An Ancient and Modern Silence: A Review of Sue Goyette’s Penelope in First Person

In her seventh book of poetry, Sue Goyette rewrites The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, moving the ever-patient, ever-faithful Penelope from the sidelines of the story into the spotlight. Much of Western canon depends on the stifling of women’s voices and Penelope in First Person addresses this by exploring Penelope’s experience within the epic—her disorientation, grief, rage, rebellion, hope, and love. Although a chorus of characters speak, including the insatiable suitors, the hot-headed prince Telemachus, an unnamed goddess, objects like Penelope’s bedroom door and ceiling, and even Odysseus himself, Penelope is the centre of this story—a story familiar to many women: that of waiting, of isolation, of duty. “Funny how anger can be so ancient and so modern, the goddess muses,” and through Goyette’s precise and passionate telling, Penelope’s journey into reclamation is rendered fully relevant to our contemporary world (23).

A long poem relayed in a series of couplets, each page of Penelope represents yet another day, the words both weaving and unravelling the queen’s intimate thoughts. Within Penelope’s waiting period, Goyette builds urgency though refrain and motif. Almost every page returns to the same phrases (“I wake,” “I dress dutifully,” “I’m asked/I reply,” and “If I know anything”), drawing attention to the restrictive routine of Penelope’s waking hours. Rather than stagnating the narrative, the repetition amplifies Penelope’s voice, her pleading and her protest. Aware of her own echo, Penelope starts to mock herself, saying, “I wake to the same day. I’m asked, I reply./ I dress dutifully. If I know anything about loss/ it’s about loss” (26). Later, impatience and pain warp her litany: “I awake, I woke am asked/ reply and say:/ (dutifullydutifullydutifullydutifullydutifully)/ if anything/ my loss is mortal and has been acting like a goddess” (64).

Goyette also uses the poem’s reoccurring phrases, together with striking imagery, to demonstrate Penelope’s transformation throughout the story. When awake, Penelope must cope with the angst of her fatherless son, her powerlessness to rule the kingdom in which she has been abandoned, and her longing for and anger towards her adventuring husband, never mind the increasingly alarming harassment from the suitors: “There’d be no stopping that ass,/ I’m told. Smile, I’m told. Show me your tits” (55). Only in her dreams is Penelope free, and after nights of self-discovery and self-expression, her “waking” becomes more and more surreal. She first wakes to “visitors at the door” but soon wakes “to goddess” (9, 23). She wakes as a horse, a rabbit, a bird, a flower, a hound, and other people and objects start to wake too. “The door wakes to the suitors talking to it,” “Telemachus wakes in thunder,” “the bed wakes to Penelope,” and “the feast wakes in a house” (41, 46, 53, 68). As Penelope learns to define herself in new and powerful ways—“Middle finger up, the goddess coaches”—her dreams start to blend with her waking reality (24).

At the same time, Penelope’s voice is one firmly rooted in veracity. She is a woman with “stretch marks and slur, pucker and pouch” (33). She drinks too much, feels shame, weeps and rages. “I banter. I cajole. I screech/ the crooked logic women know when our hearts are aghast and silenced,” she says, and on some of the most satisfying pages, Penelope truly tells it like it is: “Are you the lady/ who’s been waiting for a husband for a pathetically long time?/ I’m asked. Are you fucking kidding me? I reply” (11, 28). There is nothing passive in Penelope’s waiting, in her role in this story. Drawn by Goyette, when Penelope “dutifully, womanly, stomp[s], loss migrates to animal, braying” (29).

Penelope in First Person is a poem about the reclamation of voice, story, and self. “I dress my wound dutifully,” says Penelope at the beginning of her waiting, but in order to heal she must first “bleed the thick grief keeping [her] quiet” (18, 42). By the end of the poem, her loss is transformed from a wound into “another slit so [she] may blossom” (67). By giving Penelope control of her narrative, Goyette allows for the healing of old wounds created by centuries of silence.

Review by Sarah Ens, co-editor of the RVRB. A poet and essayist, her work has appeared in Poetry Is Dead, Sad Mag, Room Magazine, and Arc Poetry Magazine. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky, is forthcoming with Turnstone Press

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