Friday, July 1, 2011

Marriage Alone: A Modern Odyssey

A two city dilemma continues to dominate our family life for now. My husband is a weekend father, and I’m adapting, after nearly two years of this lifestyle, to parenting our three children alone, and to solitary marriage, becoming a weekend wife. A visit this week from a Danish childhood friend, who was an exchange student my senior year in high school (so many years ago), prompts me to run a non-sentimental scan of our lives from his point of view. Gentleman that he is, my Danish friend failed to judge us (at least verbally), though when he asked, Now why aren’t you living under one roof? I was at a loss to explain.

Surely we join a large number of other American families, due to these times (economy-desperation-driven) when extended commutes, even between states, might be the new norm. This week, solace comes in the form of a graphic novel adaptation of The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds (Candle Wick Press, 2010). I know it sounds extreme—how could I be bolstered by the story of a couple separated for several decades? But, by comparison, it makes light of two years apart. One has to cultivate gratitudes. Else sink.

As a poet reader of graphic novels, I hone right in on the author/illustrator word choice, for he/she must trim the text back to near poetry since the pictures convey so much so rapidly. Picture becomes wordless poem. I love the parallel postures, for example, of the grieving Penelope, hunched over on the floor of her island bedroom just after she receives the news Telemachus has fled in search of her husband, and the muscle-riddled back of Odysseus as he sheds his daily tears on a narrow promontory of his island where’s he’s been tethered by Circe. The panels appear on facing pages (46-47), a three D metaphor for the couple’s simultaneous grieving. Penelope’s body is inset against the larger backdrop of the sea and her island, a further nested metaphor for her solitude and the many miles between Penelope and Odysseus.

I also got hooked by a second parallel dilemma Odysseus and Penelope face as lovers in their prime. Hinds puts these words in Penelope’s mouth when Odysseus finally reveals himself to her, suitors murdered, she doubting his identity: “Odysseus, forgive me! You know the reason for my caution. The gods gave us so much pain—they kept us apart through the summer of our lives (p. 234).” I would argue that although apart, unable to consummate their love, both Penelope and Odysseus maintain a vital sensuality, but in strikingly different ways according to their gender.

Since Circe, Goddess, seduces Odysseus and we are told Odysseus sheds tears daily over his desire to return to Penelope, we forgive him—he has no choice but to give over his body. Clearly he remains emotionally faithful to Penelope. Circe validates his masculinity by forcing him to be her lover. Say a God forced himself on Penelope: we would likely judge it rape, given the power dynamic (Leda and the Swan, etc.).

Penelope’s beauty and female sensual power find validation in the many suitors and the sheer number of years they spend pursuing her. Were she to give in to their adulation, take a lover, her honor would be destroyed. In Penelope’s equation, she holds the power and maintains it. Were I twenty years younger, I might be grumpy about this gender difference; I must be mellowing with age. I wasn’t even ticked when Hinds paints a doleful Circe taking Odysseus to bed in her three arched stone bower at sundown, one last time, even after she’s been ordered to let him go. At that point, why not, who could resist such seduction, and by then I felt sorry for Circe having her lover stripped from her so.

In magnificent red panels, Hinds portrays the loathsome Cyclops, a powerful contrast to the dreamy blues of the panels depicting Odysseus’s sea trials. Another masterful panel is the page of consequence, in which Hinds frames the text of his dialogue within two halves of the head of a cow of Helion: one half, furred, alive, contains the admonition to the crew not to eat the cattle, the other half, a weathered skull, dead, frames the deadly consequences should they in fact kill any of the cattle.

Of working with The Odyssey, Hinds writes, “This is probably the greatest story ever told, and the challenge of retelling it in graphic form irresistible. It was incredibly exciting to work with this material—gods, monsters, flawed heroes, battles and all the best and worst of human nature, set against an ancient Mediterranean backdrop. It’s really a dream project.”

Seems every marriage contains the material on that list as well—or at least, that’s the possible range of personalities we sign up to encounter in our vows: “gods [the ones we assume the other to be at first], monsters [the ones we occasionally become while parenting, etc.,], flawed heroes [who you become when you realize you truly can’t rescue your spouse], battles, and all the worst and best of human nature.” I count my husband and I pretty spoiled--inserting photos of the kids daily into text boxes and speaking on the phone makes a two city life pretty easy, as do the weekend trysts (sweetened by absence, almost like young love, except for hum of washer and dryer, dog pawing at bedroom door snuffling to be let in, lasagna burning in oven, children damaging one another in background).

Nope, no texting or continual popping off of photos to one another for Penelope and Odysseus. All they had was some kind of supernatural faith in themselves, one another, and fate, fed by the occasional astral meeting, via dream—a kind of faith I could likely stand to cultivate.