Art Beck: Poet and Translator

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

I attended a high school that no longer exists. If one drives to the southwestern most corner of the continental United States, one can find some fairly new housing units across the street from the western side of St. Charles Catholic parish church. Marian High School used to be on that land, but its infrastructure was bulldozed several years ago after the school moved elsewhere in San Diego County and renamed itself, though it kept the lineage of its icon: “Crusaders.” As a Catholic school, Latin was the second language of choice back in the early 1960s.

The wisps of vocabulary and grammar that I retain from my studies over a half-century ago are embedded in memories of the priests who taught me. I remember in particular one who broadly hinted that there were texts full of forbidden thoughts and desires awaiting those whose mastery of this “dead” language was nimble enough to grant entrance. I switched to French once I started college, however, and several decades went by before I became familiar with the writing the priest had no doubt savored in his final years of seminary study.

If I admire translators of certain languages, such as Latin, more than others, it is in large part probably due to my own youthful struggles with its syntax. It’s a peculiar encounter indeed to read the Latin poets. Even without the original next to a translation, I can sometimes feel the tectonic plates of language’s continental drifts begin to jostle and quiver as they must have done when the translator began her or his trek. Or at least that’s the sensation when the candor of a translator, such as Art Beck, equals that of the resourceful poet.

Not being a specialist, I can’t accord with any authority the level of praise Art Beck probably deserves. Perhaps there are many other translators of Latin poetry who surpass his skill, but I haven’t run across them in my casual forays in classical verse. I can say that I always look forward to anything Beck translates, for he has the gift of tonal invocation from the outset of a poem that is rare enough in poems written in contemporary English, let alone in a language that is now primarily a matter of scholarship.

For those who have yet to become familiar with Art Beck’s own poetry, as well as his translations, I wish to share both links and a few of his recent poems.

Luxorius: Poems translated and introduced by Art Beck

Review: The Insistent Island by Art Beck

Art Beck: Two Latin poets

Art Beck: Doctor Fell

There is also a very fine article by Beck that I cannot seem to establish a link to in this blog post. However, if you type the words: “Latin Epigram Arr Beck LARB” into your browser, you should be rewarded with a way to access directly the Los Angeles Review of Books.


A poem is a tendril that can only move by growing…

If Einstein was right, if time’s just a dimension
like the other three, our distant descendants, even as
we speak, are already soaring out into the stars. This
twinkling city of perpetual light is ancient history
and living miracle combined. Dark and bright millenia,
disaster and revelation hold hands and dance.
And the clever young man I once was, looks
at his parody in the mirror and laughs.

The Skinning of Marsyas

in Ovid, begins in medias res.
Why? – the shocked satyr screams –
are you doing this? – aghast at
the god’s senseless cruelty.

Apollo, that serene thug, answers only
with a nod to the flensers to continue.

And the slippery innards of the great
howling creature spill out like worms
writhing in sudden daylight.

No song is worth this, the bleeding wretch
manages to gasp. These are his last words.

At least, as Ovid tells the story.
But it’s an old tale he’s telling.
Everyone knew it:

Athena’s idly discarded double-aulos
glittering in the meadowgrass. Marysas’s
innocent joy as he puffed his cheeks and

heard something wholly new: his own,
deepest, unique voice born in that numinous
instrument. An irresistably personal song

that only his moist hungry lips could coax
from the heavenly flute; a never before melody

that couldn’t fail to impress the smiling lord
of poetry, music, and the sun as he ambled
by and suggested a little game.

Not really a contest, more a sort of duet.
Marsyas would pipe, Apollo could
pluck at the lyre, maybe hum a bit.
But rather than perform together in

harmony, they’d alternate, And whoever
pleased the pasture lazing Muses more

would treat the loser to whatever pleased him.
What was Marsyas thinking? Certainly, not
what seething, insulted divinity had in mind.

The Field Trips of My Catholic Childhood

The Art Institute of Chicago, 1950

The religion of my early childhood
wasn’t so far removed from those nasty
medieval wood panels – the crowd of mockers,
their jaws stuck out sneering

at the soon to be risen, but still to be crucified
Christ. A patient, bleeding God, staggering
under the weight of blind human hatred.

Or the divine brutality of those other triptychs:
God and His angels serene in the center,
the peaceful departed, ushered into
paradise at the right hand of the Trinity.

But on the left panel, the damned – flesh torn by
hooks, pitchforked by demons into the gaping
maw of hell. What hope did any kid have

not to have nightmares when sweat
cassocked priests and halitose nuns
muttered their litany of sin and punishments?
At that tender age, God’s vengeance lurked

like the comic book ghouls in Tales
from the Crypt. He was everywhere
itching to get even. He could read

your inmost thought. He knew just when
you’d die and where. Whether you’d burn
or play the harp was very much
up for grabs. Those were the stakes at ten.

By thirteen, the equation began to muddle,
new gods began to whisper in my skin.
And now the angels were naked.

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