Poetry Sunday: “Penelope’s Song,” by Jeanne Wagner


Penelope’s Song

At first I was furtive, unraveling only at night,
and only by the light of a single oil lamp,

whose mauve shadows swooned over
the surface of the weave,

an affect I only later learned to make,
a secret between myself

and the shuttle’s slow deliberate slide
across the frame.

And who’s to know the shame I felt,
as if each new row I wove

were a promise I would break,
every ripping out a lie in reverse.

My sins, and they were sins,
were sins of erasure,

of abstaining from whole cloth,
and worse, sins of pleasure too:

the feel of a loosened strand,
juddering across the hem,

the way the weft raised itself up lewdly
like a lifted dressing gown.

Sometimes I think the loom looked better
bereft of thread.

The truth is, not long after he left,
the suitors became fewer,

came only to pass the time, to trade their
embellished tales of hardship and

renown, not to watch a woman weave
unepic tapestry in the corner of a room.

The day Odysseus came home to Ithaca,
I swore I’d put away my task,

my journeyman’s loom, but save that
long crimped strand of thread, so

that when he finally took me to his
bed, I could dream of all those

nights of surreptitious longing.
Just as he would dream of the sea,

the soft tongues of the waves
licking the sides of the hull,

a rope looped tight around his chest,
the Sirens’ call.



This poem originally appeared in Medusa in Therapy (Poets Corner Press 2008), and is reprinted by permission of the author.

Wagner_4-15-15Jeanne Wagner_book cover_10-16-15

Jeanne Wagner is the winner of the 2014 Hayden’s Ferry 500/500 Prize and 2014 Sow’s Ear Poetry Review Award. Her poems appear in Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Southern Poetry Review and American Life in Poetry. She is on the editorial board of California Quarterly. The author of five collections, her most recent book is In the Body of Our Lives (Sixteen Rivers 2011), which can be ordered here.


Notes on “Penelope’s Song”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

“Penelope’s Song” tells the story of Odysseus’s wife who, besieged by suitors during her husband’s long voyage, staves them off by promising to choose one of them when the weaving on her loom is finished. But what she weaves by day she unravels by night, and in this way she outwits them until her husband returns. As in another poem discussed this month [Prartho Sereno’s “Magdalene Faces the Tribunal,” 11/8/15], this poem is spoken in persona, the first-person voice of Penelope. And like another [Peg Pursell’s “Our Kisses,” 11/1/15], it relies on a symbol: Penelope as the ideal of marital loyalty and fidelity. In this poem, though, Penelope’s fidelity is given a unique twist and her suffering a strange and wholly new significance.

How does Wagner’s Penelope differ from Homer’s? Both women secretly undo their day’s work by night but this Penelope unravels with regret. She sees each woven row as a breach of faith with Odysseus, but she equally condemns the unweaving as a “lie in reverse,” an “erasure” and a selfish “abstaining from whole cloth.” But there is more. This Penelope has other, deeper “sins of pleasure” to confess. Whatever those sins are, precisely, there is no denying their powerful erotic charge:

the feel of a loosened strand,
juddering across the hem,

the way the weft raised itself up lewdly
like a lifted dressing gown.

What is the sin that so troubles Penelope? I started out by thinking it was simply an erotic thrill from the act of destruction, and some language does point to this kind of perverse delight, for example when Penelope confesses that she sometimes prefers the loom “bereft of thread.”

But the poem’s lines about the suitors (23-28) kept coming back to me, in part because they describe men so very different from the suitors in Homer. Here, the suitors are not pursuing Penelope; they come to Odysseus’ house to trade tales and boasts, “not to watch a woman weave / unepic tapestry in the corner of a room.” What is being described is the state of invisibility familiar to any woman who has reached middle age, and this makes me wonder if Penelope’s “sin” might be her own thwarted lust for the suitors who spurn her, a complete inversion of the vectors of desire in The Odyssey.

Let’s look again at that “a lie in reverse,” a phrase susceptible to many interpretations besides the one given, that ripping out a seam negates the vow-breaking that weaving represents. Here it is in context:

as if each new row I wove

were a promise I would break,
every ripping out a lie in reverse.

“Lie,” though, has another meaning, the biblical “to lie” (have sex with) someone. Read this way, ripping out the seams undoes or atones for (“reverses”) an act of sexual infidelity. The conditional “as if” might refer to the sex itself, telling us it was all conjecture on Penelope’s part, nothing more. Or, it could question whether the act of seam-ripping could ever possibly atone for a physical act of betrayal that did actually occur.

The extreme disinterest of the suitors makes me doubt an actual sexual encounter, and my opinion is that the infidelity takes place only in Penelope’s imagination. Even so, it is radical in its intensity. Penelope’s extreme state of arousal is evident from the outset, especially in lines like “mauve shadows swooned over” in line 3 and “the shuttle’s slow deliberate slide” in line 7.

Near the end of the poem, Penelope confesses to another betrayal, one that may be the greatest treachery of all. Knowing she has no more need of the loom after her husband’s return, she resolves to put it away. However, she finds herself unable to part with a souvenir, a “long crimped strand of thread.” Why? She plans to take it with her to bed with Odysseus so she “could dream of all those / nights of surreptitious longing.” These lines reveal that Penelope’s memory of past desire (I think it is for the suitors, but it could also be for the absent Odysseus) is stronger than the reality of her present desire for her husband.

We are not told in the poem what happens to the suitors after Odysseus comes home, but in Homer it’s a bloodbath; they are slain down to the last man. If that also happens in the world of this poem, then Penelope’s secret desires have had horrific consequences indeed. Still (and even though the word “lewd” tips her in this direction), I believe that this Penelope is not completely depraved. She admits to and condemns her own infidelity; otherwise, she would not make that vow to put away her loom. Yes, she finds herself unable to part with the crimped strand since the memories of the desire it invokes are more powerful than anything she feels now for her husband, but do we judge Penelope for this? I don’t; she is only human, and we humans cannot control what we long for. All we can control are our actions, and in these, Penelope seems to have remained steadfast. I don’t think the writer of the poem judges Penelope, either, since the poem concludes by pointing out that Penelope’s preference for the erotic fantasies entertained in Odysseus’s absence is no different than Odysseus’s preference for the sea and the journey. Penelope and Odysseus are in the same boat as it were, both feeling desire more keenly when separated than when they are together.

In poems that give rise to many complex meanings, writers bears an even greater-than-normal burden to be clear and effective in their word choices and, not surprisingly, diction is brilliantly employed in “Penelope’s Song.” One stand-out is the word “lewdly” from line 19. Another is “that / long crimped strand of thread.” How well the word “crimped” works, how vividly it evokes a thread repeatedly stretched on the loom, loosened, and then stretched again! I find the image of Penelope clinging to that damaged strand very moving and wonder if it might be a metaphor for herself, wracked and scarred by unfulfilled longing. But my favorite example of what Coleridge calls “the best words in the best order” is in line 18. Not only does “juddering” visually and sonically conjure the movement of the loosened strand, it also delights by being a word that is unusual but so apt that its meaning is clear in the poem. How many of you recognize “juddering” as a British term meaning “to vibrate violently?” I had never seen the word before, and yet it was placed so perfectly that I knew what it meant with a certainty that approached recognition, and that feeling of recognition was one of the many sources of delight for me in this wonderful poem.


Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.

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