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Archive for January, 2020

 

Visiting a foreign place for the first time offers the traveler the chance for fresh wonder and the jolt of surprise—like new love. But revisiting that place, perhaps multiple times, offers the traveler another opportunity:  to add connections through time and season rendering what was already known to layers of what is still to be revealed and the chance to find something new altogether.

Or so it is for me, as my colleague Linda Watanabe McFerrin and I work on editing a new anthology gathered from our Wanderland Writers’ latest journey to Greece in June 2019. The stories themselves bring novel takes on shared experiences, and reading them in winter light while remembering the heat of the summer that produced them gives a different hue as well.

What strikes me in particular is how many of these are women’s stories. Some featuring individual women encountered by the writers, whether an old woman on the island of Ikaria sharing secrets about longevity, or a young woman seeking roots in the ancient religion on a hillside in Athens; others featuring the ancient myths and goddesses themselves. From Athena and Aphrodite, to Pasiphae, wife of King Minos and mother of the Minotaur,

to the Oracle of Delphi, it seems many of the writers were seeking contemporary understandings from the lives of these ancient powerful women. They were looking at old stories through the layers of time and experience to discover new possibilities.

I have done this myself in reimagining Penelope, the vaunted, patient wife of Odysseus who waited for twenty years while beating back her suitors and faithfully weaving her stories until he returned. Or did she?  In the shadow the 2020 Women’s March, with women again on the forefront of viable candidates for president, with young women rising visibly on multiple fronts, I revisit a poem I wrote a time ago, in middle age. I see how easily those old stories link to our modern sensibilities–and longings–and wonder what new discoveries await me as I continue to plumb the treasures of Greece, visited, and revisited again in the richness of old age.

Penelope and the Suitors

                                   She had heard the whisper:

fish-tailed maidens

with nets of golden hair,

those sirens, their bitch-calls piercing

his ears, painted hands strumming

his legs

and Circe. Ah Circe,

wild young body dancing to calypso eyes,

that one, she’d heard, had lasted a year.

But Helen’s face,

oval goddess beauty

that he had looked upon,

haunted her

 

and her heart, slow constricted fist

                               beyond the leap of yearning, stopped

its beating.

 

Now, they said, he was dead.

 

For the first time in twenty years

she laughed, twenty years of rock

island, stone, sea, swells

of waiting.

Now he was near and those

who could not follow his wake

said he was dead, those who

could not tell dying

from coming.

 

At last near coming home,

the waves pulled back from the beach

like parted lips, like

hands running over hips,

rounded still, and she laughed

again knowing how the gods and suitors

wet their tongues.

Hair to waist, laced with silver

precious metal, like gold

on the looking-glass

where her face, smooth and finely laced,

finely colored from

twenty summers’ sun was,

she knew, lovely.

 

So what had he heard?

 

If he knew her at all, he would know

she did not remain untouched,

not by the sinewy black poet

who loved her like the night,

or the fisherman with the wise beard

casting his net of stories

about her, rubbing her back,

or the philosopher who thought best

with his slender fingers,

or that young artist with the Vulcan eyes–

all like the seasons, her weave of patches

a coverlet to cover

the marriage bed.

That is what they came to.

Still she dreamed Odysseus,

closed her eyes to see him

wearing those twenty years.

But she saw only his likeness,

Telemachus, the son,

beauty in his fierce and tender

restlessness,

the boy left behind, the guard

charged by men

to do what no man can:

Separate a woman from her desire.

 

Still she waited, had waited

waited and wanted

husband, blood-mate,

twin of the inner mirror

whose likeness only knew

the holier longings of love.

Then he came. Strong-chested,

broad-armed, steeled in

beard and bone.

 

Did he know at last what this journey

had been for?

                    

He saw her first, her eyes

the lissome blue his glance once

skated over,

mirrors on a pristine lagoon.

Now, around them, little creases,

terrain,

a holding place

before plunging

into the deep sea.

                          You are the most beautiful, he thought.

                          Yes, she smiled.

                  

                          Come in.

 

 

 

                                  

                                 

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Remembering Toni Morrison

Remembering Toni Morrison, (1931-2019), who said:

“I am staring out the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, “How are you?” And instead of, “Oh fine—and you?” I blurt out the truth. “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write:  it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election…” I am about to explain further but he interrupts shouting, No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds:  who did their work hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.

The list—which covers centuries, not just the last one—is long. A short sample will include Paul Robeson, Primo Levi, Ai Weiwei, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, Dashiell Hammett, Wole Soyinka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lillian Hellman, Salman Rushdie, Herta Muller, Walter Benjamin. An exhaustive list would run into the hundreds.

Still, I remember the shout of my friend that day after Christmas: No! This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilization is held.

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