“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

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.

“the life we dream of when we look at houses”

On my bedside table, there are a couple of books I haven’t read from cover to cover but they’re ones I dip into from time to time. One of them is Rebecca Solnit’s The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness and it’s entirely suited to this kind of magpie reading. She’s a writer I return to again and again. Her books about her travels (to Iceland, to Ireland, her deep interest in how we view landscape and climate, her accounts of her walks and raft trips and reading, her intelligent writing on violence and politics — all of it is congenial to my own thinking. I’m always so glad to find an essay of hers in the issues of Harper’s that arrive in our mailbox each month. I’ve been known to start reading one of them as I walk the Sunshine Coast Highway from the mailboxes to our house with ferry traffic whizzing by and I realize that I might have become a story in someone’s repertoire: the woman in the old jacket, barely noticing that one of the cars narrowly avoided hitting her because she was oblivious to the world, face buried in a magazine.

This morning I read “Inside Out, Or Interior Space (and Interior Decoration)” in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness as I drank my coffee in bed (one of the luxuries of life: John almost always brings me a cup to drink while he makes the fire downstairs and does dishes from the previous evening’s dinner). I love the wide-ranging scope of this essay, how it combines nuanced thinking about houses, materialism, furniture and its function as art and anchor, privacy, real estate versus home-making…

We have a couch, more like a church pew, built of cedar; a friend of John’s made it 40 years ago. It’s heavy and cumbersome and now and then I think we might have outgrown it. But then I polish it with lemon oil and realize how beautiful it is, or would be, if I only replaced the covers on the foam cushions. I can sew a bit. Well, I can quilt, more like it. And the covers require something more like tailoring. I’ve made 3 sets of covers for this couch over the years — one set of heavy canvas which I printed with lizards inspired by this replica of a petroglph we saw at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah many years ago:


The others were cottons of various kinds and eventually they wore out, as the current set is wearing out. A few weeks ago, I found a bolt-end of linen in the fabric store in Sechelt. The fabric is French, I bought the whole bolt-end, 6 meters at 12.99 a meter.It’s beautiful and a little research online made me realize it was a wonderful coup; the linen can be ordered from various high-end interior design studios for hundreds of dollars a meter (reduced on one site from 362 a meter to 138). I bought it because I loved it and now I’m scared to cut into it because I realize it’s much finer than I thought. So it’s in a bag, by the couch, waiting for me to summon courage and patience. A small voice asked me if I was really going to devote so much time to, what, recovering an old couch? One that is only mildly comfortable, though it did serve as an extra place to put overnight guests in the old days when we often had many people coming to parties and limited beds for them to sleep in.


So I was interested and consoled this morning to read Rebecca Solnit on interior space:

There are times when it’s clear to me that by getting and spending, we lay waste our powers, and times when, say, the apricot velvet headboard against the lavender wall of a room in an old hotel fills me with a mysterious satisfied pleasure in harmonies of color, texture, atmospheres of comfort, domesticity and a desire to go on living among such color and texture and space and general real estate. There are times when I believe in spiritual detachment, though there was a recent occasion when I bothered to go take a picture of my old reading armchair to the upholsterer’s around the corner to see if it can be made beautiful again and worry about whether charcoal velveteen would go with my next decor. There are times when I enjoy the weightlessness of traveling and wish to own nothing and afternoons when I want to claim every farmhouse I drive by as my own, especially those with porches and dormers, those spaces so elegantly negotiating inside and out, as though building itself could direct and support an ideal life, the life we dream of when we look at houses.

I’m not sure our house negotiates inner and outer space elegantly, exactly, but it is where we live and where we return to after travels far and wide. It’s where memories and dreams anchor us as surely as the bed in the Odyssey is part of Odysseus’s return — a bed Solnit refers to in this essay as “the best piece of furniture in classical literature.” Part of the pleasure of an essay in general and this essay in particular is following the route a lively mind takes through rooms and literature and the gorgeous specificities of living itself.