Gwendolyn MacEwen JOAN McGRATH - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gwendolyn MacEwen has set a high standard against which her impressions of Greece must be measured: "Greece presents a very real challenge to whoever goes there—a challenge to do more, to be more, to better the present moment in whatever way is possible, to improvise, to expand. To get things off the ground."

Unhappily, Mermaids and Ikons remains earthbound. The poet's ear, so dependable in her craft, plays her false when she turns to prose. This work suffers from a discordant flatness, frequent and abrupt descents into jargon that jolt and disturb. Mycenae "really cuts you down to size", its golden masks are "all flattened and funny", a notable poet she hoped to meet "… had died on me". Perhaps most glaring of all is "… how marvelously right on was her reaction …". This prosaic style does not sort well with either mermaids or ikons.

However, there are memorable moments here too—glowing anecdotes such as that of the valiant Karaiskakis who, though under fire by the Turks, supplied his enemies with lead for their missiles rather than take the change that they should further damage the Acropolis. The story is simply told and is all the more effective when contrasted with the surfeit of whimsy reminiscent of the excesses of Richard Haliburton.

The author has fallen into a trap that gapes for every visitor abroad, that of dismissing the perceptions of other travellers as those of mere tourists "doing Diana", while reserving for oneself a finer, deeper, exclusive appreciation of truth and beauty. (p. 48)

Joan McGrath, in Quill and Quive, June, 1978.