The Barmaid by Virgil, Translated from the Latin by David R. Slavitt

The Syrian barmaid gets up to dance. Her hair
is bound in a Greek bandanna and she sways
to the sizzle of a tambourine. Her bare
thighs flash through her skirt as the fiddle plays
and she winks at us and leers. In the smoky air
she sings a little song. This is what it says:

“Why would you think of leaving? It’s dusty out there
and hot as blazes. Better to stay where you are,
sipping those cool drinks that we prepare.
and hearing the girls who strum a guitar.
Look, there are pots of flowers everywhere.
What better have you to do than hang out in a bar.

“Those pastoral figures playing on pipes of Pan
as they lay in the grass…Learn from their example.
We’ve just opened a new jar of wine and we can
provide for you from our excellent and ample
supply to soothe the troubles of any man.
We also have hors d’oeuvres for you to sample.

“In the fountain water plashes with a sound
that soothes, and delicate rose and saffron scents
suggest an idyllic glade. You may be bound
on some important errand, but what is the difference
if you do it tomorrow? Try not to let the hound
of conscience growl too loudly and harry you hence.

“Consider instead those plums or the little cheeses
in the osier basket. And chestnuts! And fresh red
apples! It is an array that always pleases.
A glass of wine? Some cheddar? A bit of bread?
How can you deny yourself? Whatever eases
the body and spirit is good, as the poets have said.

“On that wall, there are cucumbers for you to slice
and eat with a touch of salt perhaps on the plate.
Priapus, the god of the house, offers advice
on what life is about--although that great
member he has might frighten more than entice
women, except for the most degenerate.

“The god, you may recall, tried once to attack
Vesta, but a donkey’s random bray
alerted her, and the goddess, thinking back
to how the assault was averted on that day,
is fond of donkeys. Yours, out in the shack,
is resting. For the Vesta’s sake, allow him to stay.

“Have another glass of wine, or a beaker,
and lie back, to enjoy a pretty girl’s caress
of your face and hair What in the world could be bleaker
than ignoring all the flowers but those that will dress
your ungrateful ashes. Does your resolve grow weaker?
Do you begin to laugh at your seriousness?

“Never mind tomorrow. In my ear
Death whispers: ‘Live! I’m coming. I am here!’ ”

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David R. Slavitt



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