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The Georgics: A Poem of the Land (Penguin Classics)
The Georgics: A Poem of the Land (Penguin Classics)
Virgil
Penguin Classics, 2011
224 pp., 15.00

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Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics)
Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics)
Sappho
Penguin Classics, 2009
95 pp., 15.00

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Martial's Epigrams: A Selection
Martial's Epigrams: A Selection
Garry Wills
Penguin Books, 2009
224 pp., 15.0

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Brett Foster


Something Old, Something New

Three ancient poets in fresh translations.

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This formal awareness also lies at the heart of Poochigian's own translation goals. He surveyed many prior English versions, including those mentioned above, and was disappointed to see Sappho's formal accomplishments neglected. "Sappho did not compose free-verse," he declares, and the foursquare look of poems here will surprise readers familiar with earlier editions. He also justifies the noticeable rhymes in his versions by saying they create a song-like effect in English and replicate Sappho's own emphatic line endings. He organizes the poems thematically ("Goddesses," "Desire and Death-Longing," "Her Girls and Family," "Troy," "Maidens and Marriages," "The Wisdom of Sappho"), and provides facing-page commentary for each— little paragraphs that superbly mix erudition and clarity for general readers. Of timely interest may be one poem ("Girls, chase the violet-bosomed Muses' bright") whose second half was only discovered in 2004, in a papyrus roll in Cologne. This strip matched up almost perfectly with the right half of the poem discovered in 1922. Sappho's poem is now complete, or nearly so, and one smiles for the scholar who made the connection—historical reconstruction rarely provides such satisfying confirmation and closure.

Occasionally Poochigian plays a sour note, as with the internal rhyme in "That fineness in your irises" (which sounds like a student trying to hard) or a "ditty/prettily" rhyme with its comic effect. However, these are quibbles against a series of achievements in this edition. The capturing of Sappho's unparalleled intensity and emotional power deserves the most praise. Poochigian strives to render that often missed versatility. The first poem, for instance, features the breeze that "feels as gentle as honey," but then that exquisite delicacy gives way to a begging outburst of a conclusion: "Since I have cast my lot, please, golden-crowned / Aphrodite, let me win this round!" This range concentrates in one poem what often feel like the poet's several personalities throughout her work. One poem begins "Hesperus, you are / The most fetching star," and you think, what a likeable poet, humble in praises and maybe winking a little. Contrast that easygoing impression with this Dido-like passion and fury:

You were at hand,
and I broke down raving—
My craving a fire
that singed my mind,
a brand you quenched.

And between these extremes one finds a most alluring sexual confidence, speaking with coy accusation of past experiences and how vulnerable we are to the next one: "You will have memories / Because of what we did back then / When we were new at this, // Yes, we did many things then, all / Beautiful …" The best compliment I can pay to this new edition is this: it grants that appeal of Sappho when she asks, "Lyre, be voluble."

If Sappho's feminine intensity, heart-rending love poems, and delicate words to young women all seem a little much, then boy do I have a classical poet for you. Marcus Valerius Martialis, or Martial as he is better known (named after his birth month), was a provincial Spaniard who lived in imperial Rome and wrote about its social customs' and its citizens' pretenses and debaucheries. Of course he had plenty to write about during the late 1st-century AD reigns of Nero and Domitian. Garry Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, is also an accomplished classicist. He offers in Martial's Epigrams a substantive selection across Martial's 14 books of poetry.Wills describes well the peculiar power of the epigram, a poetic form known for its brevity and what he calls its "studied formality," able to "add artifice to baser urges." He laments that English cannot simulate some of the effects of repetition and variation of the Latin language's inflected endings, but he does strive to "blend low matter with high polish, the intimate and the impersonal, the tough and the graceful." This mixing of tones is another hallmark of epigrams; as Wills memorably puts it, "They pick up dung with silver tongs."

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