Tino Villanueva and the Craft of Waiting

On April 24, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times


Somerville Bagel Bard Tino Villanueva  has a new poetry collection out “So Spoke Penelope.” This book was published by Somerville resident Ifeanyi Menkiti, the founder of the Grolier Poetry Press, and the owner of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge. Here is a review by Michael T. Steffen.

villanuevaPenelope, the wife of Odysseus from Homer’s epic song  about the wandering man of many ways, is the classical figure of long-suffering  faithfulness awaiting, twenty years, the return of her husband from the Trojan  war. Entreated by a pack of greedy, boisterous suitors, she embodies the  craft-worker of the separated couple, weaving and unweaving a shroud in order to  stave off the wooings of the suitors who insist and insist that Odysseus is dead  and that she remarry. In SO SPOKE PENELOPE (Grolier Poetry Press, Cambridge,  2013, ISBN: 978-1-891592-02-7) acclaimed poet Tino Villanueva himself patiently  looms an extended meditation of 32 poems from the persona of this most memorable  character of world literature, enacting and reflecting the concentrated task of  craftsmanship (in weaving, in poetry…) as a creative preoccupation to help pass  the time of waiting, with the potential intensity of the endeavor:
One  day I managed from early dawn to dusk,
then until the brightness of the  morning shone again
to keep on weaving, to get it right. And there it  is
folded up across the bed in color and in cloth.(“In Color and in Cloth,” p.  31)  My own impression reading through the poems several  times was of admiration, admiration for the elegance, charm and clarity of  Villanueva’s language, making allowance for poetic diction rare for our  times:
when the golden cloth of dawn rose out of  the sea (p.13)The wind blows,
and I can hear the  leaves of orchards breathing (p. 23)Still and all,  Odysseus,
grief-giver of a husband, destroyer of hearts,
let me  not die aching in one place (p. 35)While the maids on their  knees
kept grinding and sifting wheat and barley  grain,
(six-hundred someone said)
measured into baskets big (p.  58)
I also admired the patience of the book, which imparted a slight  anguish, which is the anguish of Penelope herself in suffering the long passage  of time and its frequently felt futility.
How many women, I wonder, have  waited like me,
like me by the sea, with a racing caring  heart,
women who waited, stood waiting,
lay waiting like me? (p.  16)Here on Ithaca, alas, we had no favoring rain  today,
no sun.
And I, who am Penelope, living mother of a living  son,
neither got Odysseus back,
husband whose love I miss on  awakening,
nor chose to take a suitor as my man. (p. 34)
What’s  more and must be said in this battlefield of love:
time and time again I  love you,
then I go the other way
and love you not. (p.  35)

The book works its spell of another time and another place  on you by maintaining its foothold in Homer’s mythic world, which may chafe some  readers in our generation-hab world who may crave to recognize more familiar  language and elements. This yet poses the question of how a poet may discipline  and mind her craft to be a builder of bridges. That is from the terminology of  Ifeanyi Menkiti, whose introduction to this book is so generously informative  with details of the poet’s biography and bibliography, and eloquent in his  argument for an ecumenical mission for poetry. The bridge the poet builds spans  across the differences of the cultural barriers of time and space, so that she  is not a mere “tribalist” chronicler of the historical moment. Is poetry what  gets lost in translation, as Robert Frost famously coined the definition? Or is  it found in the consideration to survive translation? Who will the readers of  the year 2053, 2113… be able to appreciate? It’s a staggering yet pertinent  question.

Still, relevant both to individual and tradition, Villanueva’s  meditation comes to a luminous affirmation from the long-suffering spouse about  the insight she has gained as to the carefulness of her affections and  surrounding:
I’d been for years at
the heart’s low-ebb, but wise  about men set before me,
and gods disguised. Now the man  long-awaited
had washed ashore into my room: I opened my eyes
and  saw, past the ceiling, an expanse of sky
and Odysseus sailing steadily  above me. (pp. 59-60).

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