Linda Chown and Martin Corless-Smith: A Review

Inside In, Linda Chown, 2015, ISBN: 978-1-940162-28-1

Odious Horizons: Some Versions of Horace, Martin Corless-Smith, Miami University Press, September 2019. ISBN-978–1–881163–65–7, $17.00

[In the interest of full disclosure: hardPressed poetry has published Linda Chown and I have attempted Horace in English. ]

Chown’s association with the Beats and Black Mountain poets go all the way back to when she worked at the Poetry Center and is evident in the poems collected in Inside In, poems of controlled openness and deceptive conversational directness. The book is organised in three sections, Place, People and Knowings, but these are not narrow silos, and poems from one section will frequently bleed into the concerns of one or both of the others. This is a poetry of presence, of being in the world:

to sit here and be here

smoking, alive, sizzling a bit

in the sun.

Hers is a poetry of perception, of looking at and listening to the world as it is, not as it would be, and these poems call on us to attend to the world without telling us what it is we ‘should’ be seeing:

When on a long night

 

When on a long night

 

 

Far under the trees

There

 

 

Red peonies

Massing

Round and defiant

He poems have no designs on us, nothing to sell, and no morals to draw. Several of the poems in the People section are memories of childhood, but unlike so many other poems in this genre, Chown presents these memories for themselves, not for some putative lesson they might teach her or us. They are poems of experience as lived:

The world begins simply to spin, slow, long, textured,

grainy and porous in my eyes touching.

[from ‘Wood Sight’]

 

On the bus going home

I listen for myself,

checking to see

how truthful I am,

checking to see

how I am.

[from ‘Meeting’]

Many of the poems carry place attributions at the end, and a pattern emerges, an interweaving of three threads: San Francisco, Spain and Grand Rapids. These three very different landscapes enable her to build a tapestry of contrast, of the global situated in the local. The intermingling of places also points towards a non-chronological organisation in the book, but there is a remarkable consistency of tone across it, which suggests that Chown arrived at her own voice early and has stuck with it. In some of the poems in the Knowings section, she approaches a statement of her poetics, particularly in the opening lines of ‘Writing To’:

Write to. Write about not.

It just begins. And she does.

Little all in her combat.

Not about. But to.

Her troubled eyes.

Close to get. Come to see

The fire raging.

Write to can be followed by noun or verb, to someone or something, in address, or to explore, discover, question. The quiet strength of these poems is that they do both, and in so doing, they draw the reader in, on her own terms, to a world entire built on fragments of life:

My mind turns on itself.

A bowl of soup,

an old scratch of a poem.

Your gray jacket

brushing on my hair.

 

The word ‘versions’ in the subtitle of Martin Corless-Smith’s book is key; these are poems that take off from individual odes by the Latin poet, but they reimagine the Roman world in terms of contemporary Britain and America. In this, they can be seen as part of a tradition of modern Latin translation that can be traced back through, for example, Peter Whigham’s 1966 Catullus to Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’. Like his predecessors, Corless-Smith is concerned to ‘translate’ the cultural context of the poems: Virgil becomes Tom Raworth, wrestling is translated into cricket, the Roman mob’s call to armed rebellion is echoed in football chants and contemporary politics:

She’ll turn a Triumph Bonneville

into a hearse

some punter prays to her

whole cities hold their breath

chanting for Brexit or Man U.

[from I.35]

Horace’s response was to retreat from the public sphere, a response that, as Corless-Smith remarks in his Preface, resonated with those 17th and 18th century English poets who followed his example, adding that Horace’s withdrawal was a political act ‘offering an ethical alternative to engaging in a system that he highlights in all his contemptable idiocy’. It’s an alternative that Corless-Smith clearly thinks appropriate to contemporary society, and many of the best passages in these versions reflect this kind of resistance:

Life gifts the quiet man with wealth

the bees visit his flower pot

his pennies buy his penny loaf

& those who search for more and more find more and

more is not enough

[from III.16]

One possibly fruitful way of thinking about what Corless-Smith is doing is to read him alongside both the original Latin and an earlier translation from that Restoration period.  Here’s Horace’s I.9.

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum

Soracte nec iam sustineant onus

silvae laborantes geluque

flumina constiterint acuto?

 

Dissolve frigus ligna super foco

large reponens atque benignius

deprome quadrimum Sabina,

 

Permitte divis cetera, qui simul

strauere ventos aequore fervido

deproeliantis, nec cupressi

nec veteres agitantur orni.

 

Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere, et

quem fors dierum cumque dabit, lucro

adpone nec dulcis amores

sperne, puer, neque tu choreas,

 

donec virenti canities abest

morosa. Nunc et Campus et areae

lenesque sub noctem susurri

composita repetantur hora,

 

nunc et latentis proditor intumo

gratus puellae risus ab angulo

pignusque dereptum lacertis

aut digito male pertinaci.

And Horace: The Odes, Book One, IX, translated by John Dryden:

Behold yon mountain’s hoary height

Made higher with new mounts of snow:

Again behold the winter’s weight

Oppress the labouring woods below’

And streams with icy fetters bound

Benumbed and cramped to solid ground.

 

With well-heaped logs dissolve the cold

And feed the genial hearth with fires;

Produce the wine that makes us bold,

And spritely wit and love inspires;

For what hereafter shall betide

God (if ’tis worth His care) provide.

 

Let Him alone with what He made,

To toss and turn the world below;

At His command the storms invade,

The winds by His commission blow;

Till with a nod He bids them cease

And then the calm returns and all is peace.

 

Tomorrow and its works defy;

Lay hold upon the present hour,

And snatch the pleasures passing by

To put them out of Fortune’s power;

Nor love nor love’s delights disdain –

Whate’er thou getts’t today, is gain.

 

Secure those golden early joys

That youth unsoured with sorrow bears,

Ere with’ring time the taste destroys

With sickness and unwieldy years.

For active sports, for pleasing rest.

This is the time to be posesst;

The best is but in season best.

 

Th’appointed hour of promised bliss,

The pleasing whisper in the dark,

The half-unwilling willing kiss,

The laugh that guides thee to the mark,

When the kind nymph would coyness feign

And hides but to be found again –

These, these are joys the gods for youth ordain.

And Corless-Smith:

See the Sawtooths white as teeth

with snow-clogged pines,

the streams bitten with cold

 

Pile the firewood high

bring out the reserved wine

 

Outside the gods can fight

the winds that shake the cypresses

each day’s a victory

 

Forget tomorrow

while you’re young go out!

and play the games

that lovers play at night.

It’s interesting to see how Dryden’s technical exuberance leads to a translation that is far longer than the original, and not in any sense true to its tone, while Corless-Smith’s more minimalist leanings result in a much truncated one. Both are reflections of their own poetic culture, both men making work that is a result of, and likely to appeal to, a specific place and time. Tellingly, I think, both erase the addressee of Horace’s original, Soracte, resulting in poems that turn to address the reader directly rather than one that mimics an ‘overheard’ conversation. On balance, Corless-Smith seems to me to capture more of the formal restraint of the original, Horace is not hidden behind a tangle of verbiage, and there’s something of Horace’s voice reflected in the calm English of the text.

However, there’s one thing they both lose in translation. We tend to assume a continuity in Western literary traditions that reaches back through Latin writers to the Greeks, a single root with many branches. But the reality is that Horace is probably at least as alien to us as, say, Basho. Again, this is acknowledged in the Preface where Corless-Smith writes: ‘’I might ask also, what of Horace is available when a modern reader (even a classicist) opens his original text.’). One of the key elements of Horace’s foreignness is the Latin language itself, with its relatively fluid word order, a characteristic that Horace pushed further than most. All translation is, in one aspect, a process of editing, and versions of Horace that edit out his syntactical complexity remove a crucial layer of his technique, a kind of convoluted ambiguity. Neither does Corless-Smith really seem interested in bringing across what Horace sounds like, what the music of the odes might be. Again, this is a perfectly valid translator’s choice, but it does, I think, limit the scope of the achievement of this book.

These caveats aside, Odius Horizons is a very fine collection of poems, a valuable place for a reader with no Latin to begin approaching Horace from, and a highly enjoyable read.