With translation, it’s hard to know if the smart-aleck is the “original” writer, or the translator. We’ve seen this dilemma, for example, when the impish Paul Muldoon translates the somewhat heavier verse of Nuala Ni Dhomnaill from Irish to English. Today we have the Roman poet Martial coming to us via the typewriter of William Matthews. I’m guessing the modern pole in this dyad has something to do with the smart-ass nature of today’s selections, given that he himself created a book of poems called “one-liners.” But then I know nothing of the source material, so perhaps today’s special guest reader, or another MV familiar, can straighten us out. Anyway, these don’t need much preamble for enjoyment: they’re like getting a text message from Leon Jacobson. -ed.
“Tell me the truth, Mark,” you insist,
“What do you really think?”
When you recite your poems or plead
a client’s case, you cry,
“You can be candid with me, pal,
what do you really think?”
I won’t refuse you now. I think
you’re asking me to lie.
Ted’s studio burnt down, with all his poems.
Have the muses hung their heads?
You bet, for it was criminal neglect
not also to have sauteed Ted.
That plush hair Fabulla wears?
It’s hers, Fabulla swears.
I’ve no reason to deny it:
I saw Fabulla buy it.
You sold a slave just yesterday
for twelve hundred sesterces, Cal;
at last the lavish dinner you’ve
long dreamed about is in the pan.
Tonight! Fresh mullet, four full pounds!
You know I’ll not complain, old pal,
about the food. But that’s no fish
we’ll eat tonight; that was a man.
You announce that you are beautiful
and insist that you are young;
Bassa, if either claim were true
you’d hold your blowsy tongue.
Old friend, suppose luck grants to us
days free of fret, that shadow life,
how would we live then? No foyers
to stall in, no butlers to schmooze,
no lawsuits, not one working lunch,
no ancestral busts. Instead:
strolls, bars, bookshops, the fields,
shaded gardens, cold baths from the Aqua
Virgo and warm baths from the others–
these will be our office and our work.
We toil too much for others. Days
flicker by and then are billed,
one by one, to our accounts. Since we know
how, let’s start really living now.