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from the September 2020 issue

Dan Beachy-Quick Casts an Elegiac Look at Ancient Greece in “Stone-Garland”

Reviewed by George Fragopoulos

How does one bring back to life the eroded fragments of authors we know next to nothing about? Gathering six lesser known figures of the Greek lyrical tradition, this anthology puts together translations in which a sense of loss goes hand in hand with the attempt to let these ancient poets sing again.

They still sing to us, the ancient poets do. Despite our ever-increasing distance from those first songs, the music remains; it can still be heard, if one is properly attuned for its reception. Part of the ongoing persistence of the classical tradition has to do with each generation’s need for their own version of that music. For every age that coalesces into a clearly defined aesthetic ideology—whether it’s labeled Romantic, Modernist or Postmodernist—we receive an iteration of the ancients that the historical moment demands. Alexander Pope’s Odyssey belongs to the eighteenth century in the same way that Ezra Pound’s first Canto belongs to the early twentieth. And while it is still too soon to say what our current moment will be called by future historians, we are still, thankfully, producing new versions of the old tales: Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey (W. W. Norton 2017) comes to mind, as does Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI of the Aeneid (published posthumously by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux in 2016), and, of course, Anne Carson’s continued process of translating—really rewriting—what feels like the entirety of the Greek classical tradition. The old songs are always being made new.

Stone-Garland, published by Milkweed Editions, is a beautiful and understated addition to the aforementioned works of literary translation. The collection, translations of “six poets from the Greek lyric tradition” by prolific poet and prose writer Dan Beachy-Quick, is described by its translator as a kind of “country graveyard overgrown by wildflowers and long grasses no mower could think to cull back.” Beachy-Quick’s translations lean into the elegiac possibilities of these poems and poets. It is not a coincidence that the introduction to the anthology begins by evoking Orpheus, “the poet who took his lyre and walked down into death.” And is that not what every anthology, in a sense, is? A graveyard of sorts, but one in which the voices of the dead eerily resonate? A site through which we can commune with the dead?

This feels especially true when translating poets whom we know, biographically speaking, very little about, whose lives and literary reputations exist almost entirely due to a few lyrical fragments. The tradition of the elegy as evoked here does not simply mean loss without a sense of restoration; for every translation of an ancient voice is, in some ways, a rebirth of that voice, if only in passing. The possibilities for historical and literary reconstruction are made that much more apparent. 

In his lyrical introduction, Beachy-Quick reminds us of the etymological origins of the word anthology, derived from the Greek Anthos, meaning blooms or flowers: “Your hands should smell of the flowers you’re gathering when you read an anthology. The collection of poems is a kind of bouquet loosely bound, a flower-logic, a petal-theory, a blossom-word.” Following the form of the “sepulchral epigrams” of the foundational Palatine Anthology, a collection of poetic fragments from a number of classical poets, Beachy-Quick supplies us with brief yet crystalline glimpses into the lives and works of his six poets—Simonides, Anacreon/Anacreonata, Archilochus, Theognis, Alcman, and Callimachus. We learn about Simonides, for example, that “[h]e considered paintings poems that stay quiet, and poems paintings that speak”; of Anacreon we are told that he did not write hymns to gods “but to boys . . . ‘Because they are my gods.’” And of Alcman there are rumors that he learned to write poetry by “listening to the nightingales sing by the waters of the Eurotas; partridges, he says, taught him his poems,” and that he died, “according to Aristotle, of too much moisture in the body.” These brief and poetic biographies, mostly constructed of rumors and gossip and innuendo passed down through thousands of years, are all we have to go on; but they are enough to give us a sense of who these writers are, or at least who they are to Beachy-Quick.        

There is much to admire in these translations, especially when there remains more than a few fragmentary lines and an entire poem comes into existence. Poems such as “Fragment” by Simonides and “Love’s Chore” by Anacreon are works worth discovering and reading carefully. Beachy-Quick has done a commendable job of making these poets sound all his own; or, as he phrases it in his introduction: “I have a mouth so that I can sing another’s song.”  

“Field-Song” by Anachreon is a great example of one such profoundly powerful translation. The poem begins as an apostrophe to a “blessed” cicada:

 

when from the high bent-branch arch of trees
you have drunk your pure little dew,
how like a king, like an arrow-string, you sing.
You are one who is all things,
in the far fields you are as all you see,
great as the woods that bear the nut-bearing trees.

 

As with many great lyrics, what resonates here is Beachy-Quick’s attention to the tiny, creaturely details of the cicada’s hidden life. Details resonate and grow in significance as they are all brought together within the field of the poem itself. The poem, rather wonderfully and unexpectedly, in Beachy-Quick’s hands, takes on a Keatsian—and yes, elegiac—turn toward the end, clearly evoking the English Romantic’s “Ode to a Nightingale”:

 

Old age does not wear you away,
wise one, earth-born, song-lover—
with no suffering, without spilling blood,
you are so near, so like, the gods.

 

Keats’s lines from his “Ode” are:

 

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
         No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
         In ancient days by emperor and clown . . .

 

I do not raise the ghost of Keats here to diminish the translation but rather to praise the translator’s ability to weave together these disparate but related traditions and voices. Influence can be a source of anxiety (following Harold Bloom) or a source of ecstasy (Johnathan Lethem’s rewriting of Bloom’s theory); Beachy-Quick, having also authored an insightful study of Keats titled A Brighter World than Bright (University of Iowa Press 2013), revels in the sonic potentialities of all of these voices being brought together in order to give us something entirely new: an Anachreon channeled through the voice of Keats and then through the language of the translator. The knotty and dense threads of literary influence are oftentimes impossible to untie; our voices are really composites of every other voice that we have heard and have considered worth remembering. These poems make such associations clear.   

Of all the poets in the collection, it is Theognis, to my ear, who comes most to life on the page. He is a poet of “that unbroachable chasm between what life should be and what it is, a dissonance which speaks humble and true across the centuries, and makes [him] most human.” The poem “Sepulchral Lines by the Author,” here reproduced in its entirety, is paradigmatic of this poet’s ruefulness:

 

I don’t lust after a royal couch to sleep on
            when I’m dead, just that some good thing
may come to me living. A thick carpet
            of thorns spread out as bedsheets is fine
for the dead; for that strange guest, the bitterly
            hard is as soft as the soft-ploughed field.

 

What is comfort to the dead when there is still so much to be done for the living? Death is that much more inconceivable for the simple fact that it means a kind of succor and peace impossible to find in life. Again, the elegiac possibilities of the lyric are brought to the foreground. In a number of other fragments, Theognis pines after his lost fortunes and his beloved, Cyrnus. Loss comes in all forms—material, emotional, spiritual . As he writes in another fragment, “sickness’s slow / weight gathers; old age suddenly stands up inside you.” But the songs, if only for a few moments, can fool us into thinking we are young again, alive again. The muses can, as Alcman claims, “fill up [our] heart[s] like— / like wine fills up a cup with desire / for a new song.” We grow old, as do our voices; we die; the best we can hope for is that the songs we sing will be picked up by others, turned into new forms, given new life, and that, for a moment, something of us might live again.

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