Dialogos: Paired Poems in Translation

edited by George Kalogeris

reviewed by Marcia Karp

The initial rejection by Lord Wavell’s publisher of his Other Men’s Flowers wasn’t based on the mistakes in his by-heart transcriptions; it was his taste—which was for the usual suspects only—that cloyed. Anthologies, it seems, should be predictable, but not only so, with principles that coyly note the immodest number of must haves and boldly proclaim the small risks taken. It seems, then, that George Kalogeris shouldn’t have done what he has: made, without proffering a checklist or principles, a selection from centuries of European poets—including Sappho, Michelangelo, Baudelaire, and Akhmatova—and arranged them in pairs that convincingly belong together. He begins with Borges, whose valedictory words of cheer “To a Minor Poet of the Greek Anthology” would be sad enough, coming as they do after the casual brutal report of the magnitude of the minority, without their lending specificity to, and being lent a universal cast by, Cavafy’s “The Trojans.”

Kalogeris’s sympathy with the humane narratives he has gathered shows in the poems he has published in the past ten or so years. He often brings narrative into the contemporary lyric mode and always sounds sure-footedly like himself. This is the opening of his “Odysseus Seeing Laertes,” published in Slate in April 2011:

It’s getting dark, and he’s still in the yard. By now
She’d be stewing over the steamy kátsaróles
She has to reheat but glad that he’s finally home.

He’s inspecting his favorite tree, the sour quince.
All day he’s been hacking away at carcasses
Of frozen chickens, piled up on his chopping block

Like little hecatombs of smoking entrails.

His translations in Dialogos are as unforced and solid as this familial recollection. They are real conversions of the tone, meaning, and incident of his sources into an English that is never strained in idiom, meter, or syntax.

Theocritus’s bucolic “The Cup,” itself in conversation with Homer’s startling imaginings of motion on Achilles’s shield, is paired with one of Radnóti’s poems from the grave, “Seventh Eclogue.” Imagine, begins Theocritus, a goblet depicting the charm and disappointment of the ordinary—carefree boyhood, love-lamenting youth and the woman who keeps her distance, diminishing age, and foxes and vines that can’t be stopped or numbered. A characteristic of these translations is a punning, not done in fun, but in earnest, using set phrases that are simultaneously literal and figurative, or, as here, an admixture:

there’s a vineyard,
Whose gorgeous intaglio of grapes is staked on a child’s

Not those who live on the cup, nor the drunken goatherd who is the hidden companion gazing at it, nor Theocritus could have imagined what it is that Radnóti tells of the twentieth-century. Observe, he says, as he turns the coming evening into an actor, moving as a growing vine on the cup might, but through barbed wine. Imagination can temper observation, but only so much, for only so long. Kalogeris has taken a risk in the pairing, but rather than the life of the cup being unseemly in relation to the “stark facts” of Lager Heidenau, the ordinary is what those there yearn for.

Animals, a beloved dog and a despised mule, are central to another dialogue. Petrarch looks back to antiquity in his metrical letter to Cardinal Colonna, reporting Alexander’s crassly-put cruelty, which Kalogeris cunningly gives as “A dog / That wasn’t a pussy.” Then the poet looks to the future in which he might be harmed by the courageous generosity that closes the poem. In “The Waterwheel,” Kalogeris writes longer lines and fewer sentences than does Machado; the effects are lyrical and in keeping with the long labors of the mule, who is granted an apotheosis apt to the pairing. Here, as elsewhere, Kalogeris makes imaginatively informed use of the compensatory gloss, a technique offered by Donald Carne-Ross in his urging that the best of poetry not be left out of translation. Kalogeris enacts su copla plebeya (his plebian or commoner’s song) and what surrounds it as:

To its own rhythm, as slowly as those dances
People do in the country

In pairs and in the arc of the whole, the originality of Kalogeris’s volume is nowhere eccentric. The central concern of disparate poets—to witness life as it is lived and endured—is faithfully given through the words (dia-logos) he gives to the words of others.

Published on June 10, 2013