One wag subtitled it ‘Homer in a Nutshell’. The Batrachomyomachia, or The Battle between the Frogs and the Mice, was thought by the Romans and its early English translators to be a minor work of Homer’s from the eighth or ninth century BC, though its linguistic anachronisms and allusion to Callimachus place it as a likely Hellenistic epyllion. Its three hundred lines in dactylic hexameter tell the story of the bloody one-day war between the frogs (armoured in cabbage leaves) and the mice (helmeted in chickpea shells), based loosely on the Iliad. Olympians look on as disinterested bystanders until Zeus is forced to intervene, sending an army of crabs to beat back the courageous mice lest they obliterate the somewhat less winsome frogs. By today’s standards it’s a little grisly for children’s literature, but in Byzantium it was used as a school text from about 800 AD. After the city fell in 1453, the text migrated to Europe in the satchels of fleeing Greek scholars, and in Florence in 1474 it became the first book to be printed in Greek, more than a decade before the Iliad and the Odyssey. It soon started circulating in Latin translation as an excellent introductory text for the burgeoning Philhellenes of the Renaissance.
Now comes a new translation in rhyming iambic pentameter by A.E. Stallings, with illustrations by the etcher Grant Silverstein. The handsome large-format book, and the ingenious heroic couplets recounting the deeds of ‘King Pufferthroat’, ‘Morselsnatcher’ et al, suggest Mother Goose or Aesop. That’s one way to look at it. But with two introductions – one under Stallings’s name and another by ‘A. Nony Mouse’ – plus a glossary of dramatis personae, an appendix and the notes of an erudite classicist, this is a playful yet serious work of scholarship in miniature.
It shouldn’t be so rare for a poet to be serious and to sparkle at the same time, but Stallings is one of the few. (I think of Anne Carson’s translation of Aphrodite’s epithet ποικιλόθρον as ‘of the spangled mind’.) It’s not only that she renders works like Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in rhyming fourteeners with gamesome finesse, and makes grumpy Hesiod’s Works and Days sound witty. Only she would think to frame the history of the Batrachomyomachia in the voice of an anonymous mouse scholiast and offer such a rich history of the close connection between mice and scholarship. In a relief by Archelaus of Priene entitled ‘The Apotheosis of Homer’, the bard is seated with the nine muses, some characters from his epics and a scroll at his feet – nibbled by two mice. Ariston of Alexandria complained about mice nibbling his books (A. Nony Mouse claims that sheepskin vellum is particularly delicious) and Callimachus lamented the mice quaffing his lamp oil. A mouse becomes a vizier – the highest ranking official behind the pharaoh – in a Middle Egyptian fable; in the ninth-century Irish poem ‘Pangur Bán’ a monk compares his philosophical pursuits to a cat hunting a mouse. Today, our word processors are controlled by a mouse, which, the book reminds us, is only a letter away from ‘muse’.
Yet there is one way in which the dodgy frog has it over on the mouse. After listening to Crumbsnatcher’s foodie paean – he dines well on the leavings of man’s omnivorous table – King Pufferthroat replies:
You boast about your belly overmuch.
We too have many wonders to explore,
Both in the pond and the marshy shore,
For Zeus has given us the power to roam
In either element, alike at home:
Amphibian, possessing double lives.
Doesn’t a translator possess a double life, roaming between two languages? What about the poet-translator, like Stallings, who keeps one foot (no pun intended) in antiquity, the other in 21st-century Athens? ‘Nostalgia and tear gas have the same acrid smack,’ she notes wryly in ‘After a Greek Proverb’, the opening poem of her most recent collection.
Like, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is Stallings’s fourth book of poems, after Olives (2012), Hapax (2006) and Archaic Smile (1999). As in those earlier collections, Stallings synthesises lived experience with the imaginative experience of ancient literature, religion and mythology:
Dyeing the Easter eggs, the children talk
Of dying. Resurrection’s in the air
Like the whiff of vinegar. These eggs won’t hatch,
My daughter says, since they are cooked and dead,
A hard-boiled batch.
I am the children’s blonde American mother,
Who thinks that Easter eggs should be pastel –
But they have icon eyes, and they are Greek.
And eggs should be, they’ve learned at school this week,
This narrator is easy to listen to, someone who can both attend to the matter at hand – the children, the ritual – and freight it for us with ironic winks. The metre and irregular rhyme lull us for the measure of a quatrain, whereupon a curtailed, caudal – curdled? – fifth line stops us short: ‘a hard-boiled batch’, ‘blood red’. Is this the noir undercurrent of domesticity, replete with the scapegoat blonde and ‘icon eyes’, a crime of Passion near at hand? A few lines later the poem ends: ‘The kids’ palms are incarnadine and violet./A mess! Go wash your hands! They wash their hands,/Punctilious as Pontius Pilate.’ By linguistic alchemy, the dyeing has turned into murder a degree removed, like Pilate’s recusal, and the Phoenician – phoenix-like – colours of which the innocents are fond are perhaps too blithely rinsed off. Children betray their mothers. I thought of Robert Frost, in a poem like ‘Design’, sidling up to the reader before shivving him with ‘design of darkness to appal’. Much of Stallings’s work can seem like light verse that suddenly appals: solid, foundational stanzas that chat directly with you, distracting you from the fact that you’re perched with her, Humpty Dumpty-like, before a great fall.
Precariousness is everywhere: in the subjects, in the rhythms, in the tonal flux of the verse. We are meant to feel the jolt of near misses and the proximity of the living and the dead. It’s there in Archaic Smile, with its obsessive iterations of the Persephone myth (revisited in Hapax’s ‘First Love: A Quiz’ and Olives’ ‘Persephone to Psyche’). It’s there in the repeated references to toys, dolls, carousel ponies, which sometimes seem animated, sometimes deader than dead – like those Resurrection Day eggs that won’t hatch.
Paradox is a mode of thinking. With each successive book, Stallings circles back and views her paradoxes from a wider angle. In Olives, a sonnet called ‘Containment’ dramatises anxiety as a child carries an over-full glass of water ‘across a space as vast/as living rooms, while gazes watch the waves/That start to rile the little inland sea’:
Soon there is overbrimming. Soon the child
Looks up to find a face to match the scolding,
And just as he does, the vessel he was holding
Is almost set down safely on the bookshelf.
Later, in Like, the speaker transporting the water is transported by the water:
When we crossed the water, we only brought what we could carry,
But there are always boxes that you never do unpack.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.
Sometimes when I’m feeling weepy, you propose a theory:
Nostalgia and tear gas have the same acrid smack.
We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query –
Here the ‘inland sea’ is the Mediterranean, and it is a vessel of people – her migrant self, or Syrian refugees – that lands, or almost lands, precariously on the shelf or shoreline. This is deft work, and we can admire it as we admire a great technician, but Stallings is also making a philosophical point: the reality is that metaphor, true to its etymological origins (‘to bear, carry, transfer’), is still doing that ancient work just as a vessel still carries water to the thirsty, and another vessel carries migrants over the deep. Another vessel, or another craft. Having faith in one’s craft is a way to survive the world.
A simile is a metaphor with a grammatical hinge. The word ‘like’ is that hinge, and in Like, Stallings takes the word back from Facebook with a reminder that it is not a term of approbation, a mirror by which to show strangers what we ‘are like’ by ‘liking’, but a password that takes us right through the looking glass. The poem from which the book’s title is taken is a bravura sestina in which every end word is ‘like:’
Now we’re all ‘friends’, there is no love but Like,
A semi-demi-goddess, something like
A reality-TV-star look-alike,
Name Simile or Me Two. So we like
In order to be liked. It isn’t like
There’s Love or Hate now. Even plain ‘dislike’
Is frowned on: there’s no button for it
This slapstick sestina is a gem, but Stallings explores the trope’s darker side in her translations of epic similes from the Iliad and the Odyssey. While Alice Oswald in her sombre Memorial isolated Homer’s similes as lyric respites from the general slaughter, Stallings finds them underscoring the horror, as in Odyssey 22.468-473, the passage where Telemachus hangs in one noose the maidservants who slept with the suitors: they dangle ‘from the warp like a dozen ancient loom weights’ (‘Selvage’). In ‘Similes, Suitors’, Homer’s description of the suitors heaped in their own gore becomes:
Just as an illegal haul of undersized mullet
Is heaved out of the overfished Aegean
(Many-sounding, white-maned, dark as wine)
And dumped out hugger-mugger on the shingle
Midst plastic bottle caps and the mirthless laughter
Of seagulls lured by biodegradation,
And leaving behind no fingerling nurseries,
Just so the bodies of the suitors lay
Nature provides no sanctuary. Even honey, the ancient metaphor for sweetness, becomes a bad omen in ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’, a version of Iliad 2.87-90:
Just as a swarm pours from a hollow rock
In one long beeline for the wild thyme,
Alighting in clusters on this purple and that,
But is stricken with a mass amnesia
That disorients the compass of the sun,
And they forget the steps to traditional dances,
And each helicopters into a different dimness
Taking their saddlebags of sweetness with them …
And the palace falls to ruins, broken into
By vandals who would loot the golden stores
Left in the brittle wax hexameters,
Just so …
Stallings suggests that colony collapse disorder is so fundamental a catastrophe that the very ground of civilisation is threatened: not only at the base of the food chain, but the base of the literary-historical chain where the alphabet creates hexameters as surely as chemical bases create the double helix. What happens when the pollinators/poets die out? Stallings can’t even finish the simile. The just as … just so chain is broken, and broken grammar echoes a broken world.
Stallings experiments with this innovative idea again in ‘Half of an Epic Simile Not Found in Hesiod’:
As at the winter solstice, when a faded blonde
On the brink of middle age goes to the salon
To brighten up her outlook and her spirits …
While outside the plate-glass window, people push
Against the dwindling year, and lean into
The wind, their foreheads pinched with doubt and debt,
And it’s afternoon, but night comes chattering down
Like the shutters of a shop in a recession,
And all she asks for is a colour adjustment,
For rays of honey to eclipse the grey,
And for the light to lengthen just a little.
Here she doesn’t end on a fade-out, or on broken syntax, but the terms of the simile are incomplete. We never get to the ‘just so’ part, so profound and plaintive is the knowledge that the grey will never be eclipsed totally again, and even if the light lengthens, it will forever come up shorter and shorter. A far cry from environmental catastrophe, yes, but once again Stallings manages to carry, metaphorein, an idea from one place to quite another, and the performance of it is meant to delight or charm the reader just enough to offset – or almost offset – the dismay or dread in the subtext.
This open-ended simile is in line with what I feel is Stallings’s growing attraction to ambiguity, which was hinted at in Olives but comes closer to the fore in Like. An early sonnet in the book, ‘Alice, Bewildered’, takes the well known illustration from Through the Looking Glass in which Alice (Stallings’s namesake) has her arms around a fawn in the woods. The poem imagines her bewilderment as hypnopompic amnesia, and in ringing changes on the vowels of her own name telegraphs a poet’s self-estrangement once she’s ‘made her name’:
She’s un-twinned from the likeness in the glass.
Yet in the dark ellipsis she can tell,
She’s certain, that her name begins with ‘L’ –
Liza, Lacie? Alias, alas,
A lass alike alone and a loss.
Such slippages of tongue were not a feature of her early poetry. The polish and precision and sheer accessibility that has dazzled her readers for twenty years is still a dominant mode in Like, but a heavier emphasis on the materiality of vowels and consonants engenders an oneiric quality, a mist of inexplicability that shifts the emphasis from what the eye can parse to what only the ear can apprehend – perhaps just on the edge of sense.
These are my favourite moments in the book, as in ‘Sea Urchins’ – ‘They whisker their risks/in the fine print of footnotes’/irksome asterisks’ – and in the spooky ‘The Myrtle Grove’, addressed to a friend ‘with her water-coloured eyes, her ashen hair’ who committed suicide after a failed love affair (hence the myrtle grove, sacred to Aphrodite) and who appears to Stallings in a dream. The friend – the late poet Rachel Wetzsteon, the poem’s dedicatee – wants to give Stallings a tattoo of Thomas Wyatt’s hind over her heart, its antlers like a crown of thorns, and Stallings refuses: she hears ‘the heart’s tattoo, the heart’s tattoo’ in its secondary, aural meaning and chooses that instead. She knows what lies at the bottom of the sea, Aphrodite’s treacherous element. She puts her faith in her craft, as her friend did not.