“Some Saian mountaineer
Struts today with my shield.
I threw it down by a bush and ran
When the fighting got hot.
Life seemed somehow more precious.
It was a beautiful shield.
I know where I can buy another
Exactly like it, just as round.”
The poet is Archilochos, the translator Guy Davenport (7 Greeks, 1995). Davenport describes Archilochos (c. 680 B.C. – c. 645 B.C.) as “the second poet of the West” – that is, after Homer. We’re left with teasing scraps of his words, as with most of the early Greeks. Davenport writes:
“We have what grammarians quote to illustrate a point of dialect or interesting use of the subjunctive; we have brief quotations by admiring critics; and we have papyrus fragments, scrap paper from the households of Alexandria, with which third-class mummies were wrapped and stuffed. All else is lost. Horace and Catullus, like all cultivated readers, had Archilochos complete in their libraries.”
Despite the corrosions of time Archilochos leaves us with the sense of a sovereign voice, a collection of memorable human moments, a recognizable individual speaking to other individuals about things he thinks might interest them – fear, acquisitiveness, an aesthetic sense, a wry acceptance of one’s fate. Elberry has been reading Davenport (The Geography of the Imagination, Eclogues), investing a portion of his paltry teacher’s salary to acquire his books, and says this of Davenport’s translation (in an e-mail with the subject line “prudence”):
“The poem seems quietly faithful to the momentary sense of things, without elaboration or explanation - because, to quote V Woolf, the moment is enough - everything is given in these moments, all you have to do is record them, be faithful to the moment, without trying to make it something it isn't (but that is no easy thing).”
Two sorts of memory come to me when I recall my past: general impressions, as when I remember two years lived in Indiana (and this sort of recollection feels processed, second-hand, edited), and photographically vivid moments, combinations of event, sensory data and emotional content. The former are vague and useful; the latter, specific and precious. The vivid sort I acquire involuntarily. They happen, and I suspect cannot be willed. Oliver Sacks, in a footnote to Awakenings, describes the memory-inducing qualities of L-DOPA on his patients:
“These sudden revocations of personal memories have nothing of the `dead’ quality of re-run documentaries, but are experienced as intensely moving re-livings of one’s past, vital recollections (akin to those of the analysand or artist) by which one recollects one’s `lost’ identity, one’s continuity with the forgotten past. The quality of these recaptured moments shows us the quality of experience itself, and reminds us (as Proust is continually at pains to show) that our memories, our selves, our very existences, consist entirely of a collection of moments.”
“Be faithful to the moment,” as Elberry says. They’re nearly all we have.