Ithaca

  • The following was inspired by Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey. Specifically, read the closing paragraph in my previous post: Emily Wilson’s Odyssey. I did a few things differently with this poem. I roughed it out first, something I rarely do; then the blank verse revision. I’ve also been reading Shakespeare’s late plays, the romances, especially with a mind to his late style; and in combination with a book by Russ McDonald called Shakespeare’s Late Style. Historically, Shakespeare’s later verse has been considered problematic and was, by later poets like Pope, revised if not excised. Not to me. The syntactic “incoherence” of Shakespeare’s late verse is unmatchably beautiful. So, by writing the following, I wanted to learn from it. I combined the epithets found in Homer with the syntactic addition, divagation, delay, elision and suspension typical of Shakespeare’s late style. I know this isn’t any way to write in the 21st century, but me and my poetry have gone our own way.

Odysseus, wily navigator, you
Who have endured a thousand harborless sorrows,
I too have suffered.
••••••••••••I, being sent to launder
Your mistress’s apparel in the river
Or often, by myself, to bring from orchards
A desired olive, fig or grape, was also
Betrayed by those you’ve slain—made by them
A slave to slaves—my vessel desecrated
My lading mired and diminished, sorted
With weeds and brackish waters—yet for that
Condemned.
••••••••••••Odysseus, ingenious King—
Tell him, your minstrel with the wine stained fingers
Who sings of wayward tides, of witches, Gods
And far-flung isles, that I was also lost
Longing for home who had no home to search for;
And tell your songster in your rage you snared
My sisters by one rope between a pillar
And dome; and that we were together lifted,
Each beside the other, nooses round
Our necks until our feet no longer touched
The earth—the knots tight as a luthier’s string.
Tell your songster, though he sings of you
To tell of the twelve girls who were like
Thrushes that spread their wings to fly at last
But could not. Though struggling, we only breathed
To take another dying breath—our agony
Your pleasure.
••••••••••••Tell him: ‘Sing of girls, of slaves
To slaves, who twitched a little while but not
For long; whose rags were left behind, bone broken
And creaking in the winds of Ithaca.”
Tell him that we waited to be lain
Among the corpses we ourselves had carried
From the blood-soaked hall.
••••••••••••So long as sings your minstrel,
Odysseus, so long will fly from us
The last syllable of our breath: that far
From Ithaca, cries of murder, bloodshed
And vengeance—where the grass at evening shivers
In sea-spray and the noiseless spider sifts
The wind—was seen a startled thrush that cried out,
Took flight above the drumming waters, even
Above the dissolution of the air,
Into the spreading fingers of the Milky Way.

Ithaca
March 12th 2018 by me, Patrick Gillespie

 

17 responses

    • I was always bothered by it, in the sense that it seemed particularly cruel to make the girls clean the blood-soaked hall, only to hang them afterward and not quickly. But Wilson’s translation, stripping the title of “servant” or “maidservants” or “disloyal woman servants” from the slave girls (as if the titles gave them “agency”) made the passage, to me, all the more pitiable. As Wilson points out, these titles aren’t in the original.

  1. I’ve never been a big fan of Greek mythology—it rarely ever organized my brain. A cinder block well set is just as good a god as Zeus. But in the course of trying to address this subject as literately as you and the translators I spent about four hours last night between your posts and Wikipedia. I finally dozed off of exhaustion and spent the rest of the night dreaming I was under arrest for mass murder (a first). Nevertheless, I respect your effort here and see your point about Wilson’s translation. Your poem by my layman lights is also well done and held its own with the professional translators. I’ve noted before an inclination to rewrite verse to suit my own needs at the moment—in Odysseus’ case, humor. And so yet again it occurred to me while reading your poem that it too might respond well to the Tom Stoppard treatment and a rendition in which this slave of slave girls alone finds the key to Odysseus’ conscience, thence to survive and become his preferred concubine and even dominatrix. Yes, dominatrix! Whips and all! That would certainly make his mythic heroism more multifaceted, don’t you think?

    • Not sure about multifaceted. Sounds like you’d end up with something more like a cross between a Stephen Sondheim musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, and a Mel Brooks movie.

  2. Pingback: Emily Wilson’s Odyssey « PoemShape

  3. MUST we all write poetry? If you were Da Vinci’s Sly, you would attempt painting than serve the Hand of an age? As if Picasso’s father was no more good with paint and brush, when, to do the nobler thing, he retrieved his hand for his son’s uncommon mastery. Than be part of a great history, rather be the theme of a local gossip in poetry? Your poetry reminds me of Ludwig’s laughter in a biographical movie, on his listening to a composed touch of keys, aside his in his days.

    • I can barely sort out what you’re saying. But I think the general drift is this: You are the Da Vinci, Picasso and Beethoven of poetry and I should be so lucky as to polish your toes.

      So what is it about these posts on the Odyssey? Why are they bringing the tin-foil out of the woodwork?

      Here’s where I think you should go: mwildermuth.wordpress.com Either you two will get on swimmingly, since you’ve both taken up residence in the 18th century, or the radio active fallout from the clash of your mutual egos will sadly leave a portion of the Internet uninhabitable.

    • You know, the more I think about it, why not move your posts to Wildermuth’s?

      You can post your 18th century Biblical epic at his blog. I’ll be removing yours from here. I’ve been nice enough to let you continue posting in the Guest Book, but enough is enough. If Wildermuth lets you post there (and it does seem to me you two have much in common) try not to repeatedly insult him.

    • Yes, it *is* short, although one could read “girls” as disyllabic (that’s my sneakiness).

      Now that I’ve written a number of poems and have proved to myself that I can write strictly faithful iambic pentameter (that I know the rules and can play by them) I do what most poets (before me) have done with a mastery of meter. I play with it, introduce more flexible lines, let the vernacular win out every now and then.

    • I’m at a bakery at the moment. To answer your question: The first three feet could be read as trochees, but the way I imagined the line was with the stress on could. “…though struggling…” disrupts the iambic rhythm and that is deliberate, echoing, at least to me, the disruption of their breathing. There are a number of other ways I could have written the line to preserve the meter. A poor example might be: ‘But could not. Though we struggled, with each breath/We took another dying breath—our agony/Your pleasure.’ To me, the beauty in writing meter is in judiciously breaking it. :)

  4. Though technically, you could describe it as an epic caesura after the first foot! George T wright even gives a couple of examples!

    Yes, I do like the effect. I also like the clipped earlier line, with it’s plosives and liquid l’s, and your use of assonance, and the semi-anapestic flourish of “…who were like” at the end of the line. The shortness of the line, combined with that final flourish, pull me up short, and leave me in anticipation – and then we expand into the anticipation of flight in the next line, only to have that expansive freedom immediately choked in the line after. Yes, that’s exquisitely crafted!

    I guess the potentially awkward thing about sticking to and then straying from a strict meter is that there may not be any guarantee that your readers will read the line the way you intended – which, of course, is why sometimes Hopkins marked certain words to stress to make sure his readers didn’t stress the wrong words. Though having said that, given that nowadays most people aren’t very metrically literate, you may face that problem even if you do stick to a strict meter!

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