For Christmas I gave John Michael Longley’s new book, Angel Hill. He’s a poet we both admire. I particularly like his translations, free translations, of moments from the Iliad and the Odyssey. They are like amulets, verses to keep things alive, safe, in memory (I am thinking of earlier books containing elegies for his twin brother and his father), and in beautifully crafted lines that echo the older lines but also carry something of Longley in them too.
Last night I was reading Angel Hill in bed when I came to “The Brooch”. The poem references a passage from Book 19 of the Odyssey, when Odysseus, not yet known to Penelope, tells her a story of her husband. She’s not sure whether to believe him and asks for proof.
“I think that I shall say, friend,
give me some proof, if it is really true
that you were host in that place to my husband
with his brave men, as you declare. Come, tell me
the quality of his clothing, how he looked,
and some particular of his company.”
(This is from my beloved and much-read translation by Robert Fitzgerald. I’m going to read the new Emily Wilson translation this winter and will be curious to compare the two.)
Odysseus replies, “I shall tell what memory calls to mind.” And then he describes in detail a tunic and a purple cloak, pinned with a
made of pure gold with twin tubes for the prongs,
and on the face a work of art: a hunting dog
pinning a spotted fawn in agony
between his forepaws—wonderful to see
how being gold, and nothing more, he bit
the golden deer convulsed, with wild hooves flying.
I’m sure someone has written about the art objects in this poem, how they are so carefully and beautifully rendered so that the reader stops, truly sees them, and never forgets them. As Penelope never forgot.
Now hearing these details—minutely true—
she felt more strangely moved, and tears flowed
until she had tasted her salt grief again.
You want this to be the moment when she is taken back into her husband’s embrace but no, we have to wait until the bow has been strung, the suitors and slaves slaughtered, and the riddle of the bed solved. And Michael Longley gives us that moment:
Telling the truth and telling lies, Odysseus
So close to Penelope, yet so far away,
In the middle of his rigamarole, a brooch,
A golden dog grasping a dappled fawn
In his forepaws, fascinated by it
As he throttles its struggle to get free,
A clasp of such intricate craftsmanship
For fastening (in his story) the tunic…
Poetry has this capacity to turn on itself, to contain the old story and to make something new of it, its own intricate craftsmanship modelling the fine metal of myth and love and faith, and yes, cruelty, as the dog throttles the fawn and the man withholds his own identity from a woman who has waited twenty years for her husband to return to her.
This morning, thinking about the brooch, I remembered the dog I gave to John, most often worn with a vest I sewed for him (look at those buttons!), but once worn on the lapel of a black suit to Rideau Hall when he won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2006. In her sweet voice, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean asked him what the dog meant. And he told her it was protection against the other dogs of Canadian literature. To which she gave a small surprised laugh.
Was Odysseus’s brooch a protection? An amulet that took him through war and wild water? Did it slip from its clasp or fall with the tunic and cloak? He was naked when Nausikaa found him by the river, a time when he surely could have used a noble robe, held in place with a golden dog.