RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Sappho

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

Catullus wrote some very rude poems. And Roz Kaveney has made some very rude translations of them.

The Rome of Catullus and Kaveney is not one of colonnaded arcade and pomerium, of lush gardens fringing the Tiber and aqueducts delivering sparkling water to mansions on the Palatine. It’s a place of back alleys with ‘come-smeared walls’, where a lover ‘fucks / three hundred men queued up’, ‘sorry dregs’ who wash their teeth with urine in a time of ‘filth, love and death’.

Unlike some earlier translators, Kaveney does not beat around the bush of euphemism. Take for example what is presumably the gold standard, the Penguin Classics Poems of Catullus. Where Penguin has ‘remove yourselves’ (poem 33), Kaveney has ‘fuck off’. Where Penguin coyly refers to ‘services’ (41), Kaveney explains these are ‘fuck[ing] her scraggy arse’. In poem 42, Penguin’s ‘indelicate syllables’ are spelled out by Kaveney as ‘Fuck, felch, quim, rim’.

To be fair, though, sometimes even euphemism shrinks before Catullus’s meaning, as in Penguin’s poem 28: ‘Yes, Memmius, once / you filled me truly / slowly – daily – / with the length of your great beam’. (Kaveney renders this as: ‘My dear commander, Memmius, without oil // to smooth things, fucked me in the mouth and arse’.)

Would you like some more? Here is Kaveney’s translation of poem 16 in full:

Eat out my pussy while I fuck you hard
my hands up both your arses. Silly boys,
you prissy queens, because my verse enjoys
making hot love, that doesn’t mean I’m tarred

with the same filthy brush. I might be chaste
as anything. A poem might say “fuck,”
dabble its fingers in all kinds of muck,
turn people on perhaps, if they’ve a taste

for all that sort of thing. Old men with piles
don’t get hard otherwise; bored wives are wet
reading my verses. But you still don’t get
to think I’m a slut or virgin. Snarky smiles

will get you hurt. Oh, I will make you shout,
fistfuck your arses while you eat me out.

Catullus was a great innovator, one of the ‘new poets’ of the late Republic, who experimented with verse forms inherited from the Greeks. His mark can be seen on the work of Ovid, Tibullus, Sextus Propertius, Milton, Yeats and Pound. Kaveney’s translations are skilfully and unobtrusively rhymed in iambic pentameter; almost a third of them are sonnets, a form received from our own past, of course. Poems 63 and 64 are two of the longer poems that Catullus is famous for. The first tells the story of Attis who castrates himself (‘new girled’ ‘She plucks the last / bits of her former flesh / out by the chords’) to please the mother goddess Cybele who sets a lion on her. Poem 64 is another short epic about the marriage of Achilles’ parents, Peleus and sea nymph Thetis (part of which Virgil appropriated for the Aeneid).

The first century BCE was a time of scandal, chaos and civil war and Catullus’s poetry is ripe with intrigue and politics. Caesar and his lieutenant Mamurrus ‘are twins in sleaze / … You know it’s true. / They’ve fucked each other and they’ll fuck Rome too’ (57). There is bitterness, despair – but also love. For one lover, he wrote (48):

Juventius, to kiss your eyes is sweet,
as honey. I will not be satisfied
with thirty million kisses – so complete
is my devotion, I’ve not even tried
to cease from kissing. In a field of wheat,
harvest the grain and put each grain beside
the kisses I will give you. We’ll defeat
comparison, then kiss once more in pride.

Catullus also translated Sappho’s poem 31 for his great lost love, Lesbia (probably Clodia Metelli) (51):

He’s like a god, I think, or maybe more
than gods, the man who’s sitting next to you,
he gets to watch you. It is almost too
much that he hears your sweet laugh. I am poor

in spirit, Lesbia, because that sound
robs me of sense. It leaves me blind and dumb,
Soon deafness and paralysis will come.
I moan, and stagger, lie there on the ground,

and that’s just when you laugh. I cannot bear
to think of him, or you. And worse by far,
I know the truth, that all my problems are
trivial and silly, lighter than the air

and yet great kingdoms fall through such as this,
an idle dreamer, longing for a kiss.

Catullus, the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus: some English versions by Roz Kaveney is available from Sad Press https://sadpresspoetry.com/catullus/

Antony John 30th June 2019

Spaces for Sappho by Kat Peddie (Oystercatcher Press)

Spaces for Sappho by Kat Peddie (Oystercatcher Press)

Post-Poundian-Ppppsappoppo

The fourth chapter of Hugh Kenner’s masterful The Pound Era is titled ‘The Muse in Tatters’ and it focuses on fragments of Sappho as presented through the mid-Victorian bluster of Swinburne, the Georgian tushery of Richard Aldington (via Prof. Edmonds) and the Poundian engraving of ‘Papyrus’:

‘Spring………
Too long……
Gongula……’

When Pound wrote to Iris Barry in the summer of 1916 he complained of the ‘soft mushy edges’ of British poetry (‘We’ve been flooded with sham Celticism’) and suggested that the whole art could be divided into:

a. concision, or style, or saying what you mean in the fewest and clearest words.
b. the actual necessity for creating or constructing something; of presenting an image, or enough images of concrete things arranged to stir the reader.

Kat Peddie’s poems leave spaces on the page and only the clearest of words are left as stone markers, memorials, echoing the words that Walter Pater (former pupil of King’s School, Canterbury) wrote about lyricism and loss:

‘Who, in some such perfect moment…has not felt the desire to perpetuate all that, just so, to suspend it in every particular circumstance, with the portrait of just that one spray of leaves lifted just so high against the sky, above the well, forever?’

In Peddie’s ‘105a [for Page duBois]’ this idea becomes ‘The poem is the absence of an apple / anakatoria’.

To place greater emphasis upon this fragmentary world of concision one might turn up Swinburne’s early poem ‘Anactoria’ with its epigraph of lines from Sappho. My copy of this poem covers ten pages and the opening lines sound hollow some twenty years after Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’:

‘My life is bitter with thy love; thine eyes
Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs
Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,
And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.
I pray thee sigh not, speak not, draw not breath;
Let life burn down, and dream it is not death.’

Lines from Kat Peddie’s fragment ‘6’ are worth considering here:

‘Consider Helen [whose beauty outshone all]
sailed from country
husband
parents
children to
follow hers

some men say
without a thought I think
of Anaktoria gone
her walk
her face outshines armour’

The echo of Eliot’s echo of Dante is there immediately with the dramatic command ‘Consider’. Eliot used the word to remind the reader of Phlebas ‘who was once handsome and tall as you’ while Odysseus, in Inferno XXVI, used the word ‘Considerate’ as a reminder to his ill-fated crew that they owed it to themselves and their heritage to pursue the paths across the ocean. Kat Peddie’s Spaces for Sappho are dedicated ‘for & from Anne Carson’ and the Canadian poet’s rendering of the Sappho fragment reads

‘For she who overcame everyone
in beauty (Helen)
left her fine husband

behind and went sailing to Troy.’

Peddie’s Helen ‘outshone’ all others rather than ‘overcame’ them and this is woven seamlessly into the reference to Anaktoria whose ‘face outshines armour’ as amor vincit omnia. The sense of loss in Peddie’s poem is held, for a moment, with that pause between ‘I think’ and the new line’s opening ‘of Anaktoria gone’. Swinburne wouldn’t have been able to resist a capital letter for that little word ‘of’. With a recall of the absent figure of Anaktoria what is remembered first is ‘her walk’ (after all that is what takes her away) and then her face, presumably turned away, which ‘outshines’ the clothing she wears, leaving a glimmering behind her for the reader to ‘Consider’.
At the beginning of this handsome new Oystercatcher Peddie gives a short lesson on pronunciation:

‘Today, in English, she [is] all soft sibilants and faded f’s, but in fact she is ‘Psappho’. In ancient Greek—and indeed in modern Greek—if you hear a native speaker say her name, she comes across spitting and popping hard p’s. Ppppsappoppo. We have eased off her name, made her docile and sliding, where she is really difficult, diffuse, many-syllabled, many-minded, vigorous and hard’.

Kat Peddie’s versions of Sappho are both hard-edged and personal; they are full of meetings, as are Eliot’s poems, and partings as both poet and reader ‘seem to our / selves in two / minds’.

Ian Brinton 6th January 2016

%d bloggers like this: