Stephanie Burt’s ‘After Callimachus’ reviewed by David Cooke


A papyrus of Callimachus’ Aetia (Pfeiffer fr. 178 = P.Oxy. XI 1362 fr. 1 col. i, 1st century AD)

*****

Stephanie Burt’s After Callimachus reviewed by David Cooke

After Callimachus by Stephanie Burt.  £22. Hardback. Princeton University press. ISBN: 978-0691180199

Stephanie Burt’s After Callimachus is a collection of poems freely translated from, or loosely based on, the work of Callimachus, a third century Hellenistic poet who, along with being one of the most widely admired and influential poets of his age, was also a scholar at the Library of Alexandria. The poems are preceded by a useful introduction by Mark Payne in which, having suggested that ‘Callimachus is the greatest Greek poet you probably haven’t read’, he fills in the historical background and outlines some of the qualities that distinguish Callimachus as a poet. Then follows a brief ‘Imitator’s Note’ by Burt in which she outlines how she has approached her task. Placing herself squarely in the tradition of Pound and Lowell, she insists that ‘the verses in this book should not be mistaken for consistently accurate scholarly translations.’ Although Burt does not claim to be a Classical scholar, she does have enough Greek to access Callimachus in the original and so could, presumably, have produced much more strictly accurate versions. Her project, however, is more one of interpretation and reinvention, an attempt to bring to life the essence of a poet far removed from us in time and, as such, her versions of Callimachus can be seen as part of a tradition that goes back to the Renaissance via Peter Porter’s ‘Martial’, Johnson’s  ‘Juvenal’ and Pope’s ‘Horace.’

Her opening poem is based on a passage from Callimachus’s long poem Aetia, which has only survived in fragments. In it we get an insight into his ars poetica:

So reactionaries and radicals complain
that I have no proprietary mission
no project that’s all mine;
instead I am like a child flipping Pogs
or building in Minecraft, although I’m past forty.
To them I say: keep rolling logs
for one another, but don’t waste my time
on your ambition …

Disparaging the epic ambitions of some of his contemporaries – it is said that he fell out with his student, Apollonius of Rhodes, the author of the quasi-Homeric  Argonautica – Callimachus asserts his right to follow his muse wherever it takes him. Moreover, a brief glance at the original will indicate the appropriateness of Burt’s approach.  The Greek text is pitted with lacunae and the opening line contains a fairly obscure classical reference  that the modern reader will find pretty opaque . It should be said, though, that Burt herself is not without her own recondite allusions. Not everyone will be familiar with ‘Minecraft’ and readers in the UK may struggle with ‘Pogs’.  A few lines later those who enjoy the work of Eric Satie may not be familiar with Young Marble Giants. However, the elucidation of such obscurities is what Wikipedia’s for and Burt’s ‘Callimachus’ is very much a product of the digital age.

Given his omnivorous intelligence, his playfulness, and the range of his poetic forms, the modern poet that Burt’s ‘Callimachus’ most frequently brings to mind is W.H. Auden, all the more so when both seem to share a similarly easy-going aspiration towards ‘the good life’:

My friends and I need more
time to ourselves: we might just walk around
in one of our tiny gardens and chat about words,
and sex, and cuisine, and collectibles, and maybe learn
what the obscure, archaic
phrase “to have fun” meant.

(Aetia, book 4,frag. 112:epilogue)

Not the least of this book’s many pleasures is its reader-friendly structure. It is divided up thematically into seven sections. Within each section there is a balance between the longer and shorter pieces, whereby a topic which has been explored from several angles via a sequence of epigrams is then revisited in a longer narrative. The first section concentrates on the subject of love and soon grabs the reader’s attention: ‘This is a story with a happy ending’ and then draws us into a lively, freewheeling narrative about a pair of star-crossed lovers. It is then wrapped up satisfactorily in a neat moral: ‘Lovers are not possessions / neither each other’s, nor their families’’. The poems which follow are mostly taken  from the Epigrams or, if not, they are short iambic poems and fragments.

In the Greek, the Epigrams are concise to the point of exiguity and aspire to a high degree of formal perfection within the confines of the elegiac couplet’s alternating lines of six and five feet. To make these poems accessible to a modern readership Burt has changed  names, updated the context and expanded upon what is often merely hinted at in the original. Everything is transposed into an overarching new reality where classical deities rub shoulders with laptops and mobile phones. To give some idea of the challenge Burt has set herself, here is a plain prose translation of ‘Epigram 62’:

Menecrates of Aenus – for you, it seems, were not to be here for long – what, best of friends, made an end of you? Was it that which was the undoing of the Centaur? “It was the destined sleep that came to me, but wretched wine has the blame.”

(adapted from a version by A.W. Mair in the Loeb Classical Library)

The extreme brevity of this poem, not to mention its riddling reference to the Centaur, is going to leave most modern readers floundering. Here, by way of contrast, is Burt’s much expanded ‘imitation’:

Caro, you didn’t seem to experience more
than a little of our blowout last night.
What happened? Are you OK? You know I’m a friend you can trust.
Honestly you look like someone decided to joust
against a centaur, or a champion equestrian,
with your head as the grand prize.
Whom should I sue for excessive use of force?

“Calli, please
let me go back to sleep upstairs if I can.
I don’t know if it was the wine,
or when I told Niko about my crush, thanks to that wine,
but I feel like I’ve been kicked in the nose by a horse.”

In ‘Epigram 43’, references to Mr Spock and neurobiology are used to explore the nature of sexual attraction; while in ‘Epigram 53’, lovers either get a text or are ‘ghosted’. The point of these anachronisms is, one imagines, to emphasise that the experience of unrequited love has changed little over the centuries, an insight which is confirmed with touching simplicity in the final image of another fragment taken from Aetia: ‘ Unsatisfied love is a tomb.’

After this wide-ranging anatomy of love, Burt gathers together a group of poems whose concerns are more public or political. Again, it would seem that not much has changed over the centuries:

Those fuckers renamed an airport for a tyrant
who wouldn’t stop lying, and couldn’t stand people like me,
and rarely flew commercial while he lived.

In ‘Hecale, fragment 275’, the poet acknowledges that ‘It hurts to be poor’ and then laments the lawlessness of which those without resource are frequently the victims. One untitled fragment is an electioneering speech, while another praises a virtuous leader. Throughout these poems, Callimachus sides with those who are exploited and abused, excoriating those whose eyes are always on the main chance, like the property developers in ‘Aetia book 3, fragment 64’: ‘the kind of rich dude who drains wetlands / to put in high-end one bedrooms.’ In ‘Aetia, book 2, fragment 44-51’, the long-standing tradition of Greek hospitality, xenia/ξενία, is contrasted with the actions of the citizens of Phalaris ‘who roasted / dark-skinned foreigners alive / inside an enormous bull’. Elsewhere, he warns the Thracians that they will pay a price for their bloodthirsty expansionist ways.

From the world of politics and war, both exclusively the domain of men in Ancient Greece, Section Three takes us into the world of women, where we explore such themes as infertility, childbirth, and the rearing of children. The approach taken can be quite forthright: ‘Nobody wants to talk about lochia. Or about menstruation. / But really we should.’ In Aristophanes’ great play Lysistrata, it was the wives who tried to bring to an end to the war between Athens and Sparta. Similarly, In ‘Aetia book 3, fragment 80-82’, it is two women, Katia and Yana, who bring peace at last to the warring cities of Myus and Milesia. Some of the poems here deal with the challenges of bringing up your kids: their petulance and unwillingness to get out of bed. In others, there is a relaxed attitude to sexuality that suggests that our generation may closer to the world of Callimachus than many of our predecessors:

“Do you know whether
you’re having a girl or a boy?” Sweet clue-
less grownup, the only way is to ask
the child. We’re not going to know for years.

(‘Epigram 54’)

Stephanie Burt’s  After Callimachus is a wonderfully rich and encyclopedic collection of verse  in which the persona that she has created, her ‘Callimachus’, is entertaining, endearing, and wise. Compare the opening lines of his epitaph to the more assertive tone  of Horace in  ‘I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze’:

Cover me quietly stone.
I wrote verses. I meant little in life,
blamed few and injured none.
I tried to get along…

With consummate skill and considerable powers of invention, Stephanie Burt has taken an imaginative leap which enables those who read her to gain some insight into an unfamiliar world and which, at the same time, may tell them much about their own. It’s a collection that deserves to be widely read.

Stephanie Burt  is a literary critic and poet who is Professor of English at Harvard University and a transgender activist.  She has published four collections of poetry and a large amount of literary criticism and research. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The Believer, and The Boston Review.

David Cooke has published seven collections of his poetry, the most recent of which is Staring at a Hoopoe (Dempsey and Windle, 2002). He is the editor of The High Window.