Friday, September 28, 2012

Penelope, Who Really Cried

Penelope Unravelling Her Work At Night, 1886
by fabric artist Dora Wheeler, 1856 - 1940
(daughter of Candace Wheeler)
for Associated Artists (New York City, 1883–1907)

To accompany the numerous paintings of Penelope, there are also many poems. My favorite, as so often happens to be the case, is by Edna St. Vincent Millay. In this almost - sonnet, she describes the "ancient gesture" of wiping the corner of your eye with the corner of your apron; it could just as likely be a handkerchief perhaps or a Kleenex, but the apron places Penelope in the heart of the home, the oikos. Not that she does a lot of cooking -- mostly, it's weaving. Subtly, Millay implies a constellation of gestures: hands busy at the loom; arms stretched for relief above one's head; rubbing a stiff neck with one hand while clinching a tired back with the other; bursting all at once into tears; and finally the silent weeping, discreetly wiping the tears away.

"An Ancient Gesture"
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can't keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don't know where, for years.
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture,— a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope...
Penelope, who really cried.
(ellipses in original)

For more poems and paintings concerning Penelope,
see my new blog post
"Penelope, Who Really Cried"
on The Fortnightly Kitti Carriker

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