Poetry Sunday: Penelope at the Death of Odysseus
This poem, written in 2009, was one of the last ones I penned in graduate school.
Penelope at the Death of Odysseus
and Before her Marriage to Telegonus, his Son
Husband, in your absence the branches of our bed
have grown heavy, gnarled as my hands. Tonight,
when I spread your body beneath the canopy of silver leaves,
my fingers ache. I peel old limbs free from sand-stiff clothes,
giving you only the tenderness I’d give
to any stranger: to undress him, to draw the sponge over
his blood-caked brow, to drape him in funerary cloth, dull white
like an asphodel. I have never known this man,
the soft, ancient skin flecked with silver hair, the cheeks sheared
and hollow. On that last brief night, the night you killed my lovers,
you wore a beard, your wild body perfumed
with sweat and honey wine. Thick-voiced beneath the sheets
you told me you would leave again. Now your lips are thin,
your drawn face puckered. You tell me nothing.
But I want to know: who is this boy who watches me work,
leaning in our doorway as I smooth oil
into your thighs, your wrinkled knees? When he brought you
here I was startled by his sharp mouth, his foreign fragrance.
Now he tilts his head, tracking my movements
as though I were a wild creature fit for supper. I know
those eyes, brown as night for sailing, yours, and young.
I have waited all these years for you, alone,
while you scattered your seed from island to island
like a mistral. Tonight, at last, you have returned
to me, strong and fine, no longer a beggar.
Exegesis: Penelope at the Death of Odysseus
I’m of the opinion that this is the best poem I ever wrote. It’s certainly the height of all the skills I learned in MFAland, and I like it quite a bit, too.
Like “Polonius, After Death” it’s a fan-fiction poem, but what thrills me the most is that this entire absurd narrative is all there in the mythology. In the final book in the epic cycle (now lost), Odysseus is killed by Telegonus, his son by Circe, who then delivers his corpse to Penelope. And marries her. What is that?!
The only extrapolation I’ve made is to have Penelope refer to her suitors as her “lovers.” When I was editing this poem with my wonderful thesis adviser, Sidney Wade, she didn’t like this line–she felt it was too much of a twisting of the mythos. I agree that it’s a stretch, but it’s a stretch I like.
Because let’s talk about Odysseus. He leaves his wife for twenty years while he wanders–and sleeps with many other women. She puts off her suitors until he returns, and so is celebrated as a paragon of faithfulness. But he only stays long enough to impregnate her. That night, while they snuggle together in their bed made out of an olive tree, he tells her he’s leaving again. Don’t believe me? It’s right there in the text:
At last, however, Ulysses said, “Wife, we have not yet reached the end of our troubles. I have an unknown amount of toil still to undergo. It is long and difficult, but I must go through with it, for thus the shade of Teiresias prophesied concerning me, on the day when I went down into Hades to ask about my return and that of my companions. But now let us go to bed, that we may lie down and enjoy the blessed boon of sleep.”
“You shall go to bed as soon as you please,” replied Penelope, “now that the gods have sent you home to your own good house and to your country. But as heaven has put it in your mind to speak of it, tell me about the task that lies before you. I shall have to hear about it later, so it is better that I should be told at once.”
“My dear,” answered Ulysses, “why should you press me to tell you? Still, I will not conceal it from you, though you will not like it. I do not like it myself, for Teiresias bade me travel far and wide, carrying an oar, till I came to a country where the people have never heard of the sea, and do not even mix salt with their food. They know nothing about ships, nor oars that are as the wings of a ship. He gave me this certain token which I will not hide from you. He said that a wayfarer should meet me and ask me whether it was a winnowing shovel that I had on my shoulder. On this, I was to fix my oar in the ground and sacrifice a ram, a bull, and a boar to Neptune; after which I was to go home and offer hecatombs to all the gods in heaven, one after the other. As for myself, he said that death should come to me from the sea, and that my life should ebb away very gently when I was full of years and peace of mind, and my people should bless me. All this, he said, should surely come to pass.”
Frankly, I think Odysseus kind of sucks. There are good reasons that Penelope would not have wished to marry any of her suitors–the obligation to submit to a new husband and king among them–but I would like to imagine that perhaps she would have enjoyed some carnal pleasures during Odysseus’ travels, at the very least. She seems to me to be a shrewd woman, not a long-suffering one. The kind of woman who would marry her husband’s attractive young son upon his arrival in Ithaca.
Of course, I’m assuming that Telegonus is a better man than his father, and stays in Ithaca for more than one night.