Driving the Wine-Dark Roads: Robert Wynne’s “Self-Portrait As Odysseus”

You are lost, adrift in the vast, blue immensity of the sea. Greenblack thunderheads are gathering on the horizon, and already gargantuan waves are ramming the sides of your creaking wooden ship. There are faint crags in the distance, unknown mountains of a strange land where monsters might wait with unknown horrors. All you want is to go home, but home is far away, and if you want to live you see it, you have to haul sail—for either the murderous storm or the brooding, alien cliffs. Either choice will result in certain death, for you, your crew, or both. You grit your teeth and call out a course. The sails snap, ropes pull, the men brace themselves for what lies ahead. There is salt and blood on the wind, but it’s all you have.

Something resembling this scene might be expected to lurk in the pages of Robert Wynne’s Self-Portrait As Odysseus. Just the name “Odysseus” immediately conjures connotations of Homer’s ancient poem: the foaming, tempestuous waves upon a wine-dark sea; the haunting call of sirens luring ragged sailors to their rocky deaths; the monstrous cyclops eating the unlucky Greek crew.

But there are no monsters in these pages; at least, not the ones you might expect. Instead of the rough chop of Poseidon’s waves, there are the endless, potholed highways of America, and the small whirlpool of water swirling down the sink of yet another airport bathroom. Instead of sirens and island enchantresses, there are corporate spreadsheets, dingy rooms at the local La Quinta, and the small comfort of jazz music bouncing around the cabin of a rental car.

The cunning and trial-ridden figure of myth and poetry, Odysseus is stripped down to his most elemental figure—that of the leg-weary wanderer who wants nothing more than to go home and see his wife and sleep in his own bed. Wynne wears this tired and home-sick Odysseus like a mask, swapping his own visage in the hotel mirror for that of the Ithacan king, wrapped in a suit and tie, hauling a laptop full of corporate training files, struggling along his journey,

at least until he makes it home 

and looks Penelope in the eye
long enough to let her know

she is the reason he suffers
through meetings, connecting flights

and this unending war
of words.
("Odysseus Walks Along the Beach")

And while these poems contain the novelty of the author-as-mythic-soldier-king wending his way through the asphalt-and-plastic realities of modern America, there are deeper comparisons occurring that are both heartbreaking and revealing.

With some free time while passing through Minnesota, Odysseus takes part in a 5K. “Not nearly as agile / as he used to be,” he collapses two miles in, “both lungs / staging a coup in his chest.” Trying to catch his breath, he realizes there is nothing in his chest—not fitness, not breath; he finds “ nothing at all / where he’s sure / he used to keep a picture / of Penelope.” (“Odysseus at the St. Valentine’s 5K Massacre”). Having traded his active past for the corporate desk job, Odysseus has lost not only his strength, but his connection to his wife, whom he sees only when he isn’t travelling around the country at his company’s behest. Indeed, Odysseus has come to terms with the glum reality

that life is a road trip 
following orders persuasive as beauty
glimpsed briefly again tonight

in the sail of a lone ship
spitting the horizon...
("Odysseus Heads for the Coast")

In a moment more familiar to today’s viral culture, Odysseus, bored and sleepless in another nameless hotel, watches an online video of someone dropping some Mentos into a 2-liter of Coke. You’ve probably seen that same video, and you know what happens—a big, foamy eruption, spraying sugary soda everywhere. But there isn’t any humor here for Odysseus. Instead, the eruption of Coke reminds him only of one of his most famous actions, of 

volatile Mount Etna 

where the Cyclops Polyphemus hid
until Odysseus plied him with wine

and incinerated his world
with a blazing stake.
("Odysseus Surfs the Net")

And while stopping at the Alamo, Odysseus, whose exploits and adventures are captured in ancient poetry, is “disappointed / by history once again” as he regards the unimpressive structure and the attached gift-shop that

finally removed all reminders 
that anyone gave their lives
for sterling silver collectible spoons,

shot glasses, and books of postcards
which will eventually be relegated
to attic boxes or sold at garage sales

because memory is the doorstop of time,
keeping anything with hinges open
just long enough for escape.
("Odysseus at The Alamo")

Finally, though, there is a dim sliver of hope for our hero at the end of his long work voyage, a chance to rest and reaffirm who he is—he finds his way home, at long last, in “Odysseus Comes Home.” But things are different from when he was here last. His beard is longer. Business and shops he remembers in town are no longer there. When he finds his house, the trees are long and wild, and the shrubs are untrimmed. He is greeted by his dog and wife, who, instead of rushing out into the dark to finally embrace him, stands “in the doorway / arms folded defiantly,” with “doubt welling / in her shiny brown eyes.” They slip inside quietly, cautiously, like people who knew each other long ago, and who have become strangers to each other. 

Robert Wynne’s Self-Portrait as Odysseus chronicles the travels of our own modern American Odysseus—a man torn from his family not by war, but by his job; a man who wanders across the map not because he is lost, but because he goes where he is told; and a man whose long-overdue homecoming is greeted not, ultimately, with happy eagerness, but with caution, doubt, and strange unfamiliarity. In transplanting Odysseus from the Mediterranean’s churning waters to America’s roadways and airways, his odyssey becomes the exhausting kind or horror we know all too well–the real kind, not the kind with dragons to slay and quests to complete, but with plane tickets, endless highways, lonely airports, and long hours spent doing nothing but waiting. And in its telling, Wynne becomes not another mythy bard come to regale you with a tale of wonder, but someone you might know, or someone you might be: another corporate footsoldier checking another meeting off the list, clocking another brown-bag training session, poring over another batch of inscrutable spreadsheets, and wishing only that he was home.

Self-Portrait As Odysseus, by Robert Wynne. Poetry. Published 2011.

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