Their heads are green and their hands are blue

January 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

I want to learn Ancient Greek. I’ve wanted to since I was a teenager, just as I’ve wanted to learn German, to read the poets. I didn’t do it because I wasn’t good at languages—scary French teachers—because of general laziness, and because I thought I should learn French better first. Those teachers. And I should get out more, talk to people. I could talk to people in German, of course, but I’ve never wanted to go to Germany. I read too much WWII history as a child. Now I’ve spent just Christmas with four year old Daniel, who speaks German, but only to his father, so the rest of us are left out, and I’ve read Anne Carson’s book conjoining Simonides with Paul Celan (who wrote in German, though he lived too much WWII history and eventually killed himself). The desire for Ancient Greek is fairly commonplace; German less so. I love Rilke; I love Holderlin. But I love plenty of French and Spanish poets too, and Chinese poets…the difference is that German poetry (and Russian) is so fractured in the translations, you can’t help but be aware of how you’re limping through the verse. My fear of language studies these days is less about my native ability than my declining memory. My brain feels like the precarious vessel of Jumblies,  who went to sea in a sieve.

All my life I’ve remembered that image, and assumed the Jumblies shortly drowned, as people and others often do in children’s poems. But I just looked it up and—aha— they survived, several verses carrying them to the far shore. When they got where they were going,
“…they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of silvery Bees.”

Which reminds me…

“And a small cabin I build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine beans rows will have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”

I didn’t need to look up those lines. I memorized them at thirteen, and always night and day hear them lapping with low sounds by the shore. (Though I did, of course, check.)

Homer next. Wine-dark sea; clear-eyed Athena.

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