Oracles: A Pilgrimage by Catherynne M. Valente

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"Prologue: "The Oracle Alone"
"The Oracle at Detroit"
"The Oracle at Boston"
"The Oracle at Manhattan"  
"The Oracle at New Haven"
"The Oracle at Savannah"
"The Oracle at Miami"
"The Oracle at New Orleans"
"The Oracle at Amarillo"
"The Oracle at Taos"
"The Oracle at Las Vegas"
"The Oracle at Seattle"
"The Oracle at Anchorage"
"The Oracle at Chinatown"
"The Oracle at Monterey"
"The Oracle at Los Angeles"
"The Oracle at Cayucos (CA)"
"The Oracle at San Diego"
"The Oracle at Kilauea (HI)"
"The Oracle in Motion"
"Epilogue: The Oracle Departs"


This slim volume, Oracles: A Pilgrimage by Catherynne M. Valente, is a work of poetry as well as prose, but since the contents form a cohesive narrative, I feel that its review at Tangent is warranted. This is a work of intricate complexity and stunning imagery, and it is no surprise that Ms. Valente, a classicist and one of the most brilliant young stylists around, is responsible for it.

The pilgrimage of the title takes the reader from ancient Greece ("Prologue: The Oracle Alone" and "Epilogue: The Oracle Departs") to the US, where the journey progresses roughly from east to west, from a student at Boston and a librarian at New Haven to the saltwoman of Seattle and the empty teenagers of San Diego. Each of the pieces is dedicated to one city, and the verse manages to capture not only the fate of the local oracles, their every day lives and struggles, but the flavor of the place. For example, in "The Oracle at Detroit" the prophetess is buried deep within the guts of an automobile factory, her posthumous words transforming the place from cold and mundane to divine and feverish.

In her pilgrimage, Ms. Valente touches on many themes, and the thematic complexity is perhaps as appealing in this work as its beautiful, rich language. Themes are connected to a setting, grounding them. One of my favorite pieces, "The Oracle at Taos," deals with a Native American woman who sells trinkets to tourists. "It’s all for the tourists, of course" is the opening line of this poem. But at the same time, she sees herself as a bitter heir to several cultural traditions—not only her own heritage, but also the tradition of oracles everywhere:

"If they can wear a silver Kokopelli around their necks,
with a little diamond in his flute,
then I can sidle up to Apollo,
bat my smoky eyes, sultry as Cumae,
and offer up a gilded throat."

The tools of the oracles are as varied as the cultures they come from. There’s a Chinese woman at Chinatown who casts her fortunes using yarrow stalks of I Ching, a dealer at Las Vegas, and a haruspicist at Amarillo. Oracles themselves are young (Boston, San Diego) or old (Cayucos, CA and Chinatown). Their surroundings are ancient ("Prologue…" and "Epilogue…", Amarillo) or modern (Detroit, Manhattan). One of the oracles is a transsexual (Miami). But no matter what tools they use and how old they are, no matter how tenuous their connection to the Greek tradition is, Ms. Valente focuses not only on the burden and the glory of prophecy, but the oracles’ personal life, their daily trials, the issues that concern every woman, clairvoyant or not. As such, this is a strong feminist work, embracing both the divine and the mundane.
I highly recommend this book, even to people who don’t usually enjoy poetry— because of the strong thematic connections and the narrative structure, this book reads very much like a novella.
Publisher: Prime Books (May 31, 2005)
Price: $8.00
Chapbook: 84 pages
ISBN: 0809500450