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Acts of Love

Ancient Greek Poetry from Aphrodite's Garden

2006, Modern Library Edition

"Thanks to George Economou's fearless acts of translation, the veils of euphemism and politeness have been lifted from the erotic and amatory poems of ancient Greece, and we can now behold their unabashed original faces. It is thrilling to see poems over two thousand years old come alive again in the stark idioms of contemporary America."

— Billy Collins

In its day, the ancient Greek symposium played a social role similar to that of the modern, upscale urban gala in that it was an occasion for members of high society to mix and mingle with their peers. To be sure, many of its arrangements were distinctly unmodern. No women were admitted, with the exception of "flute-girls." Attendees did not stand but reclined on couches arranged in a horseshoe. The Greek word symposion literally means "a drink together," and much attention was paid to the wine, which was cut with water carefully mixed with it in a bowl. And as for what actually transpired at these gatherings, the evidence is neither consistent nor clear. The way our literary sources describe it, the flute-girls were eventually dismissed so that the attendees could discuss civilized subjects like literature or recite poems. But if the scenes painted on ancient wine cups and mixing bowls are any indication, the flute-girls often stayed and the event devolved into a sex party. Somewhere between these two extremes was presumably a reality; and perhaps the best clue to that reality was the Greek erotic epigram, a short poem written for recitation at a symposium, in which literature and sex were united:

Bring water, my boy, and bring wine,

and bring me garlands of flowers.

I'm ready for another bout with Love.

So Anacreon, as translated by George Economou in this lively new collection.

The epigram was the popular verse form in antiquity (and not restricted to erotic themes, either). The best poets made albums of their work, which they circulated among their peers, who copied what they liked, added favorite poems from other authors, and made their own albums to share, mixing and swapping poems like music files. These mixes were the first anthologiai; the term, which literally denotes a collection of flowers, can also be translated as a "garland," and evokes the original sympotic context (see Anacreon, above). A massive collection of Byzantine date called the Greek Anthology is the source from which most of Economou's epigrams have been taken.

The themes here are love and sex; that is to say, poems about love for the unattainable inamorata, poems about sex addressed to prostitutes, and poems about love and sex conjoined, addressed to almost every sort of human being. While the voices of Sappho and the less famous Nossis are heard here, it is male erotic love in all its different permutations that is the main focus: love of boys, of men, of mistresses and wives, of the soul and of the body. There is no prurience on show, but plenty of shame, humiliation, depression, ecstasy, and surprise. Who, after all, would expect the following brand of lovemaking to appear such a jolly, wholesome thing?

When moved to make love to your pregnant wife,

never bed her down face to face. For then

you'll be riding a big wave, a bit frustrated

trying to row her, being tossed and rolled yourself.

Instead, turn her over and make merry

with her rosy butt, instructing her in boy love.

These poems were not originally written to celebrate the variousness of sexual experience, but in the context of this collection, that is one central effect.

As diverting as these poems can be, the voice and style Economou has brought to bear on them renders this anthology even more compelling. Translatorese is largely banished; what remains is a familiar American poetic idiom, by turns colloquial and experimental. Typographical devices, such as the splicing of phrases in a sentence across three or four lines, are well handled, and some poems are translated as if they were song lyrics. Another technique that Economou occasionally uses is to give two or three different versions of the same poem. Here is an alternative rendering of the Anacreon quoted above:

Waiter, a double Jack Daniel's on the rocks, please,

and a dozen Wellfleet oysters on the half shell.

I'm here to take on Love's next challenger.

A possible objection to this stylistic approach is that it makes the poetic voice too strong, too inflexible. This volume affords little sense of stylistic change, even as we read through a sequence whose earliest author, Sappho, was writing almost 1200 years before Paulos Silentarios, one of the last. In extenuation it might be noted that poets like Paulos were clearly attempting to imitate their archaic predecessors, and thought of themselves as heirs to a timeless poetic tradition. But if these translations are not as strange as those of, say, an Ezra Pound, they are nevertheless very much alive. It is high time that these sympotic epigrams were translated into the modern idiom of a country whose national anthem was originally a British officers' drinking song: Anacreon in heaven would be proud.

Greek poetry was the model of classical antiquity, and remains, with that of the Hebrews, the fountainhead of Western literature. Both traditions have continued to sustain the Western tradition, and both have enjoyed remarkable revivals in modern times in their own revived voices. The timely publication of George Economou's fresh and vivid translations from The Greek Anthology, the great medieval compilation of ancient short verse, coincides with the appearance of Dean Kostos' Last Supper of the Senses, an English-language volume by one a prominent Greek-American poets that, while thoroughly contemporary, is a living link to ancient sensibility.

The Greek Anthology, consisting of more than four thousand short poems or epigrammata composed over roughly a thousand years, was itself the work of many hands and generations. It was given definitive form by the Byzantine Konstantinos Kephalas in the tenth century, disappeared for perhaps three centuries, and was rediscovered by the French humanist Salmasius in the the library of the Count Palatine in Heidelberg in 1606, from whence its alternative title, The Palatine Anthology, derives. Kephalas divided his text by subject-matter—dedicatory, sympotic, hortatory and admonitory, epideictic, ekphrastic, and erotic. It is from the latter category, 567 poems in all, that George Economou, himself an accomplished poet, has made his own selection of 255, ranging from Archilochus in the seventh century B.C.E. to Paulos Silentiarius and Rufinus Domesticus in the sixth century C.E.

Love is as nearly universal an experience as humans have, but the conventions they express it in, linguistic and otherwise, are time- and culturebound. Ancient slang needs modern equivalents, but too colloquial a feel erases the sense of distance we also need to feel if ancient poetry is to convince. That sense of distance—of pathos—is also a construction, for the Anthology's poems were all, of course, once contemporary, and communicated directly. It is not the poems but we ourselves who require the sense of being at once present to their voice and yet remotely far. To make that voice at once ancient and modern, accessible in all the ribald wit and rue of a demotic love poetry and yet tinged with the remoteness that acknowledges its separation from us in time, is a formidable challenge for a translator. George Economou meets it head-on, and brings it off time and again. Here's a sample, the first-century B.C.E. Philodemos' praise of an older woman. Notice how the reserved and slightly archaic diction of the opening lines slowly relaxes in the first lines of the second quatrain to set up the punch line at the end:

Sixty times Grace has gone round with the sun

but the dark sheen of her hair has not gone,

and so too the marble cones of her breasts

stand firm and free of any foundation.

Her flawless body glistens heavenly,

she fascinates and lives up to her name.

So step up you red-hot well-hung lovers

and lose track of her threescore years.

In his preface, Economou takes issue with Frost's famous remark that poetry is what gets lost in translation. "Poetry," he says, "even if and by necessity of a different nature, can be won through translation." Acts of Love is such a victory, and, for the modern reader, a sly and particolored delight.

Watered-down sentiment nowhere to be found

The greeting-card industry has infantilized love, turned Cupid's stinging arrowheads into suction cups and reduced ageless profundity into stock phrases such as "the circle of love" and "a many-splendored thing."

Not for the ancient Greeks, this childish attitude toward love.

"Is it so strange / that homicidal love," the poet Meleagros wrote more than 2,000 years ago, "should shoot / firebreathing arrows / and laugh bitterly / with cruel looks?"

The question is purely rhetorical; the answer, clearly, no, not so strange.

Love is powerful. Love is dangerous. Love can be fatal.

Translator and poet George Economou raids The Greek Anthology—an ancient collection consisting of more than 4,000 short poems—for Acts of Love: Ancient Greek Poetry From Aphrodite's Garden, whose poems sound neither Greek nor ancient but timeless.

Acts of Love is a title meant to be taken literally. The poems focus on the sexual manifestations of love and, as such, offer fare for the approaching Valentine's Day far removed from Hallmark sentimentality.

Economou sets out deliberately to contemporize the poems. At the outset, he offers three versions of a poem by Anakreon, each separated by or, as a floor model:

Bring water, my boy, and bring wine, and bring me garlands of flowers. I'm ready for another bout with Love.

Waiter, a double Jack Daniel's on the rocks, please, and a dozen Wellfleet oysters on the half shell. I'm here to take on Love's next challenger.

Cheers! Light me! Ring the bell!

For these translations, Economou plunders modern common speech and slang, using phrases from popular song ("Nobody loves you when you're down and out") and terms such as third wheel and split (as in, "Split or stick around?") If love can be dangerous, it can also be transcendent. In one poem, Meleagros sings the praises of Kallistion:

If you could see Kallistion naked, stranger, you'd suggest we switch the 'th' in thighs to an 's.'

Whether love is dangerous or ecstatic, turbulent or serene, love is irresistible. Asklepiades looks to the skies for relief that isn't forthcoming:

Snow, hail, darken, lighten, thunder, and shake, shake out all your black clouds onto the ground! Kill me and I'll stop, let me live and I'll go through worse to make music at her door.

Short of death , love will out .

There are, in English, few ways to talk about sex without using vulgarities, euphemism, or jargon, which presents a problem for translators of ancient love poetry. Enter poet and scholar Economou, who, according to the book's introduction, creates a new "no-man's land" between ancient Greek and contemporary American language and culture. In this world, a couplet by Archilochos, written in the seventh century B.C., translates as "As a fig tree in rocky soil feeds many crows / so amenable Pasiphile puts out for strangers." New world or not, these 38 poets, writing between the seventh century B.C. and the sixth century A.D. and including the ageless Sappho, a pre-Academy Plato and many others of whom only classicists will have heard, show how little the intensities and indecencies of desire have changed. When Economou's mix of Greek names, straight-up translation and slang works, the sounds, humor, and passion of the new versions make them seem effortless and inevitable, as in these lines by Meleagros: "Self-deceiving / lovesick boy-love / bitter honey- / lipped burn victims, / pour cold water / ice-cold water / over my heart." There are moments when cliche-always a danger with so many contemporary idioms-causes the world created in the poem to be sadly familiar. It's hard to know whether it's appropriate for Economou's language to reference everything from amateur porn ("I shot my white-hot wad") to adolescent fervor ("I'm just burning up"), but his choices certainly conjure an interesting place, "kinkier than parsley" and "tipped with madness," in which to imagine oneself.