“There is a trick to how/this bed was made”

wisteria wood

All winter we’ve been reading Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, sitting by our fire, passing the book back and forth. I’ve written here before of my love for Robert Fitzgerald’s translation. I read it first as an undergraduate and I still have my copy from those days, with the price stamp — $2.04 — from the University of Victoria’s bookstore. I’d like to say that Peter Smith introduced me to this translation but it was an earlier (and less vivid) professor in what was then the Classics department. But Peter talked to me later about it, the long muscular lines of the poem and how the rhythm of those lines was part of what it made it so memorable. Its tradition after all was an oral one. In those years we read Milman Parry whose scholarship focused on the formulaic structures of epic poetry, the devices and strategies integral to the performance of the work. In an interview, Fitzgerald said something about Homer that rings so true:

His art was comparable to the art of the great musical virtuoso who can improvise, who can sit at the piano and by his mastery, both of the performing technique and of the musical background, can make music.

It seems to me that this newer translation is a different kind of work. Wilson doesn’t attempt the 6-footed lines, the dactylic hexameters that were the measure of ancient Greek narrative poetry. Her Homer sings in iambic pentameter. I pretend to no expertise in Greek prosody or English for that matter and my Greek is very small indeed. This Odyssey reads wonderfully but it’s not performative. It’s intimate, perfect for two people reading aloud on a winter evening.

We’re not quite finished. We’re reading Book 23 (of 24 books), “The Olive Tree Bed”. It’s always been my favourite part of the poem and now, 40 years married, I sort of understand why. It’s about loyalty, marital codes, caution. It’s anchored in the most perfect domestic object: a bed. After Odysseus has killed the suitors and the insolent slave girls who consorted with them, after he has walked through his rooms, naked, fumigating them with smoke and sulfur, he is bathed and dressed and is seated before his wife, who has not yet decided if he is the man who left 20 years earlier and whose homecoming she has longed for. She wants this to be him but is he truly her husband? He asks his old nurse Eurycleia, for a bed so he can rest. Penelope directs her to move their bed outside their room and to make it up with blankets and quilts. Odysseus responds in anger.

Woman! Your words have cut my heart! Who moved
my bed? It would be difficult for even
a master craftsman—though a god could do it
with ease. No man, however young and strong,
could pry it out. There is a trick to how
this bed was made. I made it, no one else.
Inside the court there grew an olive tree
with delicate long leaves, full-grown and green,
as sturdy as a pillar, and I built
the room around it. I packed stones together,
and fixed a roof and fitted doors. At last
I trimmed the olive tree and used my bronze
to cut the branches off my root to tip
and planed it down and skillfully transformed
the trunk into a bedpost. With a drill,
I bored right through it. This was my first bedpost,
and then I made the other three, inlaid
with gold and silver and with ivory.

I love this moment in the poem. The bed is as symbolic of their marriage as any ring or vow and this is when Penelope’s reticence dissolves.

As well as reading the Odyssey, we’re working on a shared project, a memoir of building our house. John’s writing upstairs and I am here, at my desk, thinking and remembering my way back to those years. I’m writing about the domestic details for the most part—caring for an infant in between hammering and lifting walls, making meals on a Coleman stove and a fire within a ring of stones with an old oven rack on top for a grill. John is writing about the rafters over our kitchen and how they were fitted onto the top plates of the walls. In a way it’s one of the secrets of our particular house, our marriage. Are you really my husband? Then tell me how did you discover the simple way to cut a birdsmouth joint? Which footing has our initials in it, drawn in damp concrete by finger? Where exactly is the cobbled stone path I made to the outhouse, now long grown over?

We’ve been reading at night but I’ve also begun to suggest that we read whenever I feel rising anxiety, often just after the Prime Minister’s daily update. To sit and read this old story filled with storms, murderous creatures, sorceresses, unexpected kindnesses, abiding love and deep purpose is one thing we can do in our house on the edge of the continent during this time of crisis.

 

within stories

sea lions.jpg

Stories within stories within stories. That’s the Odyssey. We are reading it aloud, to each other, most evenings by our fire. This translation, by Emily Wilson, is really marvelous. It reads smoothly and naturally. I’d wondered when I bought it how she would convey the long dactylic hexameters of the original text and her choice is iambic pentameter, the meter of English narrative poetry. I enjoyed the postscript to Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 version in which he discusses at length the strategies he used to try to replicate the formulaic tropes of the poem, part of the legacy of its origins as performance. A translator is always working with equivalencies, I think. I enjoyed too Emily Wilson’s Translator’s Note:

I have taken very seriously the task of understanding the language of the original text as deeply as I can, and working through what Homer maybe have meant in archaic and classical Greece. I have also taken seriously the task of creating a new and coherent English text, which conveys something of that understanding but operates within an entirely different cultural context.

We read and I notice that we smile a lot. We smile when we recognize a moment, or appreciate an image. When Menelaus is telling Telemachus about the old sea god Proteus of Egypt and how he was advised by the god’s daughter, Eidothea, to surprise the god as he slept, he recounts Eidothea’s description of how to find him:

He goes to take his nap inside the caves.
Around him sleep the clustering seals, the daughters
of lovely Lady Brine. Their breath smells sour
from gray seawater, pungent salty depths.

I remembered traveling the length of Lynn Canal, from Skagway to Juneau, by catamaran, and being told by the skipper that we would pass a sea lion rookery enroute. If we were lucky, and quiet enough, we could get quite close to the rookery. On deck, quiet, we were hit by a wall of odour, sour as old cheese, and there they were, the sea lions, some sleeping, some roaring from the rocks. Was there a god among them? Maybe.

“Good evening, stranger…”

kite, in progress

Last night we began to read Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey. We’ve been meaning to read together for awhile now, after last winter’s experience of Dante’s Inferno, followed by the odes of John Keats. I was sort of pushing for the Odyssey but John was resistant. Maybe nothing quite so classical this time around, he suggested. But I brought out this beautiful edition, purchased (in part) with my gift certificate from the Galiano Island Literary Festival two years ago, and we simply began. It reads so well. “Tell me about a complicated man.” What an opening. Yes, tell me. I’m going to resist the urge to compare. My beloved Fitzgerald translation lives on my desk, coming apart at the spine, fringed with stickie notes, a source of both solace and inspiration for at least 45 years. I paid $2.04 for it in the University of Victoria bookstore in the fall of 1973. I’ve read other translations but this one has always felt like Homer to me. I have to say that I do love the cadences of this Wilson version, though, and look forward to tonight.

With that, she tied her sandals on her feet,
the marvelous golden sandals that she wears
to travel sea and land, as fast as wind.

I might try a little exercise as we go along, using my Loeb Odyssey and my battered Goodwin Greek Grammar. I know there are more modern ways to immerse yourself in languages but I like the slow work of an old grammar and scraps of paper.

                                                            “Good evening,
stranger, and welcome. Be our guest, come share
our dinner, and then tell us what you need.”

Imagine if we could still open a door to a stranger, a woman in beautiful sandals, and offer her a meal, not knowing that she is a goddess. Imagine.