Simon Perril – three collections from Shearsman Books: Archilochus on the Moon (2013), Beneath – A Nekyiad (2015), The Slip (2020)
Reviewed by Josephine Balmer
Working with ancient poetic fragments is like grappling with shadows, grasping at shady, nebulous shapes that shrink away at the touch. As the Princeton Postclassicisms Collective has concluded, in such situations we all have to establish ‘a constitutive relationship with loss’ whether as a scholar, a translator or a creative interpreter. And yet, as classical scholarship is increasingly recognising, it is often in this last category, in creative reworkings and rewritings, that the most startling – and incisive – new readings occur. For Nora Goldschmidt, dialogues between modern practitioners and classical scholars are ‘making the fragment new’. It is a long way from William Gardner Hale declaring of Ezra Pound’s transgressive 1919 Homage to Sextus Propertius that, if Pound had been a classics professor, his ‘only recourse would be suicide’.
The work of the seventh-century BCE Greek poet Archilochus of Paros presents some of the trickiest issues here. Perhaps little known outside Greek scholarship, he is placed at the very beginning of poetic history, the moment that the poet’s ‘they’ of Homer and epic poetry becomes the ‘I’ of lyric. Furthermore, his work survives only in fragments – around 300 pieces of a lost jigsaw of which only half are long enough to make any sense at all, with many constituting just a single word. The variety of tone and meter (the two are interconnected in archaic Greek verse) also creates friction; Archilochus’s work veers from convivial, if sometimes mournful, elegiac, through the satirical fables of his epodes, to the fierce, unrelenting invective, not to mention scatological and explicitly sexual content, of iambic. His many subjects include the military and the erotic, the sorrowful and the jocular, the personal and the political. Yet if Archilochus’s poetry itself is sparse, apocryphal tales about his life proliferate. Ancient sources tell how his father Telesicles, with a comrade Lycambes, was led by the Delphic Oracle to found a colony on the nearby island of Thasos, an alliance which led to the engagement of Archilochus to Lycambes’s daughter Neobulé. Later, when Lycambes called off the marriage, the poet’s subsequent harsh lambasts, it is said, led both father and daughter to take their own lives.
In all of this a sense of Archilochus the poetic persona (as opposed to the
person) remains strong, resounding down the long, intervening centuries. As Simon Perril observes in his ‘Afterward(s)’ to Archilochus on the Moon, the first of his trilogy of collections centred on the ancient poet, his voice ‘tastes of brine, sweat, and handled coins; it has the viscosity of semen’. Perril’s collection begins by reinventing elements of Archilochus’s mythology, opening with the poet exiled by another Delphic Oracle, not to a neighbouring Greek island but to the moon. It’s a bold move although not as incompatible with ancient tradition as it might at first appear; the ancient Greek writer Lucian wrote the first account of a moon voyage in his second-century CE satire, A True Story.
For Perril’s Archilochus, this new setting is a place to ‘peer at the Earth/through these holes’ (poem 3). Here, in his new barren landscape, he can reflect on the arid leavings of his life:
strewn across the ground
of my wedding feast
for me to sweep (poem 19)
Fragments of fragments – filtered, as we learn in his ‘Afterward(s)’, through Guy Davenport’s 1964 translations – drift in and out of Perril’s unforgiving terrain like wind-blown shadows. Archilochus’s shield, infamously lost on the battleground in fragment 5, reappears in poem 56, as does fragment 201’s one-trick hedgehog in poem 4. Perhaps most notably, fragment 122’s renowned description of a god-sent solar eclipse becomes spine-tingling:
Zeus has a trick,
for once I saw it,
where he places the sun
in his pocket
and the light snuffs
like life can;
and in that blink
he played a message
down the horn of my spine
The Greek poet’s humour is also maintained throughout. The hated battle general of fragment 114 pops up in poem 3: ‘his dragoon-speak/lacier than his locks,/flouncier than frocks’. And in poem 16, Archilochus’s failed erection is now more poignantly linked to a hope that ‘retreats/like my cock/in the cold’.
Above all, there is a sense of loss, particularly the exile’s loss of home, as poem 1 records, again echoing many of Archilochus’s own fragments:
so to what, exactly, do we sacrifice
save memories of wineskins,
fair-capped waves, Parian figs
and wood-topped hills.
Meanwhile poem 27 conjures the pain of unrequited love:
…at the end
of last night you left me
in my waking ear:
my pet name
But perhaps the greatest loss here is the poet’s loss of voice: ‘and what of our words,’ laments poem 59, ‘when the weight/has come off them’. In such circumstances, as poem 28 attests, the poet becomes their own ghost:
from this world
granted special leave
to press their own claims
Perril’s sparse but precise poetics lend a stark beauty to the collection, summoning up Archilochus on the Moon’s brave new world of dust and despair, illuminated here and there by pinpricks of wry humour and self-deprecation.
Loss also reverberates through Beneath, the second of Perril’s occupations of Archilochus’s work. As its subtitle, ‘A Nekyiad’, suggests, it concerns the Underworld, the country of lost souls and ghosts, here the story of Archilochus’s former love, Neobulé, as she negotiates her transition to Hades, territory of the dead. ‘I wanted poems,’ Perril tell us in his ‘Afterward(s)’, ‘that would barely graze the page’. As Neobulé observes in poem 64:
yet I am weaned here
off weight and gait
from all vestiges of shape
Alongside Archilochus’s fragments, another anchor text here is Homer’s Odyssey, particularly Book 11 in which Odysseus journeys to the Land of the Dead. Poem 1, for instance, revisits Odysseus’s ritual of summoning ghosts: ‘who will hold/a black ram’s head/flush to the ground/over the rough cup/of a trench’. Elsewhere, the nightfall of poem 11 nods to Homer’s famous description of the dawn: ‘no embers in the sky – rosy-fingers withdrawn’. Again, in poem 26 ‘in Hades’ household/the walls bloom/Lethe green’ – a reference to the Greek colour term chloros which, for Homer, describes not only the river of the dead but the fear that soldiers feel in battle.
This coalescence of viscosity and terror becomes central to the collection’s poetics. Neobulé’s voice, Perril concludes in his ‘Afterward(s)’, needed to be ‘increasingly deliquescent, porous: the “netherspeak” of shadehood mourning substance’. He points to Anne Carson’s delineation of Greek Eros – desire itself – as ‘liquid and liquefying’. So, in poem 37, Neobulé is a ‘passage/soft water makes/ as it breaks through the pores/ of the earth’. In poem 57 she has ‘leaked away/like a stray stream’ until:
…steam is all
a slight stain
on the kitchen ceiling
amongst the other shades
Such delicate, wraith-like poems are the most moving of the entire trilogy, defining the precise point at which substance becomes insubstantiality. Here are poetic enactions of the process of fragmentation itself, harrowing, heart-breaking, but ultimately healing.
Perril’s final volume in the trilogy, The Slip, brings us back to earth, narrating the story of Neobulé’s father, Lycambes, as he looks back on his eventful life. Once again, Perril’s poetry is ghosted by Archilochus’s original fragments; the animal fables of his epodes in poem 73, his salt-seeped descriptions of the sea in poem 18 or the reappearance of the poet’s famous shield ‘you’ll not find /on any battlefield’ in poem 11. And where Beneath also references Homer, The Slip takes further inspiration from ancient Pre-Socratic philosophers such as Anaximenes, who believed the earth came into being by the condensing/solidifying or ‘felting’ (pilesis) of air, as well as the technique of ancient vase making referenced in its title:
May we, similarly,
hear with our hands
the sound of the shape
held in clay
as we wedge at the edges of form
and throw it
into the felting dark (poem 3)
As the collection proceeds, it becomes engaged more and more with the act of writing poetry itself – and its consequences. Archilochus’s ‘iambic cries’, which lead ultimately to Lycambes’s death, become the ‘wrong, woven/rudiments of song’ he must wear. Here words themselves become weapons as the poet’s voice falters: ‘note the shape/my mouth takes//around a word/it cannot make/out’, urges poem 38. But perhaps most of all, Archilochus on the Moon’s fear of a loss of voice, the poet’s dread of speechlessness, now returns:
of all things
the deepest splinter
hold my tongue
a frozen nail (poem 31)
Whether consciously or not, Lycambes’s words echo Sappho’s arresting image ‘broken tongue’ (glossa eage) from her own fragment 31. Certainly Perril has done his homework, referencing all the contemporary scholars one might wish in the volumes’ three informative ‘Afterward(s)’: Anne Pippin Burnett, Froma Zeitlin, Yopie Prins and Laura Swift, as well as Anne Carson. It is a difficult task to walk the boundary between creativity and scholarship; scholars might look for ‘mistakes’, like Gardner Hale with Pound, and general readers might feel they cannot enter a work concerned with seemingly distant or difficult subject matter. But in these works Perril pulls off the difficult task of rendering the ancient modern and the modern ancient, providing not versions or translations but echoings, hauntings. Every line, each word, is precisely placed, aided here and there by adept rhyme and crisp, effective repetition. His Archilochus is earthy and elegant, funny and furious, tenacious and tender. Above all, although clearly very serious in intent, he does not take himself too seriously (‘look at the sea, poet,’ orders The Slip’s penultimate poem (79), ‘laughing at your words’). The Roman writer Quintilian saw in the Greek poet ‘an abundance of blood and muscle’. In his innovative and engaging trilogy, Perril more than satisfies Pound’s dictum that versions of ancient poetry should see ‘blood bought to ghosts’ as he conjures Archilochus’s long shadows back into fully-muscled form.