Scene: The hilltop retreat of the ascetic Skepticus, high above the City. Small, uneven open space amid rocks, center. A rocky path leads upstage left, and, eventually, down the hill. Entrance to a small cave downstage center right.
Enter urbane Fidelis, leaning on a hiking stick, his sandals dusty and his toga burr-spangled. He crosses, slowly, down the path from upstage left toward center.
Fidelis: (Breathless from his climb.) Skepticus! Skepticus!
Skepticus: (From inside the cave.) Welcome, Fidelis! What brings you here, friend? (Skepticus appears at mouth of cave.)
Fidelis: (Still breathless) At last! At last! There is something new under the sun, Skepticus. (Skepticus approaches. Fidelis hands over slim volume.)
S: We’ve been over this before, Fidelis.
F: In truth I believe we have. But today is different. This book is different. It’s a book of poetry. But it’s author is not offering new poems of his own, nor has he translated a book-length work or collection by some other poet. I’ve never heard of such a thing. You must see the subtitle; it says the book is made of “Paired Poems in Translation.”
S: “Pared Poems”? That sounds like something worth doing.
F: No, no, Skepticus, you deliberately misunderstand me. Not “pared,” but “paired”—couples, partners, pendant pieces, bicycles built for two. George Kalogeris has made this book, which he calls Dialogos—the Greek word for “conversation”—by gathering twelve pairs of poems. He wants us to read the poems as if they are in conversation with each other.
S: You mean this fellow’s published some of the pages of his commonplace book?
F: No, Skepticus. It’s much more deliberate, and much more organized, than any—well, it’s more “put together” than my commonplace book, though I can imagine that if you have a commonplace book it is better-indexed than the Library of Congress.
S:: I do have a commonplace book of my own, Fidelis. And yes, I have taken time to arrange its contents with care. But come. Sit with me, here, where morning sun has warmed my favorite stone. (Skepticus leads Fidelis to a well-worn outcropping; each takes a seat.) Kalogeris and his Dialogos have you quite agitated. (Turns slim volume over in his hands, examines its cover.) What sorts of things do the poems in this volume “converse” about?
F: Oh, Skepticus, that’s part of the book’s power! It might be easier to tell you the things that do not come up when the pairs converse, and in the aggregate conversations the book inspires. Time and space dissolve! Dialogos has Mandelstam talking with Baudelaire, Hofmannsthal with Tasso, Petrarch with Machado, Rilke with Sappho, Leopardi with Pessoa, and marvelously, in my head, all of them are talking with each other.
S: I saw a television show like that once. Shakespeare had to explain to Virginia Woolf why his fictional “sister” Judith had not been given the opportunity to learn to read. And Booker T. Washington told Napoleon—
F: (Interrupting) Skepticus, I am in earnest. Dialogos is never so tendentious. Give it back to me. (Seizes slim volume from Skepticus) I’ll show you what I mean. (Rifles through the pages.) Here. Here. Yes. Here are two short poems that Dialogos has put in conversation. Kalogeris is like a curator, deciding what paintings are hung next to each other on the same narrow wall. Here. On the left hand page, “Poem #285,” a sonnet by Michelangelo Buonarotti. Where are your glasses, Skepticus? In your cave, along with your copy of Plato? No worry—I’ll read it to you:
My life’s long voyage: now that it’s almost over,
My body, I know, is a fragile, tossing vessel
That’s nearing the harbor that all of us must enter,
And there the final account of our deeds is settled.
Soon I’ll know the price for putting my art
On the walls of a church, but worshipping only my ego.
But Amor, too? Must gaiety’s troupe depart,
Like youth? Why fantasize anymore. I know
That death has a double, and both on the low horizon
Wait for me now (though one is more darkly impending).
As long as my soul keeps drawing nearer the lover
Whose arms are always open, I’ll enter the harbor
That stills these writhing currents—not sculpture and painting,
But Christ on the Cross. My craft lies in his hands.
F: (Sing-song) “Passion and Piety were in a boat. Passion walked the plank, and who was left!” Oy! But “…the lover // whose arms are always open”! That’s pretty good. Especially coming from the sculptor who claimed that his work was subtractive.
F: Hush! You’re going to spoil the conversation, Skepticus. Give me a moment, and I will read the poem on the right hand page. It’s Nerval’s “El Desdichado”—“the disinherited one.”
I’m the gloom that never lets go, the widower lost without her,
And Aquitane’s prince holed up inside his broken tower.
There’s only one star in my sky, and that one’s dead. When I play
Melancholia’s Midnight Sun the frets of my lute convey
The disconfigured darkness. And you, who come to console
In the dead of night’s tomb, give me back my Posilipo,
And Italy’s sea, and those petals whose pleasures never once
Deserted my desolate heart, unfurling from trellis vines
That marry each rose they entwine. Am I Lusignon, or Phoebus?
Amor… or Biron? My brow still burns with the Queen’s red kiss.
In the grotto of my dream I lay where the Siren glides…
Triumphant twice in crossing the river Acheron
I tuned the Orphic lyre until the Martyr’s groan
Was only a chord-change away from the tiny Sylphid’s sigh.
S: Why did you pause so long at the half-lines?
F: Kalogeris has indicated such pauses with extra space, see? (Shows page to Skepticus)
S: Is that in the Nerval? I find it hard to believe the caesurae in the original are so pronounced. Nerval wasn’t Saxon. He didn’t shift hunks of blubber from one side of his mouth to the other.
F: But isn’t it lovely how the pauses slow down the short lists the speaker makes? “I’m the gloom that never lets go,” (Pause) “the widower lost without her,” (Pause) “And Aquitane’s prince holed up” (Pause) “inside his broken tower.” I think that passage is stronger because of the emptiness Kalogeris has added. Such a tension should be audible in any translation from a Romance language into English, this play of silence and alliteration against the fullness of assonance and rhyme.
S: Do I hear an echo of the first poem? It seems that Michelangelo’s and Nerval’s “craft lies in Kalogeris’s hands.”
F: Naturally. But do you find his approach obtrusive?
S: Fidelis, please! I don’t know what I “find.” The pair seems to come together rather easily. Two sonnets. Two speakers having powerful experiences of the plausibility of a life without love, and of their nearness to death. Two speakers who use their literary knowledge and their different senses of faith to navigate those experiences and the anxieties they produce. So it’s a conversation if you like. But a stereo has two speakers, and they don’t converse—they just make their sounds one after the other. Based on hearing just this one, I’m not prepared to say that Kalogeris isn’t just talking to Kalogeris.
F: And what if he were? Hasn’t Merwin been talking to Merwin for fifty years? Ashbery to Ashbery—and dust to dust? Seidel certainly never ceases to talk to himself. And Dean Young talked to himself until he got someone else’s heart—now he’s less determined to soliloquize. My point is that Kalogeris’ Dialogos challenges and renews the trope of internal dialogue. The strategy is not dissimilar to how Carson’s Nox was supposed to work, with Catullus’ poem at hand to extend her speaker’s compass. You remember my complaint about how in Nox the presence of the Catullus isn’t strong enough—the whole book isn’t dialogical enough—to help her. Well, Kalogeris has raised the stakes. His serial adduction of two poems, from two distinct sensibilities, and his gentle instruction to read them together, produces a “something” which is distinct from either single poem.
S: We shall see how distinct this “something” is, given that they are produced by the same translator.
F: So you’ll read Dialogos?
S: If you’ll be so kind, my friend, as to leave the book here with me, I will read it. Give me a week.
F: (Rising, walking back toward the path he will take back to town, and then turning back to face Skepticus.) I cannot wait to hear your verdict, Skepticus!
S: And I cannot imagine why it matters to you so much.
F: (Turning and proceeding out of sight, as he calls out.) The root of “conversation,” my friend, is “verse.” And what if something new were borne from somethings old, Skepticus? If it’s true, it’s magic!
S: We shall see. (Yelling.) Be careful on your way down! The air is thinner up here!
Scene: The agora, in the City, several days later. Late afternoon. The crowds have gone. The one or two stalls that remain are being packed up.
Enter Fidelis, downstage left, in fine bright toga and sandals. An empty sack is slung over his shoulder. He has come to shop, but realizes as soon as he enters that he has missed his opportunity. A slight boom emanates from center stage, where a stall is being dismantled; the lowering of the stall’s front, stage right, reveals Skepticus, seated on a small cardboard box. He holds a copy of Dialogos with both hands, as if it were a placard and he were a driver awaiting an arrival at an airport gate. Fidelis approaches.
Fidelis: It can’t be! Skepticus, my friend! You are the last man I should have expected to find here in the “Combat Zone”! What has brought you down from your Acropolis?
Skepticus: There is something new under the sun, Fidelis! And you already own a copy. (Rising a little, and reaching down into the box to produce from it Fidelis’ copy of the slim volume.) Here. Here you are, my good friend, the copy of Dialogos you had so kindly lent to me.
F: You’ve finished it?
S: Yes. But I am hardly finished with it, Fidelis. Three days ago I completed my first reading of those twenty-four poems. Two days later I received this carton (Pointing to the box he sits on) from Antilever Press, Fed-Ex. Yesterday I took my place here, promoting Dialogos, selling as many copies as I can. Some I’ve let go at a loss. A teen-aged poet from the suburbs stood right where you stand. She told me how much she loved Rae Armantrout, but she’d never heard of Rilke! I let her have Dialogos on a promise.
F: What promise did you extract from her, my friend?
S: She promised me she’d try to think about how even ancient poets once were new.
F: For all that’s worth! Well done, Skepticus.
S: I know you will understand, Fidelis, when I say that it is very hard to pitch Dialogos. If by “poetry” people mean words which make an individual soul audible, and legible, then Kalogeris’ project seems to go about it wrong. Hermits on hilltops are not the only ones who find the premises of his book off-putting.
F: Say more.
S: Let’s say I locate a poetry buyer here in the agora. Off I go on my spiel. But she tends to find Dialogos doubly dubious. Here’s a book of poems that contains no account whatsoever of its author, this man of Greek descent who lives near Boston, Massachusetts, who is this old and has such and such a job, and who likes sailing, or music, etc., etc. ? Isn’t poetry supposed to convey a self? Add to that, my dear friend, how well we know that even an aficionado might struggle to interpret any one poem. The phantasm Kalogeris throws that struggle in the reader’s face! She feels it as purely paradoxical, the implication that one might read two poems in order to increase the chance that one might comprehend either one of them.
F: But Kalogeris is far from alone in advocating dialogical reading, nor is he the most radical of readers who read to read. Robert Frost, in the introduction to a small press book he published—I think it was called Aforesaid—truly exploded the dynamic. I have the passage in my wallet. (Fidelis fumbles with his bag, finds his wallet, and digs out of it a heavily creased scrap of paper. He reads.)
A poem is best read in the light of all other poems ever written. We read A the better to read B (we have to start somewhere; we may get very little out or A. We read B the better to read C, C the better to read D, D the better to go back and get something more out of A. Progress is not the aim, but circulation. The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places the way the stars do.
S: “All the poems ever written!” How delicious, and how preposterous! Goddess bless him, Frost demands the impossible, and in the same breath makes it sound necessary! Kalogeris’ Dialogos is founded on the same principle: that reading of a poem is best which leads us to read another poem.
F: Frost’s logic is strange, but sound. Dialogos is held together not by the force of logic, but by Kalogeris’ will and his determination to have us read this pair, and then this pair, and not to read other pairs—not right now, though they may come to mind. It’s his will that keeps other poems we know from breaking into the spaces in which he’s temporarily suspended his pairings.
S: I called him a “phantasm,” but he’s most present, if one must look for a Kalogeris, in the two-pronged force of that will: the urgency of his call to attend to these two poems together, and the strong—at times, willful—manner in which he translates individual poems.
F: I beg you, dear friend, for an account of how you feel Kalogeris is present in one of his pairings. Why don’t you pretend that I am one of those who finds a poem engaging because it gives me what I believe is a view of its author, and then explain how Kalogeris is present in Dialogos, as you would explain it to a potential buyer here in the agora.
S: Nothing would please me more. To you I owe the passion that brought me down here to the marketplace, a passion I feel is against my nature, so enflamed have I become by the notion that Dialogos must be read, must become better-known. Yet I must not fail to remind you that I am still barely conversant in its discourse.
F: Your humility is extravagant, Skepticus: I have never made a more important visit to your hilltop than the one I made ten days ago. In which of the twelve pairings will you discover Kalogeris?
S: The first pairing will serve. Will you allow me? (Skepticus opens his hands, indicating that Fidelis might return to him the slim volume they had exchanged just a few minutes ago.) I don’t want to smudge one of the clean copies. (Fidelis complies.) I shall begin by reading Kalogeris’ version of Borges’ great “To a Minor Poet of the Greek Anthology,” a poem which is addressed to a phantasm.
F: (Takes a seat on the ground, at the feet of Skepticus. By this time the last commercial stalls have been cleared away. The light is fading slowly. The image is a metaphor: Skepticus and Fidelis and Dialogos in a marketplace which has been deserted.) Marvellous. I am ready.
S: To a Minor Poet of the Greek Anthology
From the Spanish of Borges
Where are they now, those days that belonged to you
When you were here on earth? Passing days,
And your mind shuttling between their joys and sorrows
As if they displayed a pattern of the cosmos
That you would weave with your own words, someday.
Between the smooth clay banks of Time the current’s
Surge hasn’t carried a single verse of yours
Back down to us: your name survives as a footnote
Salvaged from the numbered flow of years
By a dense appendix. For you there are no inscriptions
Carved in shining marble, no grave profile
Staring back from medallions, and not one scholar
Scrupulous enough to record the living trace
Of your legacy. As long as the gods have chosen
To bestow on others that brilliance that never fades,
You’ll be left in the dark forever, dear friend.
And given that dark, what more can we say, really,
Except that once you heard the nightingales singing?
F: (Interrupting) I love that part! His “dear friend” in a “dark forever,” alliteration, full stop, end stop. What more can Borges say, indeed, from the bleak standpoint of his own increasing darkness? But of course he finds the power to continue.
S: That moment is executed with great finesse, I grant you. Kalogeris is inspired, and his poem is more coherent than Borges’! Yet I miss the terseness of Merwin’s phrasings. He had, for example, “you are a word in an index.” But now, shall I try to find the power to continue?
F: Of course. Forgive me.
But even now, obscured by the growing shadow
Of the asphodels, your shade must stir a little
Against the inattentiveness of the gods—
Your shade in its silenced pride. But as long as the days
Add up to nothing more than a tangled web
Of the usual troubles, how could the gods have given you
Any greater blessing—you who are now the very
Substance of oblivion, the ash out of which
Nothing rises? The gods have cast their aura
Around the foreheads of others, minds whose vast,
Unyielding powers of illumination
Expose the heart of each mystery they encounter.
Which means they’re bound to reveal each flaw in the rose
They hold sacred—until the blaze of their greater ardor
For glory destroys it, petal by flaming petal.
The gods have treated you more tenderly, brother.
For an evening that will never get any darker,
You can listen to the nightingale of Theocritus,
And nothing there will ever disturb your rapture.
F: Or mine! I love the slant end-rhymes that accumulate at the end—“encounter,” “ardor,” “brother,” “darker,” and finally, “rapture.” The swelling of similar sounds is a figure for the increasing darkness Borges fears. For Borges’ speaker, the prospect of “an evening that will never get any darker” is rapturous.
S: You are right to admire the poem as you do. The sonic qualities at the end we might attribute solely to Kalogeris; they are properties of English, not Spanish words. But even Borges was not always sure when “Borges” was writing! It is no accident that Kalogeris conjures this particular master to deliver his book’s opening gesture. Now to the second poem in the pairing, which is also the second poem in Dialogos, a stunning version of Cavafy’s “The Trojans.” (Reading)
As long as our efforts, no matter how hard we try,
Are doomed to fail, we’re like the people of Troy.
Just when the tide is finally turning for us
And our confidence swells, as if we were ready to face
Whatever comes our way, Achilles turns up
Shouting bloody murder, and crushes our hope
With one swift leap from the trench. We’re like the Trojans.
No matter what we do, this always happens—
Though right till the very end we still believe
We still might win, if only by being brave
And not giving in. But once we go out to meet
Our fate, behind our back it bolts the gate.
Even at the eleventh hour, we truly
Believe the gods are with us, defending Troy.
But as soon as we resolve to make a stand
That daring spirit dissolves, like a phantom friend.
Now it’s our worst nightmare, but there we are,
Outside the city walls, running for dear
Life as the sweat pours down, though our legs feel frozen.
Already it’s time to start the lamentation.
And then, high up on the ancient parapets,
Priam and Hecuba weep, weeping for us.
F: Cavafy elevates us all. At the end, “we” are not just any Trojan, burned by fate, by the gods. In the graces of his imagination, we are each of us Hector.
S: Yet there is nothing at all hectoring about this poem, which turns upon several axes. Cavafy revises the Homer we think we know by conflating plural and individual experience and shifting us out of our default “Greek” point of view; in this way his poem is about a global tendency of readers of the Iliad. In line two, “we” are “the people of Troy,” an abstraction, a beast with two books—both reader and speaker of the poem. Seventeen lines later, Cavafy particularizes and physicalizes this beast’s point of view, so that we see the world of the poem in a new way. Seventeen lines later, I’m there—“The Trojans” makes me feel my blood-heavy, sweaty legs. When they freeze, it’s like I put my book down. I’m about to piss myself or shit my skirt, to perform one of the rites by which Trojans celebrated the intimate arrival of a blade made in Greece. I am still alive, still vertical, outside Troy’s walls, but I will never reign there; nor will I sail from its smoking ruin to tell my own or anybody’s odyssey. I am any loser losing it. And yet! A line later my name is honored on a parapet—honored by my parents, a king and a queen.
F: Such shifting of identity! Cavafy’s “We” is all of us, is me, is you—in your individual struggle to fully imagine the poem. And in every instance of reading “The Trojans,” that “We” must become, for a moment, Hector, the all-but invincible. And reading Dialogos, the Hector we all become has his counterpart in the all-but forgotten poet of Borges’ Greek anthology. Both figures remain silent. Both their silences are indexical.
S: It is Kalogeris’ pairing that makes such a reading plausible, my friend. The “right now”-ness of his connecting Hector and the forgotten Greek poet makes Kalogeris present. In “The Trojans,” the lamentation of Hecuba and Priam confers a specific and extraordinary respect on all Trojans: the respect due to Hector, and the sorrow felt by his parents when they lose him. He was their best, and to imagine the poem fully we must conflate ourselves with him, with “best-ness.” Likewise, Borges’ “To a Minor Poet…,” asks us to accept about the forgotten poet—and about ourselves—that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Maybe the letters that spell out that poet’s name in the Anthology’s index point to unheard of excellence. Why shouldn’t they? Who’s to say that Theocritus wasn’t inspired by, or in dialogue with, the lost poems Borges’ anonym wrote? Our discovery of a poet in an index means we have not been entirely excluded from his music.
F: We are only entirely excluded if we fail to imagine what that music was like.
S: Precisely! Just when Kalogeris’ Borges has us wondering what some Greek guy’s poems sounded like, Kalogeris supplies with us with some Greek guy’s poem, in a translation by some Greek guy: his own rendition of Cavafy’s “The Trojans.” Kalogeris’ poem is connected to a truly wireless worldwide web: we’re on three continents, via three languages, in three eras: classical Greece, colonial Egypt, and post-colonial America.
F: By your name, Skepticus, I am dizzy! (Lies back, and puts arms out at sides, palms down.)
S: I told you that the air is thin up here!
F: But this the agora, Skepticus, we’re not on your Acropolis.
S: The air feels thin and poems are more powerful wherever and whenever we read dialogically, Fidelis.
F: You know, Skepticus, I loved Dialogos before you explained any of it to me, and I love it still. But what about this Kalogeris you say the book makes present? Aren’t we all having to work awfully hard?
S: I promise you, my friend, there is nothing inherently dizzying or difficult about reading poems in dialogue with each other: we find it so because we do not often put it at the center of how we experience poetry. An artist is present in his choices. Dialogos foregrounds choices: more than almost any book of poems it is a product of curation, the selection of pairs, and their ordering. Kalogeris wills—twelve times—that we join him in granting the dialogical that center. And then there are the matters of verse, and if the artist has command of technique, verse is always suffused with choices. Even if he chooses a harder course for us, I must say I admire Kalogeris.
F: Show me, while I recover, the Kalogeris you find present in the verse.
S: With regard to lines, this pairing is about pairing. Kalogeris renders both Borges’ and Cavafy’s poems in couplets.
F: If I follow you, the point is that the technical and discursive frame of the pairing is unified, that part of how Kalogeris keeps the pair from flying apart centripetally is by using the same form.
S: We should all be dizzy if Fidelis is dizzy! Now notice, too, that the measure in the Borges poem is less-strictly enforced, in a way that corresponds to the fictional moment it describes, which is unique: the speaker may live to find another forgotten Greek poet’s name, but this is the only poem he will utter on the theme. In his version of the Cavafy poem, however, Kalogeris calls contrastive attention to the potential for endless repetition of that poem’s fictional moment by punningly referring, in line eight, to the consistent “this-ness” and not “that-ness” of the measure he has chosen. The speaker jumps from the trench of line seven full of hope for a new dispensation, but line eight reads, “No matter what we do, this always happens.”
F: (Raising his back enough so he can then lean back on his elbows.) As if his return to the steady measure of his line corresponds to the return to the reality: the Trojans are doomed.
S: Bravo! Add in the irony that that Trojan doom is sounded by something good, something strong—an exemplary measure, the one we call “heroic” in English prosody, though the hero we refer to is not explicitly Hector. And perhaps I feel I know Kalogeris most in the ways he manipulates rhyme in this pairing. The swelling of like sounds in the end-words of the last four or five couplets of his version of Borges’ poem, enacts, as a sonic figure—how did you put it?—the “increasing darkness” the poet himself lives in, and with. And when we turn the page to complete the pairing, that figure is immediately and resoundingly recalled in the wonderful slant rhyme at the ends of the first two lines of Cavafy’s poem. Who else would have had the heart to rhyme, in a poem about the futility of the Trojans’ resistance to their fates, the words “try,” and “Troy”?
F: The insertion of that little “o” is heartbreaking.
S: To rhyme is to make a pairing, is it not? The heart breaks again, in the seventh couplet, when Kalogeris slant-rhymes “truly” with “Troy.” All of his choices seem to me to be in dialogue, each with the other. What greater form of presence could we ask of a poet?
F: I cannot imagine.
S: Nothing is further from the truth. But I have gone on long enough, and we, too, face an “increasing darkness.” (Gestures to a deepening dusk.) Come. I shall walk you home. But let us keep, for a time, a dialogic silence.