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Versions of Martial by Alan Halsey (Knives Forks And Spoons Press)

Versions of Martial by Alan Halsey (Knives Forks And Spoons Press)

This whole collection brims over with outrageous delight. Of course there are the smutty sexual innuendos, the more direct insults, and the bitter spitting from carious teeth. But there is much, much more and it is a tonic to be able to recognise the satirical sharpness of some of these versions of Martial’s ‘Epigrams’ given the mixture of crocodile tears in today’s world: a child’s body is washed up on the shores of a Greek island; the International Arms Fair opens in London where DSEI ‘will host around 300 seminar sessions and keynotes across seven theatres…facilitating knowledge sharing and networking around key topics and technical areas’. Give me an ounce of civet good apothecary…Or, a page or two of Alan Halsey’s Versions of Martial:

Book III: XXXVII

‘How explain why the conspicuously rich
are so easy to offend? Ask their accountant.
He probably won’t tell you but he’ll know.’

Book V: LXXXI

‘In the Big Society the poor stay poor
and cabinet ministers stay millionaires: it’s a law.’

Book VII: LXXIII

‘I know all about the houses you own,
you’ve described them so often
in such detail—I know the views from
their every window—but, Maximus,
you’ve never told me your address.’

When Laurie Duggan’s Pressed Wafer edition of The Epigrams of Martial appeared five years ago he introduced the little bombshell by saying that ‘faithful translations of satires, while possibly of use to historians, tended to lose the satirical element altogether. For satire to bite as it ought to its objects should be at least generically recognizable and as so much of Martial’s work is ad hominem a good dose of the particular was essential.’ This approach is very much in the style of Charles Tomlinson whose review of the Loeb Classics 1994 edition of Martial praised the unpretentiously accurate approach of the translator by suggesting that ‘it helps the reader to the mental possession of the original’. I am also reminded of the preface Tomlinson wrote for his Faber edition of John Dryden’s poems in which he suggested that the Augustan poet’s Fables Ancient and Modern (1700) ‘made it new (in Pound’s phrase) especially for poets themselves’. August Kleinzahler wrote a brief afterword to Duggan’s Martial giving an account of how these pieces had originally been published in the Melbourne journal, Scripsi: ‘This Martial bit then. It bites still.’
For satire to ‘bite’ we have to be able to recognise the scale of values that has been so debased by the object of the satire. Urbanity and friendship, directness and honesty: it is in their absence that we recognise the power of their presence. Many of Alan Halsey’s poems give us the self-portrait of a man who is saddened by rudeness and contemptuous of arrogance:

Book II: V

‘I don’t mind the two-hour walk
it takes me to see you, Decianus.
I do mind the two hours it takes
To walk home when for reasons
Of your own you haven’t seen me.’

The tone captured here is reminiscent of that biting edge Ben Jonson put into his ‘Epigrammes’ when he damns ‘The Townes Honest Man’ or confronts ‘Captayne Hungry’:

‘ Doe what you come for, Captayne, with your newes;
That’s, sit, and eate: doe not my eares abuse.
I oft looke on false coyne, to know’t from true:
Not that I love it, more, than I will you.’

Halsey’s updated version of this type of barb will sound familiar to quite enough ears, I suspect:

Book III: XLIV

‘Myself I like to lounge on my sofa,
take a stroll, a shit, a bath and a nap
in peace and quiet. Who doesn’t?
You, Ligurinus. That’s why we feel suicidal
when we meet you. What you call life
is a solo nonstop poetry recital.’

Buy this book from http://www.knivesforksandspoonspress.co.uk and carry it around in your pocket like an orange pierced with cloves in a plague-ridden city.

Ian Brinton 25th September 2015.

And

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