Horace: Poems by Tim Atkins
(O Books, 2007)
Covers by Susan Landers
(O Books, 2007)
Flowers of Bad: A False Translation of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal by David Cameron
(Unbelievable Alligator/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007)
When Rome fell, its survivors and inheritors incorporated as many bits of the ruins as they could carry into their own cultures. I’m thinking of the stones of the monuments that became parts of their houses as well as the bits they had no choice but to live with, such as the Latin that became the romance vernaculars … and a countless number of what for simplicity’s sake I’ll call concepts … or culture.
While the stones were used locally, the languages and concepts spread across the entire planet.
When later empires fell, e.g. the British, the same thing happened.
Now, as “globalization” follows* its own rise and fall, we are trapped yet again in the same cycle, but this time with a twist. Because this time there may very well be NO “those who follow”. Or very few of us/them (us or them depends on when): the fall of this “empire” may very well synch up with mass diminution if not total extinction in the number of humans who survive.
*”follows”, perhaps, as in Derrida’s “But as for me, who am I (following)?” (cf. Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, tr. David Wills)
This possibility has led to a bone-deep understanding of “first time tragedy, second time farce, nth time what??” It must be noted, immeasurably sadly, nth time may not be tragic, technically speaking, but it’s certainly, well, certainly …
This understanding places many of us in a very peculiar relationship with the “two gross of broken statues, … the few thousand battered books” that form our artistic inheritance. This is the stuff of which everyone who reads these words is at least partially made. Now that we know what we know, now that we know we can’t escape what we know, what do we DO with this shit? Especially now that a slowly/ridiculously quick modernity has us so locked in, now that modernism’s utopianism has turned out to be a badly cut speedball with some dirty E tossed in for kicks?
That’s the question I’m interested in here. Properly speaking, what follows will not be a review. Here’s my review:
I’ve read these books. I will read them again. You might want to consider reading them.
What I’m going to do here is chew on how each of these books addresses my questions, or at least my questioning (I’m not sure whether these questions are questions or confusions). To repeat, as if this were short-attention-span television: What do we DO with this shit? In some ways, what follows are three separate but related mini-essays. They are ordered in terms of source-poet chronology.
Horace is as much an icon of empire, high culture and classicism as they come. Suggestive anecdote:
I was once privileged to know an Englishman who had been a judge in Malay. During World War II he was captured at Singapore by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. He told me once that when finally he had been liberated and had returned to what seemed to him for some time the strange world of England and freedom, one of his first actions was to hire a horse and ride out on to the open spaces of the South Downs. Here, with no one within sight or sound, he would put his horse to a gallop and at the top of his voice shout out to the clouds and sky the words of Horace’s Fifth Ode in the First Book:
Quis multis gracilis te puer in rosa
perfusus liquidis urget odoribus
grato, Pyrrha, sub antro?
cui flavam, religas comam,
simplex munditiis? …
Famous lines, translated by Milton among so many other translations, and rendered by James Michie as follows:
What slim youngster, his hair dripping with fragrant oil,
Makes hot love to you now, Pyrrha, ensconsed in a
Snug cave curtained with roses?
Who lays claim to that casually
Chic blond hair in a braid? …
My friend, if his voice held out, would continue the Ode from the beginning to its beautiful end while the horse galloped on and the clouds floated by. Even the few lines which I have quoted will indicate that the poem could have no very obvious reference to his predicament. Yet my friend’s action seems to me absolutely natural, indeed almost inevitable. I should certainly do the same myself, had I ever acquired any dexterity as a horseman. As it is, on foot and less gloriously, I still murmur to the woods and streams.
(Rex Warner, intro. to James Michie’s translation of The Odes of Horace)
There is NOTHING in this passage that DOES NOT suggest to me that these people were NOT living on another planet.
So, those days are done. At least for this reader.
More on Horace, from another angle: though he doesn’t believe in a psycho God the way Dante does (see below for more on that), he does suck up big time to totalitarian/totalizing power: Octavian, soon to be Augustus, and Maecenas; it was the latter who gave Horace his farm and his peace and quiet. Why am I not surprised, then, that Horace would be the one to write dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”, which we all should know by now to be one of the sickest lines in all poetry (and not sick in the good sense). Way back when, Wilfred Owen famously called this “the old lie.” As anyone who listens to the radio, reads the newspaper, or turns on the TV knows, they’re still telling it. And telling it. And telling it. And the poor saps are still buying …
But Horace … Horace is … what was it Bunting wrote about Pound’s cantos?
There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!
An alp is an alp, so: what to do, what to do? Well, here’s Tim Atkins’ version of the Fifth Ode excerpted above:
O long lost
In yonder fane
Will I refer to Garland’s
in dripping garments
it is the water
which is made black
who curbs the main
in yonder fane
in spirit world geysers
Hair long, will come
& mar the song
Say what? To be honest, I don’t know what this has to do with Horace. Though Michael Gizzi’s back cover blurb suggests that what Atkins provides is “a Horace very much in the vernacular and homophonic tradition of Rodefer’s Villon and Mayer’s (not to mention Zukofsky’s) Catullus”, I must confess: I don’t hear the homophony. I’ve gone through a number of these poems side-by-side with the Latin, and: I don’t hear it.
Though I do love “in dripping garments / it is the water / / which is made black”.
Sometimes the relationship between Atkins’ poem and Horace’s is more discernible, e.g., Atkins’ Odes II/1 is an unsympathetic reading of Horace’s II/1. Unsympathetic is putting it mildly. III/1 incorporates a name from Horace, though in distorted form. Etc.
Something else, or a number of something elses, besides homophony and/or reasonably direct translation, is going on here. I’m not sure what.
Second admission: I just wrote “I’m not sure what.” To read this book, I don’t need to be sure what. In fact, I don’t really care whether I always get what Atkins is doing with/to Horace. However these poems were constructed, whatever their relationship to Horace, I dig ‘em. They are much more from my world than Horace is. From my planet. They feel right. And who feels it knows it, yeah.
Let’s turn to Landers’ Dante.
Here I am, the not yet post romantic, in spite of the above and all our/my theorizing, heir of Ivan Karamazov, in absolute sympathy with Ivan’s question to Alyosha:
“… Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature … and to found that edifice on its … tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
And in absolute agreement with Alyosha’s response:
“No, I wouldn’t …”
Here I am; how am I supposed to read Dante (whom, oddly enough, I’ve read many times, in many translations, though perhaps somewhat stupidly), the poet for whom, to quote Robert Hollander, in his intro to The Inferno (trs. Robert and Jean Hollander), “If God is just, it follows logically that there can be no question concerning the justness of His judgments”, without being repelled by the unquestioning and eventually joyous acceptance of “the torture and death” of countless “tiny creature[s]”? According to Hollander, any sympathy on Dante-the-character’s or the reader’s part (or, let me add, on the translator’s) for the sufferings of those in hell (and by logical extension those still living) is a revelation of a serious failure of understanding by the character or the reader, pace Dante-the-writer’s difficulty living up to that standard; the less stupidly I read, the more I tend to agree with Hollander. Human concerns are out of place here. This is God’s world, dog, GOD, the o-riginal OG; don’t ever forget it.
It’s partly a theological problem; it’s partly a culturo-historical one, i.e., in this time of terrifying and despicable and powerful fundamentalist certainties, which have led to the deaths of countless creatures (and, yes, I include the atheist/technological/scientistic/political/economic certainties among the usual-suspect religious ones), I side with Ivan, and “rebel”, to use Dostoevsky’s word, against anyone who would found anything on another’s tears (or even on their own) (fundies, to use an Anselm Hollo word, freak me out …)
Anyway, how do I read Dante now? Through Susan Landers, that’s how. She doesn’t bow to his theology. She enters into an agon with him and lets that agon show.*
*I borrow the word agon from Carla Harryman’s back-cover blurb.
The agon takes many forms. I’m going to start at the very beginning , as how-do-you-solve-a-problem-like-Maria’s “Do-Re-Mi” suggests. Here are the first few lines of Canto 1 of The Inferno in the Hollanders’ version:
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense, and harsh –
the very thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.
Here are those same lines, by Landers:
/ in the middle of a lost road / forest gloomy / straight craft mislaid /
/ fuck /
/ how many wars /
/ sour wild /
/ thinking a-news fear / let me speak of loving / more than death / of finding /
(She goes on to add in the next line: “/ nothing about this is funny”)
While there are MANY ways I could enter into a discussion of her agon, I just want to note a few:
Her “straight craft” parallels “straight way” but with a difference. The “way” (Dante’s via) is now a craft, suggesting that it is not something laid out in advance, like a road one must follow, but rather something that is made step by step. Etymologically, craft relates to strength, the notion of skill only arising later. Strength or skill, the via is self-constructed. This is post-theology-ology. As writ in the post-theological-gospel of the Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie”:
You can't overlook the lack, jack, of any other highway to ride.
It's got no signs or dividing lines and very few rule to guide.
Her making specific “the nature of that wood” with “/ how many wars /” is of course a reference to the totally fucked up policies of the US over the last (hell, who can count ‘em?) years, among the totally fucked up policies of ever entity with the strength to HAV an actionable policy, but it’s also a refusal to see the dark wood as a place of individual torment; the torment affects individuals, of course, but it’s certainly collective.
“/ Thinking a-news fear /” is not quite an agonistic dance with Dante’s original, though I might mention that there is a bit of word-play between the Hollanders’ “renews” and Landers’ “a-news”, which is justified by the Italian rinova, which is, I think, the source for “news” for Landers. It’s rather an agon with (to repeat myself) the sick policies of contemporary mainstream world information “news” sources, 99% of which are so deep in the pocket of our Owners (as if major media can be considered separately from our Owners) that uh uh uh, I begin to splutter here … I hope no-one needs elaboration.
Finally, I would like to note that while we will learn that “the good” that Dante discovers is God’s justice being played out and bowed down to as divine love, the good that Landers discovers in the same place is a product of human, rather than divine agency: loving … finding. What WE do, not what God does.
By focusing on these few lines, I’ve somewhat overstated the case. Landers doesn’t only struggle with Dante in this book (I wish I had room to describe all the ways she struggles); she also honors him. A number of the “covers” are much more “faithful in their way” to the originals. But even they are read through a post-theological post 9/11 lens. I don’t have space here – I don’t want to take the space, I want to say a few words about Cameron’s Baudelaire, too – to go into a thorough analysis of everything she does. You’ll have to take my word for it that it’s worth the ride.
But I must also mention that not everything in this book is out of Dante. There are also the “B Sides”. The B Sides are more-or-less generated by current events. I’d like to end with two lines from one of the B-Sides, “Almost Certainly, It’s Agita (November 1, 2004)”:
(THINGS DON’T GO MIRACULOUSLY RIGHT.
YOU MUST FIGHT FOR THEM TOOTH AND NAIL.)
[Note: the presidential “election” was held on 2 November … was she prescient, or just awake? As she notes in another poem,
We are all Floridians.
Scattered problems were reported –
Powerful enough to detonate a nuclear weapon –
The stuff you don’t smoke want to around.”
(“Like the looting of explosives –“)
[Note: as I write this, as the nominating campaigns for the presidential “election” 2008 wind down, it is becoming clear that Democrats from Florida and Michigan won’t really get a say in who their party nominates [Later addendum: they didn’t] … dark woods indeed … for a country pretending to be a democracy …]
Baudelaire is a if not the first poet of modernity (cf. Walter Benjamin). But he’s also a modernist, and David Cameron is not. Some might say that modernism is so over, though of course modernity is not. This is not the place for an essay on modernism’s utopian tendencies, which are undoubtedly familiar to y’all, not on the way some of those tendencies actually fuel certain postmodernist poetics; in any case Cameron’s doesn’t seem utopian to me. Cameron simply treats Les Fleurs du Mal as source text and works magic algorithms on it.
This may align this work with Atkins’; it’s hard to tell, because I don’t have any clues to Atkins’ methodologies. Luckily for me, Cameron is explicit about his. His notes are my favorite part of the book, which is not the slightest knock on the poems.
He uses a million methods (well, he lists thirteen), such as “Mword”, which uses Microsoft Word 3.0’s spellchecker, “Phonetic”, which is homophonic, “Annagrammatic”, and others which it would take too long to describe here, such as “Collision & Directed” and “The Two Good Sisters”, in order to fashion some mighty fine contemporary poems which are themselves at least as much as they are “Baudelaire.”
This might bother some sensibilities (I feel for poor Clayton Eshleman, who can’t recognize the utter greatness of, e.g. Ted Berrigan’s version of Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre” …). It doesn’t bother mine. Since the methods uses are so varied, and the results so unpredictable, I’d either have to quote a dozen poems or … So, I’m only going to give one example, the closing lines of the book, the last two stanzas of Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage”. In order to fully enable appreciation of what Cameron has done, I will quote these lines in the original and in some other well-known translations:
Ô Mort, vieux capitaine, il est temps! levons l’ancre!
Ce pays nous ennuie, ô Mort! Appareillons!
Si le ciel et la mer sont noirs comme de l’encre,
Nos coeurs que tu connais sont remplis de rayons!
Verse-nous ton poison pour qu’il nous réconforte!
Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brûle le cerveau,
Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?
Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!
Oh, Death, old captain, hoist the anchor! Come, cast off!
We’ve seen this country, Death! We’re sick of it! Let's go!
The sky is black; black is the curling crest, the trough
Of the deep wave; yet crowd the sail on, even so!
Pour us your poison wine that makes us feel like gods!
Our brains are burning up! — there’s nothing left to do
But plunge into the void! — hell? heaven? — what’s the odds?
We're bound for the Unknown, in search of something new!
(Edna St. Vincent Millay)
O Death, old Captain, it is time. Weigh anchor!
To sail beyond the doldrums of our days.
Though black as pitch the sea and sky, we hanker
For space; you know our hearts are full of rays.
Pour us your poison to revive our soul!
It cheers the burning quest that we pursue,
Careless if Hell or Heaven be our goal,
Beyond the known world to seek out the New!
It’s time, Old Captain, lift anchor, sink!
The land rots; we shall sail into the night;
if now the sky and sea are black as ink
our hearts, as you must know, are filled with light.
Only when we drink poison are we well —
we want, this fire so burns our brain tissue,
to drown in the abyss — heaven or hell,
who cares? Through the unknown, we’ll find the new.
Death, old admiral, up anchor now,
this country wearies us. Put out to sea!
What if the waves and winds are black as ink,
our hearts are filled with light. You know our hearts!
Pour out your poison, let us be comforted!
Once we have burned our brains out, we can plunge
to Hell or heaven – any abyss will do –
deep in the unknown to find the new!
Death, my old captain, it is time! Let us weigh anchor! O Death, this country is boring. Under way! If sky and seas are inky black, you know our hearts are filled with light!
Pour us your poison for our comfort! We want, this fire so blazing in our brains, to plunge to the depth of the abyss–Hell or Heaven, who cares?–to the heart of the Unknown to find the new!
And here’s Cameron:
O Mort, old and vying captain, it’s time, lift up the anchor!
This country is irritating Mort! Let’s dress one another in our mother’s curtains!
If the sky tries to sell us or eat the sea aren’t we night or black like a crusty
Northern Sea dog you met on the gangway stuffing his pockets with silk flowers?
Each line knots itself around my neck your fish write mercury in my brain Piano-
Hangs me from the clotheslines we want, my dead aunt and I a few fires to broil
To drown in the fountain drunk Heaven or Hell, who gives a fuck?
We’re fond of not knowing and keep digging in our empty pockets for the desert
or the flood.
As Randy Newman sang about my hometown, that great dystopic new, blooming like a fleur du cheesy mal between the desert of the real and the crusty sea too sick to swim in, I love it!
John Bloomberg-Rissman's most recent publications are No Sounds Of My Own Making, World Zero, and (forthcoming) A Spectrum of Other Instances. His work is anthologized in The Hay(na)ku Anthology Vol. II. His current project is tentatively titled *1000 Views Of "Girl Singing"*. He has just been named co-editor of Leafe Press. You can catch him in action at Zeitgeist Spam.