Tuesday poem – “Odyssey”, by Karen Zelas

There are no maps
to ease the passage of the godless.

Already he is where none can follow. He
has climbed into this space, this cavern
in near-night, in the far-distance, driven. Cries
that crash in forests of memory. Hunter and hunted,

and which is he? Obscured
in semi-darkness, crouched
head bent to bony knees,
eyes of landed fish. Nothing
can surprise him now. He is halfway
to star. Rasping breath. Rattle
of chest and chains. I would curl
beside him, head in the lap
that held me. Still
he cannot rest. One uncommitted soul.

I would call off the hunter and the hounds.
Silent, I plead his cause. We are connected
one last time.

Go easy, my father.

– Karen Zelas

first published in Snorkel # 13
April 2011
ISSN: 1833-7880

Karen Zelas is a New Zealand poet, editor and novelist. Visit her website here. This poem used with permission.

I remember when this poem was conceived. It was during a Reading for Writing class, with the triggering poem being John Montague’s “The Deer Trap”. I remember that it was one of those occasions when everybody seemed to be writing out of their skins, and poem after poem was offered that had my jaw dropping.

And then Karen read the first draft of this one.

That stunning first line sets you up for what is to follow – a clear, almost pitiless examination of the cost of faith, and the cost of its loss. I say almost pitiless because there is strong emotion running under the whole poem, and never more obviously so than that penultimate stanza, where the control cracks, just for a moment. Or maybe ‘cracks’ is wrong – softens briefly. Just enough to let us see into the very real grief of the speaker, without ever threatening to turn into ‘emotional slither’.

It’s not a cold poem. Not even slightly. But there is a brain here, as well as a heart. So ‘eyes of landed fish’ is followed by ‘nothing can surprise him now’, and the image of the adult daughter, curled childlike in the lap of her dying father, leads in to that heartbreaking ambiguity of ‘Still he cannot rest’, and the reason why not: ‘One uncommitted soul’. It’s that play between head and heart that really does typify Karen’s best poems.

Which leads me quite neatly to the reason why I wanted to post one of Karens pieces today – she’s just learned that the manuscript of her first poetry collection, Night’s Glass Table, has won the 2012 IP Picks Best First Book Award, and will be published by Interactive Press later this year. (In case you’re wondering where you’ve heard of them before, they published Tim Jones’s most recent book, Men Briefly Explained, which had its Christchurch launch along with last year’s IP Picks winner, Keith Westwater.)

So very well done Karen! Having seen the manuscript in preparation, I can only hungrily await the chance to snaffle myself a copy.

For more Tuesday Poems, visit http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com/.

4 Replies to “Tuesday poem – “Odyssey”, by Karen Zelas”

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