Brand New Ancients
Ovid’s Heroides, written some time between 25 and 16 BCE, was pretty groundbreaking stuff. A series of verse letters from fifteen women from Greek and Roman mythology to their lovers, it’s perhaps the earliest foray into epistolary fiction. It’s also cited (by Ovid himself, admittedly) as the first ever example of dramatic monologue. Furthermore, Ovid had this crazy notion that the girls might have something to say. It’s not difficult to see why Clare Pollard felt it deserved a new translation.
Pollard observes in her introduction that the Heroides remains a great work because it reorients epic narratives and ‘puts love at their centre’. In each of these letters, however, love comes under the pressure of a thwarting influence: of abandonment, betrayal, or absence. The result is love, as Eliot would have it, as the architect of Hercules’s ‘intolerable shirt of flame’. Each of these women burns in one way or another – in Dido’s case, quite literally – and love is out to play in all its destructive, inebriating and potentially pathological colours. So too is its entourage; we see bitterness, jealousy, spite, rage, and out-and-out hate.
This is a collection of discrete grievances, suits, plights and, above all, of very different women. The success of Pollard’s translation is that it prizes the unique character of each. Phaedra – high-born, proud – has come undone for her stepson Hippolytus. Though her letter is more formal and reflective than most, her repetitions, use of chiasmus, and convoluted syntax chart the reeling territory of erotic obsession:
Love should be modest, but though modesty
forbids, it’s Love commands me: write.
Love’s orders can’t be nothing when
it’s Love that rules the Gods who rule
Deianira, wife to Hercules, is forced to endure second-hand accounts of her husband’s affairs. That Pollard chooses to characterize her as a ‘classical WAG’ is brilliantly expressed in the fact that her letter is punctuated by imagined tabloid headlines: ‘Hercules Horror: Wicked Wife Still Lives’; ‘Poison Shirt Shock: Demand for Deianira’s Death’. Dido, ditched by Aeneas, effectively writes a suicide note. For all her talk of infernos and incineration, she’s at the point of burn-out, and her tone is one of exhaustion:
The white swan sings, sinks
into sodden grasses.
I don’t hope to move you,
I know the gods oppose these words.
But I’ve lost reason, reputation, a clean body –
words are a small loss.
Much of the freedom to exercise tonal variation is afforded by Pollard’s decision to dispense with strict formal constraints. Previous translators have chosen to employ syllabic couplets, in line with Ovid’s own. Pollard’s text is a leaner – and meaner – animal than those that have gone before. This means that her translation can begin with the brilliantly succinct, ‘Dear Ulysses, // you’re late’. Penelope’s fears are reasonable – Ulysses is, after all, more than a bit late. Ovid presents her as having a dry sense of humour and a capacity for sarcasm that Pollard is careful to reveal. She writes that the Trojan Horse escapade ‘sounds typically cautious and thoughtful’. Now, years after the war has finished, Penelope’s fears for her husband’s whereabouts crystallize, not in visions of shipwreck or sea monsters, but in the phrase ‘quae vestra libido est, / esse peregrino captus amore potes’. The Penguin Classics translation renders this somewhat coyly as ‘perhaps / it is only love that detains you’. Pollard has instead plumped for the marvellously spiky ‘you might be snared by some exotic tart’. And there’s a distinctly Ovidian sense of play when she goes on to say,‘you might be saying how provincial I am: / ”Domestic goddess; good with wool”‘.
As a measure of how little has changed in the last two thousand years, it’s interesting to note that these letters often brush up against that permafrost of contemporary mythic compost, the pop lyric. Phaedra recalls that ‘Jove said, “if it feels good, / then how can it be wrong?”’. In almost every letter, the writers return to the imagery of fire – and it burns, burns, burns. In Ovid’s Heroines, Pollard has pulled the tricky feat of giving these characters back their power to surprise us.
Brand New Ancients began as an hour-long spoken word piece, performed over a live orchestral score. After a run of shows in a series of illustrious venues – including the Royal Opera House – it was awarded the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, a prize that recognizes ‘the range and vitality of contemporary poetry, in books and beyond’. Now, it finds itself in a book. If Ovid’s Heroines humanizes the mythic, Brand New Ancients sets out to achieve the reverse. Here, Tempest’s stated aim is ‘raising up the every day’. As the title suggests, this is a work of dichotomies and paradoxes, ‘small heroics’ and ‘everyday odysseys’:
We are still permanently trapped somewhere between the
heroic and the pitiful.
We are still godly;
that’s what makes us so monstrous.
Tempest appears to be acutely aware of how pleasing the tension is between the commonplace and the mythic. People are presented at their most fallible, or their most banal. She yokes the two extremes together from the outset:
the gods are at the doctor’s
they need a little something for the stress
the gods are in the toilets having unprotected sex
the gods are in the supermarket
the gods are walking home
the gods can’t stop checking Facebook on their phones
Gods and monsters, angels and demons, heroes and villains – characters are presented as capable of being any or all of these. A teenager humiliated by a girl he fancies begins his journey to misogynistic thug. An artist who’s sold his soul experiences an epiphany while coked up and receiving a lap-dance with his schmoozing colleagues. It’s also clear that the ease of the fulcrum is precisely what allows for the work to roil in human weaknesses while simultaneously presenting its breathless optimism. It’s when characters are at their most fallible that they’re most capable of redemption, and when they’re at their most banal that they’re most capable of greatness, as in the case of a cuckolded husband, remarkable in his ordinariness:
See him, majestic in smallness and quiet and no fuss…
no chaos, excitement, romantic, enthralling
or frantic, not falling
head over heels just clawing
one hand at a time up the precipice, fighting for breath
David Foster Wallace noted that a compelling reason for worshipping a god of one’s choice was that ‘pretty much anything else will eat you alive’. Tempest presents us with several species of idolatry, wearing familiar liveries: the artist seduced by success, the adulterous couple amped up on lust and self-love, mass devotion to the cult of celebrity. It’s typical of Tempest to make an apology on behalf of each her characters, no matter how much of a lying, dissolute sack of shit he or she may appear to be. In its own way, this too is a work with love at its centre, albeit one dealing in agape rather than eros. But while individuals are accorded her sympathy, the hand is withdrawn in one notable instance:
Polish the silverware, dust off the telly screen,
it’s holy hour on Saturday evening,
the new Dionysus is in his dressing room preening…
The permatanned God of our age.
This section of the poem reads as the most sustained diatribe of the work, perhaps because the focus is on no individual; the ‘new Dionysus’ is presented merely as the figurehead of a poisonous cult – one which proves antithetical to Tempest’s stated desire for ‘quietly excellent acts’.
Tempest has observed that presenting Brand New Ancients as a book has been an education in ‘what a page can do for a poem that the stage can’t’. There’s never any guarantee, of course, that a successful performance will survive the transition, or even export beyond the performer’s own voice. Here, there is evidence that care has been taken to remain faithful to the dynamics of the poem. Punctuation is pruned away at moments of epiphany or maenadic abandon, and line breaks used to thump out crucial repetitions:
she’s lipstick in the cab, she’s at the hotel bar,
she’s had a couple now, she’s smiling, touching, tonight
we are not wives or husbands, tonight
just us just this just crush me, finish me,
tonight man love me.
But the page does things to a poem, as well as for it, and it has a tendency to lay bare elements that a performance can gloss. Without Tempest’s delivery to help them along, some of the rhymes do clunk – the volley that marks the denouement comes across as particularly egregious:
And with his eyes he apologized for every night
he hadn’t kissed her right.
And he knew that he was understood ‘cos he felt her hold
Spoken word necessarily favours a more direct approach and, ultimately, whether one is moved or left cold must pivot on this point of personal taste. Brand New Ancients is unlikely to win over many of her detractors, who will no doubt still feel clobbered, while those who favour her particular method of ‘telling poems’ will find it’s made the transition from stage to page without losing its bite.