Anne Carson is a classicist.

So Autobiography of Red’s interesting and lovely. But before I got into the poem proper, there was “proemium,” which Carson made me look up, and “Fragments of Stesichoros,” who wrote the poem she’s adapting, and three appendices, which are apparently not obligated by definition to come after the main text. (When I googled “proemium,” I found out that a band called “Nazgul” had written a song by that name. Freaking Nazgul!*) Reading these fragments, I started thinking that there was no earthly way they were faithful translations. And then had a little fight with myself about whether or not that was okay, which I could only resolve by rummaging through the internet for other versions. (I’m commencing dorking out, if that wasn’t already clear. Feel free to come back later.) Check out a reason for my skepticism:

Later well later they left the bar went back to the centaur’s
Place the centaur had a cup made out of a skull Holding three
Measures of wine Holding it he drank Come over here you can
Bring your drink if you’re afraid to come alone The centaur
Patted the sofa beside him Reddish yellow small alive animal
Not a bee moved up Geryon’s spine on the inside

So “later well later” Geryon hangs out with a centaur and his drink and has trepidation. The Reverend Robert Bland, in 1833 (in “a new edition” by the “late” Rev. Bland, so before 1833), has it:

HE said : then, raising to his mouth the cup
That held three gallons, mantling to the brim,
At one unflinching draught he toss’d it up :
Pholus the wine had mix’d, and pledg’d to him.

Apparently the centaur drank three somethings of wine. It must be hard to commit to a rhyme scheme like that when these fragments are pretty short, by all accounts. I’m just now noticing that Bland assumes it’s Hercules having this night out, and for Carson it’s Geryon. Pholus had a special relationship with Herakles: Point to Bland, but if he assumes Stesichoros is talking about Herakles he might insert the name of Herakles’ centaur buddy. Although, is it just everyone who runs around drinking with centaurs in Greek mythology? This is the first I remember hearing about it. Carson is all about Stesichoros’ unusual empathy with Geryon, so it’s clear how she’s going to break on this, at least in the absence of explicit proof to the contrary, and perhaps regardless.

Here’s her take on Geryon’s death scene:

Arrow means kill It parted Geryon’s skull like a comb Made
The boy neck lean At an odd slow angle sideways as when a
Poppy shames itself in a whip of Nude breeze

And David Mulroy’s in 1992:

…Still as a thief,
he took aim at the forehead.
As a god decreed, he parted
flesh and bones.
Straight from the top of Geryon’s skull
the shaft protruded.
Blood left its scarlet stain
on chest and reeking arms and legs.
Then Geryon’s neck slackened and fell,
like a fragile stalk that breaks
beneath the weight of a poppy’s blossom.
Soon the leaves wither.

And Andrew Miller’s in 1996:

the torments of the man-destroying
Hydra with its shifting necks; and in silence and with
cunning he thrust it into his brow;
and it split the flesh and bones by the dispensation
of divinity;
and the arrow held its course straight through
to the top of his head
and stained with crimson blood
his breastplate and his gory limbs.

Then Geryon’s neck drooped
to one side, like a poppy

which, disfiguring its tender beauty,
suddenly sheds its petals…

Considerably closer, right? Also, Mulroy’s version of the poppy image is proof that it’s not just Carson who gets fanciful–she’s just better at it. I’m assuming her mid-line capitalizations mark the line breaks in the original. If so, the three line up something like this**:


Carson’s not a fan of sneaky Herakles or Geryon’s bloody limbs, but otherwise she’s not so much more dissimilar to Mulroy or Miller than they are to each other. Like enough that Bland’s would be the odd one out among the four, if he wrote it (which he may have; but not that the internet will give me). “Arrow means kill” is perplexing, but I like it as a kind of god-ordained-ness. It also shows that her crazy (and awesome) enjambment is half of what made me have a seizure at the idea that an ancient Greek had written this. Of course, here she’s talking about arrows and poppies rather than sofas and a centaur’s “place”, but still. You don’t see this level of variation in translations of, say, Rilke (about which I also have strong feelings), but German is a living language and the record of those poems has yet to be decimated, so I think I’m okay with it.

Disclaimer: I do not read ancient Greek. I did not look at the original text. You have read the entirety of my “research”.

I’ll be done with Autobiography of Red shortly. “Pretty fucking great” is my understatement of choice for it. Looks like Nietzsche’s up next, which I’m ambivalent about.

*Those would be the hooded guys on horses in Lord of the Rings.
**Columns are one of the bazillion things I imagine would be easy to accomplish until I try. I contemplated turning the image sideways and imagined you all cocking your heads or rotating your monitors.


1 Comment

Filed under reading

One response to “Anne Carson is a classicist.

  1. G

    I dont understand any of these words.

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