May 2000

Katharine Washburn


Katharine Washburn is a critic, novelist, poet, and translator of poetry from classical and modern European languages. She is the Co-Editor of Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture, World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time, Tongues of Angels, Tongues of Men: A Book of Sermons, translator of Paul Celan: Last Poems, and author of the forthcoming novel The Translator's Apology. She has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and served for four years as an NEA panelist.

Frigidity    Audio is currently unavailable for this selection

     (The Greek Anthology, V. 246)

"Call me Sappho," she said, just
before we climbed into bed. I should
have been out of there fast but then
her kisses were as soft as the skin
of those white arms winding around
me, every part soft but that
infrangible heart: hard as
diamond. The mouth too
was soft and loving but
never stopped saying:

Snow-white Sappho's hell
to take except for the man
with a thirst for the cup
of that dipso down there
who strains for a sip
and swallows the air.
Sappho and Tantalus,
a classical pair.
The girl

             from Lesbos

                          and the amorous




Hydrophobia     Audio is currently unavailable for this selection

(The Greek Anthology, V. 266)

The symptom's well known. Mad dog bites man.
Man fears water. Man sees wild dog
in water, cup, and well. Madman dies
of deep thirst,
raving at water.

Those love bites you gave me,
I think they were poisoned. Your teeth
sank deep and my heart drank the taint
and now I see your face in ocean
and stream and staring always from

the last cup of wine.*



For Departure     Audio is currently unavailable for this selection

     (The Greek Anthology, V. 241)

I'm about to say good-bye. Take care of yourself.
But then I bite my tongue and stay around
knowing I'd rather lie in hell than leave you.
It's night down there. The river's dark and bitter
and you're like the sunrise but daybreak's
silent so it's your voice that wakes me.
No music of the Sirens could be sweeter since
my ears are unsealed when you speak to
me alone, and then I hang on
for dear life and another dawn.



Life Everlasting     Audio is currently unavailable for this selection

     (The Greek Anthology, V. 236)

He endures, like the verb that gave him
that name: Tantalus, who has it better
in Hell. He never set eyes on you. His
hungry mouth never hung on yours

                                    moving away

like the cup of the rose

                                  I'm forbidden to taste.

Get drunk, Hell told him, lick up
your own tears. Swallow your tongue
like the starving, don't waste
a morsel. It's finished. There's
                                nothing to fear
when you're damned and the great rock
never falls. You only die once

                                   and never again.

I'm not dead yet. But desire
destroys me. From famine and thirst
                                   and over
                                                 and over again.



To Cypris     Audio is currently unavailable for this selection

     (The Greek Anthology, V. 234)

When I was young I hardened my heart
and never enrolled in
your Paphian cult.
O Goddess! I never endured
the flicks of your whip
                               and the pricks of your goad.

I stayed aloof
                               until I got old:
The neck bowed, but still proof
                               against those arrows
                               in youth
I kept sending back,
                              against your assault.

When I was young, I never gave in.
(You never, O Venus, got under my skin.)
So I bend to you now, Venus tout entière:
Have the last laugh, while gray stipples my hair.

                You’ve undone
                Athena once more
                like the contest
                      long past

               when you fought for
               the apple of gold from
                      the west.
                      You’ve won
                      at the last.

                 O Love you win and you win
                 Wisdom has lost.
                                 Just you take me in.


Paulus Silentiarius translated by Katharine Washburn

* Goblets passed around at banquets frequently were inscribed 
with a small, obscene sketch of lovemaking at the bottom.




Katharine Washburn: Translations
Copyright © 2000 The Cortland Review Issue 11The Cortland Review