Artwork: Thomas Hawk, Figured It All Out (from Jean-Baptiste Wicar's Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia)

Aeneid (Books I–VI)
Translated by David Hadbawnik
Illustrations by Carrie Kaser
Shearsman Books, $20 (paper)

Although their geopolitical foundations are rarely foregrounded, the founding narratives of Western culture contain crises of tribal warfare, invasion, and migrant dispersal that remain jarringly contemporary: Helen’s abduction to Troy, Achilles’s vengeful slaughter of Hector, and Odysseus’s long journey home to Greece have their roots in conflicts over Mediterranean resources. In an age of digitized ISIS beheadings and graphic representations of refugees in crisis, Virgil’s two-thousand-year-old Aeneid remains startlingly prescient in its depictions of both internecine struggle and statelessness. Unlike Homer’s victorious Greek warlords, the Roman poem begins in ruins, following Trojan refugees as they flee Asia for the European continent.

For the contemporary reader, this ancient text can be disorienting: the violence and single-minded devotion of its westward-moving hero and his outcast gang competes mentally with our own era’s spectacles of global empire, even as we find in it evidence that such spectacles have ancient origins. But there is immense—if confusing and disturbing—pleasure in the art of epic narrative, even in depictions of slaughter and dismemberment. The works of Homer and Virgil revel in sensory appeals much as do many contemporary action movies. Startling images and texts both appall and transfix readers and viewers whose lives take place far distant from zones of global conflict yet are nonetheless suffused with their agonies.

David Hadbawnik’s new translation of the Aeneid is accompanied by illustrations by Carrie Kaser. The interplay between the text and charcoal drawings vividly and playfully enhances the poem’s movements. Readers enter it anew as a work of contemporary art and not as a furzy excavation or dour education in classical writing. It is instead a vivid opportunity to confront our own pleasure for words and images violently imagined in the ancient corpus.

Read aloud in classrooms, the Aeneid offered medieval students a direct link to the language culture of the ancient world.

Few narrative poems have possessed the Western imagination like Virgil’s Aeneid, a twelve-book epic written during Augustus’s triumphant consolidation of the Roman Empire. Relatively few ancient Greek texts were available in Europe before the Renaissance. For example, a condensed Latin epic called the Ilias Latina was popular in the medieval classroom, but the Iliad itself was unavailable until the fifteenth century. By contrast, the Aeneid, written in Latin, played an outsized role in the cultural literacy of the Middle Ages, and was a central focus for education, delighting the young with adventures even as they absorbed classical vocabulary and syntax. Marjorie Curry Woods has shown that students learned Latin grammar, history, and rhetoric by performing Virgil’s most dramatic scenes. Key moments featuring female characters gave boys in a highly gender-segregated society perhaps their only opportunity to impersonate women and to express themselves emotively in the context of learning. Church father Augustine of Hippo fondly recalled the intensity of Dido’s bereavement and suicide, and the passions stirred by schoolboy enactments of the dialogue between the Trojan hero and the ghost of his wife, Creusa, in the flaming ruins of Troy.

Only later in the Renaissance, when Greek texts entered circulation, did Virgil’s preeminence wane, though the mythical founding of Rome by Aeneas, the romantic disappointment of Dido, and the descent into the underworld by the Trojan warrior continued to fascinate Western culture. Part of the appeal can be assigned to the nation-founding narrative that underwrites Virgil’s epic, though the hero’s tremendous personal loss and self-sacrifice complicate any nationalist sense of easy triumph (Virgil at times seeds his lines with anti-imperialist sentiment).

Hadbawnik’s translation follows other renderings that in recent years have sought to bring Virgil into the American vernacular. Unlike Stanley Lombardo’s sinuous and scholarly 2005 translation, Hadbawnik favors a condensed, streamlined serial poetics derived from the basic textual energy of Virgil’s lines. Seriality in modern American poetry is what Joseph Conte calls a “modular form—in which individual elements are both discontinuous and capable of recombination.” Of note, “[t]he series resists a systematic or determinate ordering of its materials, preferring constant change and even accident, a protean shape and an aleatory method. . . . The epic goal has always been encompassment, summation; but the series is an ongoing process of accumulation” that “remains essentially and deliberately incomplete.” Such accumulation allows for narrative frames to build up, individual pages becoming both a continuation and new arrival of formal possibility in the narrative sequence as lyric voice assumes narrative accretion. It’s what Jack Spicer referred to as a kind of lyric orientation, where the unit of the poem contributes to, and is contained by, the unit of the whole. Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Joanne Kyger, and Jack Spicer were particularly drawn to seriality as a way to work in a longer poetic form while developing frames of lyric focus. Susan Howe, Nathaniel Mackey, Michael Palmer, and others retain and modify serial poetics in more recent writings, suggesting that seriality is not limited to a particular period of literary invention but remains a fluid, if not crucial, contemporary mode of the poetic process. Seriality, moreover, informs Spicer’s translations of Beowulf and the lyric poems of Federico Garcia Lorca, literary antecedents for Hadbawnik’s Virgil.

The new volume also in some ways pays homage to the medieval uses of the text, and goes a long way toward moving the narrative into the hands of contemporary readers, drawing out a playful understanding of the ancient text while exhibiting modern preferences for poetic interaction and inquiry into the history and terms of poetic form and translation. Hadbawnik shows the fun to be had in language’s etymological resonance, and he delights in scenes of dramatic fulfillment and failure. The serial poems composing each book of the epic distill the essence of the narrative by directing a reader’s perception of the tale. For instance, while Lombardo’s free-verse translation adapts an American vernacular, expressed in a free-verse form of roughly nine-to-twelve syllables per line to help approximate Virgil’s dactylic hexameter, he also adheres closely to the Roman poet’s narration of events. The contexts and psychology of Aeneas’s adventures are ordered and extended much as in the original. By contrast, Hadbawnik begins in medias res, stressing moments of conflict and action. Lombardo is already 110 lines into Book I when Hadbawnik opens his translation with an acknowledgment of terror as his point of commencement: “Aeneas gets scared. / Limbs loosened in fear, he / groans, bends over and / pukes over the boat’s / edge.” Lombardo does not draw so much emphasis to the experience of terror, acknowledging instead how “Aeneas’ limbs suddenly went numb with cold. / He groaned and . . . lift[ed] both palms to heaven.” While this volume presents only the first half of the epic (the final six books will appear in an upcoming collection), readers experience the journey of Aeneas from Troy to North Africa and then Sicily through Hadbawnik’s isolation and development of emotive states suggested in the original text. As a translation, readers experience states of mind and bodies of feeling that correlate with the horrific circumstances of battle, abandonment, and migration. Virgil’s most conceptual and compressed disclosures find in Hadbawnik new openings for emotional exploration. The serial format enables this sort of distillation from the larger narrative: it enables Hadbawnik’s sharp focus to draw out key textual moments while eliding more cumbersome descriptions and narrative set-ups found in the original.

Classicists might resist the revisionist approach, but Hadbawnik, working as a poet and medievalist, makes a claim for how Virgil might be read in our contemporary setting where the pathos of human migration and global conflict circulates in diversely mediated forms. In our own time, there is little access to ground-level information of actual lives, only acknowledgments of ongoing human crises in Syria, Greece, and elsewhere. In the Latin narrative, however, we are brought close to events. Book II, for instance, opens with the tale of Laocoön, who loses his children to giant serpents that “gulped down their little limbs.” The Trojan priest also succumbs to the snakes, sent by gods to exact vengeance on Laocoön for attempting to alert his fellow Trojans to the deceptive gift of a large wooden horse wherein Greek warriors were secreted. Hadbawnik’s gory treatment of the scene reinforces a mood of horror at ritual placation seen in the original, but it compresses the gruesome death of Laocoön and his children, bringing a kind of freeze-frame emphasis particularly close to the boys’s deaths.

The terror of Greek invasion, the migration west across the Mediterranean, and the fatal encounter with the Carthaginian queen appear as romantic episodes (in the classical sense) buoyed by immense bloodletting. The battle-weary migrants cross the Mediterranean, facing terrific consequences: some drown, some die by combat, others succumb to a divinely decreed fate few in the text are truly able to comprehend. Aeneas, portrayed as a kind of hunky jock in Hadbawnik’s wry treatment, leaves a bloody trail behind him, guided by divine reason toward Italy, where he will secure his name as founder of Rome. The adventure is often overcome with tragedy, stupidity. The stud hero is juxtaposed with inwardly meditative women like Dido who, midway through the volume, directs her wrath to the deceptive Trojan leader (who decides only after their sexual and material union to leave Carthage to complete his destined conquest of Italy):

I curse Aeneas one last time, him
and all his descendants. Let shores
clash with shores, arms
arms. Let him die, but not before
he’s stripped of Ascanius, not before
he sees innocent friends killed
simply and awfully, not until
he realizes there’s no peace
in his chosen land. Rise up,
Carthage, after I’m gone,
and piss on the bones of his
grandchildren. That’s the promise
I ask for this heart that still runs
hot with all of your blood.

Dido is one of the only sympathetic characters in the Aeneid, and it is hard not to wonder how her curse might have ramified across the millennia since its utterance. Her own troubling death—by self-impalement and immolation—provides a symbolic reprimand to Aeneas’s single-minded determination to found a new nation justified by conventions of piety.

The gods themselves—their petty divine jealousies—are often the originators of conflict in Aeneas’s world. Juno, for instance, who detests Troy due to ancient quarrels (Paris, a Trojan, once snubbed her in a beauty contest), “sends Iris down / from the sky to breathe / ill wind into the Trojan women / for her old sorrow is / not yet sated.” Iris presents herself in human form to the women, mocking their refugee status:

“O wretches,”
                      she says, “No Greek dragged you
here—unhappy race
                      what doom does fate hold for you?
Seven years now since Troy’s
                               fall, what wild seas
     sand                  stars
                               we’ve endured
                      chasing elusive
                               on waves

Hadbawnik’s Virgil suggests how power and personality can interfere in the lives of unfortunate people. It is hard not to notice the whims of power directing the fates of these women, and to be reminded of the recent winter suffering of refugees in Greece, Macedonia, and Calais, many children there shivering in damp clothes as it rained. Although contemporary geopolitical realities are not intentionally summoned by the new translation, the geographic similarities of the Mediterranean then and now, along with more recent implicit and explicit policies and revisions to immigration laws in parts of Europe, are unsettlingly prescient. The Aeneid at the very least provokes reminders of the human costs just behind the ongoing spectacles of assimilation.

The culture of Rome studied in medieval classrooms must have seemed adventurous, glorious. Hadbawnik’s language reinvigorates that romance in the play of language and in the formal arrangement of the translation. And yet that romance conflicts with historical reality, too, or at least is imposed spectacularly to seduce attention toward recognition of deeply contradictory impulses. Hadbawnik exposes the incongruence animating the tightly wound spectacle while somehow highlighting the human cost in the reinforcement of nation-states and their narratives. A clash of cultures and religions animated the Mediterranean Basin from the Asiatic East of Aeneas’s escape, across North Africa, and finally to southern Europe. But the romance is amplified with humor, knowing winks. The misogyny and violence of male dominance is particularly suited to Hadbawnik’s American vernacular. In Book V, for instance, Aeneas hosts a sporting event, and rewards his crew handsomely as a means of distraction from the bloody mess he left behind in Carthage. Sergestus, loser of a yacht race, “drags / his broken ship home to / no honor, only laughter. / But Aeneas doesn’t leave him hanging— / he gives him a Cretan slave girl / named Pholoe: not at all unskilled / in household chores.” Hadbawnik’s translation also nods at the exhaustive push behind Virgil’s self-consciously contrived text. When Aeneas travels to the underworld in Book VI we find him and his men:

walk[ing] alone through the homes of Dis
picking their way in
                      dubious moonlight
                      to the throat of hell
                      guided by Grief
                                                          oh yeah
                                              Sleep     and          Pleasure
                           in   evil deeds
                                                          War              Furies
                                                                              there are
                                             Briarus                       monster
                                                        of Lerna          and                Chimaera
                                                                    Gorgons and Harpies and

The “oh yeah” in the list of vile torments suggests a kind of knowing shrug toward Virgil’s oh-so-serious endeavor, and the staggered lines, open spaces, and ultimate placement of the hero in such hellish context guides a reading that is multiply layered and open to critical evaluation of the primary Latin text: Hadbawnik does not hold it sacred to the European canon, instead showing up its amazing linguistic feats but also calling into question the tribal mix of Mediterranean culture Virgil attempted to conscript to the cause of illustrating the rightness of Roman global supremacy.

“There are moments when Aeneas is just so dumb and inert,” Hadbawnik observed in a recent interview, “you can’t help but think that Virgil was making fun of him; and since he is an avatar of the Emperor Augustus, that’s playing with fire. . . . I am trying to have fun with Virgil and think through some of the really complex issues with narrative and power and image that the poem raises.” The serial framing of the poem, along with the typographic guidance of the reader’s eye across the page, helps stage a narrative structure with filmic intensity. And the pleasure Hadbawnik derives from Virgil’s Latin provides a lesson in how readers might attend ancient storytelling from our perspective today. Translation for Hadbawnik is a site of poetic play and textual investigation, and such an approach enlivens our ability to listen across time and culture as a way to better inform our own.