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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Stanley Lombardo

Translations from the Greek

This selection of poems is about ten printed pages long.

You can read Michael Leddy’s sixteen-page interview with Stanley Lombardo in this issue of Jacket.

Odyssey 23.156–253

Iliad 19.379–end


Odyssey 23.156–253

Odysseus, meanwhile, was being bathed
By the housekeeper, Eurynome. She
Rubbed him with olive oil and threw about him
A beautiful cloak and tunic. And Athena
Shed beauty upon him, and made him look                      160
Taller and more muscled, and made his hair
Tumble down his head like hyacinth flowers.

Imagine a craftsman overlaying silver
With pure gold. He has learned his art
From Pallas Athena and Lord Hephaestus,                      165
And creates works of breathtaking beauty.

So Athena herself made his head and shoulders
Shimmer with grace. He came from the bath
Like a god, and sat down on the chair again
Opposite his wife, and spoke to her and said:                      170

‘You’re a mysterious woman.
                                                    The gods
Have given to you, more than to any
Other woman, an unyielding heart.
No other woman would be able to endure
Standing off from her husband, come back                      175
After twenty hard years to his country and home.
Nurse, make up a bed for me so I can lie down
Alone, since her heart is a cold lump of iron.’

And Penelope, cautious and wary:

‘You’re a mysterious man.
                                              I am not being proud           180
Or scornful, nor am I bewildered—not at all.
I know very well what you looked like
When you left Ithaca on your long-oared ship.
Nurse, bring the bed out from the master bedroom,
The bedstead he made himself, and spread it for him        185
With fleeces and blankets and silky coverlets.’

She was testing her husband.
Could bear no more, and he cried out to his wife:

‘By God, woman, now you’ve cut deep.
Who moved my bed? It would be hard                             190
For anyone, no matter how skilled, to move it.
A god could come down and move it easily,
But not a man alive, however young and strong,

Could ever pry it up. There’s something telling
About how that bed’s built, and no one else                          195
Built it but me.
                           There was an olive tree
Growing on the site, long-leaved and full,
Its trunk thick as a post. I built my bedroom
Around that tree, and when I had finished
The masonry walls and done the roofing                             200
And set in the jointed, close-fitting doors,
I lopped off all of the olive’s branches,
Trimmed the trunk from the root on up,
And rounded it and trued it with an adze until
I had myself a bedpost. I bored it with an auger,                      205
And starting from this I framed up the whole bed,
Inlaying it with gold and silver and ivory
And stretching across it oxhide thongs dyed purple.
So there’s our secret. But I do not know, woman,
Whether my bed is still firmly in place, or if                             210
Some other man has cut through the olive’s trunk.’

At this, Penelope finally let go.
Odysseus had shown he knew their old secret.
In tears, she ran straight to him, threw her arms
Around him, kissed his face, and said:                                    215

‘Don’t be angry with me, Odysseus. You,
Of all men, know how the world goes.
It is the gods who gave us sorrow, the gods
Who begrudged us a life together, enjoying
Our youth and arriving side by side                                           220
To the threshold of old age. Don’t hold it against me
That when I first saw you I didn’t welcome you
As I do now. My heart has been cold with fear
That an imposter would come and deceive me.
There are many who scheme for ill-gotten gains.                      225
Not even Helen, daughter of Zeus,
Would have slept with a foreigner had she known
The Greeks would go to war to bring her back home.
It was a god who drove her to that dreadful act,
Or she never would have thought of doing what she did,           230

The horror that brought suffering to us as well.
But now, since you have confirmed the secret
Of our marriage bed, which no one has ever seen—
Only you and I and a single servant, Actor’s daughter,
Whom my father gave me before I ever came here                    235
And who kept the doors of our bridal chamber—
You have persuaded even my stubborn heart.’

This brought tears from deep within him,
And as he wept he clung to his beloved wife.

      Land is a welcome sight to men swimming                         240
      For their lives, after Poseidon has smashed their ship
      In heavy seas. Only a few of them escape
      And make it to shore. They come out
      Of the grey water crusted with brine, glad
      To be alive and set foot on dry land.                                       245

So welcome a sight was her husband to her.
She would not loosen her white arms from his neck,
And rose-fingered Dawn would have risen
On their weeping, had not Athena stepped in
And held back the long night at the end of its course                  250
And stopped gold-stitched Dawn at Ocean’s shores
From yoking the horses that bring light to men,
Lampus and Phaethon, the colts of Dawn.

Iliad 19.379–end

       Snow flurries can come so thick and fast
       From the cold northern sky, that the wind
       That bears them becomes an icy, blinding glare.

So too the gleaming, polished weaponry—
The helmets, shields, spears, and plated corselets—
All the bronze paraphernalia of war
That issued from the ships. The rising glare
Reflected off the coppery sky, and the land beneath
Laughed under the arcing metallic glow.
A deep bass thrumming rose from the marching feet.

And, like a bronze bolt  in the center, Achilles,
Who now began to arm.
                                          His eyes glowed
Like open furnace doors, and he grit his teeth
Against the grief that had sunk into his bones,
And every motion he made in putting on the armor
Forged for him in heaven was an act of passion
Directed against the Trojans: clasping on his shins
The greaves trimmed in silver at the ankles,
Strapping the corselet onto his chest, slinging
The silver-studded bronze sword around a shoulder,
And then lifting the massive, heavy shield
That spilled light around it as if it were the moon.

      Or a fire that has flared up in a lonely settlement
      High in the hills of an island, reflecting light
      On the faces of men who have put out to sea
      And must watch helplessly as rising winds
      Bear them away from their dear ones.

So too the terrible beauty of Achilles' shield,
A fire in the sky.
                            He lifted the helmet
And placed it on his head, and it shone like a star,
With the golden horsehair Hephaestus had set
Thickly on the crest rippling in waves.
He tested the fit and flex of the armor,
Sprinting on the sand, and found that the metal
Lifted him like wings. He pulled from its case
His father's spear, the massive, heavy
Spear that only Achilles could handle,
Made of Pelian ash, which the centaur Chiron
Had brought down from Mount Pelion and given
To Achilles' father to be the death of heroes.
Automedon and Alcimus harnessed the horses,
Cinched the leather straps, fit the bits in their jaws
And drew the reins back to jointed chariot.
Automedon picked up the bright lash
And jumped into the car, and behind him
Achilles stepped in, shining in his war gear
Like an amber Sun, and in a cold voice
He cried to his father's horses:

‘Xanthus and Balius, Podarge's famous colts,
See that you bring your charioteer back
Safe this time when we have had enough of war
And not leave him for dead, as you left Patroclus.’

And from beneath the yoke Xanthus spoke back,
Hooves shimmering, his head bowed so low
That his mane swept the ground, as Hera,
The white-armed goddess, gave him a voice:

‘This time we will save you, mighty Achilles,
This time—but your hour is near. We
Are not to blame, but a great god and strong Fate.
Nor was it slowness or slackness on our part
That allowed the Trojans to despoil Patroclus.
No, the best of gods, fair-haired Leto's son,
Killed him in the front lines and gave Hector the glory.
As for us, we could outrun the West Wind,
Which men say is the swiftest, but it is your destiny
To be overpowered by a mortal and a god.’

Xanthus said this, then the Furies stopped his voice.
And Achilles, overwhelmed by the moment, said:

‘I don't need you to prophesy my death,
Xanthus. I know in my bones I will die here
Far from my father and mother. Still, I won't stop
Until I have made the Trojans sick of war.’

And with a cry he drove his horses to the front.


                        deathless Aphrodite,

child of Zeus, weaver of wiles,
                                                    I beg you,
do not crush my spirit with anguish, Lady,
but come to me now, if ever before
you heard my voice in the distance
and leaving your father’s golden house
drove your chariot pulled by  sparrows
swift and beautiful
over the black earth, their wings a blur
as they streaked down from heaven
                                       across the bright sky—

and then you were with me, a smile
playing about your immortal lips
as you asked,
                        what is it this time?  
                              why  are you calling again?
And asked what my  heart in its lovesick raving
most wanted to happen:
                                         ‘Whom now
should I persuade to love you?                      
Who is wronging you, Sappho?
She may run now,  but she’ll be chasing soon.
She may spurn your gifts, but soon she’ll be giving.
She may not love you now, but soon she will,
                                                      willing or not.’

Come to me again now, release me
from my agony, fulfill all
that my heart desires, and fight for me,
                                                      fight at my side, Goddess.


Truly, I wish I were dead.
She was weeping when she left me,

and said many things to me, and said this:
‘How much we have been through, Sappho.
truly, I don’t want to leave you.’

And I answered her:
‘Farewell. Go, and remember me.
You know how we cared for you.

And if you should not, I want
to remind you
           of our moments of grace

the many garlands of violets,
roses and crocuses
           you put on my head,

the many necklaces
woven of flowers
          on my soft skin

all the myrrh
you anointed         royal

and on soft coverlets
quenched your desire

nor ever any
from which we held back

nor grove                   dance


            I can
may it be mine
to shine on me
                  your face
            close whistling

            Black dream
            you come when sleep comes,
            sweet god, truly  dreadful  agony


Look at him, just like a god,
that man sitting across from you,
whoever he is,
                  listening to your
                  close, sweet voice,
your irresistible laughter
                                          And O yes,
it sets my heart racing—
                  one glance at you
and I can’t get any words out,
                  my voice cracks,
a thin flame runs under my skin,
my eyes go blind
                  my ears ring,
a cold sweat pours down my body,
I tremble all over,
                  turn paler than grass.
Look at me
                  just a shade from dead


Some say an army on horseback,
some say on foot, and some say ships
are the most beautiful things
     on this black earth,
                                        but I say
it is whatever you love.

It’s  easy to show this. Just look
at Helen, beautiful herself
beyond everything human,
                  and she left
her perfect husband and went
                  sailing off to Troy,

without a thought for her child
or her dear parents, led astray


reminding me of Anactoria,
                                    who is gone
and whose lovely walk
                  and bright
                        shimmering face
I would rather see
                  than all the chariots
and armed men in Lydia

                  but it cannot be

                        pray to share



            from Sardis
often turning your mind here

we thought you were like a goddess
            everyone looked at you
she loved the way you moved in the dance

now among the women of Lydia

as at sunset the rose-fingered moon
            outshines all stars, spreading her light
over the salt sea, the flowering fields,

and the glimmering dew falls, roses
            bloom amid delicate starflowers
chervil and sweet clover

she walks back and forth, remembering
            her beloved Atthis,
the tender soul consumed with grief

to go there                   this
mind                  much
talks                       in the middle

It is not easy for us to equal
goddesses in beauty

            poured nectar from
a golden

                                the Geraesteum
                                    dear ones



The moon has set,
And the Pleiades.
                           The hour has gone by.
I sleep alone.

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