Review: The Requited Distance by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

In The Requited Distance, Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s interpretation of the Icarus myth is not just a revisiting, but a re-inhabiting and a realigning. She has carefully crafted an expanded spectrum on which to plot the story, not only in terms of time, but in a layering of voices which gradually correlate into as close of an explanation as one might present for tragedy. By tracing the path of the father and son from Daedalus’ development as an inventor to a navigation of the afterlife, Griffiths allows the inclusion of their voices and others as harrowing warnings, frames which provide alternative clarities of the events which led to Icarus’ death.

It is here, in this careful attention to character, that the reader begins to collect options and interpretations for grief.  Griffiths employs the voices of every conceivable witness to the myth, from a dead nephew to the sea and a fig tree. These speakers express themselves through song, written word, and oral narration. They speak alive and dead, at the gates of heaven and as an eagle over the American desert. His own words reveal the perspective of Daedalus as obsessive in its mechanical outlook and mathematization of all problems, jarringly juxtaposed with Icarus’ world of dream and memory. Thus, we anticipate a collision when this man, who perceives people as skeletal ribcages and treats religion as a proof, encounters a son enchanted by flight.

This disjuncture is further complicated by questions of parenthood and faith. In Griffiths’s world, it is as rational for Greek men to consult James Brown for advice as an oracle; blues singers and artists are sources of definite wisdom. Icarus looks to these sources while his father’s faith in his own inventions reflects a self-glorification, a total confidence in himself as a savior. In this way, the text directly engages with the structure of a Christian trinity; Icarus states, “I am not like Christ,” while working to dismantle the conflation of father and god, as well as father and son. This makes Icarus’ longing for a present father even more poignant – he seeks one in death, a liminal place in which love is possible.

This longing, paired with the book’s ever-present motif of birds and broken wings, scrapes from the beginning on our consciousness. All things begin to read as signs. For instance, in his total adherence to the studied form of birds, Daedalus overlooks their flaws: “the arrogance of crows”. Daedalus allows himself into emotion only for brief moments, recalling his wife with what should not be, but is, alarming tenderness; yet, he cannot apply this lens to his son, “an axis” within his wife’s womb.  For Icarus, however, any sort of containment is unbearable, even within his own body. Griffiths’s choice to follow him after death, in his complete freedom of movement, allows us to see him through that desire, and its ultimate lack of complete satisfaction.

We come, through Icarus’ self-reflection and grief, to better understand his rejection of a middle path. It is not so simple as an act of disobedience or a failure to acknowledge to all of those voices bearing warnings. Griffiths often reminds her readers with a repeated imperative to listen – in fact, her text does not allow for any other option but to observe her characters’ delineation of “the edges of children and parents”. In poignant lyric lines, Griffiths overlays voices and perspectives until disaster is inevitable and almost welcomed. Her narrative builds in grief until experiencing a collision comes as close as it can to perfect – which is to say, beautiful. Griffiths writes, “I sing to push the grief from the roof/ of my mouth.” And what a spectacular elegy emerges.

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