It was half inspired by Odysseus's disillusionment with a peaceful life in Tennyson's "Ulysses," and half inspired by a comment I heard once about marriage being wildly exciting for the first few years... until you realize that your husband is the blank-staring man on the couch, eating cereal noisily, watching television, and looking nothing at all like Prince Charming.
I began to wonder what Penelope thought a few years after Odysseus returned. Was she disappointed with how his military instincts conflicted with peaceful kingship? Did she think that he was a failure as a father? Or... perhaps the worst... was she bored with him?
Without further ado, here's "Sometimes"- a tribute to all of those relationships that turned out to be less of a rosy color and more of a washed-out sepia. Yay new poetry, wheeee!
An entry in Penelope’s journal
I watch the young Telemachos,
The seedling king, the son of rock
Find a father— then, distraught,
Like a waking child
From a glowing dream,
Find that visions reworded in flesh
Are nothing like what they seemed.
Sometimes, when the dusty earth
His rosy intellect must learn
He seems to think that things were better
Before Odysseus returned.
I catch him staring at the man
Soak the mid-November gleam
Lopsided on the crooked throne,
Spotted flesh on crumbled stone,
Velvet in wrinkled clumps
On scraggy knees.
I watch him watch his father walk
In loose pajamas robes,
Trudging through the courtyard dirt
Still edged with soiled snow,
Considering a tired bird
Limp as though
Its wings were clipped
And its songs were never heard.
You don’t expect Odysseus
To nibble noisily,
To squander muscle
In soft degrees,
Instead of passing a Saturday
Poring over an ocean map,
Resting a hand on your toughened back—
Taking the afternoon nap.
You cannot hear “Odysseus”
(The name so long equated with
The hard-thrust spear,
The rugged ship,
Wedged between the blunted prose
Of allergies and gaining pounds
And scratching an itching nose.
You don’t expect your fantasies
Of the long-expected one
To shrivel in the
I know the inequalities
Within that stillborn heart still burn,
And sometimes, that Telemachos
May dare to think, as our armor rusts,
Sprayed by the orange fern—
It used to be better,
Since Father returned.
I see him eye Odysseus;
The shirtsleeved hero shall defer
To the after-dinner stupor—
Penelope calls from the moldy steps,
And he cannot hear her.
I hear the rattling off-key thoughts,
Comparing now to the day forgot,
The hasty partnership in blood
To overthrow the suitors’ plot,
The day of brawling bronze,
The dual nods of heads
And clutch of sweating hands
Before they all fall dead—
The yearly dreamt-of king
Broke from clouded fantasy,
Rose to cry out, “I am he”—
That scarlet day
Appears so far away.
Although I’d like to play the game
And my affronted romance tame,
I hear the friction
In his wilting heart,
And I know that my heart
Aches the same.
You don’t expect the awkward pause
In lights-turned-out, past-midnight talks,
Or, in boredom, to let your hands
Pick at stems from the living tree
Still guarding the sagging bed.
You don’t expect the orchestra
Of the waiting universe
To play that unexpected song,
That thing that you
Should have known
You don’t expect Odysseus
To be so careless
While meaning well,
To govern farms
Like a prison cell,
To casually decree
Off with their heads,
While I nudge him, whispering
That some things are better
Or, with a helpless wave
Of his bold-veined hands
Let Telemachos sleep
With whomever he can.
Sometimes, I think the suitors’ yoke
(While the insults rude still linger,)
Or tearing threads on the weaving oak
With cracked and reddened fingers
While the dawn awoke with frigid thrills
Surpass today, since Odysseus then
Was hero still.
Today, like a child steering puppets
With fingers thick with lack of past
He steers the craggy, lonely land,
While his dark brown eyes
Still are warm
With ripe concern—
Sometimes I think
That things were better
Before he returned.
1. The change from marching iambs to a more erratic meter, and traditional rhyme to slant rhyme at times, marks the growing angst and honesty in Penelope's writing... all the way up till her final, intimate burst about Odysseus's failure as a father figure.
2. The living tree, I think, symbolizes the continuity of Odysseus and Penelope's marriage... it's usually a pretty romantic idea, but what does eternity mean when it is disappointing... or boring?
3. Unlike my last two poems... this is a serious poem.