Herewith a sequence of poems from Steven Heighton‘s book Patient Frame, published earlier this year. Numéro Cinq readers will (or may not) recall Steven from two earlier appearances on these pages (here and here). He is an old friend of mine, a hurting hockey player, father of a daughter, and he published a book of poems and a novel this year, which is more than I have (probably you, too). He sent me “A Strange Fashion of Forsaking…” months ago for fun and it’s been biting at the back of my brain ever since, not the least because he refashions Horace after Thomas Wyatt, one of my favourite poets (I use the poem “They Flee from Me” in my essay “The Drama of Grammar”). I leave it to Steven to introduce Horace and these translations—which he prefers to call “approximations”—in his own words.
Horace, or Quintus Horatius Flaccus, was a Roman poet. During his lifetime (65 BCE – 8 BCE) he served briefly as a military officer, as a functionary in the Roman treasury, and as a writer, producing satires, epodes, epistles, literary criticism, and poems. He was a highly versatile poet, both formally and thematically; his Odes comprise work ranging from personal lyrics to moralistic verse, and from private, occasional poems to public, ceremonial verse. Horace’s words survive not only in Classics departments and in translation (David Ferry’s The Odes of Horace is deservedly respected and widely read), but in common parlance: the phrase carpe diem comes from one of his poems.
In approaching these four odes of Horace I’ve stuck with my usual practice as an amateur translator, giving myself the freedom to make each approximation as “free” or as “faithful” as the original inspires me to be. So “Pyrrha” sticks close to the untitled original in its structure, imagery and level of diction, while “Chloe” has morphed from an unrhymed twelve line poem into a short-lined sonnet. “A Strange Fashion of Forsaking” is inflected and re-gendered by way of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s famous poem “They Flee from Me”, while “Noon on Earth!” has gone from a linguistically formal eight lines to a highly colloquial seventeen.
Robert Kroetsch once observed that every poem is a failed translation. What a translation can’t afford to be is a failed poem—or at least an uninteresting one. My aim in approximating a poem that I love is, of course, to make a compelling counterpart in English—something to entertain you, startle you, pry you open—while in the process entertaining myself: sitting up, by candlelight, with dictionaries and a glass of Douro red, the house silent, even the bats in our walls asleep; reciting the original lines aloud, in some cases two thousand years after their conception; weighing how best to re-conceive those cadences in English; serving as a kind of stenographer to the dead, a medium at a prosodic séance, an avid collaborator, an apprentice always learning from the work. And for me, the most mysterious, engrossing work lies in finding a way into old or ancient poems and making them young again. Hence Horace.
I’ll conclude by quoting the middle section of a poem I translated several years ago—a poem by the contemporary Italian writer Valerio Magrelli, which suggests some of the addictive bustle and exertion of the translator’s work. (The unquoted opening lines introduce the metaphor of the translator as a one-man or –woman moving company.)
I too move something—words—
to a new building, words
not mine, setting hands to things
I don’t quite know, not quite
comprehending what I move.
Myself I move—translate
pasts to presents, to presence, that
travels sealed up, packed in pages
or in crates . . .
The final unpacking, of course, is the task of the reader.
SH, Kingston, Ontario
What slender elegant youth, perfumed
among roses, is urging himself on you,
Pyrrha, in the fragrant grotto? Have you
bound your yellow hair so gracefully
for him? How many times he’ll weep because
faith is fickle, as the gods are, how often
will the black, sea-disquieting winds
astonish him, although for now
credulous, grasping at fool’s gold, he enjoys you,
hopes you’ll always be calm water, always
this easy to love. Unconscious of the wind’s wiles
he’s helpless, still tempted
by your gleaming seas. But high on the temple wall
I’ve set this votive tablet, and in thanks
to the god for rescue have hung
my sea-drenched mantle there.
( i, 23)
You flee from me, Chloe, a young deer
urgently in search of mother, lost
in lonely, high forests
tremulous with fear
at the mountain’s slimmest breeze, or
springtime’s delicate revealing
of leaves, or a leafgreen lizard’s spring
from thickets. (What terrors seize
the fawn then!). But Chloe, I’m neither
a tiger nor a lion, intent
on savage appetites, or upon
causing you any pain. Forget
looking back for your mother
it’s time to love a man.
“A Strange Fashion of Forsaking . . .”
(i, 25: via Thomas Wyatt)
The wilder girls hardly bother anymore
to rattle your shuttered window with fists, or
pitch stones, shatter your dreamfree sleep, while your door,
once oiled and swinging,
nimbly hinged, hangs dead with rust. Less and less
you wake now to ex-lovers crying, “Thomas,
you bastard, how can you sleep?—I’m dying for us
to do it again.”
Seems to me your turn’s long overdue—solo
nightshift when, like some codger in a cul-
de-sac, you’ll moan for all the women (scornful
now) who one time sought you.
The cold will be what finds you then—northeasters
whining down in the gloom of the moon, and lust
in riddled guts twisting you like a stud in must
who has to stand watching
his old mares mounted. You’ll know then, the desire
of girls is for greener goods—such dry sticks
and wiltwood, blown only by the cold, they just figure
who has the time for.
Noon on Earth!
(starting from i, 11)
Why trouble wondering how long
breath will last, how long your eyes
will still bask in the heavenshed
lucence of noon on earth. Horoscopes,
palmistry, the séance gild pockets
but confide nothing sure. We have to take it—
the future’s shrugged whatever, that weather
of uncertainty—unknowing whether gods
will grant us the grey of further
winters that’ll churn the sea until the sea
gnaws, noses into the littoral
of our lives, eroding whatever is
so far unclaimed.
Better open the red, pitch the cork, toast
our moment—tomorrow’s an idle
nevering, ghost of a god
unworth such wasted faith.
Steven Heighton, born in 1961, is the author of nine books, most recently the novel Afterlands. His poetry and fiction have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including the London Review of Books, Poetry (Chicago), Europe, Tin House, Agni, The Independent, the Walrus, and Best English Stories. His work has been widely translated, has received a number of prizes, and has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Award, a Pushcart Prize, and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award.