Why Sue Goyette wrote a poem from the perspective of the Odyssey's Penelope
Halifax poet Sue Goyette did not appreciate Homer's omission in the Odyssey. In Homer's epic poem, Odysseus is off on an adventure while his faithful wife, Penelope, is mostly offstage waiting for his return.
This isn't the case in Goyette's book-length poem, Penelope. In her version, Penelope is the star and gives readers her side of the story.
A personal odyssey
"I was drawn to the Odyssey when I had gone through a personal epic of my own. A family member had been having mental health issues and I was finding myself alone in waiting rooms. I wanted an epic, so I thought 'I'll go back to the Odyssey.' I read it and I found myself yearning for Penelope's voice, the person who was waiting. There is nothing passive about waiting — I found my whole body alert for any sign of anything. I was alert to the way the days went, alert in a way that I was feasting on everything because I didn't know how to process this unknown territory."
Questioning the canon
"Penelope was only mentioned a couple of times — I wanted her company. We don't hear a lot of her. We hear how loyal she is, but it was important for me to reclaim her voice and unbridle it from Penelope as wife. I wanted her to be just her. The poems go through the process of unbridling her from the patriarch and reclaiming her own name back. Penelope had to deal with pressure from a lot of men and a son who was missing his father. But that role has been redacted. There is a lot of silence in the classics and the canon that I long for — so I wrote it."
Outgrowing old roles
"Women, or anyone marginalized, can understand the division between behaving the way we know is safe and the turbulent way that's truer to ourselves. Navigating or negotiating that border is something we do everyday. It takes great courage to break the border, to say what we really want to say, because it feels unsafe and vulnerable. We're seeing that in the #MeToo movement, in Black Lives Matter and in our Indigenous communities. Breaking protocol and constraint is about breaking a version of ourselves we've been given that doesn't serve us anymore because it creates a lot of pain. It's about reclaiming dignity — our wounds are opportunities for us to reclaim what had been wounded and set it right again in a way that we're still learning to do."
Sue Goyette's comments have been edited and condensed.