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By Miranda Dennis
The Odyssey makes for good pandemic reading, in the winsome lonely hours trapped inside increasingly small apartments and homes. And so does Jeanne Larsen’s What Penelope Chooses. Full disclosure: Jeanne Larsen was my undergraduate and thesis advisor at Hollins University, where I learned from her that the best way to read a poem is to read it once, and then read it again. I recommend this tactic especially, taking the time to read aloud on the second try and hear the oral tradition converted into language that slaps like rap, that feels both breathless and textured, glib and somber. If you’re a bit more utilitarian, this tactic also works for work emails you hope to perfect before you send to a client or a Cyclops.
Some housekeeping rules: before we dive into Jeanne Larsen’s rich and playful work, it’s worth mentioning that one translation of The Odyssey has never been enough. Choose your fighters: Fitzgerald, Lattimore, Nagles, Wilson, the Coen Brothers. If you can figure out a good place to get your Homeric education, then you’re better prepared to tackle the layered, meaty poems Larsen brings to the table: not translation of The Odyssey, but slices into the psyches of the many, many characters who dip in and out with their honorifics, now to be relabeled, challenged, and renewed. In a pinch, Wikipedia will do.
Larsen sonnets through Odysseus’s consciousness, calls him a liar, and lets him lie. If you are a friend or foe of Odysseus, if you entertained him once on your lonely island, you’re likely now represented in these poems, both constrained and liberated by fourteen lines. Sometimes more. More housekeeping rules: each title is the first line of the poem, which means Larsen throws you into the wine-dark sea from the start. In “Easy as Offshoring: Necromancer Circe” Larsen wields contemporary corporate-speak to offer up Circe as reluctant middle manager of Odysseus and his oinking men. The musicality of saying “droves of CFOs/ root & grunt austerities to the stateless waiters/ at their hi-fatty feasts” is enough to make any poet-turned-corporate-cog-by-day to dig into her employee handbook and find the language for poem-making.
You might assume these poems center the female narrative, and to some degree you’re right, which must be a relief for those of us taking a deep breath to dive into classical epics knowing full well that women’s agency may not be at the forefront. But in Larsen’s world, this is not only imagined but paramount: if Penelope is unwinding her shroud for Laertes to stall her suitors, who’s telling her story? What do we know about Homer? Can we trust him to speak for her? Speaking of ladies, “Hello-oo—Forget that Sirenic Deliquescence” gives us the sirens who sing-song and cajole the mast-bound, lusty Odysseus:
Can it be you're scared
our charms will warp your manly bearings,
noon-becalm you, zero you in
on this skull-strewn strand where bones
sucked dry now sigh to wind-songs sung
in cunning lyric tongues? We’d never.
The sirens would never harm Odysseus, just as Odysseus never lies to get the intel he needs. It’s exciting to see Odysseus tied up (kinky!) in this view from the rocks. It might even make one want to linger here a moment longer, subverting the Odyssean gaze and mirroring it back to him. But let’s keep moving. Any retelling that shifts women from object to subject is inherently feminist, or at least innovative, but so is digging into the flagrant masculinity run amok with tenderness in The Odyssey. Odysseus and his men weep so much, it’s no wonder Larsen pauses to imagine them mid-war. What better way to do that than to slow down, take a look at the PTSD war brings these fighting men, like in “Maybe Already TBI’d, Achilles Sulking in his CHU”
had no idea how they’d thankyouforyourservice, the punch-drunk
spear-shocked Greeks, or what the muffled oops for a FUBAR
decade, for MRAPS-ful of dead dirt-sailors, cannon
cockers, crunchies. For 1000s of raging heroes embedded
in Ft. Livingroom. Answer? Killer funeral…
Shifting the camera from Odysseus to Achilles, reluctant royalty of Hades, Larsen weaves the jargon of wars from today into his recollections. This makes for a continuous war, a theme long-suffering Odysseus must know, from Troy to the slaughter of suitors in his own home. It’s something Americans know, from our warmaking on distant shores to the war here in Ferguson, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, as “City Ablaze & No One’s Hearing — Yo, Let’s Call It” cries out: “As well/ ask why hurt kills...Yo, citizens, let’s wargame/ this.” One wonders what the story would have been like if Odysseus had succinctly rapped at the dinner table instead of waxed on about his wars.
Of course, the power to call something war (vs., say, a riot) depends on the power of those in power. Take, for example, “Millennia Later, the Republic Bloody-Handed”
We know the tinsel-strung formulae
& plotlines: for showrunners, churls; bad moves on bad-move
battlegrounds; big lies; galling witlessness
tricked out glare-armored; crass sodden noxious
suitors wrangling on volatile juiced screens;
the after-mowing. But doom
was personal then,
War is everywhere now, if you have the lens to see it, the strength to fight it, the wherewithal to connect the dots across a spinning globe. Poetry gives us language to talk through the violence of global boundaries, or it gives us language to fall apart in its presence. What Penelope Chooses has one foot in the world of Odysseus and one foot in the present day, so every poem speaks with the dual tongue of PSA and poetic incantation. Pop culture, military jargon, the class warfare blooming in the shadows of our tech overlords, our wine-dark seas rising up to swallow us whole — all is fodder for a story about a godlike man, whose wife waits, weaving a shroud in hopes of keeping her suitors at bay. Penelope reflects “Troy fell means Ithaka will,” which means we will, so we better learn the language of one foot on dry land, one foot in the sea.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.