Penelope sola

I read Angela Ricketts’ memoir (No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife) with Book 23 of the Odyssey fresh in my mind. I hear on her lamentation, on the emotional detachment she felt during her husband’s deployments, echoes of Odysseus’ initial frustration with Penelope:

“What other wife could have a spirit so unbending? / Holding back from her husband, home at last for her / after bearing twenty years of brutal struggle.”

The first contact after the soldier comes back home, Book 23 seems to imply, is hard: wife and husband have grown apart and became strangers to each other. In a radio interview, Ricketts confesses how her marriage almost broke up at one point. Hers is a story emphasized by Book 23, which tells us that the making it back home alive of the warrior is just the start of another set of different perils: once the couple reunited, the traps multiply, and the marriage is by no means safe. “We have still not reached the end of our trials,” Odysseus warns Penelope. [http://www.npr.org/2014/07/15/331699617/an-army-wife-charts-her-struggles-in-no-mans-war]

I immediately think of Siobhan Fallon’s superb, millimetrically structured “Tips for a Smooth Transition.” The relationship between Evie and her warrior-just-returned from Iraq, Colin, shows the delicate tension silence and communication play in the reunited couple. In their struggles to speak frankly to each other lies the reminder of the difficulties Odysseus and Penelope have to communicate. The wife wants to know; the warrior is not eager to share details. An echo of Odysseus’ rebuke, when Penelope asks him to share what’s on his mind:

“Why again, why force me to tell you all?”

In Fallon’s short story, we find the same frustration, almost 3,000 years later. As we find also the problems to renew intimacy and fluid close contact, stated metaphorically in book 23 by the difficulties Odysseus encounters to physically get to the couple’s bed, and the deep meaning of the proof Penelope puts Odysseus through: “There’s our secret sign, I tell you, our life story!” shouts Odysseus, blazed up in fury, explaining the detailed construction of the couple’s bed. [Fire and Forget, Da Capo, 2013, 21-38]

I turn my mind then to Yehonatan Geffen’s Open Letter to Penelope Cruz, published in Haaretz several days ago. [http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.610633] The Spaniard actress has been scolded and targeted for publicly accusing Israel of genocide. With affection, Geffen reminds her of the etymology of her own given name: “Penelope, your ancient Greek name is composed of two words: weaving and eye, and therefore has become an adjective for a woman who waits and knits.” By reflecting on the modern plight of Homer’s old Penelope, Geffen urges Penelope Cruz to understand a different reality of the Middle East conflict:

“And when Odysseus returned, Penelope … was just happy that he had returned alive. And you have no idea, Penelope, how many Penelopes live in [Israel], abandoned and sad for eternity. Some of them refuse to believe that their Odysseuses will never return, some of them will be bodies traded with the enemy. And even if someone returns – he will be a different and gloomy Odysseus.”

It was the traditional role of women to stay home and wait for the warrior to return home. And thus speaks Hector in book 6 of the Iliad, as he is saying farewell to Andromache:

“So please go home and tend to your own tasks, / the distaff and the loom, and keep the women / working hard as well. As for the fighting, / men will see to that.”

So it is mostly today. Yet the blurring of the lines between civilians and combatants brings direct death and destruction to both children and women –in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Congo, South Sudan… As illuminating as these narratives are, they are missing something—the realization that modern Penelopes not only wait home, praying for the safe return of their soldiers, trying to navigate the struggles and difficulties that go with the “assignment.” They are also in many parts of the planet Andromache and Hecuba: women persecuted in their own houses, watching defenseless their husbands and children die. They are themselves the target of that eternal blackness, the unharnessed violence that Homer once sung.

7 thoughts on “Modern Penelopes

  1. I said it already, but I will say it again. This is beautiful. Thousands of years pass, and the struggle and conflict that exists between the warrior and the family is the same. Somehow reading the way you detailed it gave me great comfort.


    • Angela, thanks so much for taking the time to check my post, and for your very kind words. The beauty is first (I think) in Homer’s poems. Then, second, in the purity and sincerity with which you articulate some complex ideas, and intense emotions, re: the topic of war and family. The “black soul,” for instance… It would take more than two lines to explain myself properly (maybe we should continue our conversation in a new post?!)—but the “channeling the black soul” expression seems, from a psychological and emotional perspective, stuff taken directly from Homer’s. (In Homeric formulaic diction, the “dark fate” of war is everywhere, present in so many expressions that relate to death, combat, farewells, etc.) I’ll be using excerpts from your book and your NPR interview in my War and Literature class this fall. I teach the class with a teacher/soldier –a Lieutenant Colonel three times deployed in Iraq/Afghanistan. We teach in an ALL BOYS school… yes, interesting. But we DO want them to get Penelope’s perspective (and I think your words will be very useful at that), and to understand that, above all, war is an affair linked to family and—especially—community.


  2. You’ve inspired me to brush up on my Homer and Greek mythology! Where do you teach?
    I’ve been disappointed in a few comments or reviews by readers who have completely missed the point of the “black soul.” They equate it with soulless– and it’s actually the opposite. The black soul comes from an emotional overload of color. All the colors (emotions) meld together into black. So in essence, the blackness is an overflowing. A soul that is maxxed out.
    I am so honored that you will be referencing my work in your class. Thank you so much for that. I would love to send you a signed copy of my book.


    • Very interesting your explanation of the expression/emotion — as “an emotional overload of color.” I see what you mean by those negative comments about being “soulless.” I found the image especially powerful when you use it referring to the farewells… everybody who has experienced an emotionally-charged farewell, and the anticipation of distance and solitude (and the dangers of combat looming large on top of that for you guys), should understand the image.
      A question — Do you watch any TV shows (like “Army Wives” or similar) dealing with your book’s theme? I ask you this because one of the universal themes in war narrative is the limits of storytelling — the understanding that the real truth about war never makes it on the page. I was wandering if you have kind of the same type of feeling about fiction/TV storytelling dealing with the reality of military couples. Thanks again for your feedback!


  3. I made no sense last night! That’s what I get for typing in the dark on my phone.
    I have seen a couple episodes of Army Wives and I was definitely entertained. It captured a little bit of the essence of army life, but I thought it overdramatized situations that didn’t need the added drama. Also, there was an awful lot of nuance left out.
    I think there will be more and more wives/spouses sharing their stories as time passes. Many who could or would write about this life are still living it.


    • I asked you that because, in one of the best “Fresh Air” interviews I’ve ever heard [http://www.npr.org/2013/04/30/179855633/c-j-chivers-on-the-ground-in-syria], former marine and war journalist C.J. Chivers was asked about his disliking of watching war movies on TV. (He preferred instead to go fishing with his kids, or do any other hands-on activity.) His answer was priceless: having gone through the real experience (combat and reporting on war zones), he first thought that the movies felt kind of staged, and second he could not bear all the violence generated on the screen. Which sounds a bit like your impression of your own experience, that TV fictionalization of “typical army wife life” is “overdramatized” and that “it lacks nuance.” Great getting your comments as always.


      • Ahh, yes. I don’t know that I’m terribly interested in reading other war wife memoirs– though I would never say never. But it doesn’t grab my attention. I’d rather read something I know nothing about.
        But many military wives have read my book, and I’m very surprised it’s resonated so well with them. An unexpected treat.


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