Penelope’s Poet

By | 1 December 2009

One woman's fact is another man's fiction.
– Lisa Jardine

 

I

I am unknown, not forgotten
But erased, no suitor of Penelope,
But her friend and lover. I escaped
The wrath of Odysseus, shrewdest
Of men as he was, and I,
Most gentle, at least in the annals
Of the women of Ithaka in my time.
I defended Penelope's integrity
Against the lechery of Agelaus
And the other murderers whose eyes
Begrimed her unadorned beauty,
Her chiton without golden thread,
Her tresses, by me seen long and
Flowing, to the barbarous consort,
Born to do nothing but eat fruit,
Only the knotted ball of modesty.

She was crafty but pure
In her chastity, true spouse
Of Odysseus, who was not worthy
Of her cold fidelity. To me
She came, just after the sun
Unfurls its roseate fingers
And Hesperus leads the way.
Near a mountain top she found me,
Having come there for once alone,
Not to watch the horizon for the ship,
But to leave everyone, especially
The thoughts and eyes of men.
She was wandering in the grove
Beneath the summit where I sat,
Tuning my pipe to the last light
Next to the spring as pure as she.
I was there puzzling my own fate
In love, finding little comfort,
The only solace afforded me
The slender harmonies of the shade.
She was laughing among flowers
When first I heard her, between
The silences of my long notes of woe.
I will never forget her first words,
‘O why not play the glories of the day
So sweetly you sing its sorrows?'
She pointed to the skies where she stood
In the light, flushed with
An inner glow that seemed the sun's.
My face turned red knowing how
She had heard my unburdening mind.
No further words need be spoken.
She seemed stunned when she saw my look.
Who knew not the beauty of the Queen?
But no one else I knew heard her laugh.

Weeks went by before the time
I journeyed to her house to sing.
Antinous mocked from his couch:
‘What tune can come from this dreg
Of the wood? Where's Metrodorus?'
‘Metrodorus is ill, my lord,
His lyre broken in your games last night.'
So Doracles, true servant to the good,
A source of amity, as he'd prove to me.

That night of distant worlds I sang,
Laboring out the stars anew,
Of faraway oceans and many moons,
Of waves that spill over diamond rocks,
And Astraea's smile welcoming back
All the forlorn of the earth. ‘Beat him
In his fit if he sings that way again
Or better yet, let's make of him
An Orphic stew and feed it to the dogs!'
But I persisted, by my master forewarned.
To Hermes and his love for this
Newest of worlds I turned my mind,
Of his desire for the myriad sea
Where eons of Time churn endlessly,
When the eaters of fruit stood up.
Penelope was on the stairs. The gloom
Of the smoking meats could not conceal
The penetrating gaze of her solemn eyes.

 

II

The clatter of voices ceased, and silence
Emerged like a homeless child finally
Allowed to sleep. Only my song
Drifted up towards her as the men
And housemaids watched her with eager
Mouths and eyes. She was listening
To my rhapsody, its final chord
Drifting into the night, into the sea.
Then she turned up the stairs again
When Agelaus spoke. ‘Why not join us?
I have kept the best seat for you,'
Indicating the one next to his by the hearth.
She turned her head down to mute her scorn
For this refined man of Mantineia,
Where Arcadians defamed her Spartan claim
To kinship with the gods through Leda.
She looked up, calm and recomposed,
Looking into his eyes to deter his gaze.
Her words rang out clear and strong:
‘I heard the strange voice lifting up,
Singing of the birth of worlds, and I knew
It must be our bard's protégé. Come forward.'
And so I did, averting her solemn eyes
As I unwillingly stood among suitors,
Barely shod and ragged, just one more man
In a palace of mirrors where all was desire
To behold and feast upon the beauty of her way.
Her words made me lift my head as if law.
‘Well versed and well taught in ancient song
You are, young poet, clad in leaf and sand.
Metrodorus's high praise of you is deserved.
But I would hear once more the sorrows
Of how new worlds begin, the spring
Of sadness and the setting sun. Play on.'
And so I took up her theme that I knew
Secretly acknowledged our meeting in the glade.
First how Apollo and then Pan, I sang,
The universe and all creatures yield
To what even the gods cannot rule,
The lyre and the reed, all song
Out of longing shaped. It drives the sea
And fills the fields with asphodel.
But what makes the swift huntress run
And the lonely moon rise? Different still.
An abundance of streams is the world.
Who can fathom their endless flow?
Daphne and Syrinx are enshrined
In their own virginal powers,
Beyond the arms and eyes of love.
As I sang, she walked up the stairs
Slowly into the dark stars I could not see.
My whole song was her praise under shadow.

Eurymachus was first to break the lull
After song. ‘You have upset the Queen
With your weird words and hymns.
We want festive tunes at a feast,
After all, and you're like a mangy dog.
Stick to the hills, outcast as you are,'
And with that, he struck me with a cup
Of wine, reddening me like a new born.
‘There, now you're fit to sacrifice
To the dancing boy, that faggy god
Thigh-born, your kind loves to invoke.'
Melanthius chimed, ‘Yes, hairy Pan
Better suits him than he does us
Though my sheep would run from his wails.'
‘Leave off this foolery,' Polybus commanded,
‘It's easy to insult a man with a lyre.
Put a sword in his hand and then mock.'
I slipped out into the night, to the star-clad
Cliff where I would find some peace alone,
Watching the heavens descend upon the shore
Of Dulichia across the way.
This hovel had become my home if an exile
Of love and loneliness can speak of such.
For the next few days, I felt justified
In my nomadic state, wanderer
Of the wild shore, sojourner of the woods.
Better to live among the birds and beasts,
Content in what they are, than human animals
Who aspire to be Titans and become insects
Of their own pride, hunger and lust.

Of the lore and life of Linus I sing,
First of the holy sages. His footsteps
Traced through the grove the courses
Of the stars and how all things begin.
His voice calls me from an ocean inside
Though I am unworthy. What choice
Do I have, what other fate can be mine
Since the visions come to me unbidden?
The path is the calling that Linus sang,
His song the open mystery of the wood,
The whole world under heavens
Where stars are leaves and oceans tears
And the child of Love dances among the dead.
Who feels not the miracle of the ever new
In the oldest of forests and the dew
That shines never again the same way twice
And makes life from air, earth, fire and ice?
O Walkers of the flame and of the wave,
Those powers without end, themselves
Maker of the gods! The path is our own
Wherever we roam and the sky's ours
For a day. Such prayer I hope
Advances the ancient way, shadow
Before light, the future come what may.
 

III

It was at night beneath the moist stars
Above the sea that she came back to me,
Seeker of my song, lover of my freedom.
A slave in my own eyes, in hers
A portal to the world beyond eyes,
Where she could in solitary walk
Be her own soul in the dominion
Of her hearth. She surprises me
As I leave my hovel in a cave
Above the shore. ‘O Queen,
Why have you come here alone at night?
Where is your escort, Melantho,
And your other maidens? It is dangerous
To be among the dark pine with all those
Suitors of yours pursuing you.'
She is in tears now, her head covered
In the shame and abuse she has suffered
At the hands of men. ‘My father,
Icarius, is sick and dying, and I cannot
Succor him. My own home is lost
To the mob. I walk the night
To invoke Cybele among the firs.
Just let me sit by your fire awhile.'
I am speechless at her being there.

In silence beneath the night
We sit shrouded in the darkness.
I look away to let her be
As she reaches out to still
My hand trembling with fear.
‘You need not be afraid of what I want
Or of what will be said, Archias.
I have come just to seek some peace,
Slipping out down the stairs while they slept.
With my son gone off, I can trust
No one in my own house, but you,
You will lend me an ear, all I ask.
I know of your wisdom in dream lore,
And I have need of your counsel.'
‘My master has doubtless praised me
Beyond my worth, and I am your servant
Who dare not advise you, my Queen.'
‘Just listen to my dream and tell me
What it is the gods would have me do.'
I sit there watching myself
Listening to her as I hover in the air
Hearing the deep tone of her voice
Like a sea gently swelling the night.
‘I see a giant rise above the horizon
Towering up from the land to walk
One step into the ocean. Eagles
Attack his massive head to no avail
For he swats them away. He laughs
As the sun sets, growing higher than ever
Until suddenly he bursts into red sand.
Then a woman comes along the beach
And gathers all the glittering dust
That had been the giant into baskets
She is weaving out of her own hair.
She works and works with eager hands
But she begins to weep, seeing her labor
is endless. The waves bleed red.
I wake, deeply moved by this strange vision
That makes little sense at all
Though it lingers for a week inside
Until another dream, weirder still, comes to me.
Whatever you can make clear, give me.'
‘What little could you make of it?' I ask.
‘Remember your waking thoughts.
What made you feel especially sad?'
‘I felt no grief for the woman and
Certainly none for the giant, but the dream
Disturbs in ways I cannot understand.'

The sea swells beneath us, the crests
Pounding the cliff-side white in frenzy.
A silence follows as I watch the horizon
Where a bird flies downward from the heights.
I think of her great spirit within.
‘Yet, my Queen, from your own mind
Glean the sovereign truth of your fidelity.'
‘This sounds like flattery, Archias.
My title befits me little like a basket
Of my own hair, a crown of sand.'
‘Yes, my Queen, but not inside you
Where you are just, good and wise,
Leading a life of dignity in the midst
Of squalor and the mire of men.
No one can steal your glory there
For that sun and its light is all your own.'
‘But by that cold light it is hard to live
When hearth and home are not your own.'
‘Yet all must crumble into sand, o Queen.
We walk into light curling into the past
Like the foam of the wave receding.
And this is the way, where the bird sings,
Where the pond is too broad to leap.'
‘Yet who is this woman on the shore?
I am not her, grieving for a giant
She cannot hold. And the red waters,
What are they if not the flux of things?
What had once given life in the blood
Returns to the ocean of time inexhaustible.
Each one of us is but a pebble
Though our lives to us seem gigantic.
The basket of life spills out once and forever,
And that is all of eternity we can know.'
‘I see you are wise in fable and lore
And have found the wisdom of the dream.
What is it that you would have of me?
I will do anything to serve you, my Queen,
But how can I possibly counsel you?'

‘You speak of a world always beginning.
I would find some strength in that.'
‘Let me hear the second dream that struck
Your mind like this one, a portent.'
‘Yes, a sign, but not of things to come,
I think, but of the past, the crumbling giant
Of yesterday bootless to weep over.
But in this other dream I feel a mystery.
Listen, o poet, to this marvel of the night.
I am flying in the dream watching myself
Sitting on the roof. The night above me
I have unwoven from the day, both shroud
And sheet, the work of day and night
From my own hands. The flying woman
And the squatting, neither one I am.
I see the horizon like a painting
In a shutter I can close, and so I do.
I walk down a hall I have never seen,
And there are statues in the rooms
But I do not turn to look at them.
They seem everywhere so I hood my eyes.
What others think can turn you into stone.
So that is not my goal. I see a forest
Ahead where there is an opening
Bright in the noonday sun. A stream
Echoes through the woods, drawing me on
Until I come to its dark bank and the light
Of its shimmering rocks. Deer run off
As I enter the stream to drink, the pure
Cool waters enveloping me, the sky
Above dancing like a bird between trees.
I feel delight and joy as I never have before
At the mossy top of a waterfall,
And I am free to sing and laugh.'
Half dreaming this dream again, she turns to me,
As if fallen from a moment's peace, troubled in her gaze.
I look deep into her gray eyes and softly speak.

‘Into the liberty of that place no one
Can enter for it runs off like a deer.
Is this not the way of Artemis?
The very path of her arrow is the purity
Of the moment that will never come again,
Yet it is there we live the body's life alone.
Whatever invades us there will be
Devoured, the just wrath of what we must be,
Our soul immersed but not hidden.
Beware the flatterer and the spy, my Queen,
Be strong against them, the way the goddess
Does to Actaeon first what he would do to her.'
She laughs and after a while retorts,
‘But surely that old myth does not imply
How one must live in the body alone?
It is how women can be strong
In turning the gaze of men back upon them,
To let them be devoured by their own lust.
I have learned that look the hard way.
I am both at the top and the bottom
Of Ithaka, richest of pawns,
Most powerful in my poverty
Where I will learn to live in some peace.
I do not ask for what cannot be.
Let that witch of time turn men to slime
If that is what they will. They can dally
Like statues and blame the gods for their fate.
And their wives can join them too
Hollowed into shells by what they cannot have.
If Odysseus never comes back,
and even if he does, what of my life?
The leaves quiver upon the bough.
The curlew works at what the sea has left.
I cannot stay upon the bank like a stone,
Unable to do what my way decrees.
And it would be wrong to find no joy
In things that must be. That is the wing
That will hold me in place however hard
The path turns in the wood. I need to live
Inside where the forest offers its light
And the stream runs fresh and cool.'
‘And that is the moment of the kairos,
My Queen, the dancing child of the universe
That forever must laugh, or we die.
But what is it that you would know from me?
You draw wisdom from your dreams
Better than anyone I have known.
My mind can be no more than mirror
To your own and say what you have said.'
‘What I need from you, you have given already,'
And with that, she kisses my forehead,
And then my lips, and we float
Into sleep above the shore. This story
Of our care may unravel the legend
Of what has been formed out of its erasure.

Penelope was as free and strong as her mate.
And she taught me much about the world.
Be faithful to yourself, the true spring
Inside, and feel what it is to be chaste
Whether woman, man or beast.
And so Artemis and Aphrodite can hold hands
And Hephaestus and Ares too, their weapons down,
And Strife from the wedding kept, with her silly gold ball.

What happened to me upon her husband's return,
You might ask, if you can still consider
My tale worthy of your mind? I knew
How Aegisthus fought the Argive King
Who tried to kill his wife for having a lover
Though he had his Briseis as concubine.
And the horror that Orestes then faced
When out of conflicting laws no man can solve,
He felt he had to kill his own mother.
I would not have Telemachus destroyed
Or Odysseus burn his own house down.
For who can rule the freedom of the kiss?
Spite and rage follow in its wake
And crash upon a lonely shore.
As for my beloved, my Penelope,
Queen of my heart forever, she
Gave herself back to the sailor of fate
Whom the poet of heroes praised.
But even the Myrmidon with the demon
in his chest would not have died
had it not been for that malice
that showed up at a wedding feast.
Love is stronger than the war its loss brings.
And is not bliss once gone more desired still?
So Penelope became Muse to my songs
of lovers, how Paris was forced to steal
The woman of his dreams when Aphrodite swayed.
Who knows what the gods condone in the dark grove
when they themselves have succumbed?
And how lovers will find each other trembling
with that touch more sweet when secret
no matter how would-be masters peep and rage.
Of Helen too I sing, cousin of my beloved,
Who went off with the shepherd prince,
one eye in joy, one in sorrow, for she knew
The chaos that love would have her make.
And the sacred three who claimed the fruit
Eris plucked from her tree of hate,
Were victims of their own envy and scorn,
The dross left behind when love's not golden.
Even Zeus could not settle the matter square.
Above all, who wants that hag Strife at a wedding feast?
And yet there she is – in our obsession to own.
No matter our will, fortune's wheel
gives way to necessity's spindle.
Even the gods cannot seal the book of fate,
Return the wave or unchop the tree. This is why
Love cannot be forced for it chooses us,
In a whir of wings, in the arc of an arrow.
Its nature will out however pent up,
For she will deliver her babe anew.
And so I left Ithaka, even though
I knew he did not love her the way I did,
The reason why I do not hide my head in shame.
I continued in the path of Linus
And sang in many a land and isle
How Hermes is in love with the world
And out of longing makes eternal song.
This is the way of the ocean and the bard,
Her poet, whose heart and eyes cannot falter
As long as hers are in the world.

 

Coda: Song of Archias

I swear you can see
By starlight
Looking straight into the night
Above a river.

I swear you can walk
The air that sways the bridge
And lift above the stream,
Never to be seen.

Come and join me here,
In the rain of the forest
And the suns inside the dew.
What are the woods without you?

And if you think time holds still
Waiting for your silent footfall
Across the moonlight over the stream
Where I lie awake with the owl,

What do you make of a flower
Not to smell it until tomorrow
When heaven would have taken its due
And the best has been lost to the wind?

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