[Picture: Ulyssess and Penelope by Francesco Primaticcio, 1504-1570]
Homer’s Odyssey, that epic story of a man finding his way home in mid-life, ends with the hero’s return to Ithaka, where he is finally re-united with his wife Penelope. We are left to wonder what happens next: do they grow old together; do they rule the kingdom wisely; does he resume his adventurous wandering?
It’s such a compelling story that it’s hard not to speculate. Many writers have: Nikos Kazantsakis, wrote a famous modern sequel (substantially longer than the original poem) in which Odysseus, bored with family life, travels the world and eventually dies in Antarctica having spent time with Buddha, Jesus and Don Quixote; Tennyson’s Ulysses rails against old age and calls his past comrades to journey with him once more: to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield; Helen Luke, as an antidote to all this continued heroic striving, wrote a brilliant essay in which she imagined Odysseus maturing into old age alongside his queen.
But none, so far as I know, have contemplated the possibility of Penelope dying young and leaving Odysseus alone and heartbroken. When Chris and I found each other (I don’t mean when we met but when, after a decade of struggle, we both decided to love each other at the same time) I knew that I had reached my Ithaka and that she was my Penelope.
But it was not to last.
Within two years, Chris experienced the seizure that first alerted us to her brain tumour, and less than 18 months after that, by December 2014, she was dead. I had turned to the Odyssey many times in my middle years for inspiration, so the impulse to ask “what happens after Ithaka?” felt quite natural.
Yesterday morning, I woke early with the urge to write a poem to seek an answer to that question. I had a hunch that a formal poetic structure would help me to explore whatever images arose so I decided to try a similar verse form to the one used by Tennyson who wrote his poem Ulysses in unrhymed iambic pentameters.
The island that he fought so hard to reach
Has sunk beneath the waves and gone from sight.
T’was only ever She who made it real:
A king’s no king without a queen to rule
The kingdom of his heart. There is no throne,
No palace to adorn, no marriage bed,
No place to lay his grey and weary head,
No song, no wine, no stories and no dance.
An old man widowed by a vengeful god,
There’s nothing left of what he held so dear.
And so perforce, he finds himself at sea,
A shattered hulk beneath a starless sky,
A man without a mistress or a home.
The waves are still, the sirens do not call,
His grieving soul has lost the urge to roam.
Yet some faint hope is carried on the breeze,
The promise of a strange and distant land:
The perfume of a princess or a muse;
The whisper of a goddess in his ear;
The very breath of life upon his face.
Perhaps in time the tides will take him there,
A golden land beyond the trackless waste.