If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
On writing as a radical form of recovery, translating previous lives, and the tragicomic elements of history’s forward march.
This summer of lockdown and protest—unfolding everywhere like a maelstrom in slow-motion—is bookended by the publication of two volumes by Dan Beachy-Quick. The first, a collection of poetry titled Arrows (Tupelo Press); the second, an anthology of Beachy-Quick’s translations from ancient Greek poetry titled Stone-Garland (Milkweed Editions). New poems and ancient poems. To me, every book by Beachy-Quick feels like a beacon amid the chaos of contemporary life, but the release of these twin collections offers new coordinates to triangulate one’s uncertain position in deep time.
As I awaited the publication of my own new book of poetry, Underworld Lit (Wave Books), in August, Beachy-Quick and I began an exchange about poetry, history, repetition, and translation, among many other things. We’ve been close friends since our days in graduate school, and we’ve collaborated on more than one occasion since then, so our exchange felt like the continuation of an ongoing conversation about concerns that have animated and haunted us as writers for many years.
Srikanth Reddy We’ve been reading each other’s writing for some time now, ever since we started out as poets in Iowa City, over twenty years ago—I feel like I’ve gotten to watch the behind-the-scenes story of each book in its making. When the published books arrive on my doorstep, after first turning to the end-pages to make sure that I’ve been properly acknowledged, I feel a little shock of recognition, rereading the poetry as a made thing. Toward the end of Arrows, this double-vision kept overtaking me, as I would read passages that made me think of the world we live in now, and of the world we lived in then, when you were first sending me earlier drafts of the poems: “On Lesbos the refugees gather on the shore.” It’s a quiet line, but it makes me feel both past and present, haunted and unsettled in time, like a refugee in some ways. Can you say something about how it feels to read a line like that now, and what it felt like to write it then, and what you imagine it might feel like to read it again someday?
Daniel Beachy-Quick I remember those days in Iowa City with such crystalline brightness it’s hard to believe we’re decades past the time, immersed in life and in poems in ways I think we could hardly imagine then. That gift of being in proximity of each other’s poems, each other’s thinking, that whole time—from youth of a kind to middle age of a kind—also creates for me some kind of double-vision, or triple-vision, messes with time in a strange way. And I think time is much on my mind in Arrows, and in the translation work I’ve been doing; and I know time is on your mind in similarly complicated ways in Underworld Lit, which I want to ask you about. But let me talk some about what your question about “On Lesbos the refuges gather on shore” makes me think of.
The line was written, of course, during the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis, and Lesbos was one of the places of largest gathering, to such tragic effect. But I’m also thinking of Lesbos as a birthplace of the lyric poem, of Sappho (who oddly I just started translating this past week), of Sappho’s notion of love, of eros (that pun in arrows) as a shattering force of cosmic nature at the same time it is our most deeply intimate wound. I began to suspect the lyric space, or lyric consciousness (as I awkwardly think of it for myself) relates to time and to history in ways far stranger and far more generous and far more complex than Ezra Pound’s sense of the epic as that poem that contains history. Funny that “epic” comes from the Greek epos, simply meaning “word.” The word seems to both live through time mostly untouched by mortality, while at the same moment, radically open to holding time open, keeping alive a space for thoughts and cares to encounter one another despite the vast swathe of centuries separating the lives and events that gather in the poem. There’s some ongoing present tense in the lyric poem, a denial of history’s closure, that insists that every life continues living, every event is concurrent with every other, and there’s space even in a single word to encompass worlds. The lyric poem posits something other than time as our primary reality. I hope I feel that reading the line however many years hence.
I want to ask you about a similar territory in your new book, so deeply (and wittily!) about time, history, myth, and more. You’re thinking of the slippage of grammar from past tense to present, from “Virgil wrote” to “Virgil writes of two ways to exit the realm of the dead.” Or, as you put a bit later, “The grammatical term for this crux in our language is the historical present.” I’d love to hear you talk some about the condition of this grammar as it plays out in the underworld and in our terrestrial lives.
SR I’ve always felt like there’s some sort of practical wisdom, if only we could feel it on an everyday level, in our grammar of verb tenses. Our terms for “the past imperfect” or “the passive voice,” for example, seem to suggest ethical relationships to speech and time in all sorts of mysterious ways. Writing Underworld Lit, I found myself slipping into the present tense while describing past events in my life—parenting a small child, going up for tenure, my cancer treatment, scrolling through news of war—because I still felt somehow haunted by them long after the fact.
At some point, rather late in writing the book, I began to see “the historical present” as a name for that haunting; and oddly enough, it’s the verb tense that scholars use when they write about writing itself. Scholars don’t say “Virgil wrote,” but rather “Virgil writes” about war, about farming, or about the underworld. There’s something faintly comical about this, as if classicists can’t bear to admit to themselves that Virgil died two millennia ago, but there’s something uncanny, too, in the effect of this historical present; Virgil is always writing about war, farming, and the underworld, even as we speak. It’s almost as if we’re casting a spell on these writers from long ago, keeping them writing, chained to their desks long after biological death. That’s maybe a morbid way to think of it, but I feel the truth of this uncanniness on some level.
You say there’s some sort of ongoing present tense in the lyric poem, even when—especially when—it’s come to us from the distant past. I feel that continuous present in your translations of ancient poems. But I also feel the co-presence of past and present in a poem like “Theseus’s Ship” from your new book, Arrows. My head starts to spin with abstractions when I try to think about grammar and time, but you make an old story new in that poem. Can you say something about past and present, how they’re constructed and reconstructed, in “Theseus’s Ship,” and in your translations?
DBQ I’ve come to feel that grammar offers us a different order than we’d ever guess at, something so much stranger than the sensical arrangement of clauses on the student’s page, and so much more akin to what you’re saying above—that grammar wonders us into patterns we don’t create ourselves, but are patterned by. I read somewhere the other day, and I wish I could remember the source but can’t recall it, this sense that I don’t live my life, but my life lives me. That sudden reversal from subject to object, not of holding power, but being held by power—well, it makes me think as you think, that if we could truly see ourselves, we’d understand that we contain an underworld within us, a whole Hades, where everyone and everything we’ve encountered, including the encounter with ourselves, continues on eternally, performing the weird ritual of themselves, their being, forever. Or the “forever” that is in us as we live our temporary lives.
That’s a long way to get to Theseus’s ship, but that old philosophical, poetic problem is one of the eternally repeating activities in me. The story, more or less, is recounted (twice) in the middle sections of the poem: after escaping the Minotaur’s maze, Theseus journeyed back to Athens with the youth meant to be sacrificed all alive. He stopped in various places on the way back home. Built altars, created holy dances he taught the native youth. Once home, the Athenians preserved his ship as a memorial to his quest, and as a plank would rot, they’d replace it, putting the old wood aside. Over centuries every plank of the original ship had been replaced, and someone had the wondrous idea of taking all the old planks and building the same ship anew. The question, of course, is which ship is Theseus’s own: the original one, made of all new boards, or the new one, built of the original.
That question felt to me, and still does, one of poetry’s primary questions. Every word, in the weird mind-space heart-space of the poem, feels both original and replica; more, every poem feels somehow built from the material of other poems. Of course this is true; we share a language. But it is stranger than that, this building a poem from another poem taken apart. It is as if sometimes I can feel that the poem I’ve written is a repetition of a poem already existent, just lost—to me, to us, to time. Then writing becomes a radical form of recovery, of undoing a harm not even known as a harm. And the only access we have to the original, is by the poem that is a replica of what we can see in no other way.
But there’s another story tied to Theseus’s return home. His father, reluctant to let him go, gave him one request: to have his men set up a white sail on the boat if Theseus lived, or to leave the black sail on it already, if he had failed. Theseus forgot to have his men change the sail, and came to harbor with the black sail unfurled. Seeing the dark from a distance, his father leapt from a cliff and killed himself. It feels comic in an uncomfortable way—comic in the sense you talk of earlier. Comedy with darkness inside. But it makes me think of your book. Theseus’s tale, which here we understand in terms of repetition and death, are also primary aspects of Underworld Lit. There’s the version of self that nears your own self, professor seeking tenure, facing cancer, raising a daughter, who is himself a version of Chen, whose life he’s translating, and who is himself a translation of many previous lives. I’d love to hear you speak of how death and repetition are at work in your poetry.
SR It’s funny, Dan, the other evening I was musing about how my life is almost entirely structured and patterned by repetition—like everyone who sleeps, wakes, empties the dishwasher, takes out the trash, and so on. And it occurred to me that, if my everyday experience is so thoroughly shot through with repetition, why should those repetitions stop simply because I do? Maybe I’ve always been emptying the dishwasher and taking out the trash, and will continue to do so long after “I” am gone. There’s the uneasy feeling that you’re not repeating certain motions, but rather that you’re being repeated by them. I think that’s part of why the narrator of Underworld Lit continues to smoke, for example, after he’s diagnosed with cancer. He can’t imagine that quitting could ever be possible, even after his death.
Of course, there’s something comic, as you say, about this vision of the underworld—as a place where you’re eternally emptying the dishwasher—but it’s also timeless if you replace the dishwasher with a cistern or taking out the trash with harvesting a field. Writing Underworld Lit, I found myself spellbound by that comic, or tragicomic, collision of history’s forward march with the timeless repetition of afterlives. Technology is one place where that collision becomes perceptible; Chen is guided through his underworlds not by Virgil or some other spirit, but by a motorized airport staircase, an error in translation that takes on a life of its own. The non-Western literature of reincarnation and rebirth is full of comic (and cosmic) mis-recognitions occasioned by a soul’s encounter with unfamiliar technologies—an elevator, a bullock cart.
Translation is another technology where history and timelessness intersect in language. I was born in the US, and to me English seems to always-already constitute the world I inhabit, but my parents’ mother-tongue is Telugu, a South Asian language; and it’s quite possible that my own daughter might migrate someday to another part of our world, where she may speak and even come to dream in Chinese or Spanish, languages that she’s in the process of learning now. Thinking about this chain of generations extending from an unknowable past into an uncertain future, I feel like a translation myself, or a translation of a translation of … of some original story. I wonder how your own sense of the language you inhabit, as an American poet, has shifted or opened through your translations from the ancient Greek in Stone-Garland?
DBQ Though it’s been nearly eight years since I started studying ancient Greek, I still feel so new at it, such a novice, fumbling through pages of grammars and dictionaries, almost always near a kind of defeat. But then the sense of that possible failure is so strangely exhilarating, too. Just as you say: the error that takes on a life of its own, or the error that becomes a form of life, as if the translation is there to protect or offer refuge to error and error’s possibilities.
The entire second section of Arrows is based on what I was learning from ancient Greek, a small discovery that revealed something I’d long felt true about poetry, but never knew how to articulate. The word for poet in ancient Greek, poietes, means simply enough “a maker, a builder.” The related verb, poieow, would mean “I build, I make.” Immediately, I’m given over to the thought of the word as a material in ways that undo the ease of semantics, of signified and signifier. A word is like a stone, like a plank, somehow. But then, ancient Greek has what is called the middle voice, when the verb does its work within or against itself, and certain verbs change their meaning. Poeiow is one of those, and in the middle voice would mean “I consider.” What dovetailed in my mind is simple enough, I suppose, but still shocks me: that the poem is the thing that must be built in order to be considered. The poem rides out ahead of the mind, makes the mind possible, contains in it not a thought already had, but a thinking that can be grasped in no other way.
Certain words open up certain paths—a path of thinking, more than it is any knowledge, any mastery. I feel as if I’m learning to look more than I’m learning to know; or maybe it is I’m learning to let knowing go, and am realizing the truer ambition is something much simpler, much humbler. There’s a phrase of Heidegger’s that captures it for me: “a heedful retreat in the face of being.” It’s as if the goal isn’t to occupy the poem being translated, but to walk attentively away from it, eyes cast on its shine, stepping backwards blindly. I’ve started work on Sappho, and find in this fragment something of the image I mean to convey:
desiremind [ couragesoul
flame by other flame lit
One of the things that has so struck me about your work over the many years I’ve known it is the way in which one book opens up the possibility for the next. Facts for Visitors ends with a poem about Voyager, and of course, your next book is Voyager, a Dantean erasure of Kurt Waldheim’s autobiography, first Secretary General of the UN, Nazi collaborator, whose voice welcomes other life to life on earth on the gold record Voyager carries. Underworld Lit continues to work through Dante, maintains some generous, generative connection not only to the Divine Comedy, but many mythic texts. I’m wondering if you could speak about the importance of source, of myth, of other texts to your own hopes in poetry?
SRWhat you said earlier about writing poems—that it can sometimes feel like repeating a poem that’s already written—offers one way into your question. One of poetry’s many paradoxes is that writing something new, to me, often feels like repetition, or remembering a poem that I’ve forgotten. That’s Plato, I guess. But this repetition also plays out historically across the globe, in the way that even the most ancient civilizations imagine themselves as repeating the work of earlier civilizations. One example would be ancient Assyria, built on the Sumerian civilization that preceded it. Reading up on the Mesopotamian underworld when I was writing Underworld Lit, I learned somewhere that the Akkadian language of the Assyrian Empire was as linguistically different from ancient Sumerian as Japanese is from Chinese; so Assyrian scribes in Assurbanipal’s library had to be translators, too, when they consulted the Sumerian sources underlying the Akkadian epic of Gilgamesh. The world’s oldest book, then, is built upon the work of translation.
Maybe we can think of writing as a kind of archaeology—that’s Foucault, I guess. But I wouldn’t want to say this archaeology always unearths a displacement in lieu of an origin. I wonder if that might be a good place for us to end? Archaeology is the study of beginnings, and beginning is always beginning again.
DBQThat’s a dear thought to me—this end that opens as beginning. And it’s there in the word archeology at its deepest roots: arche-logos, that logic of primary principles, the causal word. The poem somehow finds in itself ever deeper resources of origin, as if all we’re learning is how to begin.
All books featured in this interview are available for purchase here.
Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and translator, author most recently of a collection of poems, Arrows (Tupelo 2020) and Stone-Garland, a collection of translations from the ancient Greek lyric tradition. Long-listed for the National Book Award in 2019, his work has been supported by the Monfort, Lannan, and Guggenheim Foundations. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Colorado State University, where he is an University Distinguished Teaching Scholar.
Srikanth Reddy’s latest book of poetry is Underworld Lit (Wave Books 2020). His poetry and criticism have appeared in Harper’s, The Guardian (UK), The New York Times, Poetry, and numerous other venues. The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Creative Capital Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, he is currently Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Chicago.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.