Friday, March 31, 2006

There is a moment in The Iliad when the useless devastation of war suddenly comes into focus, when all its associated bravery & implicit nobility is revealed as pointless & stands for the catastrophe it invariably is. The Iliad, after all, is the song of Ilium, or Troy, and there comes a moment when the destruction of Troy is inevitable, when it is clear to all concerned that Ilium has no future.

That moment is the death of Hector, firstborn son of the king, at the hands of Achilles. Hector understands the futility of his fight going into the match &, at his death, his father, Priam, bemoans the loss of his sons, Hector most of all, & Hector’s widow cries out not only for her dead spouse, but for the future that awaits their son Astyanax, of whom Homer says:

now his life is only filled
with misery and a pathetic path

This moment is the focal point of Iliad XXII, a stunning book & terrific translation by Lisa Jarnot, just published by Atticus Finch books of Buffalo. Of all the political acts against the current debacle in Iraq, this is surely the most elegant. Not simply because of the translation nor the production values (a new level of excellence for Michael Cross, who is rapidly joining the legendary fine press printers of Buffalo, NY, alongside Kristen Gallagher & Kyle Schlesinger), but because of the sly way this particular passage points out that Homer was clear 2800 years ago about some of the basic dynamics of history that so clearly elude W & his neocon brain trust.

Iliad XXII is fascinating not simply as political gesture. Lisa Jarnot has already demonstrated herself to be one of our most resourceful & talented poets. Her translation is doubly sly for the ways in which it calls up yet another bellicose rightwinger, one who in fact had more than a little interest in Homeric verse:

So then the Trojans
poured down through the city
and fled there like deer
that were brightened
with sweat,
and they drank
and they cooled down
their thirst,
and they
rested themselves
in the city’s embankments

and all of the troops of Achaeans
with their shoulders to steady their shields

and then there was Hector
where fate made him stay
in front of the city
and alone at its gate.

The first word of this passage is almost uniformly translated “Thus,” so that Jarnot’s insertion of a word favored by Ezra Pound – the two final words of Canto I are So that – hardly can be an accident.

Iliad XXII is not a Pound imitation. The style Jarnot adopts for the translation, however, falls clearly in a long line extending out from Pound, and which would include Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn’s great translation of The Poem of the Cid – one of the all-time major neglectorino texts – & others whom Jarnot herself thanks in a brief acknowledgements note. It is true, and not that often acknowledged, that right at the front of the Pound- Williams-Zukofsky tradition & that of the Projectivist poets who followed most closely in that same vein, right there in the very first Canto, lies a version of Homer. Which may be why this literary vein, among all others, has stood up so well as a mode for epic translation – contrast Blackburn’s Cid with the bloodless mess put forth by Bill Merwin. Jarnot stays close to this Pound/post-Pound tradition, tho she is capable of sounding positively beat, as when Athena comes to Hector in the guise of his younger brother:

my elder brother,
Achilles of the swift foot
is working his bad shit on you,
chasing you around the city of Priam
in that sleek fast way that he has –
but come indeed
let’s stand here
and fend off
his next approaching.”

So this is not a Lisa Jarnot poem, even if it is a Lisa Jarnot work. It is, however, a translation that is turned in more than one direction: at Homer, at Bush & Co., at Pound, at an entire tradition of writing as a mode of literary transcription, at the questions of bravery & fate, and of the consequences of war, that leveler of civilizations, destroyer of families. That’s a lot to get into just two signatures of paper sewn into perfect-bound boards. But hardly anyone sets the bar for their work as high as Lisa Jarnot, and this is no exception.