• 3Q4: Maria Zoccola


    The Review published two poems by Maria Zoccola in the Fall 2023 print issue—“helen of troy folds laundry in a dim room” and “helen of troy cranks the volume on ‘like a prayer’ in the ballet studio parking lot. In this brief conversation, I was fortunate enough to have asked Maria a few questions about her poetics, narrative frameworks in the oral tradition, and how convictions of self-identity and queerness sometimes bump against the surroundings in which we find ourselves.

    —Luke Gair, Assistant Editor

    LG: Your debut poetry collection, Helen of Troy, 1993, reimagines the mythic Helen as a discontented housewife in small-town Tennessee. Long gone are her days strung along Spartan-Trojan party lines—in one poem we find Helen folding laundry, in another she’s languishing while parked outside of a ballet studio. I’m struck by this leap from myth to filthy, near stagnant modernity. Was there a particular instance where you felt Helen was moving away from her mythological framework and firmly taking shape as your own character?

    MZ: The myth tradition surrounding the Trojan War is rich and varied, and has held me under its spell for most of my life. Anyone opening a book on Troy will realize very quickly that even in the ancient world, there was no such thing as the “one true story” of the Trojan War. Some accounts have Helen leaving Sparta and her husband willingly with Paris; others have Paris kidnapping Helen and dragging her to Troy. Some versions show Helen attempting to betray the Greek forces at the end of the war by circling the Trojan Horse and mimicking the voices of the wives of the men hiding inside, enticing the men to reveal themselves and be slaughtered. Other versions show Helen betraying the Trojans instead, climbing the tallest tower of Troy to light a beacon as a signal to the Greeks to begin razing the city. Accounts even differ as to whether Helen went to Troy at all: some writers, like Euripides, hold that Helen waited out the war blamelessly in Egypt while a ghostly clone, an eidolon, went to Troy in her place. I feel strongly that when modern creatives—and there have been an abundance—dream our own versions of Troy, we are writing into a long historical precedent of alternate narratives, a tapestry made up of a hundred different colors of thread.

      Helen is a tricky character in most versions of the Troy mythos, much less sympathetic than the women who surround her in Greece and Troy—I’m thinking of the human sacrifice Iphigenia, murdered Cassandra, the young mother Andromache whose baby is thrown from the walls of Troy, and a host of other female characters who end their stories slain or enslaved. In comparison, Helen’s comfortable ride through the Trojan War behind the palace walls, and her ultimate return to her place as queen of Sparta at the war’s end, is frustrating to me. Several years ago, I spent some time writing persona poems in the Bronze Age voices of the women of the Iliad, but I struggled to find my way into a poem centering Helen. I simply didn’t like her enough to connect with her, to want to write about her. It wasn’t until I had put down the project and moved on to other work that I suddenly found a new voice exploding across my notebook page. It was as if Helen stepped into my head to introduce herself, and she was no Bronze Age queen: I found myself writing a Tennessee woman in the early nineties, working through her old skein of myths in a uniquely modern context. Writing this book has been transformational for my relationship with Helen’s character in the Trojan War, even as she became my own character in Helen of Troy, 1993. I understand her now in a way I never did as a child paging through mythology books, or as a teen reading the Iliad for the first time, or as a student in my college’s classics department. I think I recognize now, in a way I didn’t then, that Helen is just as trapped by her circumstances as the women who surround her. You use the word “stagnant" in your question—yes. For Helen, it’s all stagnant enough to drown in.

    LG: “helen of troy cranks the volume on ‘like a prayer’ in the ballet studio parking lot” elides syntactic guardrails in service of the poem’s propulsive narrative momentum: “i / sticky-finger steer my way home unzipping my attention between / the road tonight’s dinner my ingrown toenail gas prices at the Texaco / how many weeks it’s been since my last period.” With consideration to The Iliad and its roots in the oral tradition, I’m thinking about the parameters and expectations in which the epic poem is typically written and how, if at all, do you see your own poetics bumping up against that?

    MZ: You’re right—the stories told in the Iliad and Odyssey were birthed through an oral tradition across generations of memory, and even after both poems were set down in regular meter, they continued to interact with their audiences most commonly in memorized, spoken/sung form. In this way, ancient listeners approached the Homeric epics in a mode not dissimilar to the modern Southern experience of storytelling and legend-sharing, an art form in which narratives pass mostly from mouth to mouth, shifting and evolving in small ways as they go. Many poems in Helen of Troy, 1993—like “cranks the volume”—lean into that tradition, tapping into Helen’s voice in unfiltered form and allowing her own whirlwind, tumbling rhythm to shape the poems’ architecture. Throughout the book, Helen is speaking outward, not inward; she assumes an audience, and that what she has to say is worthy to be heard. To Helen, her life is already an epic, local gas prices and ingrown toenails included. One of the features and functions of epic poetry—like the Iliad, like the Aeneid—is to tell a people who they are and where they came from, and I think that’s what Helen is doing in nearly every poem in the book. She is speaking to allow her audience, to allow herself, to understand the confluence of identity, community, and family that shape her life and her decisions.

    LG: “helen of troy folds laundry in a dim room”—and the image of “a ribbed shuck peeled down” in particular—makes me think this is a woman who is at odds with her locale (and worn down for this very reason). I think, to an extent, this encapsulates the experience of queerness, of othering—the notions of trespass and invitation that bring Helen such strife (“i don’t know if you have ever started growing / away from yourself”). How did your decision to root your poems in this southern landscape complicate or affirm Helen’s convictions of self-identity?

    MZ: I can only speak as a Southerner, as a Tennessean, but I assume this is a universal experience: in any community with a strong internal identity, the cost of straying from that identity’s norms is severe. Helen lives in a small Tennessee town, within an insular community that in some ways becomes a kind of carceral institution, policing anti-normative behavior through shunning, gossip, and a withdrawal of protection. Helen’s position among her peers is reliant on her adherence to the values and behaviors of those peers, and over and over again, Helen finds herself falling out of step with what is deemed acceptable—both through her external actions and, of course, through her internal emotional state, which creates a kind of interior alienation both from community and from Helen’s own understanding of correct morality, correct interiority, correct desire. I’m sure I brought Helen’s story to Tennessee because I myself belong here, and so too does this version of Helen. She belongs to her community—is of her community—despite the ways her community questions and rejects her, and the ways she questions and rejects her community. No doubt this reality is familiar to any of us who have found ourselves othered by and in the places we call home. And yet home does not leave us, even if we leave it, as Helen does for a period of time with her lover Paris. In my book and in the original mythology, that absence cannot be permanent. She returns, regardless of the consequences.

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