Reviews

Poetry Review by Wendy Eberle

Sue Goyette, Penelope (Kentville: Gaspereau, 2017). Paperbound, 96 pp., $19.95.

PenelopeThe publication of Sue Goyette’s most recent volume coincides with the 2018 publication of Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, the first ever by a woman, as well as English classicist Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto (2017), in which Penelope is cited as the object of the “first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up.’” The classical Penelope has long stood as an archetype of the patiently waiting wife; although there is the sense in The Odyssey that she is a woman well-matched in cleverness to her famously wily spouse, this epic poem is not a text that passes the Bechdel Test. All the women here serve as foils to the men. Even in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2005), where Penelope is given a voice of her own, her task here is to set the record straight: Atwood has done considerable research and performs a feminist critique of the epic through Penelope, but her character takes centre stage to explain herself to others. Of course, by engaging with this epic, Goyette is also entering into a field already replete with richly poetic reimaginings, notably Derek Walcott’s Omeros and James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is a bold venture to stake a claim in this terrain.

Yet, Goyette’s Penelope indeed succeeds in breaking new ground. Hers is not only a Penelope who speaks in her own voice; her work is about Penelope, first and foremost. The distinct voices of others are also heard here—those of Telemachus, Odysseus, even Penelope’s bedroom door and ceiling (or, as it prefers, “Better Than Floor”). But Penelope is the centre around which all else turns; and further, she is gifted with a true inner life of the mind. We find ourselves not so much attuned to her voice as eavesdropping on her internal monologue. Penelope takes her own inward journey here as her mind ruminates and divagates.

Penelope’s thoughts ebb and flow in a clear poetic voice. Goyette’s language is rhythmically repetitive, like the waves and the weaving motifs so deeply associated with The Odyssey, and in tune with the oral tradition and descriptive mnemonic epithets that shape that text. Her Penelope’s thoughts come to life as she wakes repeatedly from her characteristic slumbers, beginning, “I wake to visitors at the door” (9) as she is immediately besieged by the importunate suitors who come to dominate her existence. Goyette captures the chaos of their arrival and takeover of the palace at Ithaka as Penelope reports, “I lose track of their legs. By week’s end, the demand to be seated / so unruly, the carpenters are delivering stumps, then entire logs” (9). A few pages further in, she wakes embarrassed, as she remembers the carousing of the night before, the suitors efforts to get her drunk successful: “Are you really going to start a band? / I’m asked. My recall, initially, is dutiful. / Was it so terrible that I had sung?” (10). Already there is a skillful weaving on Goyette’s part as Penelope’s inner language and her character evolve to become both of the past and the present time. When the pressure from her suitors builds, their lines move from Homeric to crass: “Your hair’s been licked by the sun, they say, /are you sure you’re not a goddess?” “Smile, I’m told. Show me your tits” (55).

Penelope describes herself inhabiting her spousal role as if playing a part, her refrain, “I dress dutifully” reoccurring at regular intervals throughout the steady rhythm of couplets, mimicking the habitual nature of the action and creating a new form of Homeric epithet for herself, in which she takes active part, as opposed to being passively described. Her restraint in response to the suitors’ harassment falls in line: “Though my patience is dutiful, / it sometimes pulls on its leash” (55) until she is stretched to a state of piqued frustration, in which even the form and rhythm of the lines can no longer contain themselves:

I awake, I woke                                                  am asked

 

reply and say:

 

 

(dutifullydutifullydutifullydutifullydutifully)
(64)

She struggles with the grief of losing her husband to war, with waiting for twenty years for his return, with being defined entirely by her role as a vulnerable queen who cannot, as a woman, take true charge of a kingdom: “And my tongue rallies back. I banter, I cajole. I screech / the crooked logic women know when our hearts are aghast and silenced” (11). Her thoughts and feelings come in waves, crash back against themselves, creep forward again. She is at once self-assured and self-questioning; the phrase “If I know” is as recurrent as “I wake.” “If I know anything, it’s about loss” (13). “If I know anything, this version of loss feels more like erupting” (39).  At one and the same time, she knows loss intimately; she is known for knowing it. And yet she is in denial that all is really lost: “I flail only when I wonder what time it is” (39).  At times she is able to escape, in her own mind at least, the constant trap of waiting and wondering: “If I know anything, / I’m beginning to realize, it’s best to know I know nothing at all” (59).

There is the possibility here for Penelope to transcend her motif as patiently waiting woman: “Loss isn’t a wound, I’m told, it’s the slit from which I’ll bloom” (42) “I wake transformed” (43).  But Goyette has not chosen to change the story as much as flesh it out, and the text winds its way to the inevitable conclusion. Penelope’s loss is ultimately healed with reunion: “I wake to watch us” (80); “If Odysseus is a mast, am I now a stalk, flowering?” (80).

Goyette’s Penelope proves to be a worthy companion that brings fresh life, and encourages our enthusiastic return, to a venerable epic; her Penelope further reveals herself to have a uniquely immersive life of the mind all her own.

                   

—Wendy Eberle

As in The Malahat Review, 203, Summer 2018

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