In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope was the wife of Odysseus, who took ten years to return home after the Trojan wars. She was besieged by suitors wanting her to marry them, who insisted on living in the palace and helping themselves to anything they wanted. She stayed faithful to her husband by pretending that she would make a decision when she had finished the tapestry she was working on. She worked on it every day, but secretly unpicked it every night. At last her deception was discovered and she then said she would marry whoever could string Odysseus’s great bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axes. By this time Odysseus himself had returned to his court disguised as a beggar. He won the challenge and then killed all the suitors who had pestered Penelope.
In this poem, Duffy creates a Penelope who is quite happy being on her own and doesn’t want either the suitors or Odysseus particularly. It begins at the point where Penelope might reasonably expect Odysseus’s return after the ten years of the wars. 2At first I looked along the road/hoping to see him saunter home/among the olive trees,/a whistle for the dog/who mourned him with his warm head on my knees." This attractive domestic image is not to be, however, although the dog managed to live until his master returned, when he showed his recognition of him before dying.
After six months of looking out for her husband, Penelope says "and then I noticed that whole days had passed/ without my noticing." To while away the time, she takes up embroidery, "but found a lifetime’s industry instead."
Duffy imagines Penelope stitching an autobiography on to her tapestry "I sewed a girl/ under a single star – cross-stitch, silver silk –/running after childhood’s bouncing ball." She takes the opportunity to use colours and images to create the tapestry for her readers as she chooses a specific shade of green for the grass, then "a smoky pink, a…