Penelope on the Beach [For Valentine’s Day]

February 9, 2014

It was only day. It was Ulysses and it was not.
—Wallace Stevens[i]  

When Penelope bathes, she wades
into the wake of the wave he has left behind.
Her hands still shake remembering that his hands
had grasped nothing, nothing of her mind.
She’d said she must hide so as not to seem
to be bidding him goodbye. Transformation
would be her suitor now, not her guest.
He’d said, if she went swimming in the sea,
her mist would complete a marriage vow,
one made to him and to the approaching sun.

How bright the morning is.
How brisk the wind.
Penelope was on the beach
when the light flashed
and the earth cracked apart.
Ten thousand birds lifted her into the air.
Who or what was out there?
Was it the mist or Penelope’s whisper
he heard throughout the stars?
 I will be a different person when
you return, my love.
I will still be your fate,
but I will know you only by your scars.


[i] The World as Mediation.

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8 Responses to “Penelope on the Beach [For Valentine’s Day]”

  1. John Stevens Says:

    There seems to me to be a solemn mystery in these lines, Jim. I particularly relish the opening five or six: I can see her bathing there, the wake of his ship no doubt long faded. The poem’s hypnotic.
    The Wallace Stevens poem I don’t know. Sadly it is not included in my Faber Selected Poems of his.

  2. John Stevens Says:

    Thanks Jim. Another beautifully measured hypnotic poem by WS.

  3. Anna Mark Says:

    The lines I relish are the ones at the end of both stanzas. Her mist completing a marriage vow, and then the words in italics at the end. I’d love to hear some comments from the author on this one. I’ve been reading some Yeats’ poems lately and so I find myself relating the poem “Ephemera” to this one of yours: Before us lies eternity; our souls/Are love, and a continual farewell.

  4. extrasimile Says:

    ‘Ephemera’ is quite a nice poem. I certainly did not have it in mind, but I do see what you mean, Anna. As a definition, ‘Our souls are love and a continual farewell ‘ is about as good as it gets.
    And anytime your mind makes a comparison with Yeats to something I wrote…well, good. It’s like playing ball in a celestial ball park.
    Some comments by the author? I guess that would bed me, huh? Okay, let’s see. One thing: as I was working I got interested in the relationship between the two stanzas. In particular: they could be considered as either as two parts of the same poem, or two poems. What is the relationship between the two? Not quite in conversation or dialog with each other—they are or seem to be ignorant of each other’s existence—yet they still are in some communication with each other—like two logs burning next to each other in a fireplace.
    And then I toss in the Wallace Stevens log—which tumbles to the back and smolders throughout the poem…
    Perhaps the relation might be characterized as [ to borrow again from WS] as an ‘intense rendezvous’, bound by a similar end. In teleology you will find…um, find the end of poetry? No, I don’t think so. What is that end? Except to say that they both imagine an end that has some teleological implications [maybe all three poems] a meeting between Penelope and…well, let’s call him Ulysses. The adventurer and his anchor—how they are both necessary for the [imaginary?] voyage. A meeting that doesn’t take place—at least in conventional terms—they imagine [and maybe we should toss Yeats in here] a meeting beyond where most poems are most comfortable and most necessary. Here is the place to mention ‘duende’. But I will stop with its mention. Google Garcia-Lorca duende. Fortune, good night, smile once more, turn thy wheel.

  5. Thomas Davis Says:

    This poem, Jim, is like a river filled with the currents of time. There is the story, first, of Ulysses and Penelope that will end with arrows bloody in the heart of suitors. This poem touches a moment when Ulysses is presumably at sea, perhaps sailing toward the encounter with Circe. It also refers back to Stevens and his portrait of Penelope dreaming of martial normalcy as she meditates about her deepest longings. Then the extrasimile poem, a contemporary contemplation about a modern poet’s contemplation about a story as ancient as any story to be found in poetry: Currents within currents within currents.
    In the extrasimile poem Penelope
    …wades
    into the wake of the wave he [Ulysses] has left behind.
    But she is also acutely aware of herself,
    …remembering that his hands
    had grasped nothing, nothing of her mind.
    There are the suitors already eating her out of house and home, but
    …Transformation
    would be her suitor now, not her guest.
    She swims in the sea, her essence becoming a mist that not only completes a wedding vow that Ulysses says she made, but also connects her self to him on his journey over the sea. In Stevens’ poem Penelope cannot distinguish between the warmth of the sun and her pillow. There is a tension between reality and the reality Penelope perceives should be real. In this poem Penelope’s reality transcends reality when she becomes mist that
    …would complete a marriage vow,
    one made to him and to the approaching sun.
    The sun, as I read this, has multiple meanings, the sun being the longed-for approach of Ulysses over the sea and the light that sails through the heavens, threatening the mist that she has figuratively become, the reality of the real day.
    Then the contemplation part of the poem drawn from poet’s mind, the currents of Homer, Stevens, and extrasimile:
    …How bright the morning is.
    How brisk the wind.
    But then…
    …light flashed
    and the earth cracked apart.
    Ten thousand birds lifted her into the air…
    and the poet asks,
    …Who or what was out there?
    Was it the mist or Penelope’s whisper
    he heard throughout the stars?
    The he, at least on one level, is Ulysses. He is sailing beneath the stars. There is a mystical link, Penelope’s mist, but also the physical link of a whisper. On another level the he is the poets contemplating the meaning of Penelope and her meditation not in Homer’s ancient story. There is also a hint that “out there” is more than Penelope, more than mist, more than whisper, a who or a what, something immense in the night sky produced by light flashing and earth cracking apart. This even though Penelope and her meaning as she dreams of physical conjugality, “…his arms as her necklace…” in Stevens’ poem is still central both as mist and as a woman bathing in the sea.
    Then the ending, the powerful ending:
    …I will be a different person when
    you return, my love.
    I will still be your fate,
    but I will know you only by your scars.
    Ulysses’ warning, mankind’s warning, to Penelope and her dream of the reality that she wants tells her, I will be different even though I am still your fate, and I will know you only by the scars you have suffered because of my absence, because of what will come in the courtyard, because of the real realness of the world.

  6. extrasimile Says:

    Yes, Thomas, the river image is almost always a good one to apply to my poems. There was a time when I spent a good deal of time in and about rivers—mostly in them. That time is sadly gone, but a good river is still a sacred place to me—though it may feel like I’m making you swim upstream here. It is interesting that one can make use of a story we all know and it saves a good deal of paddling [to mix metaphors a little] though I wonder what it signifies that this one goes back centuries, while the WS poem is practically unknown. I had occasion last year at a family gathering to ask did anyone know what happened to Socrates—how did he die? Now these are smart, educated people [in some cases, one might say hyper educated] engineers, research scientists, doctoral candidates, etc., and with the exception of my cousin—who is a judge, and should know—no one else had a clue—and were daunted not in the least by this—let me say it—ignorance. Shakespeare remains a mystery to them. Eliot, Yeats, WS, etc. are unknown. What does this mean for our common life? Do we really understand anything if we don’t understand King Lear? When we are born we cry that we have come to this great stage of fools.
    Okay I’ll get out of the pulpit. I know I’m preaching to the choir here. Thank you once again for taking the time and making the effort. The river flows on—with us and without us—asthe old song would have it.

  7. Thomas Davis Says:

    I was just in Washington DC. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium, paid to do so by the National Science Foundation, wanted advice on how to build Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education in underserved communities. Norah Sabelli and I were the outliers in a conversation that included dozens of experts from though out the United States. Norah has been associated with Standford as an expert in education. We both said that STEM-related knowledge and skills were part of humanity’s knowledge-base and had to be treated that way in education. Although clearly a scientist needs to learn about their particular science, they also need a broader perspective to round out their development. We claimed that culture was an important component in motivating young students to decide to become someone interested in a STEM career–that truncating education so that poetry or art has no role ends up discouraging rather than encouraging the discipline of STEM studies. Needless to say our argument went nowhere, although both of our reputations are such that this “distinguished” group was polite when listening to what we had to say. You wonder why your relatives to not know of Eliot, Yeats, Stevens, and even Shakespeare? You are an educator, and you know, sadly.


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