Well, I am reading the Aeneid again (Ruden, this time). I was struck, as I read the fourth book, by a similarity that at first struck me as interesting though likely incidental, but that, as I read, came to seem more and more deliberate on Virgil’s part. In brief, I think Aeneas is, for Dido, a sort of Trojan horse.

Virgil gives the story of the Trojan horse in the second book. The Greeks build a massive wooden horse, with Greek soldiers hidden inside, then pretend to leave (in fact they hide on a nearby island). The Trojans, thinking the Greeks gone, come out to examine the horse, rightly suspecting some sort of ploy. Laocoön even throws a spear into the horse, eliciting a strange groaning sound. But a Greek youth is captured and brought before Priam. Pleading that he has escaped the Greeks, who wished to offer him as a sacrifice, he tells a fantastic tale that convinces the Trojans that the last thing the Greeks want is for the Trojans to take the horse to their citadel. Indeed, the Greeks made the horse so big precisely to prevent it from fitting through the entrances to Troy. This story is apparently confirmed when two snakes emerge from the sea and eat Laocoön and his sons, apparently a divine punishment for striking the horse with the spear. So the Trojans “cut the walls” (2.234) and bring the horse inside. At nightfall, of course, Troy goes up in flames, finished forever.

Abstractly put, the Trojans trust an apparent exile. On the basis of this trust, they weaken their defenses, taking into their city the very cause of their downfall.

What happens to Dido in book four? Just the same, more or less. Aeneas arrives at her city, and Jove softens Dido’s heart so that she accepts him. He tells, for two whole books, the sad story of his exile. The effect is to make Dido fall in love with him. Here we must back up, and revisit events from book one. There, we learned that Dido’s former husband was murdered, and that she has sworn never to love again, a vow she has until this point kept. Behind the scenes, however, Venus has swapped out Ascanius (Aeneas’ son) for Cupid, who breaches Dido’s defenses and makes her come to love Aeneas. Returning now to book four, Dido, against her better judgment, allows Aeneas into her hurt. But Fate impels him onward, and when he leaves, it drives her to suicide.

Abstractly put, Dido trusts an exile. On the basis of this trust, she weakens her defenses, taking into her heart the very cause of her downfall.

Are these mere loose parallels? At a high enough level of abstraction, anything can be made to seem similar to anything. What reason is there to think that Virgil intended these similarities? Or, if one distrusts intentionalism in interpretation, what reason is there to think that these similarities are salient to understanding Virgil’s poem?

For one thing, the similarities are not merely abstract. Dido’s struggle between the choices of loving Aeneas or squelching that love mirrors the discussion among the Trojans over what to do with the horse. In both cases, better judgment appears to have the upper hand. Dido emphatically rejects her passion:

But let the earth first gape to its foundation,
Or the all-powerful father’s lightning drive me
To the pale shades of Erebus and deep night,
Before I shamefully break Honor’s laws.
The man who first was part of me has taken
My love. He ought to keep it where he’s buried. (4.24-29)

But this resolve is weakened when her sister, Anna, points out to her the advantages of having Aeneas and the Trojans as allies. Carthage is in a precarious position, and could use the strength. This doesn’t convince Dido (she doesn’t love Aeneas for his soldiers, as it were), but it does make “the spark of passion blaze” (4.53).

Even still, this might not be enough. Dido does not “marry” (she and Aeneas rather disagree over the appropriateness of this word) Aeneas until their encounter in the cave, to which they were driven by “the all-powerful father’s lightning.” Just as in the case of Sinon, mere words from mere mortals do not suffice. Divine intervention is needed.

Moreover, the very terms in which Virgil describes Dido’s succumbing to her passion—Anna’s words “made the spark of passion blaze”—foreshadow her downfall. For when she kills herself, and when Rumor spreads the news throughout the city, Virgil makes this comparison:

Long-drawn-out shrieks of grief and women’s keening
Brimmed from the buildings. Anguish filled the sky,
As if invading troops brought Carthage down—
Or ancient Tyre were sacked—and flames were scaling
The rooftops of the houses and the temples. (4.667-71)

After this passage, there can be no doubt that we are to read the fall of Dido as akin to the fall of Troy.

Of course, there are differences. Sinon is a liar, an extension of Ulysses’ trademark Greek cunning. He is in on the trick. In the case of Dido, however, Aeneas is unaware of Venus’ plot, and unaware that Dido loves him against her will. He is, in this sense, innocent. (In other senses, he is manifestly not.) We may sympathize with Aeneas in a way we perhaps don’t with Sinon, though, in my view, this scene should make us at least somewhat more understanding of Sinon: we should not dismiss him simply because his interests do not match up with the interests of the Trojans.

Regardless of how book four reflects on our assessment of Sinon, however, it certainly forces us to recognize an inherent terribleness in Fate, and even more so an inherent injustice in the way the gods set about ensuring that Fate. And that recognition is essential to Virgil’s method throughout the Aeneid. As much as he makes Aeneas admirable, he never makes him unambiguously so, and he certainly never makes Aeneas’ fate unambiguously good. It is merely Fate: good for Aeneas because he is the immediate beneficiary, good for the Romans because they are the long-term beneficiaries, terrible, and unjustly so, for nearly everyone else.

 

I have been convinced, especially by Hanna’s comments on my previous attempt at translating this, that pulling the repeated words in the original directly into the translation does not work. Here, accordingly, is a revised translation.

Original:

春宵一刻值千金
花有清香月有阴
歌管楼台声细细
秋千院落夜沉沉

Translation:

Spring night: one moment is worth a thousand in gold.
Faint scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
From the high tower, a flute song, soft.
In the courtyard, a swing, vanishing in the night.

Comments:

Without the repeated words, it’s hard to capture the parallelism of the last two lines that is so obvious in the original. I’ve tried to do that by mirroring the grammatical constructions, though I’ve had to lose the direct parallel between the soft flute song and the heavy night. For the last line, I’ve tried to capture the heaviness of the night by making the swing vanish into it. This is a liberty, and maybe an ill-advised one, but I am not sure the last line can be captured without some liberty. (Burton Watson’s fine translation, presented in the post linked above, says the night is “deep and still”—equally a liberty.)

I also made a minor change to the first line, mostly for the sake of rhythm.

Addendum

I thanked Hanna above for her criticisms of the first, but on re-reading our earlier discussion I realized that my changes to the first and fourth lines above mirrored the translation she posted there. That wasn’t intentional, but very likely was subconscious, so I owe her a second note of gratitude.

Poem: Mr. Either/Or
Poet: Aaron Poochigian

Disclaimer: I know the author, who kindly sent me a copy to review. The book can be pre-ordered here.


Aaron Poochigian’s new verse novel, Mr. Either/Or, is a great deal of fun. That is its most apparent feature on first impact and its most important feature on completion.

The book tells the story of F.B.I. agent Zach Berzinski, who saves first the United States, then the world, with the help of the art historian Li-Ling Levine. These two endeavors occupy, respectively, the first three and last four chapters. Each is based around a strange supernatural or sci-fi intrusion into the world: Chinese ghosts to begin, and lizard people to conclude. So far as I could tell, they were not particularly unified, except that they happened in quick succession, and both involved Zach and Li-ling. Indeed, after the first escapade is resolved, the second begins:

Sorry to butt in while you’re making out
with Ms. Levine, but there’s a second myth
that’s out there spoiling to be reckoned with. (p. 99)

And that’s how it feels: there is the first myth (and associated adventure), and then there is the second. But this isn’t a criticism. It is a feature of the book’s world that it contains multitudes (in a sense other than Whitman’s), that it is madcap and plural. The driving force of the book is action and excitement, and it bulges at the seams to accommodate it. That’s as it should be.

Formally, Mr. Either/Or is written in chapters of both rhymed iambic pentameter (with no regular rhyme scheme) and alliterative accentual tetrameter (the Beowulf meter). While the division is not absolute, the rhymed pentameter dominates in expository scenes, the tetrameter in action scenes. And this makes sense, allowing the exposition to expand somewhat languidly (though, in an impressive feat, with a rhythm and pace that is somehow simultaneously brisk), while the action comes in short, sharp bursts. The contrast is also beneficial simply for introducing variation: both forms can trend toward the “too much” (especially given other features of Poochigian’s style, discussed below), and the variation helps keep the book from overstaying its welcome. (Minor gripe about formatting: the alliterative tetrameter splays the caesura across line breaks. I would’ve preferred to see a more compact presentation.)

Despite the form of the book ranging from the old-fashioned (rhymed pentameter) to the really old-fashioned (again, the Beowulf meter), in tone it is relentlessly contemporary. Here, for instance, are a few lines from early in the book, which give a good sense of the whole:

Your cell starts bellowing as if on cue,
and the ringtone, the theme to Peter Gunn,
can only mean Director “Uh Oh” One,
your handler since you signed for Covert Ops.

“Talk to me, maestro mio. What’s the word?” (p. 20)

Elsewhere, Poochigian somehow manages to wrestle a surprising amount of pathos out of the phrase “because you suck” (p. 136), though I can’t explain how he does it without spoilers. See for yourself.

Poochigian has a knack for off-beat descriptions, which are a main source of the fun. For instance, when a minor character is shot through the head, “brains Rorschach the wall” (p. 26), and later a character is outside in the “pigeon-squalid dawn” (p. 136). Here again he shows his ability to generate pathos in surprising places:

Brick drips like coffee. Traffic signals droop
their heavy heads, and molten roads like soup
absorb them. (p. 53)

Last in this list of the book’s major virtues comes the narrator, who is clearly enjoying the story as much as (perhaps even more than) the reader. He goads and encourages the hero:

Suck it up, killer. Grab the stupid gun;
assassinate compassion. Once you’ve won,
you can repent and wimp out of the Bureau. (p. 57)

The narrator takes seriously his role as a guide to the story, quite explicitly picking the good bits for us:

[…] quaint metaphysics by a nameless sage.

The Dragon and the Phoenix, he maintains,
are Fire-fathered twins, and Time, their mother,
rouses them every hundred thousand years
to feud until they neutralize each other
.

The guy is really good on how it’s done:

… just after dawn, a lizard grimace rears […] (p. 69)

And he is lastly, a communist, which allows him to needle the hero’s rather uncritical service of government interests. Importantly, this happens in a loving spirit. It is never mean: we never lose the sense that the narrator really is rooting for the guy.

The book’s vices are the flip side of its virtues. So, for instance, the search for clever and unexpected descriptions can go too far, as when a drug-induced sensation of rising through a fog is described as “forgetting Newton’s laws” (p. 52), a gratuitous touch that doesn’t bring the image into clearer focus—a gloss without purpose.

The quirky descriptions can also intersect badly with the demand for alliteration in the tetrameter, as in the humorous but ultimately somewhat painful second line of, “you’re spy enough | to know never / bring babe-baggage | on Bureau business” (p. 92).

Virtue becomes vice in the case of the narrator as well. For the most part, the narrator’s editorializing is a key element of the fun of the book. But at times the narrator editorializes too much, as in sections 3.2-3.4, where the members of a sewer-dwelling cult come in for repeated astonishment on the part of the narrator as to just how crazy their beliefs are. Which, to be fair, they are, but I don’t need to be told that again and again. As one of Poochigian’s characters might say, “like, I get it, man, chill out.”

Finally, I can’t help but note the frequency with which Poochigian captures surprise or sudden occurrences with the word “whoa”. I only began to notice this in the back half of the book, so this list is likely not exhaustive:

we said our prayers, and Whoa—just past eleven (p. 99)

till Whoa! a surreal colossus of steel (p. 106)

when, Whoa!, some late-night | wastoid Wildman (p. 118)

since Whoa!, watch it, | one of your would-be (pp. 133-34)

Whuzzat? Whoa, | weight from above (p. 155)

Whoa, consciousness. | The combat coma (p. 176)

But these flaws ultimately do not detract too much from the overall fun of the book. It is an enjoyable ride, well-paced, and rarely predictable.

Poem: Acon
Poet: H.D.

I

Bear me to Dictaeus,
and to the steep slopes;
to the river Erymanthus.

I choose spray of dittany,
cyperum, frail of flower,
buds of myrrh,
all-healing herbs,
close pressed in calathes.

For she lies panting,
drawing sharp breath,
broken with harsh sobs,
she, Hyella,
whom no god pities.

II

Dryads
haunting the groves,
nereids
who dwell in wet caves,
for all the white leaves of olive-branch,
and early roses,
and ivy wreaths, woven gold berries,
which she once brought to your altars,
bear now ripe fruits from Arcadia,
and Assyrian wine
to shatter her fever.

The light of her face falls from its flower,
as a hyacinth,
hidden in a far valley,
perishes upon burnt grass.

Pales,
bring gifts,
bring your Phoenician stuffs,
and do you, fleet-footed nymphs,
bring offerings,
Illyrian iris,
and a branch of shrub,
and frail-headed poppies.


This poem is powerful because the grief it captures is at once starkly apparent and deeply veiled. That it is apparent hardly needs explication, it comes through so clearly. The third stanza of part I sees to that. So I will talk about the way it is veiled.

The first way in which the narrator’s grief is veiled lies in the poem’s opening stanzas. It does not begin with “Hyella, / whom no god pities.” It begins with the command, “Bear me to Dictaeus,” as if the poet were invoking the muses. And though the next stanza does not involve a request for golden words or a honeyed tongue, as might be expected to follow such an invocation, yet nonetheless it does not clearly break the spell. The poem seems like it is still preparing itself, not yet wholly arrived.

Thus it is a shock to reach the third stanza and to find Hyella “drawing sharp breath, / broken with harsh sobs.” Suddenly the reader realizes that the narrator has been gathering medicine, and that whoever she has invoked (this is still in doubt), it was not the muses. The poem has not been gathering steam, no—it began at the beginning. But this eruption of grief was needed to see it.

And this points to the second and crucial way in which the grief of this poem is veiled. The narrator’s attention hardly turns to Hyella directly: her names appears but the once, and she is the central focus in only two of the poem’s six stanzas (stanzas three and five). The other four stanzas all concern the process of attempting to heal her, the gathering of (and the imploring of various mythological characters to gather) the medicine needed to heal her.

The overwhelming impression is that the narrator is attempting to distract herself from the reality of Hyella’s suffering with this labor. In losing herself in the labor, she can forget, if only for a moment, the harsh truth. And yet the poem reveals that this is only marginally effective. In part I, she can hold it off for two stanzas, but in the third she cannot hold it back, and her mind returns to Hyella gasping in her bed.

In part II, she manages to turn her mind back to her labor, but this only serves to set up the poem’s devastating (I don’t use the word lightly) fifth stanza. Whereas the third stanza offers a brutally direct picture of Hyella suffering, the fifth stanza works through metaphor. All of the plant imagery—to this point quite literal—gathers itself into this one stanza:

The light of her face falls from its flower,
as a hyacinth,
hidden in a far valley,
perishes upon burnt grass.

The attempt to distract herself with the work of healing has not succeeded. It has merely resulted in the physical material of that work, the plants from which the medicine derives, and turned them into a beautiful but terrible reminder of the cause of that work.

Of course, the poem does not end there, for the suffering continues, and so also the search for distraction continues, as the sixth stanza captures. And we are not wrong if we see a hint of Hyella once more in the “frail-headed poppies” with which the poem ends.