It is as if translating these ancient poems returned me to a way of knowing I had not only lost, but never knew I lost.
I wanted to learn Ancient Greek to work down toward the roots of certain words and so dig deeper into the earthy loam that is the mind. And for a long time—studying the bewildering grammar, trying to memorize conjugations of verbs and declensions of nouns, reading through the vocabulary flashcards I made on the way to teach my seminar on Keats and Celan—that first feeling stayed true. Some words shook my head apart like a child shakes apart a dandelion: a strong breath that scatters its wish into greener fields. The word for poet was one such word, ποιητής, which means “maker; workman; inventor.” The related verb ποιέω means what you’d expect it to mean: “I make; I invent.” But unlike English, verbs in Ancient Greek can occur in the “middle voice.” I think of the middle voice as John Keats taught me to—a verb that is active and passive at once, a “diligent indolence,” in which the nature of the verb’s action is curiously at work inside and against itself. Some words change their meaning in the middle voice, a kind of magic, and ποιέω is one such word. What in the active indicative means “I make” in the middle voice, ποιέεσθαί, means “to consider.” So I learned the poem is the thing that must be made before it can be considered, that the thinking of the poem cannot occur in any true way before the writing of the poem, can be held or found no place else, but once the poem is written, the primer is there, and one can learn how to read once again. That one word made poetry more sacred to me—I understood that I didn’t understand, and that bewildered condition requires this building on the page called a poem.
But as I moved from those years toiling on in my student way to learn the basics of the language into these years of translating from the early lyric tradition (Alcman, Anacreon, Archilochus, Callimachus, Simonides, Theognis, and now Sappho) and from early philosophy (Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and Thales) something changed in me. Another word helps explain it. The word for “reading” in Ancient Greek is ἀναγιγνώσκω. Its most literal definition is “to know again.” Reading returns us to knowing—the thought keeps echoing inside me, and by the echo, a kind of echolocation, I’ve found this work has opened something larger in me than I’d ever intended. Not a getting down to the roots, but as the poet Paul Eluard supposedly claimed, that “there is another world, but it is inside this one.” Not a root, but a cosmos: an order, an ardor, a door. It is as if translating these ancient poems returned me to a way of knowing I had not only lost, but never knew I lost. Some more essential way. A way of thinking we can no longer think in, it is so simple, our questions cannot reach it. Not mastery or fact. But participation. Nearing. Or as Heidegger puts it writing about Parmenides, “a heedful retreat in the face of being.” If one could draw the vectors of force of translating as I’ve learned to translate, it might look like this: a drawing near, a walking close, and the quick living fix of the other’s gaze, and then a walking backward, eyes to other eyes’ brightness locked, hoping what I see, and what sees me, follows. I’ve come to love this walking backward blind to every step, eyes fixed on a brightness more important than direction: to be in heedful retreat.
Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and translator whose newest collection, Arrows, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press. Milkweed Editions will be publishing Stone-Garland, a selection of lyric poems from the Ancient Greek that includes the poems published here. His work has been supported by the Monfort, Lannan, and Guggenheim foundations, and he teaches at Colorado State University, where he is a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar. Beachy-Quick’s poem “Memory-Wax, Knowledge-Bird” appeared in NER 38.3. Read Beachy-Quick’s conversation about that poem with poetry editor Rick Barot.