The Man He Should Be: Stephen Dunn’s “Odysseus’s Secret”

Maimonides wrote that we should avoid extremes and aspire to the middle way. He was referring to virtues and vices, not poetry. But in encountering a poem that does not adopt any of the classical forms, one good way to grasp its structure is sometimes simply to count the lines, figure out which one falls precisely in the middle, and begin working out from there.

One poem that can be puzzled out this way is one of my favorite contemporary pieces of verse, Stephen Dunn’s “Odysseus’s Secret, from his 2002 collection Different Hours (read the poem here ). I used two of its lines as the epigraph to my memoir Company C . The name of my new monthly column in The Jerusalem Report, “Necessary Stories,” comes from those lines, and is the name I originally wanted for my book.

The poem is in free verse, with no rhyme structure or stanzas to clue us in to how the poet built it. But it has an odd number of lines, 37, which means that one line stands in the middle-line 19: “he was a man. Lightning, high winds” The caesura in the middle of the line-the full stop, with four syllables on either side, is further evidence that this middle line is indeed the axis around which the poem is built.

“Odysseus’s Secret” tells us about a classical hero famous for his two-decade-long voyage home from the Trojan War to his loyal, patient, waiting wife Penelope. Known as the cleverest of the Greeks who fought in the war-the Trojan Horse was his idea-Odysseus has adventure after adventure as he circuits the Mediterranean Sea.

The poem begins by telling us that our hero did not set out to seek adventure. He really wanted to go home to his wife. But adventure came his way, and

… after a few years, like anyone on his own,
he couldn’t separate what he’d chosen
from what had chosen him.

Caught in the current of facing danger and proving his courage, he becomes addicted to proving himself. He discovers something he perhaps had not realized before, his “gift for getting in and out of trouble”-a talent that is wholly his, not the happy result of him being protected by a friendly deity. Adventure becomes the irresistible Sirens’ song-the deadly song that Odysseus alone heard and lived, because he enjoined his men, whose ears he plugged, to tie him to his boat’s mast, and not to free him no matter how desperately he pleaded.

Now let’s go to the other end of the poem. The beginning tells us how his journey out began; the end tells us how he got back.

Whatever gods are-our own fearful voices
or intimations from the unseen order
of things, the gods finally released him,
cleared the way.

Heaven interceded not to extricate him from physical danger, but to save him from himself. That miracle allowed him to return to his original plan. Storm and wild sea are no longer temptations to adventure, but obstacles he will not allow to keep him from his beloved.

Go back to that middle line: “he was a man. Lighting, high winds.”

In fact, in the first half of the poem, Odysseus has become not a man, but two men. Forgetting that wars are fought so that men may live in peace, the life of the warrior and adventurer has become his life. He is a king, but has lost interest in governing, a husband who evades his love. His virtues have become vices because he has allowed himself to forget what kind of man he was. Then lightning comes to illuminate, high winds to buffet him back to his senses. The excesses that are the fabric of adventure are now punishments, and he remembers Penelope.

He has gone off course, he knows. But he can’t admit it; his persona as an adventurer has become too much a part of him. It’s his secret.

A man finds his shipwrecks,
tells himself the necessary stories.

When Odysseus realizes that the man he has become is a product of stories that men tell, not the man of love and responsibility that he should be, and that he wanted to be, he can break free.

Odysseus boarded that Phaeacian ship, suddenly tired
of the road’s dangerous enchantments,
and sailed through storm and wild sea
as if his beloved were all that ever mattered.


More South Jerusalem on poetry:

The Parting of the Red Sea: Robert Frost’s “The Silken Tent”

The Sinews of Our Souls: C.K. Williams’ “Dissections”

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