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Text and Image in Time and Space: Reading Simias’ Wings and Axe

Brian D McPhee

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This paper analyzes two of Simias of Rhodes’ “technopaegnia,” or shape poems, proposing new hermeneutic strategies that take fuller advantage of the expressive potential of this distinctive poetic form.  The Greek shape poems constitute a small “microgenre” of epigram (Palumbo Stracca 113–114) in which the poet manipulates the meter and, in some cases, the alignment of the text, such that the lines are arranged to form the silhouette of an image (Palumbo Stracca 118; Luz 327; d’Alessandro 135).  Though these poems were long dismissed as trivial curiosities, recent scholarship has explored their sophisticated self-reflection on their own “intermedial” status as both text and image (Männlein-Robert 142–154, Squire 165–168, Luz 351–353; Pappas 2011: 49–51, 2013).  My reading takes their artistic self-consciousness as a given and proceeds to investigate the effect of intermediality on the way that shape poems signify.  I particularly introduce recent cognitive research into contemporary “visual poetry” to emphasize the dynamic interplay of the text’s semantic and iconic significations: “[V]erbal signs perform pictorial tasks: they signify both by referring to an external signified and via their topographical position on the page and their structural interactions with other elements” (Knowles et al. 77).

I offer two paradigmatic readings, beginning with Simias’ Wings (AP 15.24).  This poem, I argue, illustrates a foundational paradox in shape poetry:  “[T]he image of the object is necessarily defined on the page by the negative, blank space around the lines; thus absence (of image or words) literally creates presence (of image with words)” (Pappas 2013: 211 n. 21).  Semantically, the poem consists of a riddling description of Eros, whom the poem represents iconically through a stylized pair of “wings” that symbolize the god via synecdoche.  The poem identifies Eros as a son of Chaos, a mythological variant that Simias invests with metapoetic significance by placing the phrase “of Chaos” (Χάους δέ, 7) in the poem’s shortest line, where the “gap” of blank space separating the pair of wings on the page is deepest (cf. Pérez López 178 with n. 11).  Given that χάος denotes “space, the expanse of air” or “any vast gulf or chasm” (LSJ s.v.), an equation is suggested:  just as Eros is born of Chaos, so the Wings that represent him—and indeed, all shape poems—emerge from the negative space surrounding them.

Second, I analyze Simias’ Axe (AP 15.22), which describes, and forms the image of, the double-headed axe that Epeus used to build the Trojan Horse.  As transmitted, the twelve-line Axe is “antithetic,” an extremely rare type of poem whose lines must be read chiastically—that is, in the order 1, 12, 2, 11, and so on.  This unusual format has been questioned by scholars who would rearrange the lines into the standard consecutive order; the resultant triangular shape, it is claimed, could represent a single-bladed axe (Fränkel 63–65, Cameron 35–37, Kwapisz 34–35; cf. Wilamowitz 55, Bruss 123, d’Alessandro 144–147).  This rearrangement is contradicted on lexical grounds, however, by the poem’s own word for “axe,” πέλεκυς (2), which refers specifically to a double-bitted axe as opposed to an adze (σκέπαρνον).  What is more, I argue that the antithetic layout of the poem enhances its meaning in two major ways.  First, the poem’s “riddle”—what does it describe?—only works if the reader first tries to take the poem in the normal consecutive order.  The poem’s top half is cleverly constructed such that it actually can be read continuously, but its meaning is highly obscure unless read antithetically.  Second, I propose that the vertical, back-and-forth movement of the reader’s eyes correlates meaningfully with the poem’s verbal imagery, which quite literally concerns the “fall” of Troy, and relates to its theme of reversals in fortune (Buffière 134 n. 1).  These new readings of the Wings and Axe reveal their remarkable artistic complexity and showcase a method for approaching other exemplars of this unique subgenre.

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Hellenistic Poetry

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