Art Beck: A Poem that Sleeps
with the Fishes

  Art Beck

  A Poem that Sleeps
  with the Fishes

 
  JPR 08

the angler catches a trout
the poet gently returns it
same fish, same fellow

— John Thomas

Paragraph One Follows ^:

There’s something both ageless and ancient about Thomas’ lines. They feel as if they could as well have been written in the 1880s or 1780s as the 1980s they date from. But researching a bit, that doesn’t seem to be the case. While fishing as a leisure sport is as old a pastime as hunting for sport, the concept of “catch and release” is, by most accounts, a twentieth century innovation. Not that it didn’t exist as a personal preference, but more as oddity than movement. And in that sense, yes, Thomas’ poem invokes the primordial pleasure of that quirky impulse.

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I emphasize that quality, because I think it relates to the ability of poems to migrate out of the cultures that spawned them. We usually think about this in terms of translating forward in time. But it intrigues me to imagine a First century Roman poet, say Martial, trying to translate Thomas’ Twentieth Century century lines into Latin. They’re epigrammatic enough, right up Martial’s aesthetic alley. Wiggly and alive in the way they combine the joy of a suddenly taut line in both fishing and poetry. And for Martial, the exoticism of catch and release might well be a bonus rather than barrier.

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I think Thomas’ haiku / epigram also serves as a metaphor for translating poetry in general. With an interjected implication that the fish / poem is released to make its way in another stream — or maybe a lake, or a rushing river racing to the sea. Raising the thorny, but fertile, question — how can it be the same old fish after the shock of new waters? Is a Manhattan taxi driver from Karachi a New Yorker or Pakistani? To revisit the first century: was Martial a Spaniard in Rome, or a Roman from Spain? If there’s any one answer it may be that: “You are what you eat.” That the city and culture you navigate to live usually defines who you are more insistently than nostalgia for where you’ve been.

II. A Fishpond by the Sea

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All the above is by way of introduction to a poem of Martial’s that still seems wiggly and alive even though he released it some 2000 years ago in his eleventh book of Epigrams. For those partial to his more explicit poems, Epigrams XI, 21 might be right up their alley. It exemplifies his ability to weave elegant verse from obscene words and grandiloquent sexual imagery. Personally, as a translator trying to shop a representative Martial selection to academic small presses in the sudden era of #MeToo, it also seemed a poem I could congratulate myself for excluding. “At least I haven’t translated the fishpond poem” I told myself.

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So, of course my perverse other self just had to try to bring it across from Latin to English. And to again remind myself of the familiar lesson: Never prejudge a poem based on someone else’s translation until you’ve translated it yourself. In this case, there aren’t that many recent translations besides David Shackleton-Bailey’s Loeb. Garry Wills has a highly adapted and stylized version in his 2007 Martial selection. And I found a verse reworking of the current Loeb prose version on a Latinist hobbyist blog. But the various late 20th century Martial verse selections, Michie, Matthews, Humphries, Whigham etal, seem to take a pass on this one. With some 1500 poems in the Martial canon, that’s understandable.

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So why, perversely, did I feel compelled to try to make up for this neglect by translating it twice and including an alternate version in my selection? Here’s the original:

Martial Epigrams XI, 21

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Lydia tam laxa est equitis quam culus aeni,
      quam celer arguto qui sonat aere trochus,
quam rota transmisso totiens inpacta petauro,
      quam vetus a crassa calceus udus aqua,
quam quae rara vagos expectant retia turdos,
      quam Pompeiano vela negata Noto,
quam quae de pthisico lapsa est armilla cinaedo,
      culcita Leuconico quam viduata suo,
quam veteres bracae Brittonis pauperis, et quam
      urpe Ravennatis guttur onocrotali.
Hanc in piscina dicor futuisse marina.
      Nescio; piscinam me futuisse puto.

And here’s my first version:

^:

Lydia, as spacious as the ass of a bronze statue’s horse,
    as open as the copper hoops kids whip down the street
or one of those wheels acrobats dive through. She’s
    a roomy old shoe soaked in squishy rainwater. A wide
net set to snag stray robins. As vast as the canvas that blocks
    the summer wind at Pompey’s Theater. Or an armlet
that’s grown too big for a wheezing tubercular queen.
        A mattress with all its wool stuffing gone.
That grizzled British beggar’s drooping britches.
        A Ravenna wharf pelican’s hungry pouch.
Someone told me I fucked her in the fishpond.
        I don’t know. I think I fucked the fishpond.

^:

It was while commenting on — if not the misogyny — at least the over the top maleness of the poem to Paul Vangelisti that he stopped me. He pointed out that what he was picking up seemed an almost mythic, primordial femaleness. The female counterpart, if you will, of the Priapus that guarded Roman gardens and orchards with his huge stiff member.

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In this case, I said I might agree with his take on Lydia except for the poem’s ending lines. The epigram does trot out an initial series of extravagant but strong images, almost like waves rolling in. Then, in its second half, these change to images that evoke aging and sadness, in a helplessly ebbing tide. But the final image, at least as I translated it, sputters and extinguishes itself in a blacked-out drunken screw in a garden fishpond.

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Vangelisti, who lives half the year in Italy, has been an ongoing sounding board as I translate Martial. And he owns a Loeb-similar complete Martial, based on the Shackleton-Bailey vetted Latin text. I asked him to see how the Italian translation handled the fishpond ending. Lo and behold, in his edition there’s no fishpond. The Italian translation simply brings Martial’s piscina… marina across intact, because the term still exists in contemporary Italian. An Italian piscina is a pool, generally artificial, for swimming or wading. Modified by marina, a pool fed by seawater.

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Piscina was a broad enough term in Latin to include “fishpond”, “tank”, “spa”, “swimming pool”, “vat”, “bath”, “basin” etc. Polyvalence is common in antique speech, but language tends to become more granular as vocabularies grow. Vangelisti assures me piscina has lost all fishpond connotations in Italian. This doesn’t mean Martial didn’t intend “fishpond”. Piscina marina may indeed be a “false friend” here. It just means the Italian classicist translator doesn’t agree with the Loeb English classicists. Shackleton Bailey renders the lines as “I am said to have fucked her in a marine fishpond. I don’t know, I think I fucked the fishpond”. Walter Ker’s 1919 Loeb translation was: “This woman I am said to have poked in a marine fishpond. I don’t know; I think I poked the fishpond itself.”

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This points up an adjective I’d omitted as superfluous from my version — marina (of the sea). And also the question of just what a “marine fishpond” is. Because neither Ker nor Shackleton-Bailey really provide an image you can visualize. There’s no such term in conversational English. It could well just be a pond for saltwater fish. But if it’s an ornamental or garden pond, marina seems as superficial to the image in Latin as English. And what kind of sea fish or shell fish would be kept in such a pond? It seems a risky place for dalliance. And if it’s a holding tank for edible sea fish, well, coition seems even more problematic and unlikely.

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On the other hand, a Google image search rewards the browser with some stunning piscina marinas in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese resort destinations. Both artificial and natural seawater fed pools for swimming or bathing. Some in places as ancient as this poem, such as the natural Piscina Marina at Serra. And while I don’t think Martial’s describing that particular pool, something like the Blue Grotto might also fit the phrase.

III. Some Fishless Versions

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Web searching to see how this epigram may have been translated prior to Walter Ker’s interpretation, I came across a 1868 privately printed “Index Expurgatorius of Martial, literally translated: comprising all the epigrams hitherto omitted by English translators, to which is added a metrical version and copious explanatory notes.” The 166 page volume appears to be purposely anonymously authored but seriously erudite. As noted it provides both a “literal” and “metrical” translation of XI, 21. In the former, its last lines are rendered:

^:

Tis said I had her in a tank of sea
water; I know not, I believe I had the tank.

The more poetic version reads:

^:

Tis said, while bathing we trod love’s path,
I know not, but I seemed to fuck the bath.

^:

The notes on this poem also call attention to the last two lines of a 1782 version by James Elphinston with the characterization that “Elphinston is quite happy here.” I think it’s worthwhile to look at the entire Elphinston translation (the emphasis in the last line is mine):

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Little Lydia, more loose than a brazen horse-tail;
Than the hoop, where each jingler bejostles the nail:
Than the wheel, that untoucht the slim vaulter whips thro’:
Than, besoakt with foul water, the yielding old shoe:
Than the flimsiest net, giddy thrushes inhales;
Than the awning of Pompey; deni’d to the gales:
Than the brasslet, from pthisical catamite dropt;
Than the bolster, no more her Leuconic has propt:
Than the trousers, that long the poor Briton has wor’n:
Than the throat, that Ravenna’s bird-brayer has tor’n:
Her I’m said to have caught in a pond of the sea:
The wide pond is the whole recollected by me.

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Beyond Elphinston’s singular characterization of Lydia as “little” and his somewhat forced end-line rhyme, I wonder if the real groaner of a pun he ends on may have been what prompted Robert Burns’ stinging response to his efforts:

^:

O Thou whom Poetry abhors,
Whom Prose has turned out of doors,
Heard’st thou yon groan? — proceed no further,
’Twas laurel’d Martial calling murther.

^:

Garry Wills, in this century, also omits the fish from the pond, while somehow managing to out-gross Martial:

They claim I fucked her in a pond?
Not so, since her cunt is the pond!

^:

But the purpose of these quotes is to illustrate that “fishpond” is only one way of imagining Martial’s piscina. Nothing in the poem itself precludes us from exploring other by-ways.

IV: An Out of the Way Detour

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In Latin piscina can be used to refer to a pool for light swimming or wading in the baths. And Martial’s Lydia poem does seem a bit evocative of an earlier short squib that infers a bathhouse sexual encounter.

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II, 52

Novit loturos Dasius numerare: poposcit
      mammosam Spatalen pro tribus; illa dedit.

^:

Dasius, the bath attendant, knows his numbers. He told Spatala
    her bazooms were so big she owed for three. She came across.

^:

But XI, 21 also vaguely reminded me of a very un-Martial like, venerable poem from Horace’s first book of Odes.

Horace, Odes I, 5

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Here’s John Milton’s classic translation:

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What slender Youth bedew’d with liquid odours
Courts thee on Roses in some pleasant Cave,
      Pyrrha, for whom bind’st thou
      In wreaths thy golden Hair,

Plain in thy neatness; O how oft shall he
On Faith and changed Gods complain: and Seas
      Rough with black winds and storms
      Unwonted shall admire:

Who now enjoyes thee credulous, all Gold,
Who alwayes vacant alwayes amiable
      Hopes thee; of flattering gales
      Unmindful. Hapless they

To whom thou untry’d seem’st fair. Me in my vow’d
Picture the sacred wall declares t’ have hung
      My dank and dropping weeds
      To the stern God of [The] Sea.

^:

Horace’s ode (and Milton’s translation) are as refined as Martial’s epigram is coarse. But stepping back a bit, both poems describe a sexual encounter in which the sea figuratively (and / or literally) figures. There’s no overt piscina in Horace’s ode, but the implication is that the lovers are trysting in a seaside grotto. With Horace, an image something like the Blue Grotto pool definitely comes to mind. And while Martial’s persona and Lydia were probably discreetly making do at the baths, it seems important to the epigram, that it be a seawater bath.

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It would be wildly speculative and pointless to wonder if Martial had Horace’s, then century old, classic in mind. But what drew me to revisit Horace were what seemed thematic echoes. The rhythms of the tide, first granting, then taking away as it flows and ebbs. The “dank and dropping” clothes of the speaker of the Odes and the British pauper’s worn, drooping trousers. The young open, but merry and muscular, Lydia, becoming flaccid and tragic with age. The thrill of what seemed an eternal Eden of young love in the Horace ode, expelled by the storms of the divinity-personified sea. All this served to re-orient me to think that, translating poetically, the emphasis in Martial’s closing lines is better served by being as much, or more, on marina as the repeated piscina.

V. So Here’s Where I’m Swimming Now:

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in different waters than First century Latin, cultural as well as linguistic. I’ve tried to maintain the illusion of a trip to Imperial Rome, but it’s still a pretend journey in a Twenty-First century imagination. I’ve rendered piscina marina as broadly as possible in order to let the reader supply the specifics. That’s not too different than in Martial’s Latin, or for that matter in Horace’s love nest grato.

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Is my alternate version more “accurate” or less than the Loebs’? As I’ve said “fishpond” is a valid way, among others, of reading piscina. And my second version also takes an arguably questionable final leap. Even if you read piscina as “swimming pool”, Martial may just be cynically saying that Lydia, who’s generally characterized as a prostitute, has been a very busy lady. That he fucked not only her, but everyone else in the pool by proxy. That’s why I’m labelling this version as “alternate”.

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On the other hand, the final image of my second version may very well have been harmonically implicit to the First Century Latin reader. Whatever any poet sets out to say, at some point the text finds a mind of its own. How else could Martial’s epigram outlive him? And his Latin released in English waters can’t seem to resist yet another leap at life. For me, my first version came to resemble an anadromous fish, a salmon making its way back upriver to spawn, then die. But a poem always wants to keep swimming.

Lydia tam laxa est equitis quam culus aeni,
    quam celer arguto qui sonat aere trochus,
quam rota transmisso totiens inpacta petauro,
    quam vetus a crassa calceus udus aqua,
quam quae rara vagos expectant retia turdos,
    quam Pompeiano vela negata Noto,
quam quae de pthisico lapsa est armilla cinaedo,
    culcita Leuconico quam viduata suo,
quam veteres bracae Brittonis pauperis, et quam
    urpe Ravennatis guttur onocrotali.
Hanc in piscina dicor futuisse marina.
    Nescio; piscinam me futuisse puto.

Lydia, as spacious as the ass of a bronze statue’s horse,
        as open as the tinkling hoops boys whip down the street,
or one of those wheels acrobats dive through. She’s
        a comfy old shoe soaked in squishy rainwater. A wide
net set to snag stray robins. As vast as the canvas that blocks
        the summer wind at Pompey’s Theater. Or an armlet
that’s grown too big for a wheezing tubercular queen.
        A lambswool mattress whose stuffing has gone.
That grizzled British beggar’s drooping britches.
        A Ravenna wharf pelican’s gulping pouch.
Someone reminded me I fucked her in the seawater
        pool. I don’t know, I think I fucked the sea.

 

Art Beck

US West Coast poet and translator Art Beck, detail.

 

The manuscript for Art Beck’s Mea Roma was one of two finalists awarded Honorable Mention in the American Literary Translators Association 2018 Cliff Becker Book Prize, along with a very nice citation:
https://literarytranslators.wordpress.com/2017/10/09/announcing-the-winner-of-the-2018-cliff-becker-book-prize-in-translation/
This 130 poem “meditative selection” of Martial will be published by Shearsman Books late this year.

 

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