Nov 192010
 

Here are five different translations of a poem by Sappho. New discoveries have resulted in a nearly complete poem from fragment 58 and these poems are based on this new text.

The Beat Goes On

You, children, be zealous for the
beautiful gifts of the
violetlapped Muses
and for the clear songloving lyre.

But my skin once soft is now
taken by old age,
my hair turns white from black.

And my heart is weighed down
and my knees do not lift,
that once were light to dance as
fawns.

I groan for this. But what can I do?
A human being without old age is
not a possibility.

There is the story of Tithonos,
loved by Dawn with her arms of roses
and she carried him off to the
ends of the earth

when he was beautiful and young.
Even so was he gripped
by white old age. He still has his
deathless wife.

— Translation by Anne Carson. Published in NYRB, October 20, 2005.


[You for] the fragrant-blossomed Muses’ lovely gifts
[be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:

[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized;] my hair’s turned [white] instead of dark;

my heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I oft bemoan; but what’s to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.

Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world’s end,

handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife.

— Translation by Martin West


Those violet-wearing Muses’ lovely gifts
and tuneful lyres enjoy, O maidens dear!

My own once tender body’s hard with age;
this hair once ebony is changed to white.

A heavy heart – and slow, these faltering knees
that once would whirl me, dancing, like some fawn.

But why complain, when nothing can be done?
Necessity decrees we all grow old.

Tithonus, loved by rose-armed Dawn, we’re told,
was carried by his love beyond the world:

comely, young – but Age still found him there
in time, despite his deathless wife’s intent.

— Translation by Noetica, 2005


Sappho to Her Pupils

Live for the gifts the fragrant-breasted Muses
send, for the clear, the singing, lyre, my children.
Old age freezes my body, once so lithe,
rinses the darkness from my hair, now white.
My heart’s heavy, my knees no longer keep me
up through the dance they used to prance like fawns in.
Oh, I grumble about it, but for what?
Nothing can stop a person’s growing old.
They say that Tithonus was swept away
in Dawn’s passionate, rose-flushed arms to live
forever, but he lost his looks, his youth,
failing husband of an immortal bride.

— Translation by Lachlan Mackinnon


Sappho and the Weight of Years

Girls, be good to these spirits of music and poetry
that breast your threshold with their scented gifts.
Lift the lyre, clear and sweet, they leave with you.

As for me, this body is now so arthritic
I cannot play, hardly even hold the instrument.
Can you believe my white hair was once black?

And oh, the soul grows heavy with the body.
Complaining knee-joints creak at every move.
To think I danced as delicate as a deer!

Some gloomy poems came from these thoughts:
useless: we are all born to lose life,
and what is worse, girls, to lose youth.

The legend of the goddess of the dawn
I’m sure you know: how rosy Eos
madly in love with gorgeous young Tithonus

swept him like booty to her hiding-place
but then forgot he would grow old and grey
while she in despair pursued her immortal way.

— Translation by Edwin Morgan

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Nov 192010
 

Seamus Heaney

in memory of Czeslaw Milosz

His instruction calmed us, his company and voice
Were like high tidings in the summer trees.
Except this time he turned away and left us.
He walked to where the stream goes underground
And a steep bank paved with flagstones
Leads down to a lintel in the earthwork.
And there he stood, studying what next.
Between a stone cairn and a marble plaque
To the dead of our late wars.
Other wars and words were in my mind,
Another last look taken upon earth—
Roads shining after rain
Like uphill rivers
—so that I all but
Wept for his loneliness.
                        He loosed the girdle then
Off his scarecrow rags, called for his girls to fetch
River water for him, find a place
Where overhanging grass combed long and green
And dip their pitchers there. So off they went
And came with overbrimming vessels back
To pour a last libation and to wash
Their dear departing father, hand and foot,
Prepare his linen garment and do all
According to the custom for the dead.

And when all was done, and the daughters waiting,
There came a noise like water rising fast
Far underground, then a low blast and rush
As if some holy name were breathed on air,
A sound that when they heard it made the girls
Cry out, and made blind Oedipus
Gather them in his arms. “My children.” he said—
And the rest of us felt that we were his then too—
“Today is the day that ends your father’s life.
The burden I have been to myself and you
Is lifted. And yet it was eased by love.
Now you must do without me and relearn
The meaning of that word by remembering.”
Then the waterfall of sound behind him grew
Into an overwhelming cavern-voice
Shouting shouts that came from all directions:
“You there. What are you waiting for? You keep
Us waiting. It’s time to move. Come on.”

And now he was a stranger. He groped in air
As the daughters went to him, heads on his breast,
And he found and kissed their brows, instructing them
One final time: they were to turn and go
And (these were his words exactly) not look upon
Things that were not for seeing, nor listen to
Things not for hearing.
                        And what he said to them
We took again as meant for all of us,
So turned away together when he turned
Away, with the king accompanying him.

But after a few steps I and other ones
Halted to look hack. He was gone from sight:
That much I could see, and against the sky
The king had his arm up shielding his two eyes
As if from some brilliant light or blinding dread.
Next he was on his knees, head bowed to earth
In homage to those gods who dwell in it,
Then up again with his arms spread out to honour
The gods on high, like a windlass being turned
By every power above him and below,
Raised out knowledge into knowledge, sole
Witness of what passed.
                        No god had galloped
His thunder chariot, no hurricane
Had swept the hill. Call me mad, if you like,
Or gullible, but that man surely went
In step with a guide he trusted down to where
Light has gone out but the door stands open.


(adapted from Sophocles,
Oedipus at Colonus, lines 1586-1666)

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Nov 192010
 

PAGAN LITANY

Unknown gods we drove away, we invoke you.
You who are not named, but are not nameless,
Pardon our arrogance. Return to us.
Let the myriad altars we destroyed surge up again,
Ocean of gods, and lave the world with generous prayer,
Restore, we beseech you, your manifold blessings.

Let no one be called infidel unless
He seeks to harm another.
Let the curse of idolater be reserved
Only for the self-righteous.
Whose tyrannous faith brings war,
And permits any cruelty
In the service of its self-deity.
Let the charge of blasphemy fall
Only on the self-anointed,
Ventriloquists of divinities.
Once again, let no god be abominated,
Declared a devil by another’s partisans,
Let none be despised, but all honored.

Terminus, god of border markers, return from Rome,
Teach us again our limits. Mark off the finite from the infinite,
Let no man claim the deaths he causes are the will of God,
That the bodies at his feet are the butcheries of angels.
Show the women their own deaths in the tortures they inflict—
Their children will tremble at the sight of them,
And drown on their own mothers’ milk.
Abattur, come with your scales from Persia;
We need your judgment.
Anat of Canaan, goddess of war, wear your ostrich feather crown;
You alone knew the purpose of war, not to destroy other creatures,
Each born as it is, already in its shroud—
But to fight death.
Pattini, Lady born of a heavenly mango, share with the starving
Your miraculous rice, protect us from epidemics,
Both those we endure, and those we devise.

O Ptah, who created us in Egypt on a potter’s wheel,
Make us serviceable and lovely.
Nu-gua, who made us in China of yellow clay,
Do not shatter us.
Huracan, who made us in America of cornmeal,
You who live simultaneously in eternity and time,
Watch over us in heaven,
Watch over us on earth,
Watch over us in hell.
Quat, who made us on his island out of boredom,
Inspire us to give our stories better endings.
Imrat, who fashioned us in India of butter,
And in the richness of divinity made other gods,
Remind us that it is not our limitations that are sacred.
Lowalangi, great guardian from Indonesia,
You speak of us tenderly as your pigs,
And teach us we are incapable of worship,
Until we see ourselves a thousand ways.

Nanse, Our Lady of Sumeria, Queen of Divination,
Tell us the awful truth—that this world is a faithful record
And clear interpretation of our dreams.
Ometeotl, glorious Aztec, born of your own thought,
Keep us unfinished ones ever-thinking,
Revealed always by what we have caused to exist.

Patrons and Givers of Gifts, we summon you.
Juturna of the springs and wells,
Quench our thirst.
Egres, who first gave turnips to the Finns,
If we scorn your gift,
We repudiate the world.
Dua, god of daily grooming,
Reviver of mankind,
Patron of perfume and the sacred bath,
It is your vocation also to wake the dead,
Your therapy through which they remember
How to use their limbs. Remind us of the
Resurrections hidden in our days,
Celestial incarnate in quotidian.
Cao Guo-Jiu, Patron of actors,
Of all that is both true and false,
Sustain us in belief,
Protect us with doubt.
Hintubuhet, Androgyne,
Maker of Marriage,
Butterfly of both sexes,
Bless those who seek devoted love.
Tenenit, refresh us with the golden beer
Brewed first in your sky-blue lapis vat.
Marunogere, Maker of genitals,
Thank you.
Arhats, enlightened ones,
Lend us your heavenly eyes,
So we might glimpse other worlds,
Read other scriptures, so those who
Know nothing of the earth they inhabit
Will not dare again to speak to us of heaven.
Return to us, Pantheon,
Abundant in divinity,
Without you, we cannot be human.

Winged Nan, from the heaven of dead children,
We petition you: have mercy on us.
Ran of Scandinavia, goddess of the drowned,
Lift the breathless gently in your nets,
Pray for us.
Freya, weep for us your golden tears.
Mayan Ixtab, Goddess of Suicides,
Show those in torment your inhuman mercy;
With compassion beyond blessing,
Receive them in your Paradise.
Greek Eirene,
Whose liturgies were never stained with blood,
Grant us peace.

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Nov 192010
 

PERILOUS THINGS

Said Myrtias (a Syrian student
in Alexandria; in the reign of
Augustus Constans and Augustus Constantius;
in part a pagan and in part a christian),
“Fortified by theory and by study,
I shall not fear my passions like a coward.
I shall yield my body to sensual delights,
to enjoyments that one dreams about,
to the most audacious amorous desires,
to the wanton impulses of my blood, without
a single fear, for whenever I wish-
and I shall have the will, fortified
as I shall be by theory and by study-
at moments of crisis, I shall find again
my spirit, as before, ascetic.”

ITHACA

When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.

Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.

DESIRES

Like beautiful bodies of the dead who had not grown old
and they shut them, with tears, in a magnificent mausoleum,
with roses at the head and jasmine at the feet-
that is how desires look that have passed
without fulfillment; without one of them having achieved
a night of sensual delight, or a moonlit morn.

EXPECTING THE BARBARIANS

What are we waiting for, assembled in the public square?

The barbarians are to arrive today.

Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What further laws can the Senators pass?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.

Why did our emperor wake up so early,
and sits at the principal gate of the city,
on the throne, in state, wearing his crown?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
And the emperor waits to receive
their chief. Indeed he has prepared
to give him a scroll. Therein he engraved
many titles and names of honor.
Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out
today in their red, embroidered togas;
why do they wear amethyst-studded bracelets,
and rings with brilliant glittering emeralds;
why are they carrying costly canes today,
superbly carved with silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today,
and such things dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t the worthy orators come as usual
to make their speeches, to have their say?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today;
and they get bored with eloquence and orations.

Why this sudden unrest and confusion?
(How solemn their faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?

Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
Some people arrived from the frontiers,
and they said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

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Nov 192010
 


“. . . about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down . . .”

We lie here in the bee filled, ruinous
Orchard of a decayed New England farm,
Summer in our hair, and the smell
Of summer in our twined bodies,
Summer in our mouths, and summer
In the luminous, fragmentary words
Of this dead Greek woman.
Stop reading. Lean back. Give me your mouth.
Your grace is as beautiful as sleep.
You move against me like a wave
That moves in sleep.
Your body spreads across my brain
Like a bird filled summer;
Not like a body, not like a separate thing,
But like a nimbus that hovers
Over every other thing in all the world.
Lean back. You are beautiful,
As beautiful as the folding
Of your hands in sleep.

We have grown old in the afternoon.
Here in our orchard we are as old
As she is now, wherever dissipate
In that distant sea her gleaming dust
Flashes in the wave crest
Or stains the murex shell.
All about us the old farm subsides
Into the honey bearing chaos of high summer.
In those far islands the temples
Have fallen away, and the marble
Is the color of wild honey.
There is nothing left of the gardens
That were once about them, of the fat
Turf marked with cloven hooves.
Only the sea grass struggles
Over the crumbled stone,
Over the splintered steps,
Only the blue and yellow
Of the sea, and the cliffs
Red in the distance across the bay.
Lean back.
Her memory has passed to our lips now.
Our kisses fall through summer’s chaos
In our own breasts and thighs.

Gold colossal domes of cumulus cloud
Lift over the undulant, sibilant forest.
The air presses against the earth.
Thunder breaks over the mountains.
Far off, over the Adirondacks,
Lightning quivers, almost invisible
In the bright sky, violet against
The grey, deep shadows of the bellied clouds.
The sweet virile hair of thunder storms
Brushes over the swelling horizon.
Take off your shoes and stockings.
I will kiss your sweet legs and feet
As they lie half buried in the tangle
Of rank scented midsummer flowers.
Take off your clothes. I will press
Your summer honeyed flesh into the hot
Soil, into the crushed, acrid herbage
Of midsummer. Let your body sink
Like honey through the hot
Granular fingers of summer.

Rest. Wait. We have enough for a while.
Kiss me with your mouth
Wet and ragged, your mouth that tastes
Of my own flesh. Read to me again
The twisting music of that language
That is of all others, itself a work of art.
Read again those isolate, poignant words
Saved by ancient grammarians
To illustrate the conjugations
And declensions of the more ancient dead.
Lean back in the curve of my body,
Press your bruised shoulders against
The damp hair of my body.
Kiss me again. Think, sweet linguist,
In this world the ablative is impossible.
No other one will help us here.
We must help ourselves to each other.
The wind walks slowly away from the storm;
Veers on the wooded crests; sounds
In the valleys. Here we are isolate,
One with the other; and beyond
This orchard lies isolation,
The isolation of all the world.
Never let anything intrude
On the isolation of this day,
These words, isolate on dead tongues,
This orchard, hidden from fact and history,
These shadows, blended in the summer light,
Together isolate beyond the world’s reciprocity.

Do not talk any more. Do not speak.
Do not break silence until
We are weary of each other.
Let our fingers run like steel
Carving the contours of our bodies’ gold.
Do not speak. My face sinks
In the clotted summer of your hair.
The sound of the bees stops.
Stillness falls like a cloud.
Be still. Let your body fall away
Into the awe filled silence
Of the fulfilled summer —
Back, back, infinitely away —
Our lips weak, faint with stillness.

See. The sun has fallen away.
Now there are amber
Long lights on the shattered
Boles of the ancient apple trees.
Our bodies move to each other
As bodies move in sleep;
At once filled and exhausted,
As the summer moves to autumn,
As we, with Sappho, move towards death.
My eyelids sink toward sleep in the hot
Autumn of your uncoiled hair.
Your body moves in my arms
On the verge of sleep;
And it is as though I held
In my arms the bird filled
Evening sky of summer.

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