redux: “I will explain your route…”

Note: I’ve been looking at posts from the Before Times and this was just before, January 2020. I was curious about what I was reading and thinking. It turns out to be more of the same. I am still sewing, still working on essays, and I am reading Homer still, via Rosemary Sutcliff, with one of my grandsons, who is caught in the magic of those stories.


Angelica called on Friday to ask about the tiny brown bird she saw spiralling up a tree trunk in Victoria. It looked a bit like a wren, she said to her dad. But he knew it was a brown creeper because we’d just watched one on this tree right outside our kitchen window (and there’s no creeper in this photograph so don’t strain your eyes!):

tree without creeper

They spiral as they search the bark for insects and they use their tails for balance. While I was watching the bird the other day, I was thinking of stitching, long loose stitches as it moved up the tree trunk and as I sewed the spirals on Henry’s kite quilt. Did I think of the bird as stitching because I was doing that? Are its movements true spirals or do I imagine them that way because I love the Fibonacci sequence in nature and look for it when I am planting and harvesting? And sewing?

About stitching…On Friday night we were reading the Odyssey, Book 12, and John stopped to say, These lines could be an epigraph to one of your essays. The lines, spoken by Circe to Odysseus on his return to Aeaea from his visit to Hades, are part of Circe’s guidance to him as he undertakes what he hopes will be the final leg of his voyage home to Ithaka:

At dawn, sail on. I will explain your route
in detail, so no evil thing can stitch
a means to hurt you, on the land or sea.

We are reading Emily Wilson’s translation and it’s wonderful. But this moment, this word. I wondered how the male translators had handled this passage. So I went looking. My favourite translation until now is Robert Fitzgerald’s. This is probably because it’s the one I came to first, as an 18 year old university student without any Greek. I love the long muscular lines, the vivid language. Here’s how he translates that moment:

                             Sailing directions
landmarks, perils, I shall sketch for you, to keep you
from being caught by land or water
in some black sack of trouble.

And Robert Fagles?

But I will set you a course and chart each seamark
so neither on sea nor land will some new trap
ensnare you in trouble, make you suffer more.

I confess I don’t really know Homeric Greek. When I was writing my novel A Man in a Distant Field, I worked my way through Athenaze, Book 1, an introductory text for Ancient Greek. It was difficult, yes, but the protagonist in my book was translating some of the Odyssey and I needed to be able to do this for him. At that time we didn’t have a very good Internet connection. Ours was dial-up and using it for long periods meant no one could phone us so we tended to be sparing in how much time we spent online. I discovered the Perseus Digital Library, at Tufts University, a great resource for anyone interested in classical texts. You can read them in Greek or Latin or English. You can click on any word in Greek or Latin and you get a little window with a morphological analysis of the word. The Perseus site uses the 1919 A.T. Murray translation.

…but at the coming of Dawn, ye shall set sail, and I will point out the way and declare to you each thing, in order that ye may not suffer pain and woes through wretched ill-contriving either by sea or on land.

I have the Loeb Odyssey, in two volumes, which is Murray’s translation updated by George Dimock, still a prose translation, but the language is less archaic. Circe still points out the way and declares each thing.

When I work through the Greek text, word by word, at Perseus, and with my Godwin Greek Grammar, I get something like this.

But I at least bring to light a way eat each show by a sign in that place which contrivance of ill grievous (causing pain) sum salt earth suffer misery (calamity) have

No stitching. But Circe was a weaver and would she really use the language of mariners or something more related to the work she did with such skill? I love that Emily Wilson has, in this tiny moment in a huge text, brought a feminine (even feminist) gloss to the language of the poem. And I loved that we both noticed it, reading the poem together, while just outside brown creepers made their own metaphorical stitches on a Douglas fir that seems empty this morning without them.

“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.