This poem is from Eilean Ni Chuilleanain’s The Second Voyage (Reprinted in The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry, Wake Forest UP, 2011):
Odysseus rested on his oar and saw
The ruffled foreheads of the waves
Crocodiling and mincing past: he rammed
The oar between their jaws and looked down
In the simmering sea where scribbles of weed defined
Uncertain depth, and the slim fished progressed
In fatal formation, and thought
If there was a single
Streak of decency in these waves now, they’d be ridged
Pocked and dented with the battering they’ve had,
And we could name them as Adam named the beasts,
Saluting a new one with dismay, or a notorious one
With admiration; they’d notice us passing
And rejoice at our shipwreck, but these
Have less character than sheep and need more patience.
I know what I’ll do he said;
I’ll park my ship in the crook of a long pier
(And I’ll take you with me he said to the oar)
I’ll face the rising ground and walk away
From tidal waters, up riverbeds
Where herons parcel out the miles of stream,
Over gaps in the hills, through warm
Silent valleys, and when I meet a farmer
Bold enough to look me in the eye
With ‘where you off to with that long
Winnowing fan over your shoulder?’
There I will stand still
And I’ll plant you for a gatepost or a hitching-post
And leave you as a tidemark. I can go back
And organise my house then.
But the profound
Unfenced valleys of the ocean still held him;
He had only the oar to make them keep their distance;
The sea was still frying under the ship’s side.
He considered the water-lilies, and thought about fountains
Spraying as wide as willows in empty squares,
The sugarstick of water clattering into the kettle,
The flat lakes bisecting the rushes. He remembered spiders and frogs
Housekeeping at the roadside in brown trickles floored with mud,
Horsetroughs, the black canal, pale swans at dark:
His face grew damp with the tears that tasted
Like his own sweat or the insults of the sea.
- We’ll notice that this poem is much less populated by humans than, say, Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and thereby we get a greater sense of Odysseus’s solitary travails, his sea-weary wandering, armed with an oar (not oars or his men at the oars), his only companion against the fated waves…
- The heat is getting to him as he attributes human and creaturely characteristics to the waves–just as we might see the best and worst of ourselves in an enemy who opposes our efforts–his own first-person introversion is estimated in the depths of the menacing sea with its crocodiling waves and fishes swimming in fatal formations… Odysseus is like a quixotic Cuchulain figure fighting the sea, making futile progress against it…
- But the hero is filled with a patient (perhaps fatalistic) admiration for the personality of the sea, going so far in his imagination as naming each wave as Adam named the beasts of paradise, yet the sea is not Odysseus’s soil-rich Eden, so here again we sense Odysseus’s solitary condition, as if he were released into a new world that is both a boon and a burden to him…
- Prodded by hard labor and futile efforts in the heat of the baking sun, Odysseus gets to a point of self-doubt and skepticism: Why not quit fighting the waves with his lonely oar and seek alternatives to the heartless sea by attempting other life choices on land? Simple enough, or is it?
- The sea held him, reminding him of the greater futility of greener valleys and pastures, dreams more fatal than fishes and daunting waves, and the poem ends with a mark of irony–for what’s more insulting? Odysseus’ dream of his journey’s end or the end of his weary dream?