“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.

“In the middle of his rigamarole, a brooch…”

john's dog

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

                                                                    …brooch
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.

a great loveliness of ghosts

Since the beginnng of January, I’ve been swimming three times a week, sometimes four. There’s a pool and gym at the local high school and for years my children took lessons there. We’d go sometimes on winter weekends, especially when the power was out for a few days, as was more common in those years. (There’s a new kind of wire now running along the Hydro poles and we don’t have those long outages any longer, though we still have a few days here and there when the power goes out and we resort to lamps, a Coleman stove).

But the pool. I don’t much like chlorine and I don’t exactly like the notion of swimming back and forth without much purpose. Whatever it was that happened to me after my bout of pneumonia in late August had some unexpected side effects. One was pain in my right knee. Sometimes it was too severe for me to go for the long walks we like to take most days. It didn’t occur to me until quite late in the fall that swimming might alleviate the pain or at least allow me movement. And then it was Christmas so I didn’t bother looking for my bathing suit and figuring out the pool schedule, though by then John had begun to swim a couple of mornings a week. Home he’d come with news of the world — or least news of the world of Pender Harbour retirees.

So I began to join him in early January. There’s something that happens a few laps in. My mind clears, I find my way in my breathing and in the water itself (because water can resist you if you don’t find where you should be in it), and some deep thinking begins.

I’ve been thinking about what happened to me in the fall, why I felt, with the uncertainty of my health situation, that I was between worlds. At night the sky shimmered with stars and I wanted to be among them. My dreams changed. I saw things in my daily life, just out of the corner of my eye. People I knew long ago. People who’ve died. It was comforting in a way. Whatever happened, there would be company. I saw my mother in dreams a few times. I thought of Odysseus’s journey to the underworld, “the realm and region of the Men of Winter”,  and how he found his mother. She told him she died not of any true illness but of loneliness for him. And reading Book Eleven just now, A Gathering of Shades, I remember all over again why I love Robert Fitzgerald’s work with this great poem: “Here was great loveliness of ghosts!” If they are lonely for us, so are we, for them.

I am grateful that the worst hasn’t happened (or been diagnosed). I’m grateful to have the opportunity to carry on with my life, which I’ve always loved. But I think I’ve learned things about what waits for me. I had such clarity in the fall. I hope I don’t lose that. I knew what I wanted to do with my time on earth. I knew what was important. I wrote and sewed and planted a hundred tulips. I fed the birds with such tenderness, because what if it was my last fall?

In 2013, in mid-winter, we had to have our septic field rebuilt. Because we’d made our big vegetable garden over the field, we had to dig out everything we could — raspberry canes, gooseberry bushes, roses growing there because the fence protected them from deer and elk, an apple tree, huge perennial herbs, bulbs of every sort. We dug things up and put them into temporary pots and then the man who was doing the rebuilding, a gardener himself, lifted the soil into big heaps outside the garden area with his backhoe. He scraped up every last teaspoon of rich earth. And after he’d made the new drainfield, we worked out where we’d put new beds, all to be framed with recycled cedar boards from old decks and various projects, the paths over the drainlines so if there was trouble, we’d know exactly where to find it. Then Doug scooped the soil back with the bucket of his backhoe, smoothing it into long barrows in the areas between the lines. It took some weeks to build those boxes, to replant what was waiting, and to try to establish the garden again. One day, easily a month after we’d replanted everything we’d taken out, I dug a hole for a new rose.  And here’s what my shovel brought up from under the earth:

from underground.jpg

There’s an amazing scene in Book Eleven of the Odyssey when Odysseus meets his old comrade Akhilleus.

            Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.

Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t change my life on earth for anything. Not yet. But I have some sense of entering the great system of rivers surrounding the underworld: the Acheron (river of woe), the Cocytus (river of lamentation), the Phlegethon (river of fire), the Styx (river of unbreakable oath by which the gods took vows), and the Lethe (river of forgetfulness). I’ve always loved rivers. And having dreamed of my mother and others I’ve loved and lost, I understand what Odysseus meant when he said, “But my heart longed, after this, to see the dead elsewhere.”

“all the night’s pure figures”

I was awake for a long time in the night, thinking about time. Often I find myself so close to understanding its passing, what it means. I was awake in the night, thinking, in the room we built nearly 35 years ago, with the leafy silhouette of the arbutus tree dark against the white curtains. This tree, now as high (or higher) as the second story of our house, was a tiny shattered collection of branches when we first began to build in the summer of 1981. But in a few weeks the warblers will be loud in its blossoms.

The moon was in its first quarter last night and when I got up to pee, I paused by the window above the stairs where I could see the Great Bear, Ursa Major, that beautiful constellation,

                   …that some have called the Wain,

pivoting in the sky before Orion;

of all the night’s pure figures, she alone

would never bathe or dip in the Ocean stream.

(Odyssey, Book Five, 263-6, trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

It was a spring sky, or nearly so. Even though there’s new snow on the mountain behind us, the air has spring’s promise. The colours of green are almost fluorescent, particularly the moss on the trunks of the big-leaf maples which are just beginning to show their flowers. (When we walked the other day, after a big wind, you could see the buds all over the trail.) We think we are tuned to the seasons and maybe we are, to some extent, but I’ve been remembering how last March we spent part of a day with an archaeologist in Portugal, looking at the Almendres Cromlech and other neolithic sites near Evora.

cromlech

The Almendres Cromlech site was constructed over several thousands of years, each phase reflecting social, ceremonial, and spiritual values, and seems also to be an astronomical observatory — though why would this be a separate consideration? That says more about me than the people who lived there and were associated with the place, were as rooted to it as the stones appear to be rooted in the dry earth.  There is one stone which is associated with spring equinox and a line from the site to a single menhir about 1400 meters away points to sunrise on the Winter equinox. It was a place I felt I could spend a lifetime. There were cork oaks and black pigs foraging for acorns beneath them. Wild flowers, chestnut trees, olives, and the oaks, tiny lizards skittering among the stones, the sun. Time was a different thing there, a densely layered accumulation of stones, wind, even the generations of pigs, dating back (at least) to Homer:

Bring in our best pig for a stranger’s dinner.

A feast will do our hearts good, too; we know

grief and pain, hard scrabbling with our swine…

Odyssey, Book Fourteen, 416-19, trans. Robert Fitzgerald

So the Equinox approaches –March 20, 4:30 a.m. — and we’ll observe it with the usual lack of ceremony. No stone circles to help us predict the sun’s early rising, the long setting over Texada Island. No pig, fattened with the mast of oaks, to roast over a fire of dry chestnut wood. Our stars are storied but who can remember? Years ago when we built our house, we’d sit by the fire outside our tent and John would point out the constellations he knew. Orion, for whom he had special affection (my husband was an archer as a boy and his bow, his quiver of arrows, are in the workshop still, though the bow is unstrung all these years), the vain queen Cassiopeia, and the Great Bear and her son, who never set, “never bathe or dip in the Ocean stream.”

morning salad

By noon, the lettuces are too limp with heat to pick. So I’ve been going out in the morning to gather a big colander of salad to have later in the day. It’s too hot for much more than greens at lunch and dinner, though yesterday’s sockeye, barbequed in the early afternoon when the patio was cool and eaten in the evening with dill and chives (and salad) is one option. So today’s picking — red lettuce (the butter lettuces went bitter in the heat and are now in the compost), arugula, and the volunteer catalogna lettuces which seem to thrive in summer; and then I wondered if the garlic was ready to pick too, three weeks early. And it is.

morning saladThe raspberries are lovely right now, juciy and perfect with cream, after sulking for two years when we had to uproot them to rebuild the garden after the septic field had to be repaired.

raspberriesSo we’re ready should a god arrived, unannounced:

She drew a table of ambrosia near him

and stirred a cup of ruby-coloured nectar —

food and drink for the luminous Wayfinder,

who took both at his leisure…

                                –Odyssey (trans. Robert Fitzgerald), Book Five, lines 93-96)

******************

Later: it turns out the gods were here all along.

leaving

green pie

To keep up with the kale — which is last year’s planting and it’s wanting to bolt but this year’s seedlings aren’t quite big enough to begin cutting — I’ve been making green pie. Two big ones today, one to eat over the next few days and another for the freezer. Tomorrow I’ll make a couple more. When our plane landed in Vancouver last Tuesday, after 12 days in New Mexico and five in Edmonton, I thought how beautiful and lush everything was. Grass, trees, even sea itself as we drove home up the coast highway. And when we got to our place, it was the kale I saw first of all. I thought of the lines from the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits Phaiakia (and I think they are even better in the Fagles translation than the Fitzgerald which is the one I usually consult, mostly because it was the one my wonderful Classics professor Peter Smith taught to us in 1974):

And there by the last rows are beds of greens, 

bordered and plotted, greens of every kind, 

glistening fresh, year in, year out.”. (Book Seven, 129-31)

So kale and dandelion greens and blood-red sorrel, picked while still glistening with morning damp.

P1100056And they steamed down to this:

P1100061

I mixed them with chives, mint, and last year’s (frozen) dill, eggs, some delicious fresh feta, and arranged the greens over the filo, bringing out the Greek olive oil which had languished in a dark cupboard and looked like it should spend a little time outside first, reclining on the rosemary:

P1100066

And now the green pie is cooling on the worktable while we enjoy a glass of wine outside, in sunlight, with a few mezes — beet and toasted walnut spread on little rice crackers, some peas, a hummus made with roasted carrots and chickpeas.

P1100068After one of the wonderful extended catalogues for which the Odyssey is justly famous, listing those rows of greesn, figs, apples, and every other kind of fruit, the vines which would yield wine, all watered from a clear fountain, Homer ends the passage by saying, “These were the gifts of Heaven.” Who can argue?

 

Mediterranean dreams

It won’t stop raining. Too wet to go out to the garden, too wet (almost) to go for a walk up the mountain. It’s a bread day so the house is filled with the scent of loaves baking. Because I’ve been thinking about the Odyssey lately, specifically the moment when Odysseus returns to his home (in disguise), to see his old dog die on the manure heap, the faithful dog Argos who’d waited twenty years for his master to return, and because I love Telemakhos’s generosity —

Now Telemakhos

took an entire loaf and a double handful

of roast meat; then he said to the forester:

“Give these to the stranger there…” (Book Seventeen, lines 336-40, in Robert Fitzgerald’s fabulous translation)

— I’ve made some pita to have with ground lamb tonight, along with some of these ripe tomatoes, feta cheese, garden arugula in Greek oil, and maybe a glass of retsina which luckily we just happen to have in the fridge.

P1080282