“The older I get, the more I can relate to Odysseus’ need to forsake the thrill of adventure and return to home and family, to recover, after so long, a sense of belonging. The legendary seafarer succeeds through his intelligence, resourcefulness and creativity. But in spite of these abilities, without the intercession of numerous women, he would have never made it home. I too, as a person and as a writer, have benefited from the feminine. By listening to the women who move me as a poet, whether they speak to me through literature or just in passing, and by using language to go deeper into the stories they convey, I have managed to gain a firmer sense of who I am, even as I’ve come to appreciate the protean nature of identity.”—Don Schofield
By Don Schofield
THESSALONIKI Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—April 2020—When I first read The Odyssey, as a junior in high school, I didn’t think much of it. Sure, I liked Odysseus as a warrior, especially when he slaughtered the suitors to right all the wrongs inflicted on him and his family. But at 16, I was convinced that no book assigned by my Christian Brother overseers could tell me anything that possibly mattered. Things were much different the next time I encountered Homer. As a graduate student in the University of Montana’s creative writing program, I was eager to learn, especially about poetry and mythology and Greece, a country I had recently visited (and now live in). When I was assigned the book as part of a course on the epic, I became fascinated by Odysseus’ struggles to get back home and his ability to overcome obstacles through his intelligence, resourcefulness and creativity. What surprised me more than anything else, though, was how the Man of Many Ways, consciously or not, relied on the help of women to get out of scrapes and ultimately succeed in his quest.
The most prominent example of a female helping Odysseus is Athena. Without her patronage the story of return wouldn’t even begin. Throughout the narrative she is there, behind the scenes or taking various human forms in order to make sure the mortal she so favors triumphs. The wife of the king of Ithaca, Penelope, whose own intelligence, resourcefulness, and creativity match her husband’s, also comes to his aid at critical junctures, making it possible for him to defeat the suitors and regain his rightful place on Ithaca. Other females, mortal and immortal, intercede as well: Nausicaa, the daughter of the king of the Phaeacians, who discovers Odysseus as a naked castaway, provides him with clothes and ensures that he is warmly welcomed by her mother, Queen Arete. The queen in turn makes sure this visitor is well received by her husband, King Alcinous, and ultimately given passage home. Even goddesses who try to do Odysseus harm eventually give him valuable assistance. Calypso, once she’s forced to free him from her possessive spell, provides him with a raft and provisions so he can set off again. And once Circe’s destructive powers are negated by the hero, she tells him how to deal with Scylla and the Sirens and details what he must do to return to Ithaca.
Over the years The Odyssey, for me, has become the most important text in all of literature, the one book I would have with me on that proverbial desert island. Among the many reasons for that choice is that, as a writer, I too have found valuable assistance from Homer’s female figures, whose voices have settled deep into my mind’s ear. Or, to say it more precisely, just as Homer invokes female figures as a means to challenge Odysseus and guide him at various points in his quest, I too have turned to female personas—from Homer as well as other sources—in order to address conflicts and dilemmas important in my pursuits as a poet.
One of the first “voices” in Homer that attracted me is that of Eidothea. Like many of the women in literature I’m drawn to, Eidothea is a lesser known, almost completely overlooked figure. When I first read the lines she speaks (in Robert Fitzberald’s translation), I was knocked breathless. She tells Odysseus that Proteus is her father, but with the qualification, “they say,” as if she herself isn’t sure the elusive soothsayer is truly a parent. She goes on to describe his shape-shifting prowess and then, like so many other females in Homer’s epic, gives Odysseus instructions, in this case how he can defeat her father and thus learn how to sail for home across “the fish-cold sea.” Her words threw me for a loop. How many times had I felt that same kind of doubt about my own elusive father? And, as a writer, how often had I wrestled with shape-shifting language, struggling to understand myself and him better? Most definitely I had to explore Eidothea’s relationship with her father, by assuming her voice and writing as if I were she.
Eidothea Grieving The Ancient of the Salt Sea... Proteus of Egypt...is, they say, my father. The Odyssey, Book IV Waves keep rolling and I keep asking this vague mound under blankets— why a lion, why a falcon, why a towering flame? Why all those years walking the beach, following your tracks with the urge for you, Father, your touch, your solidness, your hand firmly holding mine? You were grass once. From then on I treaded fields so carefully, wondering what shapes I took in Mother’s womb—or was it your womb, Father? Did I step from your ear, a girl already asking questions? I thought I could have you with words, Father. While you slept I’d spread feathers, fur or sand— whatever was where your ear should be—and whisper, Who are you? Who am I? I’d touch my hair, my chest, and shiver at the thought that I’m not me, I’m you. Seals clapped each time you became a towering flame for the crowds of locals and travelers who’d wrestle you to learn the future. You won. You always won. But still you kept changing— bull laboring up a hill, boulder rolling through scrub, flicker of trout, gull barely touching the waves— each shape flashing before our eyes then lost in a sea of shapes, like these questions I can’t help but ask—surely if you’re nothing fixed then you’re all things, Father, a trompe l’oeil of everything, right?—except, for me, a father. When I step outside, the mountains are waves against a hard blue sky. Wind rattles the unsteady boards of our hut, while inside, your shifting comes slower. No fire, no tree, you’re almost solid, curled up at the edge of your bed, barely breathing. Or is your dying just another disguise, that urgent expression a dolphin caught in nets? I stroke your hair— your hair—smell the sea on your fading breath. Let me be the one who finally pins you, Father—here, now— the one who makes you give me in your dying the answers you’d never give me living. Let me hold your body to its one, final shape: the un- recognizable figure of a man.
By channeling Eidothea’s voice—and making both her and her father mortal—I was able to reexperience my relationship with my own father, who was always a distant figure in my life, even when I was living with him. As with Proteus, subterfuge was an essential part of his character, especially when confronting difficult situations, such as what to do with an unmanageable child. Eidothea’s impulse to wrestle her father at the moment of his death, and her insistence on continuing to ask him questions, mirror the feelings I had during my father’s slow death from a series of brain strokes. Her final embrace of him, like the final embrace I imagined for my own father, is both an assertion of power over him and one last attempt at intimacy.
Engaging Eidothea’s voice also enabled me to explore issues of identity, how our sense of self depends to a great extent on our childhood and adolescent interactions with our parents. It’s much more difficult to develop a sense of who we are when our parents fail to project a stable sense of who they are and what we mean to them. Eidothea’s struggle (as I imagine it) is one that many of us face while growing up. Her grieving is our grieving. Imagining a voice for her in order to explore her relationship with her father helped me became more aware of just how tentative the formation of an identity can be, especially when those we model ourselves after are unrecognizable.
Another source for female voices that draw me to them is the Old Testament. One such figure is Hagar, the slave of Abraham’s wife. Sara, unable to bear a child, gives her “handmaid” to her husband, who then fathers Ishmael. When Sara and Abraham later bear Isaac, Hagar is forced to flee into the desert, where it’s assumed that she and Ishmael will quickly perish. Unable to watch her son suffer a horrible death, Hagar hides him under a bush and sits a ways off, slowly dying of thirst herself. As tends to happen in biblical stories, an angel appears at the last moment, promising Hagar that not only will she and her son survive, but they will become rulers of a great nation, Paran.
Ishmael indeed becomes a great patriarch, as well as a prophet in the Islamic tradition, a direct forebearer of Muhammed. Isaac, his half-brother, also becomes a patriarch, in the Jewish tradition, with Christ considered his direct descendant. What fascinates me about this story from Genesis is how it shows that the three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—rise out of the House of Abraham. Muslims, Christians, and Jews not only share the same deity, they also descend from the same patriarch. What that means, at least for believers, is that we’re all one great extended family, with roots growing out of a terrible act—the exile and abandonment of innocents. Hagar, as a woman and slave, is dispensable, as is her son. Imagining Hagar in the moment she’s compelled to leave her dying son under a bush, when she feels desperate and intensely vulnerable, and doubts with all her being the possibility of divine intervention, even after an angel has given her a message from God—I wanted to give that moment a voice.
Hagar in the Wilderness Let me not see the death of the child. —Genesis We kissed the icons and left. I carried the child, bread, a bottle of water. Later we drank from wells bitter with shards, ate locusts and scorpions, glad to be gone. What nations do I want? Only Abraham’s arms on nights the dogs come to sniff the child. I think of my doll with corn eyes, the one I rocked when she was scared— I built a fire, said a prayer and pushed her in. She was heavy. There was nothing more for her I could do. Under this shrub he’ll stop his crying. The sand will cover him and he’ll be calm. How the rocks grieve is not clear, or why the birds keep circling, except to remind me the angel promised Paran with me the queen. I lie in the sabra and laugh: Come my wild son, my archer, this is Paran, we’re a nation of dust.
Writing in this banished woman’s voice brought to the fore my own feelings of exile. I have written several poems on what it felt like to be sent away at four by my own mother. And what expatriate writer doesn’t feel, at times, driven out from their homeland. But Hagar, perhaps because of her Middle Eastern origins, mostly reminded me of the plight of exiles I knew personally—my students, friends, and colleagues who had fled the civil war in Lebanon. It was the late 1980s when I first started writing this poem, a time when thousands came to Greece seeking refuge from that war, Christians and Muslims, Lebanese and Palestinian. Some of them attended my university, several taught there, a few became close friends. In my imagination, they seemed like direct descendants of Hagar and Ismael, cast out of their homes (and, for Palestinians, cast out twice). Hagar’s cynicism at the end of the poem addresses their situation, pointing to the futility of being promised a “nation.” She enabled me to see the conflicts raging in nearby countries from a larger, “biblical” perspective. Her plight prompted me to ask a very essential question: What can having a nation possibly provide when others can seize it and force you, time and again, to flee?
Voices that attract me as a poet don’t always come from time honored texts like The Odyssey and Old Testament. Sometimes they simply jump out at me. Once, while visiting Istanbul, I was leaving a hamam when I heard a woman just inside the entrance mumble, “How many men have touched me on the cheek?” She was a middle-aged, Turkish woman, as best I could tell, talking to herself in accented English. Her tone seemed sad and fatigued but also had an edge of longing. I was immediately intrigued. Who was this woman? What experiences led her to make that kind of statement, and with such a tone? And what did coming to a hamam have to do with being kissed on the cheek?
Of course, I couldn’t ask her my questions, despite her English. Women in Istanbul don’t talk to strange men, and anyway, by the time I might’ve caught up with her, she would’ve already disappeared into the women’s side of the baths. Nevertheless, what she said and how she said it stayed with me. A couple of years later, with her lament and longing still nestled in my mind’s ear, I picked up a pen and slipped into her voice. Eventually I came up with the following, not a dramatic monologue, rather a sonnet that invokes her words and reflects on that phrase she uttered:
Sundays “How many men have touched me on the cheek?” (overheard in a hamam) Stepping in from the street, she’s the girl again, just home from school, tired, thirsty, somewhat speechless as she feels a touch on her cheek—father, brother or next-door neighbor. “How many since?” she mumbles, slowly undressing, remembering a man she couldn’t love, that day they walked below some cliffs, the light so clear she didn't even turn to look at him. She stretches out on marble, lets the steam settle over all of her. So far from touch, she thinks, yet near the need it shelters. In a while, wrapped in her peshtemal, she’ll step from steam knowing the spirit isn’t flesh, though touch sometimes can bring it close as cliffs in summer light.
By prompting me to look at the world from her perspective, this anonymous figure made me more sensitive to the complexity of desire, as well as to the difficulties women contend with when men make unwanted erotic demands on them. Moreover, she helped me sense more fully how, when a person insists on making their own choices, on being their own person rather than accepting what others try to impose on them, loneliness and a kind of sadness can become an everyday presence. For such individuals, male or female, desire can sometimes metamorphose into something more profound. Reflecting on her words also made me recall my own long periods of living alone, years when, lacking adequate emotional and erotic contact, I had to draw on my own inner resources in order to live with loneliness and depression. This hamam patron helped me remember those instances when, lost in solitude, desire became almost mystical.
The older I get, the more I can relate to Odysseus’ need to forsake the thrill of adventure and return to home and family, to recover, after so long, a sense of belonging. The legendary seafarer succeeds through his intelligence, resourcefulness and creativity. But in spite of these abilities, without the intercession of numerous women, he would have never made it home. I too, as a person and as a writer, have benefited from the feminine. By listening to the women who move me as a poet, whether they speak to me through literature or just in passing, and by using language to go deeper into the stories they convey, I have managed to gain a firmer sense of who I am, even as I’ve come to appreciate the protean nature of identity. Their voices enabled me to feel greater empathy for those who have lost their homelands and had their sense of belonging stripped away. They have led me to explore the nuances of desire, whether from the depths of solitude or the warmth of a lover’s arms. Lodging themselves deep in my imagination, these female presences have moved me to write in their voices, and so have helped me find, at least in language, a place I belong.
Author’s Note: “Eidothea Grieving” and “Hagar in the Wilderness” are from Approximately Paradise (University Press of Florida, 2002); “Sundays” is from The Flow of Wonder (Kelsay Books, 2018).
Photo Credits: All images are from websites, more specifically: Image 1 is from “Anatomy for Sculptors”; Image 2 is from “hellenicaworld.com”; Image 3 is from “Wikimedia Commons”; Image 4 is from “Web Gallery of Art”; Image 5 is from “Wikimedia Commons”; and Image 6 is from “Wet Canvas.”