Sunday, April 14, 2013

Tino Villanueva and the Craft of Waiting

Tino Villanueva and the Craft of Waiting

article by Michael T Steffen

Penelope, 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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