with critique by Jendi Reiter
Eight thousand sunsets ago
you left for the wars of Ilium
I imagined you there Odysseus
taking courage from a song
the thrust of a staff
from a fierce verge of self
one expects kingdoms from.
Since then a flotsam of ill-omens
have washed these shores.
Out of desire and spite
I wove them darkly
into a shroud by daylight
ripped them skein by skein
in the bedding night of Ithaca.
When at last you found your way home,
my mistrusting heart refused you
so bitter it was
from a decade of waiting.
But the melting moment came—
you paused to touch the bedpost
you once carved
from the olive tree thrusting through the floor
a secret foundation
sustaining us where we loved.
Together we wept
offered gifts to the gods.
and you planted an oar
celebrating the passage
and the sorrow.
In a bronze twilight
we each told our story
holding back the night.
Now the shadow of a sundial
crosses your face
now your eyes are restive.
Like boundaries of a dream
they have no home address.
Tell me, dear wanderer
did you come all this long way
to revisit old terrain
inspect your own heart?
Copyright 2004 by Lou Barrett
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Characters in literary classics can become so much a part of our collective psyche that they seem like real people, whose lives continue outside the boundaries of the story. This month's critique poem, "The Unraveling" by Lou Barrett, imagines what happened after Odysseus came home to his wife Penelope. According to Homer's Odyssey, while she waited for Odysseus to return from the Trojan Wars, Penelope kept her suitors at bay by saying she would not remarry until she had finished weaving the shroud of her late father-in-law, Laertes. However, she secretly unraveled the shroud again each night so that the work was never completed. (Read more about Penelope.) In Barrett's poem, a different kind of unraveling is in store when her husband finally comes home.
The opening line, "Eight thousand sunsets ago," measures the beloved's absence in nights rather than years, the enormous number immediately showing us how vast and monotonous the time seems to the one left behind. Why "sunsets" instead of days or mornings? The "bedding night of Ithaca" is when she feels her husband's absence most keenly, and also when she unravels the day's work and perhaps broods on the futility of her actions.
The first two stanzas suggest that darkness has crept into every aspect of her routine. The morbid task of weaving "a shroud by daylight" alternates with the unraveling "out of desire and spite". The objects of these emotions are left nameless. Spite toward the suitors, surely, but her desire for Odysseus is probably also mixed with resentment toward him and the male world of war that lured him away. The emotions themselves may have become their own rationale, divorced as she is from meaningful connection with any man.
Yet Penelope still draws hope from the memory of her husband as a larger-than-life figure, who stands on "a fierce verge of self/one expects kingdoms from." (Fantastic line.) When he returns, the ritual-like gesture that finally melts her mistrust—touching the bedpost—establishes their love as similarly mythic, able to compete with the grandeur Odysseus sought in his voyages. Her realm and her achievement are momentarily equal to his. "The olive tree thrusting through the floor/a secret foundation" parallels the "thrust of a staff" in the first stanza, and the planting of the oar to symbolize that he now belongs to the land, not the sea.
Not long thereafter, though, Odysseus is restless again. "The shadow of a sundial/crosses your face." Do the days weigh as heavily on him as the sunsets did on her? Penelope begins to fear that his dreams "have no home address." Ever the patient one, her tone at the end is gentle and compassionate, not bitter and disappointed: "Tell me, dear wanderer...." It's as if she realizes that she has traveled further in terms of emotional maturity; after all his voyaging, he still doesn't know what he wants. "Did you come all this way/to revisit old terrain/inspect your own heart?"
This final question, like many of the lines in "The Unraveling," is fruitful with multiple meanings. One interpretation: The most important discovery resulting from the voyage was nothing "out there," but rather a deeper understanding of himself and the place he started from. Another, less cheerful interpretation: After everything we've been through, are you really going to reopen the question of whether you belong here? Was your course of action, like mine, circular and pointless?
This poem works so well because it is tightly structured around pairs of opposites: day and night, male and female, patience versus ambitious questing, land and sea. Each member of the pair vies for dominance and in so doing, reveals new aspects of its counterpart.
Where could a poem like "The Unraveling" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
National Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by October 31
Traditional themes welcome at this competition sponsored by one of Britain's leading poetry organizations; top prize 5,000 pounds
Briar Cliff Review Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: November 1
Style and content are a good match based on past winners
Third Coast Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: November 15
$1,000 prize from well-known literary journal, judged this year by Pulitzer finalist Sydney Lea
Ralph Gustafson Award for Poetry
Postmark Deadline: December 15
Sponsored by Canadian literary journal The Fiddlehead; no simultaneous submissions; enjoy sample poems from the current issue on their website
Academi Cardiff International Poetry Contest
Entries must be received by January 28
Prominent Welsh contest with a top prize of 5,000 pounds
Campbell Corner Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: March 15
Named for Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology, contest offers $3,000 for published or unpublished poems that "treat larger themes with lyric intensity"
In addition, these journals would welcome poems on classical themes (note that both are highly competitive):
The New Criterion
Conservative, high-modernist review of the arts and culture
Catholic intellectual review of religion, politics and literature
This poem and critique appeared in the October 2004 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.