James Heffernan

James Heffernan

James Heffernan, Professor of English Emeritus, is a literary scholar whose books range from studies of English Romantic poetry and painting to close readings of literature from the classical period to our own times. His latest book, Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature, ranges from Homer’s Odyssey to James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Avocationally, he writes poetry such as the following.

Please visit: https://www.jamesheff.com/

              To Odysseus, with an Oar

“But once you have killed those suitors in your halls—
by stealth or in open flight with slashing bronze—
go forth once more, you must . . .
carry your well-planed oar until you come
to a race of people who know nothing of the sea,
whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all
to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars,
wings that make ships fly. And here is your sign—
unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it:
When another traveler falls in with you and calls
that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain,
then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth
and sacrifice fine beasts to the lord god of the sea,

                    –Teiresias to Odysseus,
                    Homer’s Odyssey (11: 119-30), trans. Robert Fagles,

Sand caulking the seams of your face,
you walk the waves of a desert with an oar
on your shoulder,
bearing it high against the wind
like a naked mast.

Sailless seafarer, shipless voyager,
the sand is your sea now.
you know its heaves and swells,
its sun-struck crests, its shadowed troughs:
they mock you now and then
by turning blue.

And before you in the waves of burning air
an invisible Penelope
weaves a tapestry of shipmates remembered
and shipmates forgot,
shrouded in the sand of the desert that lies
at the bottom
of the sea.

Poetry in this post: © James Heffernan
Published with the permission of James Heffernan