Catherynne M. Valente, Oracles: A Pilgrimage
(Prime Books, 2005)

In the afterward to Oracles: A Pilgrimage, Catherynne M. Valente gives the reader a rare insight into the genesis of her second poetry collection with Prime Books: She first conceived of Oracles while working as a Tarot reader in Newport, as the Oracle of Rhode Island, if you will:

I was closed up in a hot, murky room at the top of a very tall stone tower whose windows were covered in ivy. The room was a storage space for a local theatre company, and so was crammed to the gills with strange props, while the walls were covered in spare curtains, red and black velvet complete with gold pulls.

And as I played this role, I could not help but feel that I was connected to those other women, those strange and beautiful creatures whose names were subsumed in the much larger names of their cities: Delphi. Dodona. Cumae. Maybe I was even one of them. I began to think: what does an Oracle do in her off-hours? What does an Oracle do when she retires? How does an Oracle become an Oracle?

While, as Valente points out, the historical record can answer many of these questions, it cannot tell us what being an Oracle was like from an Oracle's perspective. And while we will likely never know for certain, Valente's book is a thought-provoking, linguistically rich and memorable guess.

In Oracles, Valente gives the Sibyls of Greek history and legend voice by tracing their lineage from the ancient world (in poems like "The Oracle Alone") to the postmodern, transplanting them into a Westward journey across the culturally pluralistic and politically uneasy landscape of 21st Century America, and into the mouths of prophetesses. In this pilgrimage from the East Coast to Hawaii, the reader meets an array of contemporary oracles. Among obvious candidates like fortune tellers and I Ching readers, there are several unlikely candidates for the role of sibyl: a librarian in "The Oracle at New Haven" (a reference, ostensibly, to Yale University's massive library); a transgender prostitute in "The Oracle at Miami," a beef butcher in "The Oracle at Amarillo," a Cree trinket saleswoman in "The Oracle at Taos" and besequined blackjack dealer in "The Oracle at Las Vegas." These uncommon Oracles interest me the most not only because their Oracular duties are often surprising (the woman in "Amarillo" uses livers she takes from slaughtered heifers in haruspicy, for example), but because their lives are surprising; they differ wildly from the images we traditionally turn to when we hear the word oracle -- gypsy palm reader, side show crystal gazer, Tarot reader, witch. Consider "The Oracle at Amarillo," in which the speaker explains that haruspicy is "a family business" passed from mother to daughter, and one in which she did not want to participate.

Like any child,
I hated the work. I was sure,
when the time came,
my sister would wear the dress,
lace stiffened and yellow from
so many wearings, pinned and fitted
to all our waists, all our shoulders.

It had to be let out
a full three inches in the bust
for me.

I wanted
to go to trade school --
learn computers, maybe,
or automotive repair. Anything
but how to garland a bull's horns
with hyacinth and rosemary,
how to cut left to right
quick enough that they don't scream,
how to scrub out the trough
that catches all that blood,
what to use to dissolve the streaks
of cow-fat clinging to the porcelain.

Here Valente uses the trappings of an Oracle's job -- haruspicy and the wearing of a child's dress, to discuss a broader subject, that of American women whom family or circumstances have trapped in a lifestyle they despise. Just as, perhaps, the Oracle at Delphi may have felt trapped in her sulfur-filled cave and hungry for the sunlight, the Oracle at Amarillo feels trapped in the slaughterhouse and hungry for the ability to choose her own career. The metaphor of the Oracle for the ways in which American women are still trapped is a stunning metaphor, and one Valente also puts to excellent use in poems like "The Oracle at Taos," "The Oracle at Savannah" and the political "The Oracle at San Diego," in which an Oracle silently endures the selfish chatter of two teenaged Valley Girls who have no interest in the environment, or in the world's suffering.

Of course, not all women (and probably not all Oracles) feel trapped and powerless. And saying that they do would not be in step with the balanced look at women Valente always provides in her work. "The Oracle at New Orleans" is a powerful, sexy Voodoo priestess, who commands those who dares visitors to "take the portents from her/before she has a chance to give them." Similarly, "The Oracle at Boston" is a sophisticated graduate student who discusses classical sculpture and Newton's Third Law while flirting with the (presumably female) speaker. "The Oracle at Las Vegas" seems to be the mistress of fate, dealing cards and predictions to tourists and gamblers.

True to Valente's observations about the actual Oracle, the woman behind the god or goddess' prophecies, being subsumed into their cities, some of the poems in Oracles concentrate on location over woman, blurring the line between landscape and Oracle so profoundly that the two become indistinguishable. In "The Oracle at Detroit," the Oracle becomes a part of the city's now-defunct automobile industry after citizens lower her dead body into an abandoned Gear and Axle factory . . . and by implication, a part of the city's rebirth.

And still her hair grew. The web of it
stretched beneath the Gear and Axle factory,
lightless and thick. In the smooth, meatless
cave of her brainpan,
circuits like eyes flashed complexities
at the bone-wall,
and the rust-wedded gears,
dead thirty years and more,
began again their old grind.

The silver robotic arms spread out
like hoplites on the factory floor,
and the line manager saw them arrange
themselves, banging out oracles into
sheet metal, plate glass, hubcaps,
engraved filigree into dashboards
and steering wheels,
stamped into wheelwells,
blazed into still-soft steel.

One of the many remarkable things about Catherynne M. Valente's writing is the seamless way in which she frequently melds myth and autobiography. The resulting work has a mythic cycle's drama and epic scope and the raw, human touch of one who has been there that makes the mythic perennially new and attainable. This is true of Oracles, which bears more than a little in common with Valente's stint as a Tarot reader in that strange, dusty tower room in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, poetry seems to get far less attention in America than it did even a few decades ago, meaning that readers just discovering Valente through her Orphan's Tales duology have probably not availed themselves of this title -- which they should promptly do after finishing this paragraph. Oracles is a masterful work, and one that deserves far more attention than it has received so far.

[JoSelle Vanderhooft]