Saturday, February 19, 2005

BOOK: Michelle Lovric, "The Sweetness of Honey and the Sting of Bees"

Michelle Lovric and Nikiforos Doxiadis Mardas: The Sweetness of Honey and the Sting of Bees: Words of Love from the Ancient Mediterranean. Aurum Press, London, 1997. 1854105175. 96 pp.

This is an anthology of love poetry (and some prose), mostly by ancient Greek and Roman authors, with a handful of pieces from the ancient Egypt.

Naturally, having no experience in such matters, I am not an appropriate person to comment on an anthology such as this, but I must say that I enjoyed it a great deal, and found in it many very pleasant poems; surely anyone who knows more about love than I do, i.e. practically everyone, is likely to enjoy it even more.

One thing I particularly appreciate about this book is its arrangement of poems by topic, covering a very wide array of topics. Although the bulk of the poems, as can be expected, focuses on the more pleasant and enjoyable aspects of love, there are also some poems on its painful aspects, such as rejection and betrayal; there is old Hesiod, ever the sober farmer, advising his brother in The Works and Days not to fall for a woman's wiles, "for she is after your granary" (p. 30); there are a number of cold, sometimes clinical, passages from Lucretius' De Rerum Natura (pp. 33, 79, 87; he is supposed to be an Epicurean, but these passages look like a damned miserable sort of Epicureanism to me); there's Ovid, employing fantastic imagery in a candid description of an embarrasing occurrence of impotence (p. 44); there are a couple of poems by Plato from the Greek Anthology (pp. 25, 63), which make me regret very much that he didn't become a poet rather than a philosopher (I never cared much for his philosophy; another sign that I'm a boor: should I start making a list somewhere? don't like Shakespeare, don't like Plato, don't like modernist novels, etc., etc.); there are a couple of selfish lovers (Philodemus finishing a long praise of his sweetheart with: "So, let Philaenion be my one and only, golden Kypris, at least until I find an even better one", p. 28; and Propertius: "To me you are pretty enough, As long as you come to me often enough", p. 29); there is some advice, sensible I guess, on how to (or not to) try winning the affections of a beloved person (don't start by trying to be just friends, p. 36, and don't turn yourself into an abject supplicant, "slithering in the oiliness of your own solicitations" (a wonderful phrase, applicable, alas, in all too many places and to all too many persons!), p. 37; this last piece also includes the somewhat oblique advice to "practise safe seduction"); there are several pieces on love as a mixture of pleasure and pain (pp. 68-9), including Alkaios' bitter cry: "I hate love"; there's Ovid again, p. 73, using a great sequence of images from the animal kingdom to describe the rage of a woman discovering that her lover is cheating on her (a delightful, if not as laconic, parallel to "Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned"); there's Ovid's horrible curse, "God send my enemies a celibate life!", which I wouldn't wish even on my worst enemies, pp. 50-51; nor is the collection prim and sexless ("she's always there, demanding her pound of flesh, with her hands cupped", Tibullus on p. 63); and there's Longus' medicine for love: "nothing works as well as kissing, and caressing, and lying together naked", p. 90.

"If some god said to me ``Live, but without love'', I'd refuse" (Ovid, p. 69). How gladly I too would have refused this life, had I only been given the opportunity to do so beforehand!

There is a passionate fragment from Rufinus on p. 48, but the last three lines read like a Eurosceptic manifesto: "Europa pillages your mouth/ and sucks your soul/ right out of your fingernails". Not to mention that she prescribes the length of your cucumbers and the curvature of your bananas, I guess.

There is a remarkable example of fetishism in a poem from New Kingdom Egypt, p. 49: "Would that I were, if only for a month, the launderer of my sister's linen cloth!", etc., etc. I suspect that "sister" is just a rhetorical device and he really means just an ordinary girlfriend, but if not, this just makes the poem even more delightfully weird.

On pp. 40-41, there are several translations of Catullus' famous Vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus, one from each century from the 17th to the 20th. It's a wonderful idea and it makes for a very nice comparison of the various translations. At first I thought it somewhat presumptuous of the editors to have placed their translation alongside those of Crashaw and Landor, who at least took the trouble to make their lines rhyme and conform to some sort of metre, but in the end I can't help feeling that the editors' translation is also quite good, and perhaps more faithful to the original than any of the other three. On pp. 60-61, a fragment of Sappho is treated in the same way, and on pp. 66-7 Catullus' poem on Lesbia's sparrow. This latter is in fact something where I can't quite see how I should respond to it; on the one hand the loss of a pet is surely a great grief, and it's a nice thing that the poet expresses sympathy with his sweetheart in such a situation; but he goes so over the top in his lamentations for the dead sparrow that it almost starts feeling like satire, somewhat like Pope's hilariously exaggerated style in The Rape of the Lock. Or maybe, who knows, maybe I'm just a clod with a heart of stone. Anyway, of the translations of this poem the one I liked best was by G. S. Davies, from 1912, written in Scottish dialect, which gives it a somewhat homelier character and makes it somewhat easier to laugh away the absurd pathos of the opening lines ("Weep, weep, ye Loves and Cupids all,/ And ilka Man o' decent feelin':/ My lassie's lost her wee, wee bird,/ And that's a loss, ye'll ken, past healin'") while still allowing one to feel sympathy and compassion with, maybe not so much the poet or his sweetheart, but with the dead sparrow itself, in the remaining stanzas. It's really a great idea, this presentation of several translations of the same poem, allowing the reader to compare translations. This is in fact a rather new concept to me; I more or less never yet bothered to read several translations of a work, and am in fact often highly frustrated by the fact that several English translations of many works are available, thus putting me into a quandary trying to decide which one to read; with Slovenian translations this is almost never the case, one is glad if even one exists, and I for one tend to assume that that one is Good (or, at any rate, Good Enough For Me), and, for all practical purposes, that combination of poet and translator effectively becomes the poet's voice to me, and I never trouble myself with questions of what the authentic poet's voice may have been like, and in what ways (if any) it has been changed by the translator.

Incidentally, concerning the translations in this anthology in general (almost all of them done by the editors), I found them pleasant to read; one aspect I disliked a little is that practically none of them have any particular metrical structure (a few are in fact just ordinary prose), which I have perhaps naively grown used to expect in the more traditional sort of poetry; that would perhaps really make them somehow less immediate (or "contemporary"), but also (in my eyes at least) somewhat more poetic. But I shouldn't complain too much; they are poetic enough anyway, and if the lack of metre would bother me more in longer poems it is not really so troublesome in these short fragments.

The title of the book comes from a fragment of Sappho (p. 68).

The credits on p. 2 include two "Feline design assistants: Tuck and Spin".

Here are some of the poems and fragments I particularly enjoyed, but didn't mention so far in this post: Sappho pp. 18, 85, Ovid pp. 33, 39, 47, Asklepiades p. 39, Agathias p. 47, Euenos p. 75, Sophocles p. 77, the poem from the Anakreontea on p. 93, Meleager p. 96.

At the end, perhaps I should mention two aspects of the book that I didn't necessarily enjoy that much, or at least not right away, although I did in fact get used to them soon enough. One is the fact that many of the pieces presented in this anthology are more like fragments than like poems in the usual sense of the word; many are just a couple of lines long, perhaps a single sentence or even just a few words. This is either because only fragments of the originals have been preserved, or because the editors of the anthology have decided to include only a line or two out of some larger work. This bothered me a little bit at first, since I am more accustomed to read entire poems, preferably something with a beginning and an end and something reasonably coherent that connects them; but the twentieth century has, after all, discarded all pretence of structure in literature, so that most readers, after all they have gone through, will probably be perfectly comfortable with the fact that this anthology consists largely of fragments. And in fact it is not at all difficult to get used to them, they are perhaps slightly different beasts than poems in the usual sense, but may very well be quite beautiful anyway (cf. "the fragment as a poetic form in its own right"). Most of these fragments are, after all, self-contained thoughts or ideas, and those that aren't, i.e. those that are genuinely fragments, just require a bit more imagination to become interesting.

The other somewhat curious aspect of the book is its design and typography. It looks like an overzealous designer really had a ball with it. It is very heavily illustrated; there is not an inch of empty white paper in the entire book. Every page is covered with different background images, much of which seems to consist of stock drawings, many of them on vaguely classical or architectural themes; the remaining illustrations are Fayum portraits, preserved in ancient Greek and Roman cemeteries in Egypt. These are charming and fascinating portraits, to be sure (see e.g. The Hawara Portfolio, by Flinders Petrie, or the more recent book by Euphrosyne Doxiadis), but the editor's comment that "to me, these vibrant faces express all the sweet wonderment, honeyed seductions and unmendable pains of love" (p. 8) seems a bit far-fetched to me. These were simply portraits of people, hanging originally in their houses but affixed to their mummies or caskets after their death (see e.g. Flinders Petrie's introduction in the above-mentioned book); I don't quite see the specific connection that the editor apparently sees between these portraits and love. Nevertheless they are very nice portraits, and I don't mean to say that they aren't appropriate as illustrations for this anthology, since they at least show people from roughly the same period, and from the same part of the world, as those who wrote and first read the poems included in this book.

But it wasn't really the Fayum portraits that bothered me; they are beautiful and are welcome to stay where they are; but the overall impression of the design was that it was somehow overdone, too busy, verging almost on the garish. Five or six different typefaces regularly appear on the same page, and often two or three within the same poem or fragment. The fragments are arranged here and there all over the page, broken into unusually short lines (I must, however, admit that the line-breaks are usually placed carefully and with a feeling for the flow and structure of the words); the stock drawings in the backgrounds, and the lavish use of color, contribute still further to the busy and gaudy appearance. Nevertheless, after a few pages of this I got used to it and actually started to appreciate it; what seemed to be merely clutter at first, turned out to be wealth; what seemed unwelcome distractions, turned into invitations to explore, relish, enjoy each page, discover its visual elements and their arrangement, and to turn each leaf with curiosity about what will happen on the next page. The frequent mixing of typefaces (and a fairly diverse set of typefaces it is, too) it not as bad as it sounds at the first thought; if little else, changes of typeface within a poem are always used to convey some sort of emphasis or express some sort of break. Thus, all in all, while I might not be happy if this approach to design was used in all books, it works well enough in an anthology of poems and fragments, which is perhaps rather meant to be pecked at here and there than to be read cover to cover like a novel.

And there are some typographic puns that are just plain cute. Thus on pp. 20-21 we have the wavy line "unfurl the loveliness in your eyes", in which the word "unfurl" is literally unfurling and looks somehow extremely cute and delightful. On p. 34, the last letters of the words "hook" and "barb" are actually equipped with some sort of hooks or barbs. And on p. 59, the line "and her blonde curls" is in fact curled at the end.

Thus, all in all, this was a delightful anthology and a wonderful read. I remember noticing it on Amazon way back in 1999 only a couple of years after it was first published; then I sort of forgot about it and only remembered it again after it had more or less gone out of print; after some time I managed to find this fine copy of the Aurum Press edition on eBay, and I'm really glad I did.


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