Reviewed by Elvis Alves
To Banquet with the Ethiopians
by Philip Brady
Paperback: 168 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1937968168, June 2015
Philip Brady is a fan of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. He uses the Homeric texts as springboard for his poetic memoir, To Banquet with the Ethiopians. This is a grand feat and Brady’s maneuvering succeeds at times. Brady paints a wide spectrum that not only includes the world of ancient Greece and Ethiopia but also the terrain of Queens, New York, where he grew up. Brady’s book makes known the impact of the Homeric texts on the young life of the protagonist.
Brady gives the impression that this impact was somewhat accidental, that it almost did not happen. In Book IV, First Scrivener, we are introduced to a young Homer at a marketplace where a merchant tries to sell him the alphabet, “Good price for a great poet” (32). Homer refuses but sometime later changes his mind and buys the item.
He hurried back through the sweating streets
And haggled with the Phoenician and ported
The application home under his cloak
And ripped the silvery box wrapping,
and flattened the glossy characters on a bench (33).
We know how the story ends. The alphabet enabled Homer to produce his work. However, how did the merchant know that Homer was a great poet prior to this? Oral history or reputation come to mind (Brady hints at the existence of these texts before they were written down).
This notion of the Homeric texts inhabiting a world of their own prior to the recognition that they later garnered is seen in Brady’s use of them in highlighting his childhood. A significant portion of this period takes place at a PAL (Police Athletic League) sponsored summer camp. The texts are staged at the camp (and imprinted in the mind of the protagonist) and because of this, Brady and fellow campers are introduced to them and their power.
Under a Yankee helmet in the sea
Fearless’ gulping scream drowned out our screams.
His ripped PAL t-shirt scribbled foam.
Myrmidons brandished imaginary knives.
Anteater waved Fearless’s shredded shorts.
In the book the boy—whoever it was—writhed
In flames or sea, running out of time (Book X, To Banquet with the Ethiopians, 85)
The childhood poems, especially those that employ characters mentioned above, are at times reminiscent of adventures found in Lord of the Flies than in the Homeric texts. Similarly, much about Ethiopia is not found in the book (barring its title) and what is present can fall victim to a jargon familiar to viewers of certain television programs that beg for money to feed poor African children.
Until I fled my skin, boarding a plane
To Addis Ababa where throngs
Of starving children in ancient ball caps
Reached to touch my face to feel the white (Book VIII, The Ant People, 68).
But Ethiopia is also an escape for the protagonist (as are the Homeric texts) due in part to a problematic relationship, among other things, with a father figure outlined in the memoir.
My father’s only odyssey was shaking
Briskly in a Grecian urn-shaped tumbler
2 parts windy coast and 1 part Queens
And straining over rocks till the potion chilled.
Garnish with maraschino cherry bomb
And voila, he was everywhere and nowhere (Book XII, Wiretap, 101).
Herein lies the heart of Brady’s text. After all, the Homeric texts are about survival while enduring and fighting against the muck of life. Thus, the protagonist sails close to this reminder and brings the reader along for the journey. A job well done.
About the reviewer: Elvis Alves is the author of the poetry collection Bitter Melon (Mahaicony Books, 2013). Find out more at www.poemsbyelvis.blogspot.com