Carming Starnino talks to A.E. Stallings about her new book
WELCOME TO THE Pitch, a biweekly series on Partisan in which writers come clean about their works-in-progress and share an exclusive excerpt. This week, Carmine Starnino talks to U.S. poet A.E. Stallings about her new verse translation, Works and Days, forthcoming with Penguin Classics.
What’s in the pipeline?
I’m translating this self-taught Greek poet named Hesiod who’s gone back to the land. His father, an emigrant from Asia Minor, was in shipping, but lost his shirt, and so they’ve settled in Boeotia, trying to make a go in this sorry backwater, Askra—miserable in winter, wretched in summer, never pleasant. Money is the life-breath of man, as he puts in the 828-line poem. Except you can’t translate “chremata” as money (“possessions” maybe), because they didn’t really have money yet, in Greece in the late 8th century B.C. Like a lot of Greeks he’s in a lawsuit with a family member, his brother, over their inheritance (there still isn’t a complete land registry in Greece, despite tons of EU funds), and complains about the bribe-eating judges, and how the country is run by crooks. His concerns are of the moment for the Greek crisis: debt, work, corruption, justice, how everything is going to hell in a hand-basket.
What sets the poem apart from other Greek works you’ve translated?
I haven’t translated all that much ancient Greek, a handful of poems really, and the Homeric parody, “The Battle of the Frogs and the Mice.” I have done a fair amount of contemporary, modern, and even medieval Greek. I might compare this instead to the Latin poem of Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, which is also a didactic epic. I thought Hesiod would be easier—after all, it isn’t dense philosophy, coining new terminology; it’s fairly concrete stuff, building a plough and so on. But I did find it really hard in other ways. For instance, if I really can’t picture what is being talked about—the section about building the plough again—I struggle to actually translate rather than metaphrase into translationese. Some of the difficulty was just the decision to do it in rhymed iambic pentameter couplets (the original is unrhymed dactylic hexameter, like Homer), especially if you want to hew as much as possible to the same line numbers—you have to condense and distil, while trying to get the lines to fall on “load-bearing” rhymes. I was going for something like Frost’s voice. Frost strikes me as Hesiodic in some ways, with the pastoral surface, the home-spun wisdom, but also the sophisticated erudition. Hesiod, after all, is not writing in Boeotian farmer Greek, but in the literary dialect of the Homeric epics.
Did other details—beside “chremata”—pose a challenge when rendering the poem into 21st century English?
I’m aiming for a sort of timeless English, rather than specifically 21st century (though it is also that, I hope.) Some of this will be dealt with in footnotes or introduction, but for instance the Greek word “basileus,” is a judge, or a lord, or a king. A “judge” in perhaps the way that we understand “Judges” in the Old Testament. Then there are the daemons, which are not demons in the Platonic/Socratic sense of genius, nor of course in the Christian sense, but are the spirits of golden-age men that walk the earth observing and judging human behaviour, but this is defined in the poem. The rising and setting of constellations and stars is a difficult business if you want to adjust to contemporary dates, but that again is a matter for footnotes. Is the “boneless one” an octopus or something else? How can a nightingale have a speckled throat—maybe Hesiod is talking about another bird altogether? Certain words are conundrums in themselves, such as “keritrepheon” which, applied to mortal men, could mean, “born to die” or “fed upon death.” I think I have “doom-fed.” Those are fun challenges though.
Actually, though tangential to your question, what strikes me again and again is that certain important words—profit (kerdos), debt (chreos), judgement/trial (dike)—that recur in Hesiod are unchanged in modern Greek, and feature constantly in the news.
You live in Athens with your husband and kids. Has Hesiod’s poem yielded any useful advice about weathering the country’s current predicament?
Hesiod’s advice is largely timeless and of the common-sense variety: work hard, put something by little by little and it adds up (and Hesiod would probably recommend keeping something under the mattress and distrusting the banks), deal justly with your fellow men. He’s a small-c conservative. He believes in the benefits of competition (the good strife, as opposed to the bad strife of, say, war). He would have been appalled at the country’s own politicians and how they got us into this mess, how nobody goes to jail. But I don’t think he would have approved of the punitive austerity measures, especially in how they fall disproportionately on the poor. Hesiod does not believe in stinginess—generosity begets generosity, he says, and urges us to never blame the poor for their poverty, since poverty comes from Zeus. His advice on iron-age etiquette is still sound: when there is a public feast, chip in, and don’t cut your fingernails at the table.
. . .
The poem is sometimes addressed to Perses, Hesiod’s wastrel brother who wants to go into shipping, like their father, a failed merchant, instead of working the land. Hesiod can speak about ships because the authority of the Muses gives him expertise in all things. Hesiod’s “sea journey” from Aulis to Chalcis is a joke, in both senses: the narrowest point of the strait, now crossed by a couple of bridges, is scarcely wider than a hundred feet.
Then drag your swift ship seaward. Range the freight
In its hold, get ready for the profit you’ll
Bring home—just like our father—you great fool,
Perses!—my father and yours, who used to sail,
Lacking a fine living, to no avail.
He came here in his black ship over the sea
Forsaking Aeolian Cyme, so he might flee
Not wealth nor riches nor prosperity
But Evil Need, Zeus-given. He settled down
Near Helicon, in Askra, wretched town,
Bad in winter, harsh in summer, not 640
Ever pleasant. But you, Perses, take thought
Of the ripe time for the task, and most of all
For seafaring. With boats, admire the small,
But load a large one: more cargo, more gain,
Profit on profit. That is, if squalls refrain.
But if your foolish heart’s hell-bent on trade,
And you aim to flee glum hunger and evade
Debt; for you, I’ll fathom the sounding sea,
Landlubber though I am, for as for me,
I’ve never sailed the broad sea on a ship, 650
Not yet, except to Euboea, my one trip,
From Aulis, where, once, waiting in winter’s grip,
The Greeks mustered a great host to deploy
From Holy Hellas against fair-womaned Troy.
And that is where I crossed to Chalcis once
For the funeral games established by the sons
Of great-heart Amphidamas. I won, you hear,
With a hymn, and took the tripod by the ear,
And offered it to the Muses of Helicon
Right at the spot where they first set me on
The path of clear-voiced song. That’s my sum use 660
Of bolted boats. But even so, of Zeus
Aegis-bearer, I’ll speak forth his design,
For the Muses taught me song beyond divine.
The time is ripe for sailing the fifty days
Past solstice, summer in its closing phase,
Season of toil. You will not shipwreck then,
Nor will the sea extinguish all your men,
Unless Earth-shaker, Poseidon, is annoyed,
Or Zeus, King of the Gods, wants you destroyed,
In their hands lies fulfillment, good and ill—
While breezes are predictable, when still 670
The sea is harmless, then, with confidence,
You can entrust your swift ship to the winds—
Drag it to the sea, load all your freight.
But sail home quick as possible—don’t wait
For the new wine and autumnal rain, the fast
Onset of winter, South-wind’s fearsome blast
That roils the sea, with the thick autumnal rain
Of Zeus, that makes the sea a sea of pain.
In spring’s another chance to sail—when figs
Put forth their new leaves from the topmost twigs,
The size of crow’s feet--that’s when first the sea
Is passable, that is spring sailing—me,
I do not recommend it. There’s no charm
In a snatched season—you’d scarce flee from harm.
Men do it though, in ignorance of mind—
Money’s the breath of life for poor mankind,
But a watery grave’s a dreadful thing. Have thought
Of all that I proclaim to you: do not
Load hollow ships with your whole livelihood.
Keep most aside, a lesser portion’s good. 690
CARMINE STARNINO is Partisan's Senior Contributing Editor, Poetry Editor for Véhicule Press, and Non-Fiction Editor for Porcupine's Quill.
A.E. STALLINGS is the author of Olives (2012) and other books. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Parnassus, The New Criterion, and other magazines. In 2011, she became a MacArthur Fellow.