One of the most dramatic and controversial myths is revisited and thoughtfully explored in Mandy Pannett’s The Daedalus Files. The roles of the actors in the story are investigated in the poems, from that of Daedalus, the maker of the labyrinth, to that of his son Icarus, who was the result of Daedalus’s marriage to a slave called Naucrate. Icarus later dies while he is trying to escape, falling from the sky into the Aegean Sea. The role of the monster, the Minotaur, is also explored in the poems; it was created following a sexual encounter between the adulteress queen, Pasiphaë, and the sacred white bull, a present from Poseidon to the king, Minos. Finally, the role of Theseus, the hero, is examined; his victory is tightly linked to the clever tricks of Ariadne, whom he eventually abandons on the island of Naxos. Death is the constant threat that is present in the centre of the labyrinth, where the monster is imprisoned and where seven Athenian boys and seven girls are sacrificed each year to its hunger and lust.
Symbolic meanings unfold and overlap in this myth, following the meandering turns of the labyrinth, such as death and renewal, the search for identity and the encounter with otherness, as Kerényi states in his seminal book on the labyrinth. Borges, in his poem ‘The Labyrinth’, expresses the loneliness, boredom and frightening aspects of the place where otherness is present and absent at the same time. It is a search for meaning that is never definitely achieved; on the contrary, it is always postponed. The centre is a loss, an empty space where the monster waits, and going back to that space by following Ariadne’s flaxen thread does not redeem the hero. The contact with the mystery of the labyrinth, or a supposed sacred centre, does not give answers but only silence. However, defeating the monster and returning is Theseus’s goal that implies courage but also ruthlessness and eventually betrayal.
Pannett highlights this signum contradictionis implied in the labyrinth and in the myth, for example in the figure of the Minotaur, who was once a tender calf ‘cradled on his mother’s knee.’ Nevertheless, its brutality and ferocity have no reason, and only language, poetic language, can try to make sense of this violence and successive unfaithfulness. The poems analyse and question the myth connecting the story to the present situation of danger and displacement experienced by people fleeing from conflicts and persecutions, people in exile. It is a ferocious journey, as Pannett evokes in ‘Memo’, describing it as ‘Cramping. Claustrophobic. No air.’ In the foreword she recalls how her poems were inspired by the fall of Icarus and the arrival of refugees from Syria on the Greek island of Tilos, where she was staying at the time. Escaping and finding a way out towards salvation are the objectives that are eventually contradicted by the ending. Icarus dies and Ariadne is abandoned by Theseus, the ‘faithless lover’. Therefore, the solutions are partial and temporary; they need to be renegotiated each time and loss is inevitable. The narrative of the myth is rewritten in Pannett’s poems in a constant resignification that evolves in an exploration using language. The process is emphasised in impeccable lines that develop all these threads.
The myth remains a mystery because the different actors never disclose their secrets; loss and betrayal loom at the end of the story. Daedalus the maker, the craftsman, sculptor and architect pushed the boundaries of human limitations with tragic consequences. The poet questions his inventions, suggesting they might be ‘transitory and insignificant’. He kept his self-control but his son did not; he dared too much despite his father’s instructions to ‘Get ready to jump. Mind rocks. Don’t/hesitate. Deep breath.’ There seems to be no way out, though the final poems suggest a change of mind, the possibility that is not necessary ‘to fall into the dark/wingless and hurt’. But the myth culminates with the death of Icarus, and this is the end the reader is left to unravel.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio 25th September 2021