Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Newton Free Library Poetry Series: New England Poetry Club Reading: Conte, Sallick, and Bodwell : Sept 17, 2019. 7PM

( Click on pic to enlarge)

Curious Peach by Denise Provost



Curious Peach by Denise Provost ( Ibbetson Street Press)

Review by Robert Cable

These poems reward our senses of sight, hearing, smell and taste! The poet observes that “ordinary seeing makes us blind.” She herself, however, has cultivated particularly keen perceptions, which she shares in these colorful, musical, fragrant, tasty poems. A winner in the Maria C. Faust Sonnet Contest, Provost’s poems tend to be of 14 lines, more or less. They are short and sweet, as is the poet herself. (Last night I had a front row seat at her public reading.) A few longer poems also tell interesting stories.

Are you curious about the title of this book? The phrase comes from a 17th C. poem by Andrew Marvell, when "curious" meant “interesting because of novelty or rarity” rather than "eager to acquire information or knowledge," as it does today. "Curious Peach" is also the title of Provost’s concluding verse, where it refers to consciousness of the fruit, which the poet imagines.

Denise Provost grew up in Maine, studied in Vermont (where Marvell was her favorite poet at Bennington College) and now lives in Massachusetts. She is intimately familiar with rural nature and with urban gardens. In addition to being a poet, she is an attorney, housewife, mother of three; and for the past two decades she has also served as a city alderman and then as a state legislator.

This chapbook provides a virtual poetic calendar or "declension of the year,” naming or describing a month, a season, a solstice or an equinox in most of the poems: "fledgling time of year," "the tender season," "that shadow, Autumn" "September's sharpening cold," "the Harvest's gaudy show," "winter's monochrome.” It also describes times of the day: "pre-dawn greyness," "sunrise pinks," "fresh-peeled day," "lovely day, so warm at its height," "colors grown dull/ when the sun slipped and fell," "deepening dark," "evening shroud," "dazzling day, then swift, seamless dark."

Provost’s poems are filled with specific flowers, fruits, trees and animals: bearded iris, bees, Bradford pear, cardinal, cat, chicadee, chicory, cicadas, cornstalks, daffodils, finches, forsythia, grapes, juncos, leopard frogs, lichens, lilacs, lindens, maples, "mere grass," milkweed, mockingbird, moss, mountain ash, mulberry trees, peach tree, peonies, pumpkin vine, Quaker Ladies, quince, rabbits, raspberries, red-winged blackbirds, robins, runner beans, skunk cabbages, sparrows, spring peepers, strawberries, sumac, tulips, water chestnuts, "noxious weeds," wild aster, wild rose, willows. Whew! The poet is steeped in nature; and we can share it through her words.

In two poems, the poet voices apprehension about the unnaturally changing natural world of our time. "Unseasonable" mentions "a world whose thermostat has gone awry." “Lament from a Wingless Thing” (the poet herself) voices the classical theme of Ubi sunt?: "Where are the birds/ of years gone by?/ To which rich banquet/ did they fly?" If we want to continue enjoying the wonderful nature described in these poems, we should seriously consider the question.

The cost of this delightful volume of 28 poems is $0.36 per verse; but its value is immeasurably higher. You will like it.
On page 28 there is a single typo: "juncos" not "junkos." (Ten cents discount.)



To order go to  Curious Peach

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Devil Who Raised Me By Robert Cooperman








The Devil Who Raised Me
By Robert Cooperman
Lithic Press
ISBN: 978-1946-583116
104 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

If you like old fashioned western stories, where hard scrabbled virtues and youthful spirit go unrewarded and tragedy begets more tragedy, you’ll love Richard Cooperman’s The Devil Who Raised Me. Cooperman’s fictional antihero, John Sprockett, brought up by a doting mother and Jesus-loving hypocrite father, devolves from childhood innocence into a stone cold killer in antebellum Missouri. Along the way Cooperman breathes vitality into a cast of larger-than-life characters, some of whom abet evil, some who cherish goodness, and some who do both.

Cooperman conveys his story through colloquial verse. The episodic poems center intensity on individuals or actions and then gallop at breakneck speed to the next tale. Each character is thickly lined, so thickly lined in the way of cartoons or myths that the reader must choose his or her path of perception. Myth wins out. Cooperman’s dramatis personae rise to lofty and detailed heights or fall to nightmarish destruction.

Schooled by his mother in poetry, protagonist and future bad man John Sprockett courts Sarah, his true love, despite parental ignorance and cultural bigotry. Here, in Cooperman’s piece entitled John Sprockett, Seventeen, in Love, Sarah’s father speaks his mind and John envisions escape in a Romeo and Juliet redo,

I blame those poems
your Ma filled your head with!”
Mr. Gilchrist declared:
Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day
dirty as French postcards,”
though Sarah smiled, took my hand,
and kissed me, each time I recited it;
her knowing one feller, at least,
who’d stay true-in-love with her forever.

Still, a plan’s drumming in my head
like a fine horse rode fast and hard
over baked-dry prairie.

Satan’s work!” Pa would’ve sworn,
had he known. A good thing
he don’t suspect a thing.

One of the more complicated of Cooperman’s characters is Joseph Hawk Wing, a Kiowa and the tracker for the Sheriff’s posse that chases Sprockett and company on two different but continuous occasions. He nurses his own racial resentments and has come to a different conclusion on who the good guys and who the bad guys are. In the poem The Tracker Joseph Hawk Wing, Hawk Wing deliberates and comes up with an initial plan during the first chase thusly,

I’d have left this posse in circles
and when bedded down,
slit their throats, scalped them,
and helped Sarah and John find
a safe place in the wilderness,
or pointed them toward some city
where folks won’t root around
in their love business.

But I’m just white enough
to believe in the sanctity
of contracts and business deals:
well-paid by Henry Gilchrist,
I’ll find young Sprockett
and while Henry or the Sheriff
tosses a rope over a tree limb,
I’ll press knees to my mount’s withers
Before the killing starts.

One rhythmical action follows another in quick succession in Cooperman’s verse. Even the protagonist’s internal thoughts spin from scenario to scenario, expanding our understanding of the character. After his getaway, in a piece entitled John Sprockett Escapes, Sprockett considers a bleak future,

slung low in the saddle,
lead hornets buzzing past my head:
one nicked poor Mrs. Lydia Smith,
howling whilst I slapped leather,

to pay Ma and Neddie a last visit,
tell ‘em we’d meet in Heaven, though
I fear I’m heading down the hot chute,
knowing if they send the tracker after me,
my only chance is to kill him:
no one else can pick out my trail
like it was clear as a page of poetry.

Saddens me: I’ve sunk so low,
preparing to murder a man,
just for doing his honest job.

Unusually in a story like this, Cooperman gives voice to the collateral damage inflicted by the combatants—both good and bad. In the poem Mrs. Millicent Gilchrist, Hearing of Her Husband Henry’s Death, Mrs. Gilchrist bemoans her own fate this way,

You’ve gotten yourself killed, Henry,
on this manhunt I warned was doomed
when Young Sprockett escaped, first time.

You’d’ve given our darling daughter
to the banker’s rapscallion son;
I’d not let him near a mangy cur,
let alone our Sarah. Well, he’s dead too,
and good riddance to the vermin.

Young Sprockett rounded on your posse
like a grizzly. For that, I hate him
almost as much as I do you, Henry,
getting yourself killed, leaving me to mourn.

Cooperman even fleshes out an oracle in the guise of a local midwife to issue cautions to the rather ignorant menfolk running the show. In the piece The Midwife, Hannah Macalester, Months After the Sheriff Returns Alone, Macalester speaks as follows,

the Tracker and Sheriff
the only two to escape, and Sheriff wounded
so bad, he still ain’t fit to protect this town.

Leave that boy be, or he might kill
the whole state,” I’d warned him and Gilchrist.
Him and Sarah just dumb kids in love,
running off the best idea since canned peaches,”
but men never listen to sense, especially
from a woman they scoff is demon touched.

Like the fictionalized outlaw supermen Billy the Kid and Jesse James, Cooperman’s John Sprockett provides the antidote to this iniquitous age of class-governed legal systems and mythic neediness. Applause to Cooperman. Long live the cowboy anti-heroes, and their attendant legends.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Eliot Cardinaux, Dreadsummer


Eliot Cardinaux 

First, the title: Dreadsummer. Before I’d read a single poem, the title bespoke (to me) some call of the wild, a terrible loss, a subject matter emotionally wrenching, like Heathcliff and Catherine tragic love. And I was wrong, but I was close. This chapbook of poems by Eliot Cardinaux turns out to be much subtler and more musical than my cheap dramatic expectations, but I would not be exaggerating to call the poems odd, like dreams, and arresting, invasive, suggestive, and large in their life upon the page. They live.

To go straight to a poem that clasps you in its arms and then—wonderfully—lets you go, “To Osip Mandelstam,” the young poet speaks directly to the great Russian. He “lays these things down for the first time,” he says, “in a grave,” and ends up “saying these things out loud.” That is how the poem ends, with a spoken voice, a bare, respectful, and dedicated voice that hints of Whitman’s wide embrace or Louise Glück’s lucid garden secrecy or the strange (yet common) unforgettable imagery of Elizabeth Bishop.

But Cardinaux is no imitator; he is not afraid to lay down his own word or phrase, seemingly detached, and let it fend or float for itself. In the book’s first poem “Sigil” he writes, “I grieve my splinter out”; in “Procession” it’s “Your breathing broke across the bow,” and then “I walk with my nostrils down.” Splinter! Nostrils! Breathing an ocean wave! The man has perfect pitch, and produces heartbreaking and thrilling images. He is thoughtful. He fulfills his subjects. His poems are intimate, evocative, assertive, exquisitely sensitive to all that’s alive, and he does it with a few words. He reveals the catastrophe of existence, the completeness of loss, and the phantom mind of a rose that, in the final poem, “A present history of air,”
grows deep
in the azure, keeping
one thought to itself,
that the present is history.

If you care to slow down, you can hear the internal rhymes and personal rhythms.

There is something new about Eliot Cardinaux’s voice, too, or perhaps reborn. He can conjure little sparks of Akhmatova, cries of the innocent in Blake, touches of Frost. And he has a sense of humor. “A snake was charmed / on the eve of possession” begins the poem “Allegory”; but it takes a serious turn soon enough, as one image consumes another in a “lover’s last poem / whose head witnessed everything at once.” Everything at once? Whose head? Whose everything? We are not instructed. Cardinaux continues:

Their escape is the smoke
from a flame that erases

everything but absence
for your rage to fill:

black water
under the light of migraines
a bullet
brought weak death two scales.


We’re talking notches on belts and musical events. These poems play with words seriously but wittily; they require one’s full attention. They are for quiet readers who have some literary familiarity, can catch a hint, can see a line go into a cartwheel, and are attentive to spoken sounds and imagined images.




Sunday, August 11, 2019

Come Closer and Listen by Charles Simic.









Come Closer and Listen by Charles Simic. HarperCollins, 75 pages. $24.99.

Book Review by Ed Meek

Charles Simic is now 81 years old. He’s been a force in the world of poetry for many years. He has penned forty books of poetry. He writes articles about poetry for The New York Review of Books. He was a Poetry Editor for The Paris Review, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, and was the recipient of a MacArthur Grant. His poetry is somewhat enigmatic. His poems are generally short, combining colloquial language, observed details and surrealism. Here’s an early poem that has stuck with me. 

It’s called “Fear”:

Fear passes from man to man
Unknowing,
As one leaf passes its shudder
To another.
All at once the whole tree is trembling, 
And there is no sign of the wind.
Despite being so short, it’s a poem that resonates. The imagery perfectly captures the idea and it makes a big statement about the way that fear can take over even when people forget what caused it in the first place. Sometimes lately it feels like we’re living in The Republic of Fear these days.
In his current book, Simic employs the same elements though he seldom achieves the intensity he once did. “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” is a two-line poem: “Time—that murderer/ No one has caught yet.” That’s the right idea but feels as if it could keep going.
     

 Simic is in the group of poets who are accessible. He uses simple language and a casual off-hand tone. “Some birds Chirp”

Others have nothing to say.
You see them pace back and forth,
Nodding their heads as they do.

It must be something huge
That’s driving them nuts—
Life in general, being a bird.

Too much for one little brain
To figure out on its own.
Still, no harm in trying, I guess.

Even with all the racket
Made by its neighbors,
Darting and bickering nonstop.

So, the question is: Is it enough to be an economical, amusing observer?

Many of the poems in this collection are about death—not surprising given the writer’s age. This one is called “The Last Lesson”

It will be about nothing.
Not about love or God,
But about nothing.
You’ll be like the new kid in school
Afraid to look at the teacher
While struggling to understand
What they are saying
About this here nothing.

There’s a big argument going on these days about pronouns. When Simic says “What they are saying” is the pronoun singular? Does it refer to the teacher? In addition, although poetry should be about the ineffable, Simic doesn’t have much to offer here beyond the ambiguity of the word nothing.

The best poem in the book is called “Ghost Ship.”

Those blessed moments
That pretend
They’ll stay with us forever—
Soon gone,
Without a fare-the-well.
What’s the rush?
I heard myself say.

You have the right
To remain silent,
The night told me
As I sat in bed
Hatching plans
On how to hold the next
Captive in my head.

I recall a window thrown open
One summer day
On a grand view of the bay
And a cloud in all that blue
As pale as the horse
Death likes to ride

Always happy to shoot the breeze,
That lone cloud
Was telling me
As it drifted out to sea,
Toward some
Ship on the horizon,

That had already
Set sail
And was about to vanish
Out of sight,
On the way to some port
And country
Without name.

A ghost ship,
Most surely,
But mine all the same.

In this poem, we have simple language paired with imagery and each line takes the poem a little further, yet each is surprising. There is some subtle rhyming and the usual economy. At first the subject seems to be memory but soon it becomes clear Simic is talking about death and here he gives us something we can take away. The fact that he is still writing good poetry is inspiring.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Ibbetson Street Press: Presents: Denise Provost reading from Curious Peach Aug 15

( Click on Pic to Enlarge)

Raising Classics in Translation at The Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading: Ferry and Kalogeris

David Ferry
and George Kalogeris 

W E D N E S D A Y   S E P T E M B E R  4,  at 7pm 
FIRST CHURCH CONGREGATIONALIST, 11 Garden Street, Cambridge 

article by Michael Steffen 

In the autumn of 2008 at the Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture at BU, David Ferry gave a talk to introduce Seamus Heaney. In that talk David evoked Virgil’s Eclogues to identify the depth and clarity poetry brings to our lives. “The Eclogues,” David said, “are a radical instance of what is true of all poetry, and especially true of Heaney’s poetry. It makes us vividly, radiantly conscious of our experience.” 

Of the functions of language—to indicate, to communicate, to question, to edify, dissolve, console, appease, flatter, to deceive, persuade, attack, argue or agree or simply to humor— 
the work or grace of making us conscious of our lives and experience seems especially the gift of literature. And to make us “vividly, radiantly conscious” becomes the pleasures and pains of poetry. 

The little extra consideration and effort, the bother, in invention of taking what has become inwardly apparent and making it luminous, or vivid and radiant, calls for some labor and difficulty which poetry is also notorious for. Marianne Moore pronounced, 

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. 
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in 
it after all, a place for the genuine. 

In an early sonnet called “The Forge” with an eponymous first line, Seamus Heaney hammers away at an extended metaphor for the work and labor of his art: 

All I know is a door into the dark… 
…the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring, 
The unpredictable fantail of sparks 
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water… 

He describes the iron forge as 

an altar 
Where he expends himself in shape and music. 
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose, 
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter 
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows; 
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick 
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows. 

The portrait is so appropriate in connection with David Ferry and his important work on VirgilThe sonnet was originally titled “Vulcan,” after the god of the forge, the icon of the artist as hard laborer, the Roman version of Hephaistos the Greek ironsmith who wrought Achilles armor with vivid scenes of war. It is appropriate because it bespeaks the labor of translating a great epic poem like The Aeneid or Beowulf, one of the premises of the correlation between David Ferry and Seamus Heaney, with Heaney’s important translation of The Aeneid Book VI to strengthen that correlation. 

The whole of The Aeneid, in its elaborateness, intensity and invention that holds our curiosity, 
its balance of temporal dangers and tasks and works with it fantasies stemmed in spiritual and metaphorical likeliness, the witness of the mysterious powers at work to keep our lives in their trials true, just and inspired—the whole of this monumental poem bespeaks the qualities expressed in two of Virgil’s most important words, often yoked together, as in the phrase opera atque labores, translated by David West as “toils and suffering.” David Ferry’s version of the phrase—“what men have done and what has been done to them”—is expansive and hints at the consideration in his method in general. The phrase, moreover, gives rise to key introductory remarks on Virgil’s epic as a whole as seen by Ferry in a preface to the 2018 publication. 

In Book VI of The Aeneid, the pairing of these important words occurs again, in a speech the Sybil of Cumae makes to Aeneas concerning human journeys to the underworld, the land of the dead. Its significance is telling enough, though I actually “missed” the passage the first time I read it in a version by Robert Fitzgerald. The Fitzgerald passage reads: 

The way downward is easy from Avernus. 
Black Dis’s door stands open night and day. 
But to retrace your steps to heaven’s air, 
That is the trouble, there is the toil. 

As I stated, I “missed” the passage, or failed to notice it particularly, the first time I read it, and I found out that I missed this passage when I opened Edmund O. Wilson’s brilliant book on the planet’s evolution, The Diversity of Life. Wilson used these four (actually 3.8) lines of Fitzgerald’s translation as an epigram to the book, an at once succinct and panoramic expression to relate his message as a scientist to our industrially driven society about where we are headingatri ianua Ditis, translated variously as “The gates of hell,” “Black Dis’s door,” “the darkness of Dis,” and “Death’s dark door” (hence Heaney’s “door into the dark” in the sonnet above, which was also the title of his second book of poems). 

I was unaware of Edmund Wilson’s sequoia stature as an intellectual and scientist when I first opened his book. He only became a superhero of letters in my mind once I had seen the citation from Virgil. (I hadn’t even read the first sentence of Wilson’s book yet and he was already awesome.) And though I had read through all of The Aeneid, it took Wilson’s highlighting of this passage for me to determine it remarkable. And it is, when you look at it. 
The lines express a profound truth: The hardship we so readily seem to go slipping into is always so damn difficult to get back out of. You don’t even need to go all the way to the caverns of the dead to get this. 

John Dryden’s famous translation of The Aeneid renders the memorable lines in this way: 

The gates of hell are open night and day; 
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way: 
But to return, and view the cheerful skies, 
In this, the task and mighty labor lies. (lines 191-4) 

In our time, end-rhymed couplets come off as satirical, probably light, likely sardonic. Though these are referred to as “heroic couplets,” they hardly sound genuine to the modern reader. In the late 17th century when Dryden’s translation came out, probably any other poetic form would not have come off as bona fide. 

The set of rhyming couplets by Dryden underscores the proverbial quality of the passage. It bears the weight of general principleIn the original text, Virgil uses different figures of balance and syntax to bring the passage prosodic weight: 

noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis: 
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras, 
hoc opus, hic labor est. (127-9) 


Heaney’s translation of the passage gives us echoes of the alliterative versification in Beowulf: 

It is easy to descend into Avernus. 
Death’s dark door stands open day and night. 
But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air, 
That is the task, that is the undertaking. 


David Ferry’s version, again, is characteristically patient and generous: 

The way to Avernus is easy, the door is open, 
Night and day, down to the darkness of Dis. 
But how to come back, how to retrace one’s steps 
And return to the upper air, that is the task, 
That is the labor…(David Ferry, page 172) 

Im no expert at translation. But by comparing these different translations, without having seen the original or being able to understand the Latin and piece its difficult syntax together, the translations in their similarity tell us something about the original. We could guess by each that the primary text had included the phrase “night and day,” which indeed it does, “noctes atque dies.” 

From each we also would key in on the repetition or amplification of “trouble…toil,” task… trouble,” “task…undertaking,” “task…labor.” The parallel in the original wouldn’t be so terribly difficult to identify in “hoc opus, hilabor est.” 

A look at the translations would note that none of the masters of English wanted to play as Virgil did with “hoc” and “hic,” denoting some elusiveness—here, there…—as to the nature of this task and labor, while the Fitzgerald version gives us “That is…there is.” 

To study the language of another culture is to study its turn of mind. To find other ways of thinking can be liberating, even exhilarating. In this sense, poetry is another language within the language. But none of our translators, as excellent as they are, could be expected to find an expression with the equivalent ambiguity announced in “revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras.” Not even an attempt to explain this ambiguity would be possible to one unfamiliar with the dead language. 

The mid-20th century French singer, songwriter and poet Jacques Brassens lamented Vatican II and another important loss of the use of the ancient texts with his lyrics, Sans le latin, sans le latin/la messe nous emmerde (Without Latin, o without Latin/going to Mass bores us shitless…).  

In an early essay on translation with the title “Not Getting It Right,” David Ferry upheld the assertion about the impossibility of an exact, correct translation—of any text. But especially poetry, because it deals so much with nuance and cultural demands, which are different for every language in every age. 

Responding in a shipwrecked interview I conducted with David years ago, he expanded on this notion: 

The exigencies of our language, with our own grammatical and syntactical structures, differ from those of  the target language. Our systems of versification, also different, mean we never get it right… This is all the more vividly the case with Virgil who lived in and responded to a very different culture and had a different sensibility, with all its own exigencies. 

Ferry’s partner in crime and co-professor of Classics in Translation at Suffolk University, George Kalogeris, has written a haunting poem of penetrating vision into the nature and source of poetry. The  poem is also illuminating for translation, as it draws our attention to the wonder of the spaces between “words” and “poem”, “poem” and “voice” and “voice” and “breath.” The poem is called “Origins.” The first three lines go like this: 

Behind the words there is a poem 
Behind the poem there is a voice 
Behind the voice there is a breath… 

These terms define the challenge of accuracy between inspiration and articulation, and also the task of translation at word and in meaning. 

The lines also announce a seminal notion in poetry, for the poet and his identity and psyche. 

In his very first poem for us, “Digging,” opening the celebrated collection Death of a NaturalistSeamus Heaney deals with the theme of progeny, or family “origins,” referring to his father biographically, or historically, with reference to the tool of a spade used to dig potatoes. Differently, Seamus Heaney would define himself by how he would dig with the tool of a pen instead. 

In his second poem, “Death of a Naturalist,” we get the consciousness of poetry we are more used to, the one that brings elevation to poetry, where our origins go mute, are deferred. We are like Whitman “out of the cradle endlessly rocking, in the foundling mindset from heaven knows what mists. It is an understanding in Heaney’s early vision that “sickened, turned, and ran” from the coarse croaking, blunt-headed frogs, the great slime kings, and their gooey, binding and belittling spawn. 

Heroes—of epic—as well as of the self of Whitman’s song and of so much lyrical poetry 
are often first shrouded in this elusiveness and mystery of origins—behind—the poem behind the words, the voice behind the poem… 

Great importance is given to the subject of origins in the beginning of the epic Beowulf, in the emergence through the relating of the heroes’ lineages, from the poem’s opening hero Shield Sheafson, a “foundling” himself, like Moses in the Old Testament, a babe cast on the waters. The word “foundling,” Heaney’s choice in the translation, reminds me of Robert Pinsky’s recent title At the Foundling Hospital. 

The necessity of “emerging from nowhere,” as it were, is that the hero must prove himself, without any born advantages. This is what comes across in Heaney’s wonderfully rendered lines describing Shield Sheafson 

A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on 
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved. 

It is profoundly interesting how Beowulf the hero emerges in the poem, by a suggestion of name, nearly as a ghost of himself. The first mention of a Beowulf, which Heaney simply renders as “Beow,” is as the princely son of Shield Sheafson, the proven warrior king. The story of this first “Beow” is cursory and synoptic. He is liberal in his giving and politically adept at binding allies. After Shield Sheafson dies and we get the impressionable image of the death-ship funeral, we are told simply, 

Then it fell to Beow to keep the forts. 
He was well regarded and ruled the Danes 
for a long time… 

From there the poet proceeds to the next monumental personage, Hrothgar, who builds the wondrous mead hall. There the Danes drink and feast and awaken the evil monster Grendel to stalk and terrorize them. 

The princely son of a great warrior king occupies some of poetry’s most memorable characters and their dilemmas, from Telemachus and Oedipus to another certain Dane, Hamlet, beset with melancholy and paralyzed by his intellect. James Joyce’s prince in spirit Stephan Dedalus, according to his sidekick Buck Mulligan, could prove by algebra that Shakespeare was the ghost of the father of Hamlet. We may grin and shuffle our feet. The notion of reincarnation, however, is powerfully suggestive in the epic BeowulfOne other important bit of information given to us about the early Beowulf (“Beow”) is that his “name was known through the north.” He was already somewhat legendary. 

As the poet goes on from “Beow” to Hrothgar we may imagine a similar death-ship rite for Beow hauling the prince’s arrayed remains (and spirit) off into the misty northern seasLet’s backtrack to the passage of Shield Sheafson’s death-ship burial: 

Shield was still thriving when his time came 
and he crossed over into the Lord’s keeping. 
His warrior band did what he bade them 
when he laid down the law among the Danes: 
they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood, 
the chief they revered who had long ruled them. 
A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour, 
ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince. 
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat, 
laid out by the mast, amidships, 
the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures 
were piled upon him, and precious gear. 
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished 
with battle tackle, bladed weapons 
and coats of mail. The massed treasure 
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far 
on out into the ocean’s sway. 
They decked his body no less bountifully 
with offerings than those first ones did 
who cast him away when he was a child 
and launched him alone out over the waves. 
And they set a gold standard up 
high above his head and let him drift 
to wind and tide, bewailing him 
and mourning their loss. No man can tell, 
no wise man in hall or weathered veteran 
knows for certain who salvaged that ship. (26 – 52) 


We imagine the early Beow so sent off. The poet reminds us, “No man can tell,” as of the mystery of where Sheild goes, or where the first Beow goes, perhaps bestowed anew, say, among the scions of Hygelac the Geat, across those northern seas where the death ships sailed. It cannot be ruled out – “No man can say” – but that Beow’s spirit should reemerge as Beowulf himself, now the great and mighty warrior who hears rumor of the havoc being wreaked by Grendel at Hrothgar’s mead hall and steps up to the challenge of going to the land of the Shields to slay the monster. 

Complexity and intricacy of narrative – David Ferry surely can tell us this – is one of the arresting features of epic poetry. Like the decking out of a death ship or building of a marvelous mead hall, the narrative’s amplitude and subtle coherences betoken the devotion and uncanny revelations that are interwoven with the mysteries of our mortality. So the epic poet is known for his wide and peculiar, it is sometimes thought, terrible understanding. 

Of course our old English word for this type of wisdom is “grasp.” It is the word Heaney uses, in its primary physical sense of “hold,” to describe the claw on Grendel’s arm. That appendage, we remember, is ripped off the beast in the mighty death grip of Beowulf. This is the monster’s death blow. 

The monster’s whole 
body was in pain, a tremendous wound 
appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split 
and the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted 
the glory of winning… 
The great captain 
had boldly fulfilled his boast to the Danes: 
he had healed and relieved a huge distress, 
unremitting humiliations… 
Clear proof of this 
could be seen in the hand the hero displayed 
high up near the roof: the whole of Grendel’s 
shoulder and arm, his awesome grasp. (814-35) 


Figuratively, as also suggested by the word “grasp,” that dreadful arm raised to the rafters of the mead hall to signify the hero’s victory, is the poet’s trophy. Whoever still practices physical writing today may know what it means to write until your arm feels like it’s about to drop off. 

(Whenever I’m struck by this death-hold grip Beowulf clamps Grendel with, I can’t help but to think of Theodore Roethke dancing with his inebriated father: 

The whiskey on your breath 
Could make a small boy dizzy; 
But I hung on like death: 
Such waltzing was not easy.) 

To the sundering of the monster’s arm in Beowulf we find a like image in The Aeneid Book VI, in another task assigned to the hero: to pluck the golden bough from the wood by Avernus. The luminous tree’s limb will allow Aeneas passage to the underworld to speak with his father. Love and devotion to the father and to the fatherland make for undeniable traits in the ideals of the Latin culture and sensibility, one of the exigencies. So one of the emblematic images we retain of Aeneas is that of him bearing Anchises on his back to save him from the flames of Troy. It is the image of bearing one’s whole culture with its traditions into a new land. 

We could hardly begin to see in our mind’s eye Hamlet readily and willingly bearing the burden of his warrior father, however psychologically that ghost weighs on him. He would certainly not raise a finger to help Claudius. Not that Hamlet was meant to serve as an ideal to the culture that goes along with the English language, perhaps so much as the character is exemplary of the English suspicion and even scorn for ideals to begin with. This is to recall what David Ferry meant about “the case with Virgil who lived in and responded to a very different culture and had a different sensibility, with all its own exigencies. 

The motif in the Latin culture of filial devotion proves lasting up to Dante and his deference and devotion to Virgil in The Divine Comedy, the Christian era’s greatest epic, which in many key ways stems from Book VI of The Aeneid.  

Parentage and the lost world of the deep past emerge as major themes in George Kalogeris’s recent book of poems, Guide to GreeceThe book seeks out, finds, celebrates and laments the pasts of culture and individual, as witnessed by the poem “GUIDE TO GREECE” with its evocation of names—genealogies, Epaminondas, Thebes, ruined cities, myths, Athens—and the poignant plea of the poet’s bridging this excavation of tradition to a quest of utmost intimacy: 

…if this means, Pausanias, that no one 
Knows better than you that everything that’s happened 

Has already happened before, and also because 
Both Sparta and Arcadia are places 

You call Archaía Elláda, and that’s a term 
I heard my parents use to tell us where 

They came from when they meant to say Old Greece, 
I keep on reading down all the lists of names, 

Pausanias, keep paging through each region 
And wondering if perhaps you might have seen them, 

My elderly parents, somewhere in your travels. 

Pausanias is evoked as an implied listener to Kalogeris’s verses throughout the book, an echo of Horace’s apostrophes to Maecenas, his noble patron. The classical trope bears in resonance homage to Ferry as a sponsor in all this fiddle of Classics in Translation. George and David have been teaching the course at Suffolk now for 13 years. 

George’s title, Guide to Greece, comes from the title of Pausanias’ ten-volume opus Hellados Periegesis, a needle in the haystack of ancient culture for the poet to pinch and waken from its sleep of ages. The work largely was meant as a guide for Roman tourists in Greece during the Pax Romana, the second century AD, one of whose emperors, Hadrian of the wall, makes for an astonishingly apt allusion to a major controversy in America today. 

Much of the world written about by Pausanius “no longer exists.” It is a phantom world already Kalogeris evokes, of what was once a descriptive work. Or, it is the world now of a poem, of legends once places, people, things, all gone and hovering in the air, stories. So Kalogeris quietly also ascribes to his “guide to Greece” a Homeric epithet for the wanderer of the epic world, Odysseus, calling Pausanius’s itinerary “The polytropic routes” in the poem “PERIGRINATIONS OF PAUSANIAS,” p. 127. 

Stamatia Dova has noted the welcoming voice of these poems, “the timeless voice of the learned poet enabling the narrative of heritage and splendid erudition and disarming sensitivity.” A look at these accurate terms – “heritage,” “erudition,” “sensitivity” – unearths frictions. These differences are unfolded in one of the book’s front poems, “AMBASSADOR OF THE DEAD.” The poem vividly portrays memories of animated discussions between Kalogeris and his parents about the sophisticated vs. ordinary or demotic languages that defined different Greek poets. 

My parents were never crazy about Cavafy— 
To them he was too refined, too ALEX-AN 
DRIAN, and they were only peasants, khoriates. 

And there was no Ithaka for them to go back to. 
When I’d beg them to read the Greek, they’d balk when they got to 
His purist katharévousa diction—they just 

Couldn’t stomach its formalist starch. His poems were never 
Demotic enough, never trapézika: 
Songs to be sung across the kitchen table. 

The passage finds a striking comparison in the fourth sonnet of Seamus Heaney’s Clearances, with the endearing portrait of Heaney’s mother in ambivalent regard to her son’s education and the worth and worthiness of rural discretion: 

Fear of affectation made her affect 
Inadequacy whenever it came to 
Pronouncing words ‘beyond her’. Bertold Brek. 
She’d manage something hampered and askew 
Every time, as if she might betray 
The hampered and inadequate by too 
Well-adjusted a vocabulary. 
With more challenge than pride, she’d tell me, ‘You 
Know all them things.’ So I governed my tongue 
In front of her, a genuinely well- 
adjusted adequate betrayal 
Of what I knew better. I’d naw and aye 
And decently relapse into the wrong 
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay. 

George Kalogeris is associate professor of English Literature and Classics in Translation and is co-director of the Poetry Center at Suffolk University in Boston. His previous books include Camus: Carnets, a book of poems based on the notebooks of Albert Camus, and Dialogos: Paired Poems in Translation. 

As proclaimed by Alan Shapiro, “There is no better poet on the planet than David Ferry.” Ferry is the author of books of poetry and has translated several works from classical languages. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998, won the Rebekah Johnson Bobbit National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress in 2000, was awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for life-time achievement in 2011, and won the 2012 National Book Award for Poetry for the book of his original poems Bewilderment. His other translations include the Odes of Horace, the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil, and the Epic of Gilgamesh. 

It’s a great honor for our series to bring these gifted poets to the podium on the 4th of September to help us celebrate the memory and legacy of Seamus Heaney, himself ever interested in and devoted to the pleasures, labor and art of translation and to the Classics.