NEA Literature Fellowships

Aaron Poochigian

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(2011 - Translation)

Excerpt from "Jason Tames the Bronze, Fire-Breathing Bulls" from Apollonius' Argonautika, Book 3, 1278 -- 1313

[translated from Greek]

Soon as his shipmates bound the hawsers, Jason
vaulted ashore and swaggered to the lists,
on one arm shield and spear, and in the other
the burnished bowl of a bronze helm, brimful
of jagged fangs. Save for his blade and baldric,
he was all nude, like Ares, some would say,
or Lord Apollo of the golden sword.

His sweeping survey of the fallows found
a bronze yoke and a plough compact as iron,
its handle and harrow hewn out of one trunk.
Nimbly he jogged out to the plough and yoke
and, planting spear-butt in the soil, propped the
helm up against the shaft.  Then stripping down
to shield alone, he followed through a haze
of exhalation countless cloven hoof-prints
until he struck on something like a burrow
or buried stall. Thence the bulls burst abruptly,
muzzle and nostril of a sudden scorching
the air around him. Soldiers on the sidelines
recoiled in terror, but not Jason, no --
he spread his feet for leverage and stood firm,
taking the shock as a rock headland greets
the great waves rising from a sudden squall.
Roaring, they stabbed and slashed with brutish horn
and rammed his buckler with their brows, but Jason
never retreated, never gave an inch.

Imagine a black-smith's bull-hide bellows, now
launching a spire of cinders through a vent
while stirring up the deadly blaze, now wheezing,
now idle, and all the while infernal hiss
and flicker issue from the furnace-grate;
panting and gasping thus, the bulls snuffed thrice
and bellowed, and a brimstone blast consumed him --
fatal but for the maiden's sovereign salve.

He gripped the tip of a right horn and yanked
masterfully, muscles taut, until the neck
had met the yoke. A quick kick followed after,
foot against brazen fetlock, and the beast
was hunkering on its knees. A second kick
crumpled the other. Casting shield aside,
he bore, head-on, a swirling ball of flame
by gripping earth more widely with his feet,
his left hand and his right holding the bulls
bent over both on buckled knees.

Excerpt in Greek

About Apollonius' Argonautika

Apollonius' Argonautika, with its blend of myth and folktale, is one of those works that stay with a reader for life, haunting and perennially relevant. There is an outrageous cast of monsters, including the half-bird, half-woman Harpies and the bronze giant Talus. There is black magic; in fact, the witch-goddess Hecate herself grants power to Medea. Furthermore, in addition to Jason, there is a rich array of supporting heroes such as Herakles (Hercules) and the bard Orpheus. After years of reading the poem in the original, I felt a kind of compulsion to give an English-language audience the same pleasure I had experienced.

Aaron Poochigian attended Moorhead State University from 1991 to 1996 where he studied under the poets Tim Murphy and Dave Mason. He entered graduate school for Classics in 1997 at the University of Minnesota. After doing research in Greece on fellowship in 2003-4, he earned his PhD in 2006. He was D.L. Jordon Fellow at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, from 2008-2009 and now lives and writes in New York City.

Penguin Classics UK put out Stung with Love, his translation of Sappho in the fall of 2009. His translations of Aeschylus, Apollonius and Aratus appear in the Norton Anthology The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present, and Johns Hopkins University Press put out his edition of Aratus’ astronomical epic The Phaenomena in the spring of 2010. His work has appeared in such newspapers and journals as The Financial Times, Poems Out Loud, and Poetry Magazine.

Photo by Cricket Powell

Translator's Statement

I do, in fact, remember exactly where I was sitting when I decided to learn Latin and Ancient Greek and write poetry for the rest of my life. It was a bench in front of ivy-covered Weld Hall at what was then Moorhead State University. While doing my reading for a Humanities assignment, I came across the opening lines of Vergil's Aeneid in Latin and then their translation in English:

Arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam fato profugus Laviniaque venit . . .

I sing of arms and the man who, exiled by fate, first came
from the shores of Troy to Italy and the Lavinian shores.  

At that moment the heavens opened, the angels sang, and my future became clear. The English poets I most admired at the time, Milton, Shelley and Tennyson, all had a Classical education, so I would get one, too. I would then go on to be a poet, just like my heroes. Life was so simple back then.

Since that revelation I have done my best to hone my original poems and my translations to the point where sound and sense converge. Dionysius of Halicarnassus expresses my ideal perfectly, when says that the elegant style "judges what juxtapositions will be able to make the sounds more musical, and examines by what arrangements the words will produce the more attractive combinations, and so it tries to fit each word together, taking great pains to have everything planned and rubbed down smooth and all joints neatly dove-tailed."