Palladas: The Other Half Speaks Out I
by Josephine Balmer
These versions of Palladas were commissioned for ‘Palladas: The New Papyrus’, an international conference held at University College, London on 4th-5th September 2014. This centred on the discovery of a new codex containing around 60 new epigrams (possibly!) by the fourth (or maybe fifth?) century AD Alexandrian poet. These have recently been published with an exhaustive commentary by Professor Kevin Wilkinson of the University of Toronto.
After reading the poems, I decided that my versions could only answer the ill-tempered misogyny for which Palladas is famed. Hence my title, The Other Half Speaks Out. I also decided to work both on some of the older epigrams, long collected in the Greek Anthology, as well as some of the new, mostly very fragmentary poems from the papyrus.
My first version was of Palladas 9.773, a famous epigram, often taken to refer to the triumph of Christianity over paganism. Here the poet imagines a statue of the Greek love god Eros, melted down into a frying pan, presumably now superfluous to requirements in a predominantly Christian world. A literal translation of this is as follows:
A bronze-smith, melting down Eros, fashioned a frying pan – not unreasonably, since that too burns.
But as I began to work on the poem, it occurred to me that the juxtaposition of love, frying pans – and burning – might have extra resonances for women readers. This was my new version:
From Fat to Frying Pan
First he burned with words, kisses;
Promising a life together, a few kids.
And then it was: where’s my breakfast?
Or, I don’t like my eggs done like this.
Time, like an alchemist or blacksmith,
Has hammered out love, our own Eros,
Shrunk it down, from fat to frying pan.
Never mind: now it is my turn to burn
The best bacon. To waste his good eggs.
My next new version was after 11.287, one of Palladas’ most difficult poems for a woman translator (and/or reader) to approach. In fact, when I Googled it for a text, the first heading that came up was ‘Patriarchal Male Fantasy’. The literal translation shows why:
Cursed with an ugly wife, when he lights the evening candles, he still sees only gloom
In my version, the woman, that wife, responds to her particular charmer of a husband:
Holding a Candle
When I hear his step on the stair,
See the flicker of the evening light
On his yellow teeth or thinning hair
As he peers into that gloomy night,
I turn my face to the peeling wall.
I dream of the lips of my first love
While he snores on or snuffles off.
He couldn’t even hold a candle.
My final version of an ‘old’ poem, was 11.306. Literally translated, this reads:
Even if, after Alexandria, you leave for Antioch, and, after Syria, you then arrive in Italy, no powerful man will marry you; for ever in hope, you will hop from city to city.
This put me in mind straightaway of another, much more modern Alexandrian poet, C.P. Cavafy, and, in particular, his famous poem, ‘The City’. I therefore decided to filter my response to Palladas through the prism of Cavafy, using the latter modern poet’s trademark direct reported speech form. But I also added a coda, a response from the woman quoted:
All the Same
You might say: ‘Time to look for another spot,
Kiss goodbye to Alexandria, head for Antioch
Or Italy – to find a man who is rich and powerful
(Or both).’ But just as you are unmarriageable
In this one city, so you will always be alone
As you hop from bed to bed, time zone to time zone.
Yes, I’m the woman who’s had her fair ration –
From A to A, I have run the full gamut of men:
The losers, the liars, the cheats without shame.
Here’s a flash: world over, they’re all the same.
With thanks to the conference organisers – Professor Edith Hall of Kings College, London and Professor Chris Carey and Dr Maria Kanellou of University College, London – for their generous hospitality.
Next time: versions of Palladas’ new poems