12.04.10, Patton, Curious Masonry

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Norma J. Engberg

The Medieval Review 12.04.10

Patton, Christopher. Curious Masonry: Three Translations from the Anglo-Saxon. Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspreau Press Limited, 2011. Pp. 48. ISBN: 9781554470938.

Reviewed by:
Norma J. Engberg
University of Nevada at Las Vegas

In this slim volume, Curious Masonry, Christopher Patton works with three familiar poems from the Exeter Book: The Wanderer, The Seafarer and The Ruin. In his preface, Patton explains: "I thought to offer the poems at one (medieval) moment of embodiment, then at another (modern) moment, then to ride the Heraclitean flow the poems mean and are. The first required setting aside their transmission history, the second using that history fully, and the third a free hand with a thick black marker" (7-8). Following his own prescription, he presents the Old English (hereafter OE) texts on the verso and, choosing to be closer to their spirit than to their letter, his current English (hereafter CE) versions, on the recto. He describes his final experiment Hearth as a mix of his Anglo- Saxon and current English versions of The Earthwalker; he has deliberately omitted phrases and added stars to create a "palimpsest" which he imagines "resist[ing] translation" and "falling into silence" (10). The poet is a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah. His translation of The Earthwalker first appeared in Western Humanities Review. The University of Utah and the Academy of American Poets awarded Hearth the Craig Arnold Memorial Poetry Prize.

Patton acknowledges The Exeter DVD edited by Bernard J. Muir (2006) as the source of his Old English texts. He claims to present the original without emendations, but shows caesuras, line breaks, and stanza breaks. He retains the scribe's capitalization, punctuation, runic letters, abbreviations, variants, and irregular word spacing in hopes, he adds in a footnote, that such "versions of the poems might contribute to an ongoing conversation about the role of editorial intervention in the reception of pre-modern texts" (8).

Turning to the Patton's recto versions in CE, the reader finds that the sense of the original is being faithfully conveyed. In addition, the reader hopes that the rhetorical devices which decorated the original are preserved in the translation in so far as this is possible, given the differences between synthetic OE and analytic CE. Examples of this retention in Patton's version of The Earthwalker are the synecdoche on his l. 3, the single aphorisms on his ll. 16-17 and ll. 77-8, the two aphorisms at the end of the poem on his ll. 119-124, and the ubi sunt construction on his ll.96- 98.

More specifically, the modern poet-translator has to consider which of the five characteristics of OE poetry s/he will imitate in preparing her/his poem. First s/he studies the OE metrical practices of (1) caesura, (2) alliteration, and (3) stress patterns. In OE, the long- line is divided into two half-lines by a caesura. The two half-lines are linked by the alliteration of stressed content-word syllables, usually one in the first half-line and one or two in the second half- line. Additionally, each half-line exhibits a stress pattern; these are illustrated most simply by "Siever's five lines" which show different arrangements of the two stressed syllables in relationship to neighboring unstressed syllables. Stress patterns in any two half- lines need not match (see A Guide to Old English by Bruce Mitchell and Fred Robinson [2007], pp. 161-167). Additional considerations for the poet-translator are (4) economy and (5) tone. By economy is meant the number of syllables in a line of poetry; OE has a minimum of eight, but it can have as many as fourteen and hypermetric lines may have eighteen. By tone is meant objectivity vs. subjectivity, the formal vs. the colloquial. In OE poetry, no matter how devastating the persona's disasters, s/he still speaks of them and self objectively and formally. Patton's The Earthwalker, for example, does not indicate caesura by a centrally located white space; it shows alliteration more frequently between lines rather than within a line, does not imitate OE stress patterns, and slips occasionally into the colloquial. Because its lines are limited to 8-9 syllables, the translation contains more lines (many are not end-stopped) than the OE original (124 vs. 115); this means that the translation cannot serve as a guide to the OE on the verso. (Patton's translation of The Ruin, however, more closely imitates the OE with its more frequent in-line alliteration, tighter line match, and implied caesuras.)

Blurring time and sense boundaries as it is intended to do, Paxton's Hearth, the hacked-up version mixing OE and CE fragments with numerous stars, ably pictures the earthwalker persona, the old man-- isolated by his losses and imprisoned by Alzheimer's--near death, or as the revenant, which was first suggested by Raymond P. Tripp, Jr. in his 1972 Papers on Language and Literature article, "The Narrator as Revenant: A Reconsideration of Three Old English Elegies."

This book will not encourage readers who are curious about how the original Old English might have sounded, for it fails to provide discussion of allophonic variants and directions for reversing the Great Vowel Shift. It will not encourage budding translators, for it obscures all the real problems--manuscript conditions, necessary emendations, dialectal variations--and fails to provide a grammar and a glossary. Because it lacks an essay on the poems' cultural/historical context (for example, the lord-retainer relationship, the ubi sunt echoes, the goals of Anglo-Saxon seafaring, the association of the ruins with Roman occupation), and does not encourage further reading by providing a Bibliography of interpretative scholarship, such as The Old English Elegies edited by Martin Green (1983), it does not cultivate reader curiosity about the original audience who heard these poems recited and the literary traditions of the place and period that produced them. Instead, it invites the casual reader to provide his own interpretations, out of his own life experiences, and then tricks him into believing that he has understood what he has read.

If it is not aimed at either scholars or students, what is this book intended to do? Does it perhaps say something about post-modern us? Yes! On the one hand, that the poet understands us as shameless consumers of past cultures; we chew them up, then heedlessly spit out fragments/crumbs while our insatiable hunger hurries us on to the next feast. On the other hand, that the poet is hearkening to a voice familiar in post-Christian America where depression is rampant and lost moral values are frequently lamented.

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Author Biography

Norma J. Engberg

University of Nevada at Las Vegas