Review of So Spoke Penelope by Tino Villanueva
by Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence, Western New Mexico University
rowing up in a household of Socialist Mexican expatriates who found refuge in the United States after the Mexican civil war of 1910-1921, I had the good fortune of being steeped in the classics of world literature in Spanish translation, among them The Iliad and The Odyssey. As a boy, both filled me with wonder of those faraway times and faraway places. As an adult I had the good fortune to visit Greece and to visit those places that had filled me with wonder as a boy. I’m convinced that Wordsworth had it right: The child is father of the man.
In So Spoke Penelope, Tino Villanueva captures the essence of la espera y el dolor, the agony of waiting and the pain that it engenders. For 20 years Penelope, wife of Odysseus, waits for the return of her warrior husband from Troy. Throughout that time, Homer tells us, Odysseus was trammeled not by the fates but by the vagaries of the gods, in reaching Ithaca where he was king. Homer’s account has Odysseus battling and struggling against Cyclops, Circe, Calypso, and the sea roiled by Poseidon who can’t get over Odysseus blinding his son.
Through it all and unaware of her husband’s misfortune, Penelope endures the wide well of hours that have kept them apart. She sews, she knits amid the memories that crowd out the anxieties of long nights. By strength of purpose she endures, ever reminding her son, Telemachus, daily about his father.
And as the years pass she wards off suitor after suitor, assured that her warrior lover is somewhere on his way home. She is sure of it. It’s that surety that drives the poignancy of Tino Villanueva’s Penelope, a surety that armors her security against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
The pain of want, the anguish of love’s memory, and the joy of reunion that stills Penelope’s fear of “living more on lament than on hope” captures what Nietzsche called the eternal recurrence—that all events that have happened will happen again and again. In Villanueva’s work, Penelope is the prototype of all women who have waited for their men, though perhaps not as poignantly nor as infrangibly as portrayed by Villanueva.
In the opening poem, Villanueva’s Penelope tells us:
This is the palace where I wear the crown of faithfulness;
where the sound of the sea is the sound I think with.
Therefore, If I stand by a window expecting each time to see
the outline of a ship coming toward me,
what is it but my love,
and the passion time gives it to grow for Odysseus,
like-minded husband of the cunning mind, for whom I wait.
In what follows, however, Villanueva plumbs not only the heart and soul of Penelope but through Penelope we learn the polytropic nature of her husband who fought at Troy in restoring the fabled Helen—she of the thousand ships—to her rightful husband Menelaus, the cuckolded king of Sparta. Thus continues the cursed line of Tantalus and the House of Atreus.
Penelope goes on wondering how many women like her have waited for their men? It’s the wait of the eternal recurrence; it’s the wait she carries to her bed at night. Year after year, 5—10--15—20, she weaves the patterns of that wait. In the warp and woof of those woven patterns she wonders where Odysseus might be:
Was he captured, taken prisoner? Is he
trapped in a deep-shaded forest . . .
concealed in a cave not knowing east from west?
Against all odds, against whatever gods,
he’d better make it back.
On his homeward sail,
was he blown off course by blasting gales,
his ship lost in some outer world?
May he use whatever stars are in him
to turn around and get back.
Is he shipwrecked, bruised
by the perils of the sea against some rocky shore . . .
or else swept out into the streams of Ocean?
I beseech you, gods Olympian: release him
from all trouble, and help him find his way back.
She closes these thought with “Telemachus and I need him back.” Here I see the image of Wordsworth’s Margaret, waiting, waiting patiently for the return of her husband who went off to sea; night after night she scans the horizon for a sail that might signal the return of her husband. It is the “eternal recurrence.” So too Villanueva’s Penelope looked ever toward the sea for Odysseus. She prays to Pallas Athena for some sign that will bring Odysseus back to her open arms—“my husband and father to my boy.”
Sometimes in quietude Villanueva’s Penelope lies awake in bed, wondering if she should take another man in marriage, a father for her son? No! She is married “to the passing of time . . . counting the years in the dark.” One morning in the light of rosy-fingered dawn, she proclaims exultantly that she has finished a coverlet with the likeness of Odysseus with which she covers her bed to help her allay the sting of absence when it is too much. It’s the bed Odysseus made for them from the Olive Tree—no one knows this but her and Odysseus. Seeing his image in the coverlet, she longs to be “touched with love saved up year-upon-year.”
In moments of doubt, Penelope rails against her absent lover when she feels denied, loathing him for his absence—hating him, loving him, by love possessed. For Villanueva’s Penelope, there are days of wantings wasted cold, when weaving serves no purpose, when the chirring of cicadas stops. Her prayers to Poseidon yielded no succor.
Those “blasted blustery brutes” of suitors nag her . . . saying nothing that matters.” She welcomes their departure, but they will not leave. She will not be the apple in their orchard. They empty out her larders, butcher her cattle, swill her wine, and make a daily mess. There may be a way, however, she thinks, to get rid of them—“a contest of some sort—a test of strength of much devising, where each would fall or fail into defeat.”
She quivers thinking of Artemis, the deadly archer, his arrow whistling through the air to the center of her heart—that’s the respite she seeks for her pain. But that cannot be—she must wait for Odysseus—he will return. But Telemachus too leaves—and now she waits for two men. She accepts the fact that “we live our lives by the habits we acquire.”
Torn between despair and desire, Villanueva’s Penelope beseeches Athena to “make want and weariness forever fade away,” reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s Henry II in the cathedral beseeching “will no one rid me of this priest?”—meaning Thomas a-Beckett. And just when Penelope thought “the star-lights of love no longer shone for [her]” there appeared Odysseus disguised as a “beggar-man.”
From the moment we stepped
into our room, into a claiming embrace, teary-eyed,
joyful in a reaching ‘round of arms, I knew it
in my heart as a wife would know she’s finally
home with her husband, the agony of love no more.
The last poem—Twenty Years Waiting—does it. The ending is brilliant. That Villanueva could capture that moment as he does is a work of artistry. Moreso, its philosophy: “that love, as ever, is the light we live by.” La espera y el dolor worth it!
To Order So Spoke Penelope, visit the Groiler Poetry Bookshop site
Dr. Felipe de Ortego y Gasca is principal scholar of the Chicano Renaissance and is considered founder of Chicano literary history with Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature, first study in the field. His essay on “The Chicano Renaissance” is a landmark text in the Chicano literary movement.
Among many honors, awards, and distinctions, he is recipient of the 2007 Letras de Aztlan Award from the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies (Tejas Foco) for his “lifetime work and achievement in Chicano scholarship and community activism” and recipient of the 2005 Patricia and Rudolfo Anaya Critica Nueva Award from the University of New Mexico for his contributions to Chicano literary history, theory, and criticism.
To Order So Spoke Penelope, visit the Groiler Poetry Bookshop site