29 Nov THE KING OF ITHACA HURTLES TOWARDS REENTRY By Madeleine Vigneron
There is a boat in the middle of a gray and choppy sea. Actually, the boat is more of a raft, tree trunks barely stripped of bark, lashed together with the rawest of rope. Maybe the rope is handmade, too, wild grasses woven together by hand into something stronger. That would be a fantastic metaphor, though he’s never woven a thing in his life. The boat that is a raft has a tall and imposing mast, well-secured enough that the wind and the waves can’t tear it free, but not difficult enough that wrangling it onto the boat took the space of more than a singular clause.
Maybe it was hard, though. Maybe the poet just didn’t really know how to build a boat, not well enough to devote a whole stanza to it. Poets leave things like that to other people. They create things that can’t be lashed together with rope.
Anyways, the boat. It’s afloat for now, but might not be for long. The wind is ripping at its well-woven sail. Not woven by him; his hands are too gnarled from cutting down trees. Woven by the woman he’s desperately trying to escape. Because she offered him immortal life. Well, because she was insanely hot and wanted to sleep with him. Well, because he really should be getting home. He’s got a wife. A kid, too, he thinks; the kid only featured in the poem because he really didn’t want to go to war.
Oh, yes. There was a war.
Oh, my God. Gods. He believes in gods. How long has he been gone? How long has he been stuck in this storm? His wife is going to be worried sick. She doesn’t even like it when he takes trips up to visit his father; the roads are littered with robbers, and the human detritus is fond of wielding remarkably effective secondhand weapons. Maybe firsthand weapons. Men of good standing don’t pilfer corpses for swords. But men of good standing don’t lurk at the side of the road like the shiny plastic cans on garbage day. That’s a simile from the wrong century, but if Odysseus knew what garbage day was, he would definitely refer to it.
Odysseus! That’s right, he’s Odysseus. He’s Odysseus and normally his wits get him out of scraps like this, and surely he’s scrapped with the weather before, but never weather like this. He’s used to wind that rips at his skin, not wind that bites him apart from the inside, its molars rubbing against his fragile nervous system. He suspects the island where he spent the last seven years wasn’t quite in the real world, and getting back will require some tricky carving into the soft flesh under the universe’s ribcage. He wishes his wife were here to decisively turn the key and swing the door between worlds open, but he shouldn’t be thinking that because she hasn’t turned any keys at this point in the poem.
He’s pretty sure he’s going to die. He’s going to die and that’s why everything is confusing and upside-down, and though the thoughts in his head make perfect sense, the words they’re expressed in are from a foreign tongue. That’s on me, Odysseus. I don’t speak Ancient Greek and I live in a world with plastic garbage cans.
Odysseus is definitely going to die. Maybe he’s been dead this whole time. Maybe he died at Troy and refused to believe it: he keeps going, that’s who he is, that’s what he does. Keeps going. He clings to the stripped bark of the mast he cut down himself, the wood that probably isn’t wood but some sort of strange cosmic substance, the kind of material that makes up dreams and embarrassment. He tries to lash that idea down with rope, he convinces himself that he wove this rope with his very own hands and it will not fail him. He clings to his memories, and he clings to the mast, and he prays. He’s barely skirting the edge of a world where his gods will hear him, but it’s a nice effort, so I give him a little nudge, slight but enough to force him into the sticky membrane between worlds.
Shoved in between the layers of skin at his universe’s temple, Athena finally notices him. The temple is her domain, after all. She notices him clinging to about three quarters of a memory and weeping profoundly and praying. Athena isn’t super into emotions like that, but she appreciates the prayer, so she carefully peels away the material of dreams and embarrassment and gives him a real boat to cling to, and it happens fast enough that he doesn’t have time to scream and flail and beg for his life. He’s on a boat that is a raft that is a dream that is embarrassment, and then he is on a boat that is made of dead trees and rope woven by no one’s hands.
And he is still Odysseus. And there is an island on the horizon. And he thinks he might have died after all, but he’s still here, and his new sail flaps mildly in the wind, because at some point the storm stopped, or he stopped being in it. He is sailing the universe’s veins now, alongside the oxygen, and he has nothing else to do but keep going.