work with his methods and the epics he proposes as subjects for study.

Because The Female Homer is primarily a feminist project, it is self-critical of its project to deconstruct constraining assumptions about epic and reconstruct a new definition of the genre. In many ways, this is a virtue of the book. Downes questions his "desire to provide a complete explanation of women's epic," or to set himself up as having mastered all there is to know about women's epics (101). Downes also knows that creating a new construct of "women's epic" could be as limiting to future writers as the old epic construct, and so his chapters occasionally end with caveats like "women's narratives are far more diverse than my small knowledge of them" (101). While Deconstruction is a suitable theory for dismantling androcentric genre conventions, it is a difficult theory to work into a book also seeking to establish a counter-history and lineage of women's epic writing. A few of the chapters cleverly undermine themselves as they struggle to be written. As Downes says, "I aim to continue the feminist project of undermining our complacently gender-linked division of genres: but this sentiment surprisingly works against the helpful charts and lists that are invested in "gender-linked divisions of genres (124)." Such charts are after all labeled "Additional Features of Women's Epic" or "Formal Change in Epic over Time/Technology and in Women's Epic" (32), (34).

While readers will find the tensions between Downes' deconstructive and reconstructive practices largely provocative and enjoyable, the irony does work against Downes' uneven history of women's epic in chapter 3. Downes leaves discussions I kept expecting him to return to (like the discussion of Descent of Manna to the Underworld as a women's epic). His organization is so flexible that earlier chapters like chapter 3 defer discussions multiple times with notes to later chapters. These references to see other chapters occasionally become so numerous that they are distracting, especially as one is entering Downes' theoretical world. Also, some writers are discussed at length (Hrotsvit) while most others are only named (Amelia Lanyer, Mary Tighe, Sarah Morton)--and this is perplexing given Downes' decision to attend primarily to "Anglophone" texts (44). In later chapters, other detours into non-Western oral epic (for instance, Russian and African) are also disconnected from the focus on the Western epic "tradition," Finally, Downes' grounding of his discussions in his fictional life as father and home-maker shifts attention away from Anyte and her epigrams, which begin every new chapter but are seldom directly addressed. Anyte, who "is central to this book in many ways," becomes lost as a foremother of women's epic (39).

What coherency Downes may lose in these moments is easily recovered in other ways. Thankfully a pedagogue as much as a scholar, he includes in the appendix a bibliography of women's epics (excluding those written predominately as novels) for those interested in pursuing scholarship or setting up courses on women's epic. The list includes oral as well as written poetry and writers living three hundred years or more before the common era as well as those contemporaneous to us. The list of secondary sources, particularly the reference works, is also surprisingly helpful for teachers, since Downes includes stable links to university-sponsored digital repositories of women's work and experimental studies of women's writing via computer programming. His connection to the developing field of digital humanities places his work alongside scholars like Cathy Davidson who have merged critical theory, women's literature, and pedagogy with all things electronic and are pushing the humanities to collaborate with the sciences. However, Downes' use of electronic media does not blind him to the traditional and more material media, and in his list of primary sources is The Aids Memorial Quilt by the Names Project Foundation and The Bayeux Tapestry.

The Female Horner is so adaptable that it will appeal to those with a broad or narrow field of interests. Particularly appealing are its contribution to continuing the discussions of major figures like Elizabeth Barrett Browning as well as significant but still marginalized writers like H.D., Gwendolyn Brooks, and Rita Dove; its critical discussions of contemporary experimental poets as well as overlooked medieval writers; its reconsideration of the gendered traits ascribed to the ever-evolving epic, its recovery of a women's epic and its history; and its clever blend of creative, fictional autobiography with feminist theory. Downes' flexibility with traditional and experimental sources and discourses and his ability to alternately deconstruct and reconstruct a genre are ultimately what make The Female Homer a timely resource.


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Author:Whelan-Stewart, Wendy
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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