Rude Woods
by Nate Klug

Reviewed by Devin King


Published by The Song Cave, 2013   |   76 pages

Nate Klug’s Rude Woods, a loose translation of Virgil’s Eclogues that emphasizes a fluent, spoken language, is for readers, rather than scholars – which is not to say that it is lacking in ideas. Klug doesn’t so much re-imagine as re-invigorate; his is an assertion that translation should pull its material forward as much as reach backwards. The translations present themselves as the best always do, one poet engaging with another, listening, speaking as two.

The Eclogues was Virgil’s first book, written — we surmise — when he was in his late twenties/early thirties. The poems are imitations of the Greek poet Theocritus’ Bucolics, the models for the Western world’s pastoral tradition — shepherds and farmers sitting under trees in the country, discussing poetry and love. Virgil updates Theocritus by introducing into his work some political commentary, thereby resituating the previously apolitical, timeless world of the pastoral squarely in the real world of the Roman Republic.

As the work begins, Meliboeus, one of two characters in the first Eclogue, is being evicted from his farm, which has been seized by the state to be redistributed as compensation to veteran soldiers. On his way out, Meliboeus speaks to his friend Tityrus:

Beneath a beech tree’s woodsy extended protection, you’re studying, with that skinny pipe, how to woo the woodsy muse’s name; we’re leaving, kicked out by our own soldiers, exiled from these sweet fields’ escape.

To “lay back carelessly in the shade, / teaching the forests to echo / every last syllable of your [song]” could of course very easily be a selfish gesture, but in Virgil’s text it is also, to a degree at least, a protest, against the very real, very flawed Roman world.

After a love song and a singing contest in Eclogues II and III, Virgil switches into the visionary mode, foretelling – in lines that would eventually be appropriated by medieval Christian scholars as prophesying Christ – the coming of a Messiah. It’s wild stuff:

It’s here, the beginning, or the end, of everything, as the Sibyll had sung; time for the great order to start over, for Justice to return with golden Saturn; time for heaven to dispense a brand new race. So, Lucina, bless this baby, whose birth means the end of iron and the insurgence of a new kind of human being…

“It will be,” Virgil writes, “as if war had never happened.” “Trade won’t need to exist” and “the shepherd can unscrew his ox’s collar.” Good, but even better: “goats will guide themselves home,/ bursting with milk” (italics mine). Even stranger, “wool will never have to dye…/ right there, in the fields, grazing lambs will go red.” Finally, Virgil gets in on the goods: “neither Orpheus or Linus, / though both descend from the gods, will out-hymn me / …even Pan will see when he’s been beaten.” Virgil thus reinstates the Utopian bucolic world of Theocritus in his poem, albeit as a still awaited future.

Klug’s decision, as translator, to amplify the vernacular of Virgil’s Eclogues reinforces the sense in which the pastoral comes to be seen as a manifestation of a youthful psychic state (as opposed to any “account” of an earlier, actual stage of society). Here, a shepherd named Moeris laments the enormous cost of Empire and war:

It gives, then takes everything back, Time, even, especially, the mind. I can remember singing: a boy once, but me, Moeris, setting the long summer suns to rest with songs. Now they’re gone to me. Voice escaped my voice. Wolves watch me.

The Arcadias of our myths thus are revealed to be proto-political philosophies, utopia’s not from which we are fallen, but towards which we must strive.

To end here would be to be exiled forever from the Utopian dream of the pastoral. And so Virgil has Lycidas respond to Moeris, stressing that, even “among the leafless trees / stripped by jealous farmers,” life is flush with breathe and vitality:

C’mon, it’ll make the way less painful, singing and walking, walking and singing together like this. let me carry that basket for awhile.

It is possible, even with wolves at the door, to still sing. But to end on this Utopian note, too, would be false. Moeris thus responds:

Enough foolishness, Lycidas. You’re just a boy. The time for music’s gone. Menalcas is gone. For now we do what needs to be done.

As much as it employs poetry and song in vigorous protest, the Eclogues simultaneously performs the collapse of both under the unflinching realism of the now. Klug’s translation effectively connects our world — populated with its own generation of exiles — to Virgil’s Rome and beyond, back in time to as yet only imagined utopias of the future, where we might sing and converse plainly with ‘ripe apples, cooked chestnuts, and cheese.”

Devin King is a writer, musician, and teacher working in Chicago, IL. His long poem, “CLOPS,” is out from the Green Lantern Press, Chicago, where he is now the poetry editor. A new chapbook, The Resonant Space, is out from The Holon Press, Chicago. General info available here, and previous MAKE reviews available here, here, and here.

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