Review: The Eleusinian Mysteries by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler

cover of Eleusinian MysteriesThe Eleusinian Mysteries by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler
Aubade Publishing (March 22, 2022)
84 pages; $14.99 paperback; $3.99 e-book
Reviewed by Joshua Gage

Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler is part of a literary translation team with Reilly Costigan-Humes. They work with both Ukrainian and Russian and are best known for their renderings of novels by great contemporary Ukrainian author Serhiy Zhadan, including Voroshilovgrad, published by Deep Vellum, and Mesopotamia, published by Yale University Press. Wheeler is also a poet whose work has appeared in journals including The Big Windows Review, The Peacock Journal, and Post(blank). His newest collection of poetry is The Eleusinian Mysteries, a series of narrative poems based on the Greek story of Persephone.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were secret religious initiations held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at the Panhellenic Sanctuary of Eleusis in ancient Greece. Wheeler has clearly studied writings about these rites, as well as classical Greek poetry itself, and it shows in his writing. The poems have a very rhythmic undertone, and the language, while occasionally adjective heavy, alludes back to some of the more famous epics of ancient Greece. For example, the poem “Persephone Feasting” has lines like:

Pointlessly post-coital Persephone
with her pointedly barefoot stride,
flies laughing from the bedchamber,
rambunctious and craving breakfast.

The black tiles in the foyer
were meant to overawe
distinguished visitors, shuffling
slow and quiet so as not to wake

the dead draped over the rafters
and intricately peopling the chandeliers.

Wheeler certainly has an ear for sound, and while the alliteration in these poems can get a bit dense, they are often sonically stunning and resonant.

The narrative of the poems is quite clever, too. While the tale of Hades stealing Persephone and her mother, Demeter, going to war to gain her back is nothing new, Wheeler adds a modern edge to the tale, invoking things like Chernobyl and TNT amongst the classical Greek allusions. As the story progresses, things get darker, and even dip into grisly body horror that, while literarily and historically accurate, are still shocking and graphic.

Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler has taken a classical myth and created a series of narrative poems from it. While this alone is not unique, Wheeler’s lush language and rhythmic stylings make for a sensuous read that catches readers off guard, especially when they dip into the corpses that litter the second half of the text. Overall, this is a really solid collection of mythic horror that will engage any fans of horror poetry.

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