It was Penelope’s job to wait. And weave. Or so we think.
Who writes of Penelope, her many-syllabled reality?
Who wants to know what she had for breakfast the morning
that One-Eyed Clod was trying to finish her husband off?
Soft bread? No. Grain’s scarce and the land is full of discord.
The servants aren’t even up yet, and the suitors
are still snoring, sorting out odds in their dreams, casting lots:
two black: the ship’s gone down, she’ll have me;
one black, one white: he’s on his way, hold off;
two white: get out before sunrise and the trumpeting starts.
She settles for something with salt:
Plank of cod, smoked whole, still gilled and silvery,
is placed before her.
The sea’s outside the door, chuffing gently at the shore.
Her heart-shaped companion, the harp, lists against the cold rock wall.
The old wise maid’s made honey sticks, stiff reeds poked into the
hives to capture some sweetness. She’s stuck them like flowers
in a vase on the table, the tips of gritty gold straight up,
like tapers to ignite. She brings a shawl against the cold
and drapes her mistress. She mentions the gods and withdraws.
Penelope alone in the pre-dawn.
Tangled hair. A bit rank from lack of hygiene.
Finger tips calloused from working the loom and the harp.
She’s growing hunched from clutching her shawl
against the perpetual damp.
She’s no Greta Garbo.
Her legend beauty is Power, you see,
not the curds-and-peach glow of the starlet.
She’s coarse, mottled, her knuckles are starting to bulge.
But she’s practiced in Magic,
If there’s a crystal sphere anywhere near,
you can bet she’s looked into it:
Ship, ship, lulling on the flat sea.
One time, something hard to decipher having to do with pigs…
…a feast with roasts and figs (a momentary salivating response.)
A murder of crows. She sees them as a mutinous crew,
descending, shredding the sails in their fury,
One whole summer of hot wind, endless grappling with riggings,
eternal sun filling the sky.
She sees it all then turns away from the crystal ball
and there is no spouse. No ship. No harrowing waves
or narrow channels.
Another flake of smoky fish.
The honey insults her ruined tooth.
She refuses to wince, she’s grown that tough.
She tosses a tidbit to the mewling cat and fingers her chin
which may or may not be sprouting a hair.
She doesn’t care. The sun’s coming up.
Something is going to happen today.
He’s coming home, of course. We’ve read it a thousand times,
and each time the heart jumps, doesn’t it?
Imagine the trumpets sounding as the ships touch land,
all the townsfolk shuffling down to the shore, ripe for stories
of glory and gore, hungry for booty.
When Odysseus slumps off the ship he’s grizzled
and grim as a beggar. Twenty odd years
have passed and soon he’ll be face to face with his beloved.
She’s wizened and lacking a primary tooth or two.
Nothing to hide the wrinkles,
no lotions or potions, no scented oils.
To hell with it, she’d told herself when the last suitor
compared her to some plump fruit. She’d caught her face
in a silver urn and set her course.
Salt, she said.
But here they are now, circling each other.
Sun-shrunk and brown as a leather strap—
he’s smaller than she! The toll the sea took
is the shortened bones and the lack of bravura.
He’s thinking “husk” as he appraises her.
His lovely Penelope. She of the shimmering hair and the turn
of hip that could sting him with desire. The fleshy lips.
The pointed chin. The pearly…
She wants to burst into flames
to show him what she’s become: this force!
This fire will undo you!
Your wounds are nothing!
Your real travail is just begun!
He wants to lie down. He broke his collarbone
holding the ship’s course through the rocks.
He’s bruised and battle-scarred.
Didn’t there used to be wine?
Is their home really this small?
Where’s the dog?
Who is this woman, staring him down?
And then it begins: Drum… Drum drum…
Oh no, she thinks, no!
Lust is as dead as the old goat that tripped on a knuckle of rock
then tumbled, slid, and landed with a thud on the shore…
But here we still are. And the stars are coming out.
Look, my love, the Scorpion, see? The Centaur. And there’s the goat,
replaced on the rock, so noble, tenacious and dear.
And there!—the huge star that saw you home.
He unwraps her.
She hasn’t lost her sense of touch, our Penelope.
Her bent fingers’ callused tips are alive with the radar of lust.
This chest with its ragged scar where the Cyclops ripped at him.
Brown buds of pointless nipples—
(her own have begun to clear their throats and sing.)
The—oh—still tender hollow
where the throat keeps the voice hidden inside.
Her tongue wants to rest there, exchanging salts.
Her head is full of firecrackers, but her heart…
her heart is a fig held over the flame until it puffs and swells
and threatens to burst.
What a pittance of mercy the gods dole out, but
the old rugged pumps and valves deliver one more time.
O Odysseus sublime luck brought you here.
Look in her eyes—quick—
and see your own staring back. Now say yes. Yes.
Now the part where the moon slides out,
the stars do a few pliés and patter off stage left.
The lizards scuttle for shelter.
Not that it’s easy,
the giving up and over after all these years.
Don’t forget the crystal sphere and what she saw there.
Or the nectar he’s grown accustomed to.
But let’s hope they defy the odds,
and that the moon will hold its place in the sky long enough
to show them where they finally might arrive: home.
Susan Maeder lives on the North Coast of California and in southwestern France. She most recently performed her narrative poem, “The Goosefoot Tango,” as a one woman show in France. A career highlight was receiving the annual poetry prize in 2014 from New Millennium Writings.
DECEMBER 2, 2018 / MUSEPAPER POEM PRIZE #20 / HOME