To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Friday, January 10, 2014

Thomas Meyer – From the Beowulf translation: Fit Nine

Portrait drawing of Thomas Meyer by David Hockney

[note.  After two years in public view (the project goes back some forty years before that), Thomas Meyer’s translation/ transcreation of the Beowulf poem stands out as an extraordinary example of the transposition of a major poem from one language or epoch to another.  It’s my contention further that translation, as here, can serve as a form of composition, to make a new work in which the presence of the old is a necessary underpinning or shadow, as in the words of Gertrude Stein, rather than Pound in this instance: “As it is old it is new, and as it is new it is old, but now [she adds] we have come to be in our own way, which is a completely different way.”  Here it’s the visuality of the work, along with its clarity of language, that first astounds us, or as Meyer has it rightly for this kind of project: “Instead of the text’s orality, perhaps perversely I went for the visual.  Deciding to use page layout (recto/verso) as a unit.  Every translation I’d read felt impenetrable to me with its block after block of nearly uniform lines.  Among other quirky decisions made in order to open up the text, the project wound up being a kind of typological specimen book for long American poems extant circa 1965.”  In the “fit” or section that follows, I reproduce Meyer’s original typographical version – “[through] the modularity of a typewriter – pace Robert Duncan.”  That the poem remains new, while it renews its Anglo-Saxon predecessor, is a mark of what’s still possible for this kind of composition. (J.R.)]

::::::::::::::::::  FIT  NINE  :::::::::::::::::

              “NOT  once
                         but many times
          my good sword
                         saw fit to slash
                not one
                         but many
                         whale bellies
                         juices ran
                         by thoughts of
                         down to
                 a deep
                         sea board
                         with me.
                         found them
                         by blades
                         by waves
             with death
                         never to trouble
                         goers again.”
“Light came over the East,
           God’s bright beacon.
Sea swells stilled.
           I saw headlands,
windswept hills. 

Often fate leaves
a strong man unscathed:
such was my lot,
my hilt notched up
9 monsters’

No man I know of
          fought harder or
found himself
          in worse straits
by night in sea streams. 

Under sky’s arc
I escaped hatred’s grip
flood & tide brought me
to Finns’ land

“Unferth, if there are tales like that about
your craft in battle or
your sword’s terror
they go untold. Forgive me if I boast but
the deeds you & Breca have done
have yet to match my own
though murder patterns
your bright blade with
your brothers’ blood --
your cleverness will feed Hell’s fires. 

Grendel’s evil gyre could have never spun
so much humiliation or
so much horror
in your king’s Heorot if your heart & mind were
as hard in battle
as you claim. 

But now the beast knows
there’s no feud or swordstorm to fear from
your people, the glorious Danes. 

He eats you Scyldings alive,
no mercy stems his appetite, his lust your death. 

But soon I’ll show him
what this Geat can do in battle & by dawn tomorrow
all who wish to
may walk to this meadhall
free from fear by morning light
when sun’s bright byrne
shines in the South. 

Glad words heard
by brave, grayhaired, bright
Danes’ chief & folkshepherd:
needed aid found,
Beowulf’s promise. 

Warriors’ laughter,
melodies sound,
cheers of joy. 

Weahltheow, Hrothgar’s queen, gold clad lady & good
greeted the men & passed the cup in proper fashion,
to the Danes’ beloved guardian, bidding him drink
    this beer
in joy. The victorious king drank & ate with lust.
the Helmings’ lady made her rounds with the treasured
to young & old alike in hall’s every part & when
    the ring
decked, rich hearted queen came to Beowulf she
the Geats’ leader & wisely thanked God that her
    wish was
fulfilled: here was a hero to trust to free her
from evil. The fierce fighter took the meadcup
Wealhtheow. Raising it, Beowulf, Ecgtheow’s son,
    his blood
hot with the thought of forthcoming battle, spoke: 

“I said when I set out to sea
seated in my boat with my company
that I would answer your people’s
prayers at once or cringe
crushed in the fiend’s grip.
& so I will -- or meet my days’
end in this meadhall.” 

The Geat’s promise pleased the good folkqueen,
the gold clad wife went & sat by her load.
Once more the hall hear
brave speech,
troops’ joy,
victory’s noise
Healfdene’s son soon rose to go to his rest.
From sunrise to sunset, in day’s light
his high hall was safe, the raids on it just
plans hatched in the monster’s brain. But when
dark blacked out things
a shadeshape would
come & glide like a
shadow under skies.
All stood.
King & hero saluted each other.
Hrothgar wished Beowulf luck & with these words
turned his hall over to him:
“Never since my hand could lift a shield have I
entrusted this Danes’ lodge to any man but you.
Guard & keep this best of homes in glory’s name,
make it the scene of courage in wrath’s wake,
survive this work & your wants won’t lack fulfillment.

[From Beowulf: A Translation by Thomas Meyer, edited by David Habdawnik, punctum books, 2012,
Brooklyn, NY 2012.] 

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