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We’re all Praxillas now…
Or at least Adonises.
Praxilla was a woman poet writing in the 5th century BC. While famed in her time as an equal to lyric poets Alcaeus and Anacreon, she is known now almost entirely for one fragment, that was proverbial in ancient times for its “silliness.” In it, Adonis is answering the shades of the dead who want to know what he most misses about the upper world.
Finest of all the things I have left is the light of the sun,
Next to that the brilliant stars and the face of the moon,
Cucumbers in their season, too, and apples and pears.
(translated by Bernard Knox).
Somehow ranking ripe cucumbers so close after the celestial bodies was, in ancient times, a ridiculous lapse of taste. (Is it the humbleness or the phallic shape of the cucumber that makes it so risible?) Now, this seems charming, and suits our contemporary aesthetic of praising the humble and quotidian. Doesn’t it seem that every time you open a magazine, someone is praising their morning oatmeal, exalting their suburban cul-de-sac, hymning a cup of filter coffee?
There were so many conversations going on during my tenure at Harriet that, inevitably, some interesting tangents were never followed. I remembered that Stephen Burt had brought up Michael Longley’s Praxilla poem, but we seemed to have dropped it there. So I don’t know what Burt was going to say about it. But I have been thinking about Praxilla and her Adonis lately.
The Michael Longley poem goes thus:
Sunlight strews leaf-shadows on the kitchen floor.
Is it the beech tree or the basil plant or both?
Praxilla was not feeble-minded to have Adonis
Answer that questionnaire in the underworld:
‘Sunlight’s the most beautiful thing I leave behind,
Then the shimmering stars and the moon’s face,
Also ripe cucumbers and apples and pears.’
She is helping me unpack these plastic bags.
I subsist on fragments and improvisations.
Lysippus made a bronze statue of Praxilla
Who ‘said nothing worthwhile in her poetry’
And set her groceries alongside the sun and moon.
Setting her groceries alongside the sun and moon seems exactly right for us—that this is as it should be Have contemporary poets simply lost a taste for the sublime, the exalted, the majestic? Ange Mlinko kindly mentioned my Lucretius translation in her recent post on campuses and Epicurean gardens. Certainly Lucretius is a poet for whom no subject is too grand or too humble—I’m sure he would be as eager to talk about vegetables as lunar eclipses.
Maybe, too, part of our urge to praise everything is that we are bearing witness to so many disappearances, so many extinguishings—humble but miraculous things like frogs and bats, bees and flowers, things we too often take for granted, underfoot and skittering overhead, vanishing unsung from our lives.
Were we to discover a new planet tomorrow that had some amoebas or algae on it, would we not be besides ourselves with wonder and amazement? Yet things infinitely more complex and beautiful are vanishing from our own world every day.
If someone asks us in some sterile afterworld what it is we miss, surely the humblest fruit, sweet and juicy and real, will be equal to the distant constellations.