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Monday, June 04, 2007

When you're (like me) wondering what it means to say you're a poet, and to have people believe you, or better yet call you a poet, it's helpful to read real poetry. I don't do this often. I find the signal to noise ratio difficult to settle. Refer to opening statement. It's a catch-22 (which I've also tried to read several times, but haven't gotten through yet. This year. This year, maybe).

But then on last night's Book Show on ABC Radio National I caught David Malouf (listen here), or should I say he caught me with these seven beautiful translations of the Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian

Where most people drop off with a gurgle or an "arrrrgh!" or an "oh shiiiiiiiit!", this guy, in the true mode of someone with the title Emperor, composes a poem that cuts through time to this very day. Man, that's class.

Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian

(the original Latin)
Animula vagula blandula
hospes comesque corporis,
quae hunc abibis in loca,
pallida, rigida, nudula,
nec, ut soles, dabis iocos?


Dear soul mate, little guest
and companion, what
shift will you make
now, out there
in the cold?
If this is a joke,
it is old, old.


Soul, small wandering one,
my lifelong companion,
where will you go
— numb, pale, undefended —
now the joke we shared is ended?


Little lightfoot
spirit, house
mate, bedfellow, where are you off
to now? Cat got
your tongue? Lost your shirt, caught
your death? Well, the last laugh
is on you. Is on us.


Sweet urchin, fly
-by-night, heart’s guest, my
better half and solace,
you’ve really done it
this time. You’ve played one trick
too many. Fool, you’ve laughed us
both out of breath.


If this is one of your jokes,
my jack, my jack-in-the-box,
lay off. Where
have you got to?
It’s cold out there.
And what will you do
without me, you sweet idiot? Go naked?
Homeless? Come back to bed.


What’s this, old mouse, my secret
sharer? Gone
where? Did you think I’d let
you slip away without me after
a lifetime of happy scrapes? Who
warmed you, clothed you, fed you, paid with laughter
for your tricks, your japes? Is this the one
joke, poor jackanapes, dear bugaboo,
your emperor does not get?


So you’re playing fast
and loose, are you? You’ve cut
the love knot. Well let’s see how you get
on out there without me. Who’s kidding
who? Without my body, its royal
breath and blood to warm you, my hands, my tongue
to prove to you what’s real,
what’s not, poor fool, you’re nothing.
But O, without you, my sweet nothing,
I’m dust.

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