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The Elpenoriad

“Wake up! Now no more dozing in sweet sleep
We have to go. The goddess gave instructions.”

They did as I had said. But even then
I could not lead my men away unharmed.
The youngest one —Elpenor was his name—
Not very brave in war, nor very smart,
was lying high up in the home of Circe,
apart from his companions, seeking coolness
since he was drunk. He heard the noise and bustle,
the movements of his friends, and jumped up quickly,
forgetting to climb down the lofty ladder.
He fell down crashing headlong from the roof,
and broke his neck, right at the spine. His spirit
went down to Hades.

The Odyssey, Book 10, lines 548-561 (trans. Emily Wilson)




As he swam for shore
Odysseus always took a broken piece of ship
and held it to his chest,
which is maybe why he was the great talker
The rest of us were shushed
like the sea
no sound,
just waves on water,
meeting the shore in a kind of crash.

I spent so much time trying to breathe
I forgot to tell my story.

I was the youngest Ithakan to sail to Troy
and at least as great a warrior as the Trojan Paris
though neither of us
much use in an actual fight.
He was loved by Aphrodite

I was overlooked by all
though Helen once pressed near me
her warm bosom
against my forearm
in the crowded streets of Troy.
She was scared.
That day
babies fell from the walls
like ripe fruit.
A heavy, heavy rain.
She thought she might be next.
This was called victory.
Helen sailed to back to Sparta
and I fell to my death,
but that was later.
In any case,
Helen was on the losing side.
I was a winner.
This is what we call irony,
another Greek invention,
about as useful as a hollow horse,
which is to say: you never know when you will need it
or for what.

The king of Ithaka
was a man of many turns
and never travelled in a straight line
but still I felt an embarrassing flush of pride
when he saw me
and said, “Elpenor! What are you doing here?
And how did you get here before me,
all the way to the land of the dead,
when I came by a boat,
rowed by 20 stout Achaeans?”

He was always the master
of men and means.

“I fell from the roof,” I said,
which I see, in retrospect, was kind of a short cut.

A woman known for spelling
is called a witch.

I died in Aeaea,
the almost unspellable island of Circe.

Circe was bewitching,
so beautiful and dark.

I fell from a roof.
My head went one way.
My heart went another.
This was more or less the story of my life
but for some reason, this time
it was just the opposite:
the story of my death.
I was poisoned by the earth itself,
which touched my tongue suddenly
when I fell off the roof.

I lived through the Trojan War.
Hector’s chariot, his black horses,
which rode past me, covering my hair with dust
—his spear, flashing, killed the man beside me!
Once I fought a cyclops,
(mostly I ran
from wall to wall
in his dark cave, hiding behind his sheep.
The cyclops had a mouth big
enough to hold a human leg!)
and I faced a beautiful witch,
who turned me into an animal.
I was, for at least a day, a were-cat,
which sounds silly
but is much better than being
a were-pig
like my companions.
I say this
I want to tell you my feats of life
because I was
in my own way
a great warrior
though I died by falling
right next to a ladder.
Goddamn it all.

My king is a talker.
He is a storyteller a magician of lies —and if his wife is a weaver full of tricks, a spider
collecting gifts, then— her husband, my king, has a heart like a loom, a factory engine
weaving a hundred threads at once, not tying simple knots but making huge
unfinished sails that flap in the wind and pull boats across the earth.

I understand the difference between a bullshitter and a liar:
one knows the story is not true
the other more or less talks themselves into it as they go.
My king was a little of both.
A lot, really.
He was a lot of both. He did very little by halves.

But I am certain
he never told you my story


My name is Elpenor
My king famously liked to hide his name.
He once said he was Noman,
but he didn’t mean it.
He was like a celebrity who checks into a hotel
and his alias is something just as attention-getting as what they started with.
My name is Elpenor.
They say Odysseus’ name means “causer of suffering,”
which is true, and I should have taken that into consideration when I joined him, but
I thought, as we sailed for Troy together, that he would bring pain to the enemies and not to everyone around him.

I have been to war
which is just another way of saying
I was alive.
I have also been to peace
though no one ever says that.
I once spent several long days
lying like a colt on the grass
like a seal on the sand
the smell of lotus flowers everywhere
in my hair on my hands in the sunlight itself
but, of course, the captain
the king,
the causer of pain,
put an end to that.

On Aeaea Odysseus encouraged us all
to live like kings.
He was a king already, so he lived like a god.
Circe opened her knees for him
which was a good if not godly way
to pass the time.
The king liked to kneel in front of women
and put his hands on their knees.
It was his way of asking for help
but they always understood what he was really asking.
I just stood around
uninvited by the goddess myself,
though she had bathed me and dressed me in wool clothes—
when she was first frightened, when Odysseus threatened her
with his shaking sword.
And so later, forgotten,
with the others,
I walked from room to room
of this palace
while Odysseus made the goddess
laugh and cry
like a happy cat in heat.

Sometimes I would go
onto the roof
like a cat myself
happy to be alone
and slink about.
I was a cat
for a while
until the king made the witch turn me back
but between that morning and the moly
I was a cat
and went everywhere
on four tiny feet.
Up on the roof
was my favorite place
because the roof tiles were warm in the sun.

Cats always land on their feet
or so we say
and maybe I did
but I landed on my head too
and all the rest of my body
which was not fun.

Still, I made it through the Trojan War
without a scratch!
That roof though—
it opened me up
like a torch,
my brains a wet explosion
in the dust.

My friends, in such a hurry to leave,
left me there
on the ground
for the pigs to eat, though, of course, my friends didn’t think about that
in such a hurry to please
the king of Ithaka
they ran to the ship and seized the oars.
I was in a hurry myself
which is why I fell.
Of course,
when Odysseus said, “We’re not going home
right away—
we have to stop,
make a little stop,
real quick,
first —first, you see—
the witch has given me directions
to the land of the dead . . .”
my friends began to weep.

I was already there by that time,
in the land of the dead.

I’d crossed the wine-dark water
while they were still packing their ship and untying sails.

“Yes, yes,” our captain was saying,
“She did turn you into pigs. But that was a year ago,
and how many times can you expect her to apologize
for treating you this way
when she was, after all, a beautiful woman
alone on an island with you wild men!
You stink of war. And the sea.
Circe has a good heart
warm, beating, shaking like a lamb
if you just take the time to know her.”

I lived through the entire Trojan War
only I fell from a ladder
on our last morning in Aeaea
when the dawn was the color of roses
and the sea was dim and slow
like a bowl of wet ashes.

I told you Helen once touched me
mostly by accident
(but Helen’s allure is no accident,
more a case of force majeure,)
when she touched my arm with her breast
I felt weightless and electric
like the night itself
like my bones were made of stars
and I might live forever.

We all make mistakes.

I fought for ten years
beneath the great walls of Troy
and as far as I know
I never killed anyone,
though not for lack of trying.
It’s the will of the gods.
I rowed a long ship across the Aegean sea
and halfway back, our black sails helpless
in the hot and windless gaze of angry Zeus,
I am a sailor who never returned from the sea,
dying not at Ithaka nor in the wine-dark ocean
but on the porch of a house:
the house of a woman who was not my wife
nor even my friend,
but rather, just someone I knew,
who was sleeping with my king.

I never felt a woman
love me, or saw the Alps or Carpathians,
or even snow, for that matter,
though I met men who had,
and other men, of course, told me all about the women,
I never saw my mother or father lose their thick black hair
or stoop at the shoulders
They were still young when I left home
and my sisters were still girls.

What has my life added up to?

My life was not worth a song:
Row, row, row your boat,
life is but a dream.
How true!

My favorite bone is the wish bone,
but only birds have those.
Not people. Helen maybe,
because her father was a swan at the time,
but I doubt it. People
wished for her. You can’t wish for more wishes.
I say “people” but I mean Paris, that worthless
thing he was. He was so lazy he gave shepherds a bad name.
I knew a man
whose motto was “for any beautiful woman,
there’s a man who’s tired of fucking her.”
I’m not sure what he meant by that
except maybe that life is longer than we think
when we are young.
Menelaus would agree that Helen never made him happy.
She would say the same of Paris.
Achilles said he would rather be a slave on earth
than king
in the land of the dead.
All your life you are a messenger
between this world and the next.
A body is a clumsy envelope
for the letter it holds inside.

The journey is better than the destination.
The injury is bitter to the destined agent.

For several hours, I was a cat
though I don’t remember much of it.
I do remember how warm the roof tiles were,
how good,
which makes me wonder if in my life
I was not Elpenor,
who was turned into a cat
but perhaps I was a cat, transformed into a sailor.
It’s true, I do remember a war
but only barely.
I remember so little
of all the days I think I was alive.
My memories are tiny, ragged things
more like ribbons than quilts or blankets.
It’s like my life was a forest,
and death came like winter,
and all my days are leaves that have long since disappeared
I can’t see them anymore,
just branches.
The air
was once filled
fluttering waving shaking
with light
and color
though I cannot picture any one leaf in particular.

In my memory, we won the war
by dressing up as a giant horse,
which seems highly unlikely, more like the dream
of a cat, who finds himself dressed up like a man
falling from a rooftop where
he used to nap. What is death
but a rude awakening? I only wish
it were the sleep I had been promised.

Life is but a dream.




I was never the pretty one, always shorter than most,
so that even my mother sometimes sighed
when I stood up straight. “Is that all?” she seemed to say,
which was an expression my father used as well. Each day
he looked out over his breakfast
to the road, sometimes at a mule on the path, sometimes
at a neighbor. “Is that all?” he said to himself
A braver man might say this to a lightning storm,
but my father was not a brave man, timid before
Zeus and all the gods and goddesses.
He was only disappointed by life,
not by his enemies. He did not have the courage
to be wrong or make enemies.
Odysseus was a man I admired,
afraid of no one. Years later, when Eurylochus
complained that we would never get home:
“The earth-shaker hates you,” he cried. “The seas
themselves will turn to horse blood
before they carry us home.”
“It’s true. Poseidon hates me,” our king responded,
“but that hardly makes him special
or worthy of respect. Everyone does that.”

I was the youngest of the Ithacans
to go to war. My father and brothers
were on Odysseus’ black ship, holding oars,
and my mother insisted they take me.
“Without you, he will be bullied,” she told them,
“the runt of the litter.”
“But all the men and older boys are going to war,” my brothers said,
“there will be no one left to bully him.”
“The younger boys,” my mother said, and pushed me forward
into the waves, so I was carried up, crying, into the longboats and taken
to sea, to islands, to Ilium, to war.

I can say without self-pity
that I have never been loved.
I left home at fourteen. My entire life as a man
I never arrived anywhere
without the company of ten or twenty others.
Taller men, cleaner men, horse-tamers and sailors,
spear-throwers, shield-breakers, boatbuilders,
and at the front of us was Odysseus,
the man who looked like a God himself,
his thighs large as trees,
his beard lush and oiled
even when he had been sleeping in leaves and dirt like the rest of us.
If I saw a girl at Troy
or on the island of the Ciccones
or Aeaea where Circe lived,
she didn’t see me. She saw the broad shoulders of the other men
the bright eyes of the King.
I have never been loved,
but that’s okay, too,
as the saying goes.
I have loved this world
and never needed it to love me back.
Once, when we were sailing,
we crossed paths with a Persian
who said his drinking mug
was like the face of a girl.
They both needed his lips to be useful.
I found the mug useful as a hammer.
He had set his mug on the table and I lifted it,
swung it against the back of his head,
which made a nice explosion
of pottery.
I don’t know that I had a reason
to do that
but I had no reason not to.

When we sacked the island
of the Ciccones, many women
were carried into darkness
dragged through doorways
empty dresses shaken
like watering cans over jokeless jokes,
things that would never grow. This was itself a darkness
and one I wanted no part of,
thinking of my mother and sisters
in far-off Ithaka, thinking
of the boys who chased me with rocks
when we were playing.
I stayed and watched the ships
“So pirates do not take us unawares,” I said
which made my king happy, and he gave me
a silver mirror. He said I could hold it before
me and see behind me, which was true,
for all the good it did me, to see two things at once.

I can still hear the screams of the women
howling like wolves with their legs in traps. We did deserve
to be turned to pigs,
Circe throwing acorns at our heads.
We deserved
to be eaten like pork by the red-eyed cyclops,
but, of course, we escaped, some of us,
through the love of the gods.
If there was any justice
in the world, we would all be dead.
Then again, everyone dies, which is a bleak picture.
There should be forgiveness somewhere.
Circe turned us into animals, or we were always such,
and then we weren’t,

it’s all a bit unclear
who should forgive whom, or where
the fault was, the witch won, of course,
our king forgetting Ithaka for many full moons
on Aeaea. How long were we there? My fall from the roof was worse
than anything anyone ever did to me, and it was nothing
I can blame on another.



First came the spirit of my man Elpenor,
who had not yet been buried in the earth.
We left his body in the house of Circe
without a funeral or burial;
we were too occupied with other things.
On sight of him, I wept in pity, saying,

‘Elpenor, how did you come here, in darkness?
You came on foot more quickly than I sailed.’

He groaned in answer, ‘Lord Odysseus,
you master every circumstance. But I
had bad luck from some god, and too much wine
befuddled me. In Circe’s house I lay
upstairs, and I forgot to use the ladder
to climb down from the roof. I fell headfirst;
my neck was broken from my spine. My spirit

came down to Hades. By the men you left,
the absent ones! And by your wife! And father,
who brought you up from babyhood! And by
your son, Telemachus, whom you abandoned
alone at home, I beg you! When you sail
from Hades and you dock your ship again
at Aeaea, please, my lord, remember me.
Do not go on and leave me there unburied,
Abandoned, without tears or lamentation—
Or you will make the gods outraged at you.
Burn me with all my arms, and heap a mound
beside the gray salt sea, so in the future
people will know of me and my misfortune.
And fix into the tomb the oar I used
to row with my companions while I lived.’

‘Poor man!’ I answered. “I will do all this.’

The Odyssey, Book 11, lines 50-80. (trans. Emily Wilson)


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