Saturday, October 31, 2015

Georgics: The Landscape of Intellectual Adventure

It is good to record how an intellectual adventure began, how the seeds were sown.

It was in someone else’s blog in early August 2005 that I came across lines from Boston poet David Ferry’s newly published translation of Virgil’s Georgics.

O greatly fortunate farmers, if only they knew
How lucky they are! Far from the battlefield,
Earth brings forth from herself in ample justice
The simple means of life, simply enjoyed…

“The simple means of life, simply enjoyed” – an apt phrase by Ferry, poetry in English no matter how the original Latin might read. My impression of what had previously seemed a minor work by the author of the Aeneid was on the verge of deepening. I felt lured by the peaceful mood created around Virgil’s ideal of the farmer:

His sleep at night is easy, his life knows nothing
About deceit or trickery, and his life
Is rich in many things: tranquillity
Of the broad fields, of grottoes, and of lakes,
Of cattle lowing while in the shade of a tree
The herdsman peacefully dozes…

Reading further in the passage from Book II of the Georgics, I got a glimpse into a kind of writing that I had not associated before with the Rome of the Caesars. No matter the pantheon in which Virgil situated himself as a poet, I felt invited into the landscape of his family, into its weathers and shadows, into stars and waves.

Why is it that the sun in winter hurries
To plunge itself into the sea and why
Is the winter night so slow to come to an end?
But if the blood around my heart's too cold
To gain me access to such mighty knowledge,
Then may I find delight in the rural fields
And the little brooks that make their way through valleys,
And in obscurity love the woods and rivers.
I long for such places…

I felt the urge to read more – and maybe not only this most recent translation. I wondered what it would be like to spend time with the Latin of Virgil again. I had last studied Latin in an organized way in high school, eventually translating substantial sections of the Aeneid as a student in Latin IV. Taking advantage forty years later of online Latin texts of the Georgics, I began to explore anew the language of this strangely paced poetry.

My curiosity led me to other websites where I began to explore what other people were thinking of the Georgics. I located recommendations for commentaries and surveys that throw light on the mythological and agricultural references teeming in Virgil’s lines. With the help of Google, I tasted the flavor of the international community of scholars dealing with the Georgiques, the Georgiche, or the Georgica.

In discovering something of the range and history of English translations of the poem, I became fascinated by the variety of situations in which people over the years have decided to sit down with the ancient text and attempt a new rendering. Assigned by my high school Latin teacher to read an English translation of the Aeneid, I had responded to the pull of this epic narrative as rendered by then British poet laureate C. Day Lewis. Decades later I was to learn that Lewis had also translated the Georgics.

An impulse purchase of a used copy of the Lewis translation from a book dealer in Tennessee brought the 1947 hardcover into my hands, still bookmarked with a yellowed Christmas gift-tag labeled “Rindges from Chapins.”

Something happened then. I began to sense myself sitting in the company of other readers of the Georgics. None of them were people I would ever likely meet, but all of us had been summoned on an intellectual adventure, invited into a landscape, its weathers and shadows, its stars and waves.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Past Ten Years

New Orleans was noticeably absent from the textbooks I used in my classes at St. Agnes Parochial School in the late 1950’s.

Illustrations did not show red beans and rice on the kitchen table on Monday evenings. Nothing like the drive along the River Road on Christmas night found its way into our readers. Parents crossing themselves as my parents did when we drove past a Catholic church did not head the families about whom we read our first simple paragraphs. In word problems the pies that had to be divided into quarters or eighths were never pecan pies.

I was not surprised that New Orleans did not matter in the books we read.

I simply concluded that New Orleans did not matter.

I was not surprised at the readiness with which I believed that I did not matter either.

Or if I did, it was because I had raised my hand in class and had given the right answer. It was because I had appeared on summer mornings at St. Agnes and served as acolyte at an early Mass. It was because my academic prowess had given my parents a way to cut a figure at parent-teacher meetings at school.

My salvation was that I did not know on an easy, conscious level that I did not matter. A painful clarity flickered, however, when I looked for a place at a large family Christmas or searched out a bus seat on a school activity. No one at home seemed to know how or when to say, “John, let me tell you what I think is happening in your life.” No one confided, “You know, it’s scary sometimes how much you are like your dad or your mom.” But then whose job was that? I may not have felt worth the effort it would take someone to understand me, and I may have communicated as much.

I was frankly not surprised that I did not matter. I understood, though, that writers did.

Early on I practiced replicating the kinds of sentences and paragraphs that I found on page after page in library books. I managed to get read and I got to matter when articles I had written appeared in student publications. Friends from my high school years still remember particular editorials that I submitted. I had gotten to try out writing about life, even my life, and sounding like I understood it.

Writing became something about which I was confident. My professional life for a number of years involved the teaching of writing. In my late 40’s I began to work on a memoir of sorts. No one to whom I showed it suggested, “John, let me tell you what I think was actually happening in your life at that point.” No one confided, “You know, it’s scary sometimes how much you sound like your brother or your teacher in the ways you express yourself.” But then whose job was that? I may well have communicated that it did not matter.

By 2005 I was writing my first blog. I had found inspiration in a French newspaper article about the phenomenon of elder bloggers. Within an online world dominated by much younger commentators and critics, older people intent on finding an audience for what they understood of their lives and their world were creating blogs that actually got read. Those mature writers and photographers were telling stories that most people had not thought would be told. And all for free!

Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans after Katrina appeared in August 2015, the tenth anniversary of the hurricane. The title takes me back to that scary month and the relentless flooding of the landscape of my family, the homes and streetcars and oak trees and above-ground tombs where my memories had once seemed to find safe lodging. Wherever I had chosen to live my adult, professional life, I always thought it possible to travel back home and in time bring a wisdom to bear. With the perspective of age, I could finally counter the stubborn judgments I had leveled against myself as a child and as a young man.

I recall the online reading I did through that fall of 2005 as the damage sustained by my home town kept unrolling. Bloggers told an unsteady story of ways to live that might not return. New Orleans was gone, I began to conclude in the shock of the images.

A fearful suspicion kept trying to surface the truth that I was gone too.

With the kind of sorrow that emerged and the signs of sadness that stayed, I suspected what I needed to do. I might just have to pay someone to be the audience for what I understood of my life and my world. Facing the facts, I located a professional whose job it would be – one day a week – to listen and then maybe to say, “John, let me tell you what I think was actually happening in your life at that point.” I engaged someone to whom I could confide, “You know, it’s scary sometimes how much I sound like my father or my mother.”

I began to glimpse the ways I had learned over the years to communicate that it did not matter. I got help seeing that it might be time for that me to be gone.

I do not live now as I did ten years ago. After steps I was helpless not to take, along paths I was determined I would go, with the conviction that I would hear what I sounded like, I say with some incredulity that things are different.

And I keep learning.

I had not thought I could matter just this way.