"He had only the oar to make them keep their distance."

from “The Second Voyage” by Eilean Ni Chuilleanain

I know what I’ll do he said;
I’ll park my ship in the crook of a long pier
(and I’ll take you with me he said to the oar)
I’ll face the rising ground and walk away
From tidal waters, up riverbeds
Where herons parcel out the miles of stream,
Over gaps in the hills, through warm
Silent valleys, and when I meet a farmer
Bold enough to look me in the eye
With ‘where are you off to with that long
Winnowing fan over your shoulder?’
There I will stand still
And I’ll plant you for a gatepost or a hitching-post
And leave you as a tidemark. I can go back
And organise my house then.


“Oar” by Moya Cannon

Walk inland and inland
with your oar,
until someone asks you
what it is.

Then build your house.

For only then will you need to tell and know
that the sea is immense and unfathomable,
that the oar that pulls
against the wave
and with the wave
is everything.

There’s this beautiful moment, early on in “The Second Voyage” where Odysseus longs for sentient waves, enemies he can name–“Saluting a new one with dismay, or a notorious one / With Admiration; they’d notice us passing / And rejoice at our shipwreck.”–opponents worthy of his labor, as opposed to the waves, which “Have less character than sheep and need more patience.”

Sisyphus gets the credit, usually, for being the perfect illustration of a man charged with a task he can’t accomplish. But both of these poets, I think, really get at why Odysseus is a man with a job he doesn’t know how to finish–with the waves or against the waves or walking off into the countryside away from the waves, he’s a man unsure of how to let go of the thing that’s carried him this far. Sisyphus can’t complete his task; Odysseus can but doesn’t quite know how.

You have to wonder what happens to a man who never runs into someone who’ll ask him, “What the fuck are you doing still carrying that around?”

4 thoughts on “"He had only the oar to make them keep their distance."

  1. You just know Brit-Brit will put this up at NiT. And you will laugh and laugh.

  2. Yes, I will. Not as hard as I will the day I write my moving and poignant post about Rose and it gets up at NiT, but pretty hard nevertheless.

    Just accept Brittney’s judgment. I’m better than you. I know it. You know it. She knows it.

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