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.