Posts Tagged ‘Homer’

Poet A.E. Stallings in Athens: the children recall school bombings, massacres, and drownings at sea

Monday, November 20th, 2017
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A girl named Aqdas recalls those lost at sea.

Migrants have arrived in Greece since Hesiod’s time. Certainly, tales of treacherous Aegean crossings fill the pages of Homer. The poet A.E. Stallings has been a student of the classics since her Oxford days, but Homer and Hesiod didn’t prepare her for the hands-on experience of volunteering with refugees during the disaster that has engulfed Europe.

An Afghan girl recalls drownings

My article on her heroic work with migrants, “Crossing Borders” is currently the lead story at the Poetry Foundation website. I met the Athens-based Alicia Stallings, a MacArthur “Genius” fellow, at last spring’s West Chester Poetry Conference, where we discussed her experience being at ground zero of the immigration crisis.

An excerpt:

She would meet refugees at the disembarking areas and, with her friends, pass out shoes and serve food. Facebook groups spread the news that 2,500 people had arrived at Piraeus, survivors of the dinghies that washed ashore at the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samos, and were moving on to Athens. Or that 20 families had arrived in the port and needed sleeping bags, clean clothes, food.

“It was quite unreal. Two thousand people walking out of a war zone, with muddy feet, poorly dressed,” Stallings said. “Some with wounds, others in fur coats or rags. If you had anything you would wear it. Some people would be coming out with wheelchairs; some were carried out. Others came with a dog or cat. Some had a taxi waiting to take them to a hotel. Others would be walking to Hungary.”

These were the lucky ones. As Stallings wrote in an epigram with a title almost as long as the poem itself: “From an autopsy report of an unknown drowning victim, Ikaria”:

Female. Nine years old. Found wearing a blouse,
And a pair of sweatpants patched with Minnie Mouse.

Epigrams were often the form she chose to express the horror and humanity of what was happening around her. “I wanted them to be sharp,” she explains. “Something that had distance, irony. The reality was too overwhelming for a sonnet. These are real people. The situation is bad enough that you don’t have to poetify,” she said, stressing the last word with a little self-mockery.

On land, the adults were bored and anxious, and the children more so. “The worst part is being in limbo and waiting. The uncertainty is really unbearable for people,” said Stallings. “This is their life. Instead of finishing their law degrees, they’re wearing ill-fitting shoes.” She remembered, in particular, a Syrian graduate student who felt his youth was being frittered away. From “The City”:

“I want to go to another land. I want to cross the border,”
The young man out of Syria said. “I’m tired of being stuck.
Sure, Greece is nice enough if you can get a job: good luck.”

“The saddest cases are men in their twenties. They don’t want to fight for Assad or ISIS. Their youth is being eaten—and they don’t know what will happen.”

Stallings and her friends brought supplies—crayons, Play-Doh, markers, bubbles, and pipe cleaners—to keep the restless kids busy as they waited day after day to learn their fate. “We’re the artists, we’re the painters, we’re the poets. We can do this,” she said. “I’m a mother; I can yell at kids in four languages.”

The Play-Doh, markers, and crayons ushered in a new era for the children. They may not have been eloquent in their native tongue, but were eloquent on paper. One drew a massacre he had witnessed and more than one drew those who have drowned at sea. Others illustrated bombings, one with the word “Assad” written on the aircraft. They made a case for immigration more heart-rending than any politician’s speeches.

Read the whole article here. Images courtesy A.E. Stallings and the “True Colors” Facebook page.

Children and adults are afraid of the sea now.

A Syrian boy recalls a school bombing.

The same Syrian boy recalls the maiming of a teacher at his school.

A child depicts a Turkish vessel firing a water cannon to try to sink a dinghy

What literature teaches us.

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017
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The meeting of Aeneas and Dido, as portrayed by Sir Nathaniel Dance

I’m always making the case for literature, and readers of the Book Haven know my argument that a great deal of our predicament today follows from our abandonment of great literature in our schools, our public conversations, and our thinking. An excellent column from Scott Esposito makes the same argument, with a new twist, over at Lithub, “How the Oldest Stories Can Give Us the Best Perspective.”  It opens:

An oddly postmodern thing happens right near the beginning of Virgil’s ancient classic the Aeneid. Having fled Troy in defeat from the Greeks, and destined to found the great Roman civilization, a defeated, beleaguered Aeneas and his men wash up on the northern coast of Africa near Carthage. Before long Aeneas locates the bustling port city, eventually stealing into the magnificent temple of Dido the queen. As he is acquainting himself with the surroundings he discovers an elaborate depiction of the very war that he is a refugee from:

Wondering at the good fortune of the city,
And admiring all the things the makers had done,
The workmanship of what was told on the walls,
Suddenly he saw depicted there,
One after another, the scenes of the Trojan War,
Famous through all the world . . .
Aeneas stopped, and weeping at what he saw,
Said, “Is there, Achates, anywhere on earth
That does not know the story of our trouble?”

He started it.

Imagine it: the catastrophic war that has wiped your home off the face of the Earth is now the stuff of legend, famous clear across the entire known world. The beloved comrades you watched die as you struggled to defend your homeland are now wrought exquisitely into the walls of a queen’s temple. You even see your own self, fighting the war you have just fled from. It is a curiously modern moment: Aeneas sees the horrific reality he has just escaped as a story told by foreigners a thousand miles away, not so different from, say, a refugee from Venezuela, or Yemen, or Syria, or Myanmar escapes to a more stable nation, only to see the story of her nation’s escalating tragedy—and maybe even herself—broadcast on CNN.

He describes how the Homeric tale winds its way through Western literature, from Virgil to the works of Dante and beyond (though he misses Derek Walcott’s Omeros), and offers this takeaway:

This column began with a war in the Middle East that storytellers began recounting 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, and we have followed it to North Africa, Rome, Italy, Spain, and Britain—and all the way to Borges clutching his bilingual copy of the Divine Comedy in Argentina in the early 1940s. I find this one of the greatest things about the literary tradition: it works on the longest timescales of human history, and it easily perforates borders. Literature conducts ideas across continents and through time with a startling efficacy: in the case of the Trojan War, it has traveled all throughout the world and back to the dawn of recorded history. Literature is the medium that is most conversant with humanity’s master narratives, the one that has done the most to form them and make them so indispensible and famed.

Practicing what he preaches

He proposes the “Virgil test”:  “if an artisan were carving this story into a palace wall half a world away, which incidents would make the cut? Which developments in this critical American saga would make it into the grand narrative of these years that may one day be passed down through the ages? Which things would we want to see if, like Aeneas, we happened to suddenly discover this story being told far away? And which developments are just noise, things that sap our energy and attention but that ultimately are not worth so much fuss?”

Read the whole thing here.

Ever wonder where Amphimachus was born? Now is your chance to catch up on Homer’s Iliad.

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017
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homer-iliad-map

A map for the questions you never thought you had: Where was Automedon, charioteer of Achilles, born? And where did Chromius, son of Priam, perish?

Making the homerrounds of the social media today is this map of all the characters of Homer‘s Iliad, including the walk-ons and bit-players. We thought we’d join in the fun.

I’m told that some of the locations are wrong – feel free to weigh in with your corrections. Here’s a big omission: where are the wimmen folk? The map comes to us courtesy of Wikimedia.

I note, with some satisfaction, that Delos, part of the Greek Cyclades, is shown – that is the place of Mount Cynthus, birthplace of Artemis, and our namesake.

Antoine Jaccottet’s Le Bruit du Temps: Fresh air for French readers

Monday, February 13th, 2012
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Translation is the poor stepchild of literature – academics get more applause for producing their own books, not for translating the writing of others; for writers, it’s a distraction from their own work and not terribly well remunerated. Hence, a welter of books never appear on the international stage the way they deserve.

So it’s cheering to see a venture like the Paris-based Le Bruit du Temps, a publishing house crowded in one large room in one of the more picturesque neighborhoods in a city that has plenty of them.  Founder and director Antoine Jaccottet has a desk in one corner; his collaborator, Cécile Meissonnier, has a desk on the other side.  Pictures of Osip Mandelstam, Isaac Babel, and others are stuffed into the edges of a large mirror – they are the real masters here. The window next to it gives a clear view on a plaque indicates that James Joyce finished Ulysses across the street here, on rue du Cardinal Lemoine in the Latin Quarter.

Antoine Jaccottet, son of the poet and translator Philippe Jaccottet (who translated Goethe, Hölderlin, Mann, Mandelstam, Góngora, Leopardi, Musil, Rilke,  Ungaretti, and Homer into French), worked for 15 years at the famous French publisher Gallimard, publishing classics, before he broke out on his own for a shoestring enterprise in 2008. The tight-budge endeavor, however, produces elegantly designed, finely crafted volumes.

Masterpieces don’t die, he says, but they can get lost in the noise of time.  It’s the job of publishers to rediscover them for the public, and what better place than the small adventurous publishers who have a freedom and esprit not usually tapped by large publishing houses.

As I gaze over the offices teeming bookshelves, I notice an entire shelf of W.H. Auden in English.  He’s one of the house’s authors.  Le Mer et le Miroir … Auden in French? How does he come across?  It’s difficult, Antoine admits, for the French to “get” Auden’s sensibility.

He’s also published  Zbigniew Herbert in French, Lev Shestov‘s Athens and Jerusalem, the complete works of Isaac Babel, and Henry James‘s The Ambassadors.  Even Shakespeare‘s (cough, cough) Henry VIII.

Mandelstam is, in a sense, the reason for the place.  The title of the publishing house itself – “the noise of time” – is taken from the title of Mandelstam’s prose collection, which includes perhaps his most autobiographical writing.  Antoine had been taken with the Russian poet in the 90s, and the translations and biography by the eminent scholar Clarence Brown.  One of the first books the house published was Le Timbre égyptien (The Egyptian Stamp).  The Ralph Dutli biography will be published this month.  (The house published Dutli’s poems in 2009).

A piece of old France

Le Bruit du Temps’ books by and about Mandelstam illustrate an underlying principle at the house:  Antoine publishes works that develop and deepen recurrent themes like a symphony.  In 2009, he published published Browning’s L’Anneau et le Livre, republished G.K. Chesterton‘s out-of-print 1903 Robert Browning (Chesterton’s first book), Elizabeth Barrett Browning‘s Sonnets from the Portuguese and Henry James‘s Sur Robert Browning. That’s probably more Browning than Elizabeth Barrett ever saw.

Literary journalism, apparently, is as much in a crisis in France as it is here – the media often publishes book blurbs intact, and critics are famous for not reading the books they review.  So how do people hear about books?  Often, they don’t, he says.

As I leave, Antoine gives me a little souvenir of my visit, the publishing house’s brand new Le Bruit du Temps, a slim and elegant volume, fresh from the press.  What could be more fitting?

He also shows me a rarely seen landmark as he shows me the door – at the back of the courtyard, between the buildings, in the soft sunlight of the late afternoon, the ancient Paris city walls of  Philippe Auguste, the oldest surviving city walls, about the time of the poet Marie de France.

Postscript on 3/16:  Nice mention on the University of Rochester’s “Three Percent” blog over here.

 

From Troy to the Caribbean: Homer onstage

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010
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Callender and Donnie Hill (Photo: Stefanie Okuda)

Last year, during the Stanford Summer Theater’s Electra by Sophocles, one performance stood out remarkably in the mixed bag of university theater. L. Peter Callender played a role that might have been negligible for a less accomplished performer.  The faithful family retainer, in this case a tutor, is a staple in Greek tragedy, but Callender infused it with dignity and distinction.

I’m not the only one who noticed him last year: A San Francisco Chronicle review praised his performance in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!, a play that some consider too persistently didactic, although in this production “one dedicated teacher’s tragedy is a fierce reminder of the complexity of trying to right social wrongs.  L. Peter Callender embodies that complexity with every paternalistic utterance and sidelong glance he casts as the prematurely aging black teacher,” Robert Hurwitt wrote.

He’s back.  I sat in on some of the rehearsals for a few weeks ago for the Stanford Summer Theater’s Homeric cycle, which showcases The Wanderings of Odysseus, an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, opening Thursday night.  It was the second year of the Greeks, but not for Callender, who has performed Greek tragedy for years, everywhere from his alma mater (Julliard) to Berkeley Rep.

“It’s one of my favorite types of theater when it’s done well,” he told me later by phone, “because of the language, because of the history, the mythology, the depth of character and the depth of passion.”

But he admitted, “I’m finding a lot of this very difficult to memorize.”

With Courtney Walsh (Photo: Stefanie Okuda)

No surprise.  His work with Shakespeare (he’s logged in a couple dozen Shakespeare roles in the California Shakespeare Theater alone) has given him a feel for the iambic beat of the Bard’s blank verse — the beat that mimics the rhythms of the heart.  Oliver Taplin’s translation of The Odyssey, which Rehm directed for the Mark Taper Forum in 1992 at the Getty Museum, uses a loose Anglo-Saxon prosody – a quicker four-beat line that’s dependent on a lot of alliteration and a big caesura in the middle of the line (think of Seamus Heaney’s bestselling Beowulf.) It’s a bit of a rhythmic (and therefore psychological) shakeup.

During the rehearsals, Callender joined Rush Rehm in making suggestions for the fine detail work of the challenging production. ”This text is not a play but a poem, it’s a very difficult task. Everyone has to be on the same page at the same time,” he said.

His self-confidence in the director’s chair isn’t a surprise, either:  he’s the founding director of San Francisco’s African American Shakespeare Company, launched in 1994 to “create an opportunity and a venue for actors of color to hone their skills and talent in mastering some of the world’s greatest classical roles; and to unlock the realm of classic theatre to a diverse audience who have been alienated from discovering these time-favored works in a style that reaches, speaks, and embraces their cultural aesthetic and identity.”

The “L.” at the front of his name was a sort of augury for things to come:  It stands for “Lear.”  (In answer the inevitable follow-up question, he replies, “I don’t know what my parents were thinking.”)

Walcott

The Trinidad-born actor will probably excel also at the August 10 and 11 reading of Derek Walcott’s Omeros – which takes place in the poet’s native Saint Lucia.  It will return Callender to blank verse, as well as combining his love of the Greeks and his Caribbean heritage.  I was recently reading Irena Grudzińska Grosss comments on the Nobel poet:

Instead of history, which is degrading and calls for revenge, Walcott proposes a narrative, or a myth, which, because of its continuous present, opens time, making the new world equal to the old one.  His long poem Omeros show that the world of the Caribbean islands is as epic as Greece, because it contains a journey, a return to the native island, the fear of ancestors, gods.