Poems in Translation by Reginald Gibbons

Two ancient Greek poems by women poets:

[As if Inscribed on a Tomb]

Nossis of Western Locris (southern Italy, early 3rd century BCE)

Stranger! If you sail to Mitylene (where dance is so
            Exquisite) for the sweetly sung blossoms of                    
                   famed Sappho,
please say that I, birthed by a woman of Locris, am 
            precious to the Muses as she.  Nossis is my 
                      name. Go!

[A Girl of Ancient Greece—slightly elaborated]

Anýtē   (Arcadia, early 3rd century BCE)   

For dark-brown Cricket—little
            Muro's grass-stem nightingale— 
and for stout Cicada—her 
            great-voiced belly-drummer—who  
both had lived and sung for her    
            in the toy cages she had 
woven for them with bent green 
            twigs and weed stems, she was still
weeping. The tears falling from 
            her small round face plopped onto 
the loose dirt she was digging
            with her mother's wooden spoon 
to make a proper tiny
            tumulus for them both that
she would cover with a pale 
            flat stone. Her minikins' lives
have been taken, have been borne 
            away and down to a dim
ravine in the underworld

            by tyrannical Hades.

The God Eros, Who Cannot be Thwarted, 

Sophocles (b. 497/496 BCE, d. 406/405 BCE)

overpowers not just

                                                and unjust human beings

only, but animals

                                                too—and even the breath of

gods trembles, shakes, stops, bursts,

                                                when Eros wings into them,

even from far away,

                                                at their culmination. Great

Zeus Himself retreats some-

                                                times from the overthrowing

comeliness of mortal

                                                bodies. He Himself is far

too weak—even He!—to 

                                                ward off Eros.  Even He

wants, more than anything,

                                                anything, just to give in.

Obscure Heralds Robed All in Black

César Vallejo (b 1892, d. 1938)

Life pounds us very hard… I don’t know. I don’t       
Blows that might have come from God Himself, in                                           
The blood of all we’ve suffered for so long wells up      
then terrified it sinks back down—into the soul… 
     I don’t know! 

For some, not so many blows. But they come…         
       They crack open,
they contort, the fiercest face; they gash and scar 
         the strongest back.
Maybe what they are is the half-wild young horses 
        of inhuman

Attilas. Or heralds Death send us all robed in black.

Jolts that knock the Christs within one’s soul into 
      long dire
plummets from a nice little faith that’s been 
       blasphemed by fate.
Bloody blows!—They sound like the crackling, as 
       we stand and wait,
of our holy bread in the old oven—but the bread  
     catches fire!

Human beings! Poor things, poor things! This way 
      and that, we look—
did somebody come up from behind and clap us on 
       the back?
Wide-eyed, skittish, we stare—is this somehow our 
     own fault?
Everything we’ve gone through sloshes like a foul 
     puddle of guilt.

Life… hammers us… hard as stone… I don’t know.
     I just don’t know.

Author Photo: Cornelia Spelman

Reginald Gibbons is the author of eleven books of poems, including CREATURES OF A DAY, a Finalist for the National Book Award, and his most recent book, RENDITIONS (Four Way Books 2021). He has also published several works of translation—Luis Cernuda, SELECTED POEMS (Sheep Meadow Press); a number of Mexican poets in NEW WRITING FROM MEXICO (TriQuarterly Books); Jorge Guillen, THE POETRY AND THE POET (Princeton UP, co-translated with Anthony L. Geist); Sophocles’ ANTIGONE and Euripides’ BAKKHAI (Oxford UP, co-translated with Charles Segal), and Sophocles, SELECTED POEMS: ODES AND FRAGMENTS (Princeton UP). Gibbons’ novel, SWEETBITTER, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and will be reissued in a new paperback by JackLeg Press in 2023. 

Anyte (early 3rd century BCE) of Tegea (a town in ancient Arcadia, Greece) Fewer than twenty of her epigrams survive. She was the first ancient Greek poet to write about animals. My version of her poem is elaborated beyond her words.  

Nossis (3rd century BCE) lived in Locri, a Greek colony in what is now Italy. Only a dozen of her short poems survive. In one of them, she declares herself a rival of Sappho.

Sophocles (b. 497/496 BCE, d. 406/405 BCE) wrote more than a hundred plays, but only seven have survived intact. Many fragments from his work also survived. I have elaborated the fragment on Eros (which is from his lost play Phaedra) into what I call a “rendition,” which in this case is more detailed than the original fragment.

César Vallejo (b. March 16, 1892 – d. April 15, 1938) was born in a Peruvian mountain village, Santiago de Chuco, and died in Paris. His astonishing inventiveness of language, his passion as a poet, his sensitivities and perceptiveness, especially regarding the lives of the poor, all informed his work. Rather than working word for word (but almost doing so), I have tried to make the English of this translation as energetic and startling as the original. This poem (“Los heraldos negros)” is one of his best known and most admired. 

“Our idea in calling this the ‘Translator’s Page’ is to show the ways and/or languages in which a translator works. Monthly posts may include translations from different languages and styles and centuries. The connective thread between them is the ability of the translator to interpret cultures and time periods for the contemporary reader.” —Jonathan Wells, curator of The Translator’s Page