Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Looking Back: A Penny Waits For the Old Guy

Note: November 28 marks the 16th anniversary of La Bloga's First Day of Publication. That's six years longer than Odysseus wandered while Penelope spun her spinning wheel. November 2020 feels like it's been 10 years since January 20, 2015. Is Joe Biden showing up on January 20, 2021 to give the boot to the thieving looters occupying the nation's living room? We'll soon find out. In the meantime, Michael Sedano shares a pair of Penelope columns, from 2006 and 2013. 

Review: Margaret Atwood. The Penelopiad. NY: Canongate, 2005. ISBN 1-84195-717-8.
Michael Sedano

Devotees of the great writers of American literature may find it unseemly to say someone "stumbled across" a Margaret Atwood title, but that's what I did recently when I picked up the north-of-the-border novelist's The Penelopiad. 

Atwood nearly always leaves me reeling in delight, as she did in The Handmaid's Tale and The Robber Bride. But because I had not much enjoyed Oryx and Crake–found it obscure and a small deviation from the writer's usual quality–I wasn't looking for another title of hers when my eyes caught the thin (198 pages) spine's almost illegible title, then noted the writer's name. 

What a grand idea, telling Penelope's story! For thousands of years, people have celebrated Odysseus. The Iliad's nine years fighting the Trojan war, then the trickster's own story of the long sail home, only to find his household in thrall to treasure-seekers. 

Penelope's is the backstory. Crafty Odysseus' equally crafty spouse spinning a cloak during the day, then unravelling it during the night as a strategem to hold off the greedy suitors' demands.

Atwood will have none of this backstory stuff, starting the tale with the 15 year old girl on her wedding day wondering which of the contestants would win her, then fleshing out the story of a lonely girl in a foreign city, an uncaring suegra, a bossy handmaiden and a chorus of the hanged. Homer's story winds to a close with Odysseus and Telemachus wreaking revenge on the suitors. 

After the slaughter, twelve slave girls, identified as collaborators, are assigned to clean up the blood and gore, then taken outside and hanged. But the story of the hanged slaves intrigues Atwood, and she builds the tale around them. As the writer observes in her foreward: "the maids form a chanting and singing Chorus which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of The Odyssey: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? The story as told in The Odyssey doesn't hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I've always been haunted by the hanged maids; and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself." (xv) 

The heuristic of building a novel from a cherished myth is the idea behind the publisher's myth series. In addition to Atwood's work, Canongate recruited Chinua Achebe, AS Byatt, and others to delve into old stories in new ways. Atwood relishes the retelling. There's Penelope in Hades, remembering various heroes trekking in search of answers, blooding a beast into a trench, then, "Once the right number of words had been handed over to the hero we'd all be allowed to drink from the trench, and I can't say much in praise of the table manners on such occasions." 

Pity the reader devoid the classics, they'll miss so much fun: "Odysseus had been in a fight with a giant one-eyed Cyclops, said some; no, it was only a one-eyed tavern keeper, said another, and the fight was over non-payment of the bill." The story of the twelve--thirteen, actually, according to Atwood--hanged slavegirls, along with Penelope's satisfaction hearing that Helen looked old during a visit by Telemachus to Meneleus' court, shows the fun a writer can enjoy when imagination runs freely through classic texts, plots, and characters.

Finding a Voice for Penelope 

Review: Tino Villanueva. So Spoke Penelope. Cambridge MA: Grolier Poetry Press, 2013. ISBN: 9781891592027 1891592025 

The woman approached me in the hall, outside the seminar at the New York Sheraton, book in hand. Now I’m generally not open to hallway sales pitches, but the law of Zeus Xenia requires fairness to strangers, so I let her engage me. It is the best hallway conversation I can remember. 

The woman had brought along a single copy of Hay Otra Voz Poems by Tino Villanueva. 

No, I admitted, I was not familiar with the poetry nor the poet. I flipped through the artisan-crafted pages that just covered the palm of my hand, scanning a line or two. Yes. Yes, wow. Spanish, English, mezcla. Then I read one at random, “Aquellos Vatos.” An instant classic, I had to own this volume. 

That was 1972 or maybe 1973.

Today, Villanueva comes forth with another instant classic of chicano literature, So Spoke Penelope. Published in a limited edition of only 800 copies, the slim volume of 60 pages presents 36 one- and two-page meditations Odysseus’ wife consoles herself with over the 20 years her husband went missing in the Trojan War.
Calculating Penelope’s age to be nineteen when her husband sails off to war, the woman ages across the poems until, at the eve of her fortieth year, her story reunites with Odysseus’ in a bloodbath that isn’t mentioned in Penelope’s rapture and falling into bed with her long-absent lover. 

Readers will enjoy the sweep of years that creates a poetic plot in Penelope’s biography. Villanueva picks moments of thought at 5 years, then six, ten, eighteen, twenty years, to illustrate Penelope’s determination to wait out the painful absence.

Homer didn’t know Puccini, but Villanueva certainly does. When certain images recall un bel di, it comes as an irony that the smoke Butterfly seeks on the horizon will bring only tragedy, while the sails Penelope longs to see will fulfill the three motives that Villanueva has invested her with, seething passion, desperate patience, and good wife faithfulness.

It’s curious that “home” is a rarely-visited thought throughout the collection. Penelope wants Odysseus back, wants to be wrapped in his passionate arms, wants him in bed, in Ithaca, wants to see his sails on the horizon. All that wanting, longing and absence, yet Penelope’s vocabulary rarely mentions “home.” Only in the sixth year of wanting does the word enter Penelope’s vocabulary.

“Home” implies permanence and resolution, qualities Penelope cannot grasp because she’s stuck in a world of ever-shifting never-satisfied wants and hopes, seemingly at the mercy of gods and goddesses that have already mucked up her world. So she weaves.

Villanueva writes for readers familiar with the Odyssey, rewards their knowledge with a rich tapestry of allusions, and dramatic ironies pointing to the larger context of world literature. Penelope wonders if Odysseus has taken up with another woman, not knowing how Kirke seduced her husband on the other side of this story. Penelope wonders if Odysseus has been captured, and the reader thinks how crafty polytropos used a word game to blind the one-eyed Cyclops and escape captivity.

At their most elemental level, So Spoke Penelope speaks love poetry. Richly textured from classical literature, each piece nonetheless stands on its own. Each poem deserves to be taken for itself, read one at a time, in any order. They stay with one, these poems, long after closing the book.

So Spoke Penelope is under translation now for Spanish and French readers, and possibly Hangul. From Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad now to Tino Villanueva’s romantic exploration, after 2500 years or so, it’s good seeing Penelope coming into her own. Visit the Grolier on-line bookshop to order your copies.

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