Pantheon by Eric Syrdal
Reviewed by Candice Louisa Daquin
“When the ones I protect are worth less than my own life”
“If gods and goddesses/ look down on our lives”
Poetry has reclaimed its prior popularity with the easy access of the internet; anonymous and known poets can write on any subject in any style and find an audience and succor. There are those who do it for a career, those who write because they must and if they sell a book they sell a book but that’s not the purpose of their art. When I met Eric Syrdal I was struck by his uniqueness among this spectrum of authors, his work simply doesn’t fit into a category. I could be kind and say any original author makes their own label or better still doesn’t require one but it would be unrealistic to believe people don’t categorize writers they always have and they always will even the sub categories and the rebels have clichés and recognizable styles.
Is it possible to be completely apart from such distinctions and write something truly unique? I have read some authors who have achieve this but never a poet. This is the greatest distinction about the Heraldic Code of Honor meets Outside Time Space Opera work of Louisiana Native Eric Syrdal and it’s quite remarkable how this man has given birth to his own universe not as a fantasy writer, because surely they all do that (even if paying homage to common and recognizable forms and emblems) but as something utterly new that I cannot put a short description to. I admire this in a time when so much has been overdone and over produced and originality is scarce and what we deem original is usually taken from history.
For a creative to be creative today is a greater challenge than it was when there were less of us doing more of the same. With our burgeoning populations even if a tiny fraction writes poetry we’ll find within that sub-set so much similarity. And yes, within Syrdal’s work I could point to a lot of homage and recognition of prior and modern style and type but when put together in entirety he has managed to form something that I have never experienced. At first glance a novel in the form of an epic poem telling a story may not appear so unique, although less used today than 600 years ago. It is however, the ability to juggle much homage and create from their mixture, something quite different that lends Syrdal’s work an unforgettable quality and depth.
I confess I am not a huge fan of heraldic verse or epic poetry. I read The Highwayman, Beowulf and Shakespeare at University and felt more simpatico with Anne Sexton and modern confessional poets than the removed fantasy of knights and maids. That said, it’s like anything, when it’s done right, you find yourself going back for more. I compare it to any preference, I may like brunettes but if a redhead or a blonde is truly unique, she’ll surpass my bias. This is how I can best explain my appreciation for Syrdal’s body of work.
Having read his astoundingly beautiful and romantic poetry for years I found it hard to imagine how he could engage the reader with an entire collection in semi-epic poem form. It wasn’t that I thought him incapable I had already known he could surprise me with his keen observations within the mêlée of ancient times, futuristic visions and intense romance, but I just couldn’t picture it until I received an advance copy and frankly, was stunned by the craftsmanship and sheer voice of his craft.
There comes a time that confessional poetry, political, angry, cause-related writing can burn itself out. And one may think an epic poem using the ancients, classics and futurists as its backbone would bore a typical reader and there you would be wrong. I read Syrdal’s book in one sitting, few poetry books contain that kind of engagement which makes me aware of how this is neither a book of poetry nor strictly prose or even prosetry, but something indescribable and yet I want so badly to describe it in hopes others will reach for it and discover for themselves. On the other hand it seems almost sacrilegious to put into short description the intention Syrdal had for this book or what it’s about, it’s like taking one part of a beautiful thing that is that beautiful only because of its composite pieces and expecting it to speak for the entirety. Like any powerful experience you really have to experience it for yourself.
Instead I will say a few general things that help locate my impressions as a reviewer. For the feminist or the woman or man who appreciates equality and the equal treatment of women, you will be glad for Syrdal’s treatment of women, he has always been an advocate and uplifter of women, that’s just his heraldic nature, he literally lives and breathes this both as a human and a writer. It is rare to find within those genres writers who treat women with equal respect and Syrdal never waivers.
His vast knowledge of the classics and the varied mythologies is quite astounding in modern terms and yet because his language is so accessible without being trite, it’s easy to appreciate something that is at once, ancient and timeless. “Upon the face of this shield / all the names my soul has been called / over the ages of time / are written”
On a very personal note, I appreciate that for a man dealing often with beautiful leading females, his writing isn’t overly sexualized and all about unrealistically beautiful women and the ravishment of them, without some further storyline. This can get tired and you’ll often find it in novels by men, and it is possible to both appreciate beauty and give that character more than just a gorgeous face, which Syrdal does by the sheer force of personality of his heroines (and heroes it goes without saying).
There is a powerful vein of unapologetic passion within his writing, as well as both homage to reimagined fairy tales and their originals and a mixing of modern heroines wearing jeans, space men talking to computers in the future and ancient warhorses. Syrdal’s women are not the faint hearted weak minded sort, but often the strength behind the warrior. There is a universe slipping in-between another, and the voices come from both sides. “It’s not the absence of fear…it’s acting in spite of it.”
The sheer wield of Syrdal’s imagination is quite something to behold, this is a saga of mankind, both we who read it and the characters who appear more real than our own lives. The book is divided into subj-sections; Back to the Beginning, Pantheon, Warsong, The Dragon and the Damsel, Amor Vincit Omnia, Time and Again, Light Speed, Daughter of the Phoenix and Back to the Beginning (again). One theme directs all sections; “Love begets Courage / Love directs Karma / Love inspires Mercy / Love speaks of Grace / Love is the basis for Hope.”
There are concepts within each step, you’re not just reading about two people and their desire for one another, or the heroes need to protect her, or be with her at any cost, you are not reading about a strong woman or a shape-shifting, time-shifting man, you are reading on other levels too, simultaneously about morality, goodness, evil, concepts of right and wrong, death and life, love and hate. Equally there is an undercurrent of poetic appreciation, whilst not a poem or prose instead a river of multilayered experience seen through the eyes of the hero who remains frustratingly anonymous. This story isn’t simply set in the past or present, it transcends into the future, not simply a space-opera or feat of imagining, but all genres packed tightly together and exploded into starlight.
“You know all that is really necessary to change Fate’s mind, don’t you? All that is ever necessary for one person to make the most difference that they can? It’s being where you are supposed to be…when you are supposed to be. The right person, place and time is worth a thousand assassinations.”
In that sense this may not be for everyone, if you liked American Gods by Neil Gaiman you’ll adore it, the book demands your attention and you won’t appreciate it if you delve into it randomly or expecting individual poems. Just as you would not attempt to read Beowulf casually, be mindful the same applies here, you’re entering a world that is not your own. Syrdal’s heroines are; Courage, Fate, Karma, Grace, Hope, Mercy, The Queen of Hearts and you will recognize many of the concepts as creatures worthy of your attention and extended consideration.
Fortunately I was familiar with the poet Tennyson when I began reading and I use his work as the closest comparison to anything I’ve read before, in that he was so capable of writing an epic or longer poem with the passion of a modern world in the setting of an ancient or even fantastical one. Tennyson too had a love of courage, bravery, knights, warriors, and the tragi-possession of that era that may have existed more in our imaginations than literally. He too could illustrate with words the rapture and intoxication of a time before us, filled with beauty, suffering and intensity, urging us to open our imaginations to this and let the magic in.
I appreciated the blurring of ancient with modern, that worked really well for me, I liked how Syrdal brought the romantic words of the past (damsel, dragons, knights) into a modern world and how it still applies because so much of what we know and think is formed around these symbols and stories and fairy tales, it makes you wonder what is real and what is not and how ultimately if you let go and enter your imagination the world is far more than at first it appears. I also liked the challenge of wondering if those modern characters ‘needed the dragon’ and how ultimately we all need it. I loved how heroine wise; “She is the warrior / she’s been seeing when / she plays her music.”
The idea of modern people carrying this underneath their contemporary clothes a true merging of the ancient world and today’s world seems to exterminate the blandness of today and reintroduce wonder. “But what does / a day mean / to someone / or something / that might exist / outside of time as we know it?” Imagine if you are a beaten up woman of today and an ancient warrior appears to you, showing what you were capable of and can be again. Returning us to the forsaken but not entirely lost notions of the past, where courage and strength existed in more palpable ways. I thought it was very clever to use a modern landscape to achieve this. Truly if a woman had written this you’d probably call it a polemic call to women’s ability to fight back against oppression. The fact that a man wrote it should alter that in no way. Few men can write from a woman’s vantage point realistically and Syrdal is able to mutate between genders as fluidly as water.
As well as knowing many of the classics and the ballads and stories of old that inspired the chivalric age, I also am an ardent consumer of Sci-Fi fiction and it stunned me when the novel takes a turn into the future and becomes an intense Sci-Fi driven story. I can compare Syrdal to many of my favorite Sci-Fi writers in that he shares their deft handling of infinite complexity, their ability to weave worlds and mix time and place, he’s a Doris Lessing of 2018 and the dystopian doesn’t spoil something incredible, love that cannot be broken and carries on in a multitude of forms, even creating a new life out of a machine, a machine that can now feel. “Hiroshima / 911 ground zero / Hurricane Katrina” Nothing, not even time or flesh and blood can ruin love. In Syrdal’s universe it is forever. “The nightingale’s song has stopped/ The only sound that comes is the gentle wind/ in the tops of the bamboo.”
Equally there is the concept of Fate personified, and the only one omnipotent and thus, able to see what will unfold even before it does. This provides almost a predictive voice to the unfolding storyline that shows us we are both able to change our destinies and grow, as we are bound to the outcome of fate, which at first may appear an oxymoron but speaks more to the notions of what our individual responsibility is and how far we are willing to go to be all that we can be. “It was like sitting / in a boat / on the surface of the ocean / with something / like a leviathan / ancient and massive / sitting below the water / underneath you.”
Imagine if you knew your responsibility and acted upon it, instead of either leaving everything up to fate or believing yourself immune to it, imagine if you took seriously the part you play in the world rather than thinking you simply existed and there was no greater meaning? More than being saved in the hero sense, what if you could save yourself? And what if as tragic-hero you rise above the staid notion of fate and become something as yet unimagined?
Is the tragi-hero in fact alive because he possesses the heart of fate and can see through universal eyes, the weft of all existence? What if you see them all, and you are all? Then how would you be? What if you died and were reborn, living through millennia, unable to connect fully with mortals because you are outside time. What if, as Fate, the Tragi-Hero cannot stop the woman who goes to the Twin Towers on 9/11 what if he can only watch lives unfold and perish and do nothing to change the outcome. If Fate loved you and saved your life by giving you her heart, what would your life be like afterward? Think of The Time Travelers Wife on fire and triple it.
I won’t spoil the brilliant conclusion of this novel, suffice to say, if it is your desire to read something astoundingly original, from a writer who is not only a truly breathtaking author, deft with supernatural words and ideas, but a dreamer of worlds, who will blow any preconceived notions you have away and leave you shell shocked by the sheer power of his mind, then I cannot recommend Eric Syrdal and his novel Pantheon more highly. “I built this beach / and the stars / and the moon …. I turn back the wheels of heaven / and make time stop and rewind / over and over ….. Because I don’t know how to tell him / A machine had a wish.”