Archive for August 2010

The Sense in Making Nonsense: Penelope

August 31, 2010

The Penelope series, “Counterpoint,” can be read on pp. 97-117 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948).

Discouraged, exhausted, unable to breathe without the stale and greedy odor of unwanted guests clawing into her pores, her mouth and throat—Penelope was no heroine. She was just tough, stubborn, and disgusted with the paltry minds and men around her. After Ulysses, who could blame her? She’d had a husband match her cleverness, see through and undo her strategies, twine her in his own confusions of honor and faith. She’d let herself be second choice once, and now her cousin was again the cause of her being seen not for herself. Being seen as the next best thing, some thing to be won out of failure, a little more power because of who and where she was.

Unlucky guests, unlucky suitors. It’s a rare woman who does anything solely for another even if she sacrifices nearly everything she has. Poor, dumb guests. Aching for love even as they wrestled for bits of power like dogs tangling for food dropped to the floor. They wanted to believe someone could be that faithful, that a woman could be so devoted to one man as to refuse every single other one. And that such devotion could be turned, betrayed, and become as pure as before with a new husband. A new father. Fickleness craves fidelity.

These, and other bitter thoughts, went through Penelope’s days as she wove and unwove the same piece of shroud, her father’s funeral wrap, for twenty years. How she must have hurt from the winding and unwinding, carefully undoing what had already cut her palms.  Twenty years! Was her father still unburied, or did she come up with a new excuse? She must have been grateful for the interruptions of illness, menstruation, household tasks, emergencies. She must have worn through her skeins and had to start others, been carding and spinning as much as she wove.

And yet she must have been tempted to give up and give in, to let go and not have to continue to fight, to let her son find his own wars. Attention is intoxicating. There must have been some guests who raised the blood beneath her skin, who made her nights more sleepless than they already were. And yet she was stubborn, like Psyche, focused on her task, believing that if she waited long enough, she would either be alone or be married still with proof at home and in her belly. Yet she must have known she was close to menopause; her body must have given her signs of age and different wisdom.

Penelope. Clever, angry weaver queen. Helen was her cousin, Helen the unfaithful. Helen who ran away before her husband could. Helen whom Ulysses wanted and lost, making Penelope never the first. And yet they had been happy, she and Ulysses, enough that he feigned madness rather than leave her. Enough that after twenty years of Cyclops and sirens, lotos and Circe, he returned, determined to be with her. With HER.

Athena was her cousin, if Zeus fathered Helen and the Gemini. And Athena’s gift of weaving played in Penelope’s hands, frayed the edges of her dreams. Athena sent signs when Penelope wavered, reluctant for the cloth to fall from the loom. Just enough to lighten the dreariness. And then Ulysses came. Disguised, older, not with flowers or gifts. With violence and blood, clearing out her suitors and littering her floor. I can smell the sweet awful spatters on her dress, across the loom. So much time and effort put into protecting the bleached wool, the semblance of purity. And her husband slaughters his way to her and expects a welcome. Penelope is no romantic, no heroine with long enchanted hair or special skills. She is old, tired, filthy. And spitting, hornet mad.

There are at least three endings to this myth. Happily ever after is the dullest and least believable, that she and Ulysses reconciled and stayed Ithaca-bound for their remaining years. Another ending undermines them both, adultery with Circe matched by infidelity with a guest, named and yet early and easily killed, forgotten, when Ulysses swung his club. Ulysses is less forgiving of Penelope’s betrayal than she of his—he exiles her, and she wanders, cursed not by gods but by the man who could never find his way home without divine intervention.

The third ending is odd; a new player appears. Penelope leaves Ulysses and wanders, yet meets Hermes on her travels. They marry, and Penelope has a second son, the god Pan, who in his wildness and cleverness is music and desire, promiscuity with no urge for faith or faithfulness.

Which is true? The archetype that speaks the most in the story you create of and for yourself. They’re all archetypes, these myths, not really real yet speaking for each of us in some experience of desire, lost love, belief, despair, and weariness. The women are weary, or they are lost. The men are unable to realize their desire without ruining that which they desire. What is found eludes the finder, or destroys what touches its form. And yet we wait; we try; we make different endings to the same story that keep us wandering and coming back. Finding our way home to unravel at night what we’ve made through the day, choosing what works. Rejecting the ideal for real. “Believing in something like air” (Jill Leininger), believing in something like truth.