boundary 2 29.1 (2002) 26-31

Kit for an Orpheus Poem; Syntagma; Propertius Mistranslated

Jesper Svenbro

Kit for an Orpheus Poem

In Sweden the words “lyre” and “sound” have been terms
that have given poetry its content during the sighing pine-forest years
while it was busy licking its wounds in the wilderness:
faithful to a poetics of the lumber-language poem,
Orpheus is therefore an Oldforest pine on a clear-cut field
aching and rent, but still standing upright at dawn
where furious tractors and chainsaws have razed everything else to the ground.
The fog is thick. There’s a deadly silence among the stumps.
He might well be a seed pine, surviving lucky and green,
after having escaped one terrible forest fire after another,
an immense loner inhabited by birds and mice,
appealing to the Apollo who heals both lyre and sound:
Apollo Terebintheus, turpentine god, pine forest god,
allow him to play from the Underground today!
The Argonauts have long since fallen and been floated
down ink-blue rivers, towards Bothnia or the Pontus—
once upon a time they rowed their Schippe on creaking logges,
the mast made of fir, its sail a starry sky,
and the woods resounded with their well-made songs,
ancient heroes walking towards the white beach of the Baltic.
There’s a deadly silence on the clear-cut field. Brutal, isolated, [End Page 26]
Orpheus has already turned his twig eyes inwards—
when the sun suddenly creates a clearing through the fog
and the sundown slits of his eyes are full of resin:
once more Orpheus glances out across the woodland,
lets the morning dew glitter in his Lay about the Sunne,
Oldforest Orpheus with his lyre and overgrazed sound,
wild, terrifying, but finally healed and healthy
standing forever overgrown with torn lichen
and his head flown through by crested tits and buzzards,
by willow-tits, crossbills, by owls and hawks
while the chars spawn in the brook at his feet.

(Translated from Swedish by John Matthias and Lars-Håkan Svensson)


About the distinction that linguists make
between syntagm and paradigm
(and the troublesome difference that exists
as to their definition)
we didn’t have the slightest clue:
but there we were, no doubt aboutit,
one of the last days of June 1964
on Syntagma in Athens, reading a Swedish paper
reporting on how Midsummer celebrations
had turned out. Among other things,
one article described how an inebriated man at night
had walked down to the bank of a Lapland river
where he had discovered a steel wire
stretching across the rushing waters:
hanging by his arms, he had managed to get to the middle
where the stream is at its swiftest
and the roar had as it were shut him into its room.
He was hanging in his own turbulent silence.
The fire brigade had been alarmed.
They were standing on the bank, shouting and trying
to make him see reason: he didn’t hear a word!
The gnats must have been dancing by the river.
Presumably, it was impossible [End Page 27]
to row out in a boat and save him by that means.
What was to be done to lure him back?
I have forgotten how the article ends.
(In front of the sentry-boxes of the Royal Palace
the soldiers suddenly present arms.)
Therefore, in my memory the man is still hanging there
right over the most turbulent part of the stream
while firemen stand on the bank
trying in agitated voices to find a solution
to the hanging man’s dilemma.
What was his problem? Perhaps
he had no other answer to his metaphysical questions
than to hang there by his arms
while using up all his muscular strength.
Perhaps he had come to an impasse
in some discussion he’d had with himself or with God.
Perhaps he had suddenly found it impossible
to “make things cohere.”
The article about him could not have an end
since his inner discussion was as yet unfinished.
Big fir trees were standing serious and silent
between the road and the river bank.
But the sun was ready to be the sun again just above the horizon:
it had hardly disappeared before it rose once more.
It shot tracers of light through enormous fog-banks.
The dew was glittering in a cobweb
stretched across the path.
The world seemed to shine with a shimmering
belonging only to fairy tales...
The music from the dance floor of the people’s park
must have fallen silent by now:
the band members had probably left
while the gnats continued the dance
and the number of people on the bank grew and grew.
There must have been a crowd.
They are standing there in silence, wondering what will happen.
And the man himself is hanging by the steel wire,
hanging by his strong, northern arms
over the most turbulent stream of the river. [End Page 28]
Thirty years later I realize
that such a moment is “paradigmatic.”

(Translated from Swedish by John Matthias and Lars-Håkan Svensson)

Propertius Mistranslated

At first I was totally convinced it wasn’t her.
Coolly telling myself as much,
I dismissed the very notion from my mind
as if I wanted nothing so much as to forget aboutit.
But now I could see clearly that it was Cynthia and no one else
who was sitting there on the driver’s right
in the shiny red Ferrari.
Her sunglasses made her seem deliberately anonymous.
And it was certainly not in the traffic jam at the Piazza Venezia
thatI expected to see her.
I search for a while in my memory—
Was it a year toward the end of the sixties?
maybe the last of April?
The driver’s wearing glistening sunglasses too.
I imagine this must be the “Propertius expert”
whom she mentioned once
and who had now offered to take her to Lanuvium
in order to look at the landscape
near Juno Sospita’s temple mentioned in one of the poems:
Near the shrine, in antiquity, a way led down
to a cave under the rock
where a swelling snake had made his home...
The phallic symbolism makes me feel uneasy.
Suddenly, Cynthia’s lipstick is as deep a red as the car
driven by the expert on Propertius whois
dressed in a summer suit, driving-gloves, and a tie.
As for me, I don’t even have a license!
He is rumored to be exceptionally promising
in his particular field, the Roman love elegy.
In my view, however, he is merely
yet another careerist pedant,
an Italian with an unreserved admiration [End Page 29]
for the German philological method.
What on earth can Cynthia have seen in him?
Her silk scarf is streaming in the wind
as they disappear down the via dei Fori Imperiali...
At this point, the Latin original dictates that
I must be overcome with jealousy
although in fact I feel nothing more than disappointment.
The translator is left to himself,
sitting there all alone with his poem!
And here I guess he might as well giveup
since he is not blinded by jealousy
and also cannot summonup
the almost supernatural determination
that’s required to invite two prostitutes back home
and revenge himself on Cynthia
with their help. What an enterprise!
I lose my breath at the very thought.
Yet here I am in the dimly lit room of the poem,
there are palms and draperies,
the room is untidy as after a party.
I have doubtless had more wine to drink than is good forme
while Phyllis and Teia
—those are the names given in the original—
are lying naked by me in the bed.
Phyllis gets up, walks across the floor to the gramophone
and puts some better background musicon.
Teia clings to me, turns me around,
and tells me ardently to kiss her breasts...
ButI neither hear nor see.
In my mind’s eye what I see is Cynthia
back in that Ferrari speeding on toward Lanuvium.
She gesticulates and laughs.
“The expert” sits self-satisfied at the wheel
driving very fast due south on the via Appia Nuova.
Umbrella pines are passingby...
SuddenlyI hear a key in the outer door.
I turn all cold—
The moment after Cynthia steps in the room
her silhouette seems immense, [End Page 30]
behind her glares the bright light in the hall.
She is tall and furious.
First she attacks Phyllis and Teia,
tearing their hair, scratching them so they bleed,
making them flee half-dressed into the night...
As the street gate closes
you can hear the neighbors talking excitedly.
After a while silence is restored.
Everyone on the block can go back to sleep.
Then in the flat the two of us are left alone—
Propertius’s Swedish translator and the young woman
who was to reign supreme in the elegy.
We are standing eye to eye in the night.
She smacks my face, once, twice ... As a Swede,
I find it difficult to understand her jealousy,
theatrical, infantile in the Latin manner ... By what right
does she make these claims onme?
It is not I who was unfaithful...
Oh no! She never was unfaithful, she assuresme,
pointing to a line in a poem
there in the book on my desk.
I take her word forit.
“Traduttore, traditore!” she adds. As ifI...
Disarmed,I accept my punishment:
to make the bed with new sheets in the elegy.
She is beautiful. Pale. Her lipstick is gone.
At long last we make peace.

(Translated from Swedish by John Matthias and Lars-Håkan Svensson)