issue 30 > slavitt tribute > taylor
To Do the Word: A Salute to an Old Friendby Henry Taylor
I have been acquainted with David Slavitt's poems for nearly fifty years, beginning on the evening of May 6, 1964, in the MacGregor Room of the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia, where he and Fred Chappell gave a joint reading. He has described the occasion in his collection Re: Verse (2005), acknowledging the generous effectiveness of George Garrett in arranging it. Within a year or two, George had arranged to transform one of his own reading dates into a trio by adding David and me to the program. He may have pried loose a little more money for us from the host institution, but most of what we received was probably cut out of his own honorarium.
During the afternoon before the reading, George wanted to work a bit on a new piece, so David and I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. Among the vehicles passing in the street, there was a box truck with a running camel depicted on the side, and a slogan which we both saw, decided we hadn't seen, and didn't mention. Minutes later another exactly like it went by, and so we broke down and acknowledged that where we were, someone thought it was okay to say "Campbell Express Co. Humpin' to Please." Within another block, we were on a street not lined, exactly, but well supplied with large temples of various clubs and orders. On the Masonic one, we saw the inscription "Ad Gloriam Magni Architecti Mundi." My Latin was fairly sound, and David's was much more so. Nevertheless, he said, "Ah! To the glory of bigger buildings in the world!" A couple of hours later, when the three of us went to a dormitory lounge to answer questions from a group of students, an elegant gentleman approached David and said, "Hi. I'm the master of the Women's High Rise." The sentence hung in the air before us like a hypnotist's pocket watch, and we have returned to it a few times in the decades since.
Such moments of verbal fooling around may be trivial enough in themselves, but this is one of the realms where poetry takes root, and with labor and luck, eventually flourishes. The overall tone of a poem has little to do with the influence of this playfulness on its development. It is a matter of the poet's temperament. Among David's earlier poems is "Exhortation to an Arab Friend (1965)," first collected in Day Sailing (1969) and reprinted with very minor typographical changes in Vital Signs: New and Selected Poems (1975). It arises from the extreme tensions between Israel and Syria in the mid-1960s, but it begins with an evocation of one of Mohammed's most famous sermons:
At the Pond of Humm, Mohammed named the treasures:
The Book of God, the People, the Household.
Belief must have, as vessel, the believers,
and therefore al-Islam; and God must have
perfection of His pleasure and His will,
His word proclaimed, obeyed, made history,
and therefore tribal pride is sanctified,
and Khalid strikes at Ctesiphon and Merv
as Joshua struck at Jericho. War becomes
jihad, and the pride of blood is a pool of blood
of which a hundredth part would flood the Humm. (Vital Signs 180)
Frost said that we have two meters, strict iambic and loose iambic. By that light, this is loose iambic, though it exhibits strictness in several lines. More to the point, it combines a mildly prophetic tone with superb administration of alliterative consonants, m through l to p in the first seven lines, for example. And the burden of the lines is serious: the beginning of a brief history, in verse, of the Arab-Israeli conflict—a bold thing to attempt in 118 lines. The curious blend of suspense and elation that quickened the poet's pulse as he worked was rewarded in such moments as the eighth line, where the unfamiliar names of cities join with a strict iambic meter in a result that might have caused the poet to pause, lift the pen from the paper, lean back, and admire it for a few seconds or so before pressing on: "And Khalid strikes at Ctesiphon and Merv."
Readers of bad poetry anthologies may sense here that the success of this line depends on its placement; it sounds a shade funnier at the end of my paragraph than it does in the midst of the sentence in which it occurs. This, too, is something David has often seemed to consider. Like most writers who have been at it for a while, he knows that a great deal of energy can come of a "broken rule," and that much successful innovation comes of attempting to do what critics and forerunners have said should not be done. Over the centuries, this approach has yielded a considerable heap of failure, too, but much of that has been instructive—if rarely to its authors, then sometimes to others.
The poem continues to develop the theme of religious certainty as a motivation for conquest and splendor, and of uncertainty as a cause of decline:
Snuggled in His will,
we stride the high towers, but towers fall.
Even Jerusalem fell, our beautiful city,
Solomon's city, Solomon's temple, all
toys of fortune. And you build Baghdad,
three walls, four gates, and the green dome at the hub,
to do the word of God in your round city.
* * *
We, too, tended sheep,
saw God, and made a kingdom, and we knew
what you were thinking—that there is no other greatness
than God's alone. But heaven is more splendid
than our Jerusalem or your Baghdad.
The glory of those cities was merely our own. (Vital Signs 180-181)
The next fifty lines or so recount descents and ascents in the face of onslaughts from Mongols and Greeks. But in the desert, illusions of grandeur can give way to . . . other illusions? Or to a greater truth? Tough questions:
In the hot, dry wind, the Samun,
the living God has shown Himself like fire,
has revealed to the two of us, who have taught them—
religion as well as poetry, medicine,
philosophy, numbers, and all manner of knowledge,
but not the knowledge written upon our faces,
running in lines from the eyes, in wadis of wisdom,
graven in flesh by light. It was in the desert,
where we looked for water, for dates to keep alive,
He showed Himself to our prophets and to us.
* * *
There is faith enough to finish us both. We have swarmed
the earth, have died like flies. Exiles or rulers,
it makes no difference. But coming back here, now,
after all those years, should Ishmael and Isaac
repeat, complete, what Cain and Abel started? (Vital Signs 183-184)
A rhetorical question is still a question, however strongly or subtly it leans toward an answer. Here, the obvious "no" is undercut by a hint of resignation or even fatigue in the last few lines, where clichés find places in which to operate with more than their usual energy—or definitiveness: "it makes no difference."
This poem exhibits many of the excellences that characterize David's poems, but its sparing and random use of rhyme sets it in one category of his work; there is another, in which rhyme is a strong ingredient. In fact, in an early poem, it is the main ingredient. The poem is called "Nursery Rhyme," and was collected in The Carnivore (1965); David has told me that he wrote it while he was still in prep school. It appears also in Change of Address, the new and selected volume that appeared in 2006. I quote it all, noting that it is dedicated "for Joshua":
little bo peep
little old bittle old o bo peep
old bo peep
little bo peep
little ittle bo pittle ittle o peep
o o peep
little old peep
bittle ittle odle ittle o bittle peep bo
odle ittle peep bo
little bo peep
hey diddle diddle and a little bo peep
little bo diddle hey little bo peep
fiddle faddle peep hey
bo bo peep hey
little diddle he pay
heap peep peep
little bo peep
had a little ho ho
good bye peep (Change of Address 37)
I think of an afternoon in October of 1962 at the Library of Congress, when Ogden Nash introduced one of his poems—a masterpiece, actually—by saying "This is 'The Private Dining Room,' which is mostly noises." David's poem, too, has durability, and wit, and music, and makes just enough sense to help hold it together. For a teenager, it is a startling performance. It is grown-up work.
This is not only because it is surprisingly skillful. More important, you can go a long way in search of a young writer who understands that poems are made out of other poems. (I except the occasional instance of the young plagiarist who prefers to conceal his sources.) It takes most poets a good while to learn how it is that virtually every poem establishes itself as a participant in a conversation that has been going on for millennia. The youthful desire to be original can postpone the discovery. This poem holds a dialogue with "Little Bo Peep," and by the brief insertion of "hey diddle diddle," extends itself more fully to earn its title. It works well for children, too.
Allusion, then, is sometimes a way to enter the conversation, but recall that many if not most allusions are not to other poems, but to history, or movies, or other works of art—the sources are hard to exhaust. The names of towns in "Exhortation to an Arab Friend" are not what I am talking about here; looking back at that poem in this context, I would be pointing to the echoes of scriptural language.
A considerable number of David's poems, long or short, slight or important, are direct and open in setting up the interaction. An example from the new poems in Change of Address: New and Selected Poems (2006) is "Kindertotenlied," which takes as epigraph these lines:
The frounyng fates have taken hence
Calimachus, a childe
Five yeres of age: ah well is he
from cruell care exilde:
What though he lived but little tyme,
waile not for that at all:
For as his yeres not many were,
so were his troubles small.
The attribution runs "—Lucan: Timothe Kendall, 1577, Trans." The poem directly discusses this epigraph, handling with amazing dexterity a topic that would seem to some no laughing matter—yet the poem, serious and even somber as it becomes, opens with an observation that made me laugh aloud:
A nice enough conceit, let us agree, but I dare you:
go and put that up in the hallway of Children's Hospital
where some bereaved parent will show you what frounyng is,
if he doesn't deck you. (Change of Address 7)
Aside from the humor, the first three lines do something else of considerably more subtlety. It is the sort of thing practitioners of metrical writing enjoy pulling off once in a while, more for their own gratification than in any hope that a reader will notice. First, though, note the initial capitalization, or its absence, in the lines in the epigraph: this is actually four lines, rhymed in pairs. The lines are fourteen syllables each, tending toward iambic heptameter—a meter that was used more widely in the Elizabethan age than at any other time, perhaps most successfully in Arthur Golding's remarkable translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses—with which, as we shall see, David is not unfamiliar. Now note the similarity to that meter in David's first three lines. But wait: the third line contains fourteen syllables only if its third word is "bereavèd"-- which it certainly is not, except as a momentary flicker of supposition. The point is that holding a dialogue with a poem from 1577 requires taking some steps toward standing on its ground as well as on yours. The same goes for reading the two of them.
The second stanza begins a direct commentary on the poem itself, advancing the idea that the poem is not addressed to those who are suffering such a loss at the moment; it is for the rest of us, who might be led "to imagine the stoic wisdom with which to withstand it."
But it is flattering to suppose how, on that black day,
we may carry ourselves well,
and the poet's business here is to flatter.
Or Kendall's business, I suspect, was to flatter.
Lucan may have meant it straight,
in the way Aeschylus and Sophocles meant it when they said
what is best is never to have been born.
We are greedy for life and for time,
even knowing what wretchedness they bring. (Change of Address 7)
At this point I should address what is probably an instance of a typo becoming an error. Lucan is among the important figures in the Latin poetry that remains to us; he is a momentarily plausible occupant of his place in David's attribution. It turns out, though, that he is not credited with much in the way of extant epigrams. He is also compared above with Greek tragedians, which suggests to me that at some level, David equated the spelling "Lucan" with the Greek writer "Lucian," who, as he probably knew, was the possible author of Kendall's original. In Kendall's anthology, Flowers of Epigrammes, out of sundrie the moste singular authours selected, the bulk of the Classical portion of the collection is given over to selections from several Latin authors; it concludes with a generous gathering of "Epigrammes Out of Greek," none of whose authors are named. The editors of The Oxford Book of Classical Verse find that the poem is attributed to Lucian in The Greek Anthology, though scholars since have varied in their willingness to accept the attribution. Hence the emergence of Pseudo-Lucianus, whom the Perseus Project credits with the poem.
So? The poem suggests strongly that the "author" of the particular sentiments advanced in the verse is Kendall, not Lucian. This is not the place for a detailed discussion of Pseudo-Lucian's original; here it is enough to observe the poet's respect for the rights of another poet, even when the other poet is translating. Let us say that you have written some poems, maybe enough to have gotten pretty good at it, and yet you still sometimes look at a poem by somebody else and say to yourself, "I wish I'd written that." It turns out that if the poem by somebody else is in another language, then maybe you, too, can write it. David's poem engages Kendall's on something like interpersonal grounds; it is one of the pleasures that helps make writing a deeply intensified version of reading.
Briefly mentioning his own diminishing visual acuity as one example of the "wretchedness" that is brought by life and time, he makes this observation:
A child who died in his fifth year would be spared this,
but we would not envy him.
We love the light for which the shades in Hades are said to mourn.
And the death of a child seems to be an especially terrible thing,
outrageous and unfair, as if there were ever anything fair about illness and death.
(Change of Address 8)
The poem ends,
Waile nought for the child?
Ah, but waile, waile for the world
in which such things happen, in which children die.
Waile, too, for those who do not grieve
because they have grasped the stinging nettle of the truth
and it has numbed them.
Blessed are those who mourn,
because they can. (Change of Address 8)
This brings us back to the poem's title, which would translate as "song on the deaths of children"—an echo of Mahler's five-song cycle drawn from a collection of hundreds of poems by Friedrich Rückert. Four years after Mahler finished this work, his own daughter died, and he said that in that circumstance he would not be able to compose what he had already composed.
Day Sailing , David's third collection of poems, appeared in 1969, and is represented in Change of Address only by "Tableau à la Rousseau" and "Sestina for the Last Week of March." I will not take them up here, though it may be worth noting that the first of them rhymes "lavender" and "provender," which is also true of Nash's "Private Dining Room." David's selections are both fine poems, but I am more drawn to others here, especially "Exhortation to an Arab Friend," "Another Letter to Lord Byron," and, for more reasons than simple admiration, "Gallus."
As David acknowledges in the third line of his poem, the previous "Letter to Lord Byron" is by W. H. Auden, and was first collected in Letters from Iceland (1937), on which Auden and Louis MacNeice collaborated. Auden's poem is much the longer, coming in at a little shy of 1200 lines; David's is not quite 140, but it does the job it came to do: acknowledge both Byron and Auden; pronounce briefly on the times since Auden's missive; and characterize in Byronic tones and meters the state of the art.
Byron's Don Juan is written in ottava rima, an eight-line stanza rhymed abababcc. This is the form David elected, perhaps partly in response to these lines from Auden's poem:
Ottava Rima would, I know, be proper,
The proper instrument on which to pay
My compliments, but I should come a cropper;
Rhyme-royal's difficult enough to play. (Collected Longer Poems 42)
(Rhyme royal is a seven-line stanza, ababbcc.)
Another point at which David directly engages Auden is in the matter of a rhyme for "Reykjavik." Auden says that he brought Don Juan along on his trip to Iceland as a kind of antidote to the dour chill of the place, and adds
I read it on the plane to Reykjavik
Except when eating or asleep or sick. (Collected Longer Poems 38)
This is the second stanza of David's poem:
It must be dull to be dead. You can't write,
or, if you do, you can't send it off to the printer
the way you used to. So a letter might
have been fun to get. Did you spend the winter
feeling the envelope, holding it up to the light,
and wondering whom you knew in such a hinter-
land as Iceland? I know it would pique
my interest to get mail from Reykjavik. (Day Sailing 55)
Like its predecessors, this poem moves quickly among topics, apparently as they are suggested by this or that word or passing thought, but always under careful management. As usual, there is the state of literature at the time of speaking:
Not that it's all that bad. There is some verse
well wrought. One can get in an age of iron
good iron work sometimes. A pigskin purse
can be made of a sow's ear. One may not expire on
the beauty of it, but one could do worse.
The manipulation of language . . . But, Lord Byron,
I scarcely need tell you. Your magnificent feminine
rhymes are more than fun for apothegming in.
* * *
You come through whole, and live, and are not merely
a name on the spine of your book and its index card.
The gestures you make in your poems, the jokes, are clearly
those of a man who's trying very hard
—and willing to pay the price, even pay dearly—
not only not to be boring, but not to be bored
himself. Yourself. Myself. I know how it is.
It's always tough in the Quality Lit. Biz. (Day Sailing 56, 58)
Among the gestures and jokes in this poem is a semi-private one near the end of his remarks on current letters, where he imagines that the books he owns may "come to life and attack me any day."
Or not the books, but their authors, all the dead
giants of letters whom time has not quite hushed.
It'd be delightful except that they have shed
their skins, their flesh, their bones, and are all crushed
to disembodied voices, dull as lead.
I have the feeling that I am ambushed
by the naked ones who have shown up to haunt
me. But I can't imagine what they want. (Day Sailing 57)
Here again is a little something for a very small handful of readers, not least the author himself. Apply a leading search engine to the phrase "ambushed by the naked ones." When I did that in October 2013, I got the personal anthology of someone at the University of Northern Iowa, who likes this poem; a listing of the University of North Carolina's holdings in the papers of the novelist Lee Smith, which includes a typescript by that title; and a citation to a 1970 issue of The Transatlantic Review, which contains a story by Marina Littig with the same title.
Of course I know what's behind this; no one who doesn't is likely to conduct the search. In the middle 1960s, George Garrett, then teaching at the University of Virginia, was the U. S. Poetry Editor of The Transatlantic Review, an interesting little magazine published in England and the United States by J. F. McCrindle. Occasionally, George would gather a small handful of colleagues and students, graduate and undergraduate, to help him cull the U. S. poetry submissions that had piled up. We sat around a table and talked about what we were looking at, so that submitters might not succumb to the prejudices of a single reader. One afternoon, one of us—my recollection is that it was Richard Dillard, but I could be wrong; this was fifty years ago—read aloud from the manuscript before him the phrase under discussion here. Its author may now be obscure or famous; we forgot the name almost instantly, but preserved the phrase, as a promising title for a cheap horror movie, or the punch line to a bad joke, or something.
George had already completed a thematic anthology called The Girl in the Black Raincoat, in which contributors were challenged to write a story or poem which somehow included a girl in a black raincoat. (David contributed a story, "The Ageless Kittens of Cardinal Richelieu.") So George was in practice, and started letting people know that he was interested in seeing anything involving the phrase "ambushed by the naked ones." Responses appeared, here and there, but were never collected. So, thanks to Marina Littig's story, a small part of a poem that was in its entirety rejected by the Transatlantic Review later found its way into the magazine. The echoes linger—which is one of the literary phenomena that this poem points out repeatedly, with dash and brilliance every time.
In Day Sailing, "Another Letter to Lord Byron" is immediately preceded by "Gallus," which bears the subtitle "After Ecloga X." This is an introduction to David's next project, which appeared in 1971. It is entitled The Eclogues of Virgil, but it is very unlike any other books in English that bear similar titles. Ceci n'est pas une traduction, in Magritte's phrasing, but neither is this a picture of a translation—though that notion is somehow more usefully suggestive. In a brief and witty Preface, David gets around to explaining what he is trying to do here, after having drawn useful parallels between the career of Virgil and the careers of more recent literary careerists, and having expressed his gratitude to Robert Graves for remarks on Virgil that helped to get him started. David's opening paragraph displays the energy and unpredictability of his understanding:
It was Robert Graves's Oxford lecture on Virgil, "The Anti-Poet," that led me to the project of translating these Eclogues. Graves, of course, detests Virgil, and in a diatribe of thrilling irresponsibility and all but demented venomousness he dismisses Virgil as a fake, a fraud, a pederast, a toady, and the worst thing ever to have happened to the poetic tradition of Western civilization. I was delighted by all this. ( Eclogues 11)
(Pause a moment and consider how rarely irresponsibility is thrilling to others than its perpetrator.) Then, having characterized the aspects of the original work—especially the simultaneous visions of Rome and the phony pastures of the shepherds—that make "faithful" translation a job for textbook authors, David sets out his mission:
. . . I have worked out what might be called a series of meditations on the Eclogues. The fluidity is such that the voices of the shepherds, of Virgil, of Virgil's editors, and my own voice can all comment upon each other, correct each other, and in the end produce the kind of harmony that characterized the original poems. The fidelity of reproduction is not perfect, I'm afraid, but even Dr. Frankenstein must have felt a certain pride when the creature he made got up from the table and started clumping around the lab. (Eclogues 13)
It is sometimes amusing to see what readers say about their own expectations when they encounter literature that, however deeply rooted in some original from another language, is presented, introduced, or announced as something other than a translation. When Robert Lowell published Imitations in 1961, many readers responded as if they had never heard of Samuel Johnson's "imitations" of Juvenal, for example. David's poems in the Eclogues go beyond anything Lowell attempted. The opening piece, "Tityrus," contains these lines:
Figure it out from the end and the invitation:
"Surely you could stay just one more night,
stay here as my guest, eat apples, chestnuts,
a piece of cheese. See, the chimney-smoke,
and look, over there, the mountains are in shadow . . . "
And it ends there . . . . (Eclogues & Georgics 4-5)
It is not appropriate to judge the "accuracy" of anything in this book, but for what it's worth, plenty of translators have done far worse by the lines in quotation marks, which end the eclogue.
However, David's "Tityrus" does not "end there," but goes on for another twenty lines or so, commenting, filling in, curling back into the original for another snippet or two, and bringing to conclusion what he started much earlier in the poem when he had the audacity to devote two thirds of a page to "what Virgil leaves out of the story." In the original, the dialogue between Meliboeus and Tityrus is occasioned in the first place by Meliboeus' unhappy decision to leave their native countryside. Tityrus tries to make the place look good by comparing it to a hideous time he had when, years before, he went to Rome in search of some benefactor who would help him shed one mistress for another. David turns that visit into an episode of minor literary ambition, a young man going to the city to meet other writers, an editor, people by whose aid he might advance; but it falls through, as is so often the case, and he comes home shorn. From the passage quoted above, the poem continues.
And it ends there; Meliboeus doesn't answer,
cannot accept. Being a country boy,
he cannot profit from that city shame
he did not endure himself. Or he will not,
because there is something different about Tityrus.
You don't come back the same way you went to Rome.
Sixth formers read it now, sweat out the grammar,
furrow their smooth foreheads to get it right . . . . (Eclogues & Georgics 5)
"Sixth formers" are, under the British educational system, in the last year or two of secondary school—mid- to late teenagers. Why would a poet of U. S. birth and citizenship put it that way? Probably because he knows that U. S. high school students are, for the most part, unacquainted with Virgil, let alone the Eclogues. One may vacillate between distress at American education and amusement at British quaintness, coming at last to uncomfortable rest somewhere in between. The end of David's "Tityrus" compresses to just five lines a move from surprisingly casual language that echoes the "Quality Lit. Biz." from the Byron poem to something dignified and memorable:
Tityrus, old boy, we know how it is. We know.
And we have seen Meliboeus turn away,
polite, sympathetic, but walking down the road
with the precious little he's salvaged out of his ruin,
into those hills where shadows have started to fall.
(Eclogues & Georgics 5)
This book was published, in a handsome edition illustrated with splendid appropriateness by Raymond Davidson, by Doubleday, with which firm David had at the time a multi-book contract resulting partly from his considerable success as the author of several popular novels under the pseudonym Henry Sutton. The following year it appeared as the first part of The Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil, with more Davidson illustrations. This double volume was reprinted almost twenty years later by Johns Hopkins University Press, with a new Preface.
This Preface is more extended and scholarly than the one David wrote for the Eclogues; in it he acknowledges the brashness of his approach to that collection, and indicates that, though he has come to stand by that early performance, he continues to believe that he was less improvisational and "cavalier" with the Georgics, which poses challenges rather different from those presented by the Eclogues.
The Georgics is ostensibly about agriculture, divided into four books of between five and six hundred lines each, with only occasional passages of narrative. As David says, it is a worthwhile exercise to work at such length without narrative, yet without being boring. Virgil takes his usual cosmopolitan approach, all but admitting his relative unfamiliarity with farming at the same time that he mines predecessors for information about plowing, trees, vines, crop rotation, beekeeping, and so on. David brings out the issue of polarities in sophistication, inserting a version of his own voice from time to time, drawing parallels between then and now, as Virgil draws them between the farmer's fields and the streets and villas of Rome.
David's presence, or the presence of some representative from a province of his personality, allows for the occasional anachronism, as when the spectators at a horse race include some "clockers," or when a few conventions of film script writing are introduced near the end of the fourth book.
Most obtrusively, perhaps, and more "cavalier" than the Preface might lead us to expect, there is an extended passage in the fourth book devoted to the beehive on exhibit at the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C. We are lifted abruptly from Rome to a city some of whose pretensions have at times been Roman.
In Washington, you can see it,
the model hive the Smithsonian keeps. The bees
get in and out through a vent cut in the wall
on the Constitution Avenue side.
and the constitution are just across the street.
An administrative accident?
range out over the mall, a model, a blessing,
as the she-wolf on the Capitoline Hill,
the Gibraltar apes, the Tower of London ravens,
the nation's totem.
The bald eagle is gone.
There are fewer than five hundred pairs left in the country.
(Eclogues & Georgics 125-126)
A few pages earlier, David has expanded a brief reference to Maecenas, Virgil's patron, by bringing in Sam Vaughan, then editor in chief at Doubleday, and holder of the contract whose terms this book was intended partially to fulfill.
On balance, the book manages a superb blend of the innovative and the traditional, the conversational and the majestically memorable. Are these two books, then, the first places in which to seek an understanding of their originals? Maybe. They do better than most. Furthermore, a close look at the original and its literal meaning is available now—as it was not when David's versions were written—on the Perseus Digital Library. Finally, it ought to be recalled that David Ferry's unusually "faithful" and graceful translation was published with the original text in 2005. Read in each other's light, both versions gain.
Speaking of agriculture and its significances to the town mouse and to the country mouse, I want to look now at a poem some of whose aspects I can address with more authority than anyone else, and some of whose other details are therefore perhaps off limits to me. It appeared in Equinox (1989), and is called "Henry Taylor Shows Me His Parents' Barn."
In the first dozen lines or so, the speaker is in Wyoming, looking at the Tetons, and remarking on his lifelong habit of wondering what it would be like to live in whatever place his travels have brought him to. The rocks are not inviting. "I'm not from here."
I think of the homelier hills in Loudoun County,
Virginia, where Henry Taylor showed me his parents'
barn less than a week ago. That country
is tame compared to this; even its shadows
must be familiar to one who grew up there; the patterns
of cloud crossing the sky are habitual; wind
that sings in the branches and brooks that purl in their gullies
are conformable to the ear as the songs one's mother
used to hum, unthinking. From the green
jumble on a boundary fence, he named
half a dozen vines, all childhood friends
of his and his father's, and further back. The barn
was one of a very few in that county that dated
back before the war, and he told me how . . . . " (Change of Address 141)
There follows a thoroughly just rendition of the anecdote I told him. A burning raid carried out under orders from General Sheridan in December of 1864, and intended to deprive the Confederate guerilla Mosby of the supplies he relied on, stripped the Loudoun countryside of more than two hundred barns, a few mills and a distillery, thousands of tons of hay and grain, and thousands of head of livestock. Dwellings were to be spared. (A sad side note is that many of the victims were more in sympathy with the Union cause than with the Confederate; small farmers with few or no slaves, many of them Quakers, they stood for few or none of the values that drove the Secessionists.) When a burning detail arrived at my great-great-grandparents' farm, however, they found that the woman of the house had ordered the farmhands to empty the barn and pile its contents in a field about a hundred yards away; she persuaded the burners to destroy the hay and grain and leave the barn.
The poem draws a comparison between the speaker's family history, moving in each generation somewhere else, and the connection to land exemplified in the story he has just told.
I envy and honor
that close connection to land, and fear for it too.
Washington's urban sprawl and Baltimore's
threaten. Less forgiving than that lieutenant,
invulnerable to shame and pity, they will
smudge his country's known features strange . . . .
(Change of Address 141)
The poem manages a delicate task, which is profoundly to delight and instruct a reader who might have thought of writing about that episode himself, but didn't. It has also proven prophetic. Along with about 1,000 fellow students, I went in 1955 to the only high school in Loudoun County. Now there are 13 high schools there, serving almost 20,000 students. A popular, populous region, which I am unable to see from our house on a southerly edge of Puget Sound, where I sit rereading this wonderful poem, and renewing my wife's and my vow not to be seen again east of the hundredth meridian.
That Virgil project, now some forty years old, launched a mighty third phase of David's career, the first and second being fiction and poetry. At last count, his separate publications of translation have amounted to 47. True, some are small-press chapbooks whose contents in some instances have been subsequently absorbed into larger books. But it has been a prodigious career, including several triumphs.
From the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, among his books of fiction and poetry there were three translations from the Latin of Ovid, preceded by a fourth, a chapbook, The Elegies to Delia of Albius Tibullus (1985), which fits in the Ovid group partly because Tibullus was Ovid's friend. The three Ovid items are The Tristia (1986); Ovid's Poetry of Exile (1989), in which the Tristia is reprinted to accompany Epistulae ex Ponto and Ibis; and The Metamorphoses of Ovid (1994).
Ovid's Poetry of Exile is a great service to non-classicists who think of Ovid as the author of The Art of Love or The Metamorphoses. When Ovid was about forty, Augustus exiled him to Tomis, at the mouth of the Danube on the Black Sea. The reasons are obscure, but Augustus must have thought them sound enough, since he never relented. Ovid died in exile. These poems, by turns flattering, hopeful, whining, angry, are the complaint of a literary artist who finds himself surrounded by people with no interest in even their own language, which of course strikes Ovid as mostly unpleasant noises. Then in 1994, David published his rendition of The Metamorphoses; it is a performance of great energy and inventiveness, under more than usual restraint. It was not until 2011 that he added to this group a gathering called Love Poems, Letters, and Remedies of Ovid, published by Harvard University Press. These are from the Amores, the Heroides, and the Remedia Amoris. The Heroides especially are for their time quite innovative; they are poems cast as letters from legendary women to one of the men in, or recently out of, their lives. It was unusual for a poet to adopt the voice and character of a woman. It is a good thing for us that this translator of these poems is not only a poet, but the author of some two dozen books of fiction. Bearing in mind the end of Euripides' version of this story, hear in these concluding lines of "Letter XII, Medea to Jason" the gravity, the pain, the anger, and even the dignity of someone about to do something almost unspeakable:
By you I became a mother and you, by me, a father.
But where is my dower, you ask. Back in that field
you plowed with the bulls. I counted it out to you. The ram
is my dowry, which, if I were to ask you now
to return it, you would refuse. My dowry is yourself,
your life preserved and those of the Argonauts.
Compare all that, you wretch, with Sisyphus' fabled wealth!
That you are alive at all and can marry that woman
whose father is a king—you owe it all to me!
That you have the power now of being an ingrate . . .
What you now deserve is not for me to tell you.
I shall not bother to make any threats against you,
but where my angel leads, I shall surely follow.
I may one day repent of what I plan,
but now I repent of having loved a faithless husband.
I shall work it out with the god within my heart.
(Love Letters etc. 225)
By this time, with dozens of translation projects behind him, David has found a less showy but more deeply inventive range of diction between the impossibilities of literalism and of total freedom. Readers with certain biases will occasionally balk at some of his strokes, as for example when a speaker says "Okay, then, I confess"; but when we briefly stop to ask how that happened, we are placed usefully on the Arrowsmith Translationese Scale from "Pinion him!" through "Seize him!" to "Grab him!" Meanwhile, these moments are rare enough that, on the whole, we have been safely carried on language that enters us directly and memorably, maintaining a breathtaking balance between light and heavy irony, solemnity and wit.
One final example, and I won't be finished, but I will stop, despite my sorrow at passing over David's versions of, for example, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (2009) and, more recently, his haunting and strange translations from Greenlandic in The Crooning Wind (2012).
In 2009, David published The Seven Deadly Sins and Other Poems—one of those titles that he seems to enjoy having occur to him, like the slightly earlier (2006) William Henry Harrison and Other Poems. In The Seven Deadly Sins, which ranges freely among traditionally formal and traditionally less formal verse, there is a page-and-a-half example of brilliance called "What Is Poetry About?" It demonstrates, with energy, wit, and brief flashes of near-solemnity, that each poem answers that question in its own way, but that the answer usually comes down to the same thing: it is about itself, in the same way that ballet is.
David's poem begins in mild but totally preoccupying exasperation over a mislaid silver and amber pillbox. The movement here is from the title to a triviality that, at first, is put forth as against poetry, but that quickly demonstrates how any triviality can remind one of something far less trivial:
It's somewhere here, I had it yesterday, I couldn't have lost it,
but I can't find it, which is as good as or as bad as.
One ought not to be too attached to objects, of course, and it is uneconomic
to pay a psychiatrist more to hear one's kvetches about losing, say, a pillbox,
than the thing cost in the first place. But then think of the vessels
at Balthazar's feast, not just cathected objects,
but holy, stolen out of the Temple by his father, Nebuchadnezzar.
(Seven Deadly Sins 17)
Seven lines, from the floor under the bed through psychiatry to Nebuchadnezzar. This thread-tracing continues:
This pillbox was from Krakow, a gift from my daughter.
We'd had a lovely day at Auschwitz . . . No, seriously, a good day,
with a Purim service at the end of it, and the old men, the remnants, the relicts,
chanting about Haman and his ignominious end in Shushan.
If you're going to Auschwitz, you should go erev Purim,
which makes it bearable. And the pillbox was a memento of that.
(Seven Deadly Sins 17)
The pillbox is of course found where the cats have left it after having knocked it around for a while. The cats are forgiven, since it would be illness not to forgive them, and besides, their behavior is reminiscent of the speaker's mother and her sister. Nebuchadnezzar, on the other hand, "was punished for having taken the vessels from the Temple,"
went mad, and, like a beast, ate grass. Or if he wasn't punished,
he just happened to go mad, which was, to the Jews who observed it,
(Seven Deadly Sins 18)
Modern Jews, it is suggested, could recommend psychiatry, which might at least eliminate the grazing.
It's the grass at Auschwitz that is misleading.
A friend of mine who was there, who was really there,
told me that they ate all the grass, not crazy but just hungry.
And poetry? Is what holds all this together, what keeps me
more or less together, or at least is a way of changing the subject.
(Seven Deadly Sins 18)
One could go on in this fashion, turning up old favorites and new gems, for the length of a hefty book. David's productivity is legendary. It has been one of the deep pleasures of my life to have seen most of his books as they have appeared. Occasions such as this give me the opportunity for some extended rereading, much of which, of course, seems like first reading. I regret not having touched here on many of the things I saw as I prepared this piece, but I am grateful for the chance to have seen them yet once more, and for this platform from which to say that it is hard for me to imagine what my life would have been without the presence in it of David Slavitt and his work. Here's to him, then: to the triumph of wit over dullness, of brilliance over intransigence, learning over ignorance, formal skill over chaos--and to the glory of bigger buildings in the world!
 The company operated until 1986. Thanks to the absurd ease with which one can now look up virtually anything, I discover that the camel was called "Snortin' Norton" and that scale models of the truck with its logo and slogan are available from online shopping sites.
 Be it noted that a later (1998) collection of David's poems takes its title, PS3569 .L3, from his Library of Congress catalog author number.