after Jacob Balde
somewhere a cartographer spilled his inkwell.
It’s been ten years
since your darkness crept up
and held me.
My jailer hands me one candle a week.
Its flame hopscotches mountaintops
before drowning in a fogbank.
Meanwhile the moon’s dull shield
blunts the light these rolled sheets spyglass.
Once, from the high window
bars, a crow’s eye
caught my likeness. Imagine these eyes
transfixed by carrion. That’s the furthest
my visage now travels.
Even starlight, ever chartable, won’t lead me
back to my hometown’s
stained glass. I’ve not the astronomy
to constellate an exit.
I aim instead to travel on a cellmate’s lips,
this little song whispered on the gallows.
Does the hangman still lunch
under the church bells?
So scared am I of the mildly deaf
that I dedicate these words
to anyone who’d bellow them over a windstorm.
I’ll hold fast till they’re cast
I want my song audible to ironmongers.
For years now I have, when the inclination presents itself, gone foraging for poems in a forgotten corner of world literature: Neo-Latin verse. My work in this vein cannot be called translation, not really, as fidelity to a source text—however one defines it—is never foremost on my mind. I’ll steal a voice, an image, or a series of rhetorical pivots, and then build a poem I could safely call my own. I’ve referred to my final products as adaptations, though Lowell’s term, "imitations" —a term he borrowed from Dryden—resonates as well. As Lowell writes in his controversial introduction to Imitations (1961), his Sappho, Mandelstam, and Rilke should be read as “one voice running through many personalities, contrasts and repetitions.”
If I have escaped the criticism leveled at Lowell, it is only because my poets are less revered. Matthias Sarbiewski, Giovanni Pontano, and Jacob Balde aren’t household names today, though this is mostly because they wrote in Latin after the vernacular took hold. Some were Jesuits, and Latin was essential to their profession. Others just made better poems in their adopted tongue. Their “mistake,” however, is my boon. These are wonderful poets to pilfer, and if it’s possible to advocate for an original while simultaneously adapting it to my own ends—well, that is what I aim to do. The title of my first book, Other Romes (2011), links these writers to a shared past; the title of my current manuscript, The Identity Thief, owns up to the voices I occasionally borrow, doing so with only a small acknowledgement of my debt.
A note then on the original poem: Jacob Balde’s “Melancholia” documents the poet’s grief at being stranded, for much of his life, in Bavaria. Born in Ensisheim in Alsace, he studied law at the University of Ingolstadt. When the Thirty Years War broke out he remained in Germany, unable to return home. The original Latin poem (and a literal prose translation) can be found in Fred J. Nichols’s An Anthology of Neo-Latin Poetry (Yale UP, 1979). For additional Balde poems, see Mertz and Murphy’s Jesuit Latin Poets of the 17th and 18th Centuries (Bolchazy-Carducci, 1989).