Natural Histories Editorial, March 2019
‘Of all things that came to be, the first were Chaos, and broad-bosomed Earth and Love most eminent of the immortals.’
Hesiod, Theogony (Tr. Armand Leroi)
Once all was chaos; in slow-time the European and African tectonic plates wrestled, bled, burnt and twisted one another, and the countries of the Mediterranean rose out of the sea. Granite intruded, marble buckled into pavements, sandstone bonded grain to grain. Water split rock and left it straddling the air. The slow grind is still happening, but like a blanket over this blasted geology spreads nature, to which humans cling, grubbing, plucking, farming, herding, shooting, and occasionally writing.
From Mycenaean tablets listing the fruits of harvest, the Pre-Socratic fysiologoi, Sappho’s naturalistic imagery, Aristotle’s search for the very nature of nature, to the Romans, exemplified in Pliny the Elder, who put flesh on the bones of a discipline called Natural History, nature took many forms in the literature of antiquity.
The writers and translators in this edition of Pericles at Play were faced not only with inquiring into nature on their own terms, but also with inquiring into those inquiring voices of antiquity. Several of them find that the way to hear these voices is through creative translation of ancient tragedy or lyric – a process of disintegration and reassembling, a natural history of the text itself. Others have taken the theme of ‘Natural Histories’ as their starting point for short fiction or poetry that hums with the bee-buzz of antiquity or glimmers with its light. As always, we have translated voices from modern Greece, reassessing the history – natural or more often unnatural – of their own country.
It is only natural that one of our contributors, Caitlin E. Barrett, draws directly on Pliny in her Three Natural Histories. Launching her poems from three passages of Pliny’s work, she weaves in and out of the ancient author – even directly rejecting him, invoking moon magic in the first poem – in a bare exposition of the trials of early motherhood. Pliny’s lines, cold and clinical, stand in juxtaposition to the cry of the narrator – the dried blood of the natural historian beside the hot blood of the living, nourishing poetic voice.
Nicolette D'Angelo’s Crane (after a passage of Euripides’ Helen) defies Plinian classification, transforming and mixing metal and clay with bird, feather and human as the poet-translator cycles through images of swan and crane, condemning receptions of Leda and the Swan that smooth over its violences. In a ‘collective daydream’, we are led via Euripides and Yeats through the natural history of a story of sexual violence, never reaching the bottom of the original trauma.
From loose translation of ancient Greek we move to a close translation of the modern tongue in Markos Meskos’ Five Poems, translated here for the first time. The selection from this post-war (or, more accurately, post-Civil War) poet from rural northern Greece explores the line between human and animal, and the violence of both, in the archetypal, semi-mythical setting of the Greek mountain village. Setting the tone for many subsequent Greek poets, Meskos also interrogates the clash of the natural and the artificial in a country that was rapidly urbanising.
Another brutal clash between nature and artifice is found in the metamorphoses of our next poem, Lewis Todd’s Care Crosses the River, which takes its name from Hans Blumenberg’s work of the same name. His light-footed work, like Blumenberg’s, explores antimonies and ambiguities, the poem slipping between grand narratives and fragments: suffering, selfhood, and beauty, birches, rivers, waterfalls, and rains. The poem’s phyllotaxis grows from yesteryear’s growth, grafting, and spread: – Lucretius, Shakespeare, John Clare are all added to the organism and dappled in the sun.
Light is also the subject of a relatively recent piece by the celebrated Greek writer Thanassis Valtinos, translated for the first time here by Joshua Barley as Cleft of Light. Twelve written snapshots, originally published alongside photographs by Jean-François Bonhomme (whose photographs also illustrated Jacques Derrida’s Athens: Still Remains), demonstrate Valtinos’ characteristically wide range of reference: from folk tradition to Byzantine theology to cubist painting, all of which look askance, even satirically, at hackneyed stereotypes of the ‘Greek light’. A blend of memoir, poetry, short story and creative non-fiction, Valtinos moves between genres as effortlessly as he moves through time: at light-bending speed.
Snapshots are colourised in Harriet Rix’s short story, The Love of a Shade and the Jealousy of an Aura. Advised to search for a pseudo-scientific healing connection with nature, the protagonist travels down to the Mani and up to Dodona in search of autumn crocuses. From inducing peace of mind as promised, this Lèvy flight impresses more deeply the inescapable brutality of nature, our age-old exploitation of it, and our current, absolute divorce.
Arabella Currie’s poised, intense Four Poems, where fittingly ‘tongues slide’, dwell both on alienation from nature and a celebration of the natural, giving us routes back into natural histories through language. Her mythic characters live in worlds of shifting colours and nature’s bodies: living lobsters, gulls, owls, ship-hit whales. Words stream, babble, and fall through air. Stesichorus’, Euripides’ and Hesiod’s descriptions of death form comparison and juxtaposition for contemporary losses. An extinction rebellion pamphlet could not state the biodiversity crisis more starkly than Currie’s Theognis: ‘start weeping for the scent of grass / about to disappear.’
In Tom Willis’s Field the intellectual lodestone of nature works not only across time but also across space, as a philhellene collapses on the bosomy hills of a borderland home. Far from the sun-smelling garlands of Sappho’s erotic imaginaries, green men are wreathed in ivy and anise turns to thin beer, but the veil between gods and men is as thin as ever, and an oracle is found where least expected.
The relationship of the foreigner to Greece is also the starting point of Joshua Barley’s The Shadow Beneath the Pines, a re-imagining of Edward Lear’s initiation in the Greek landscape. This short story blends folklore, diary and magic realism as we are led across the borders of myth and history by the reincarnation of Lear’s beloved cat, Foss – or rather, Φως. Once more we find that Natural History is, to quote George Seferis, a ‘matter of light’.