Once upon a time, there was a woman who missed her boat.

The names are unimportant. Think of how she must have felt that night.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who was wrongly imprisoned on an island.

How did she sleep that first night she was free again?

Once upon a time there was a musician who wore leopard print, 

played the drums, played until she couldn’t.

 

Just like those women, your mother seemed to me as she contemplated sleep,

her head resting in dream-twitching hands,

while I drag my feet to bed like a drunk drags his words.

Already the bed lamps are off and the light above the stove.

I, not having lost all my senses at so late an hour, 

try to go to her ever so gently in that sleep-kissed bed.

Twin impulses of love and passion, harsh taskmasters, 

direct me seized with a sudden glow 

to reach out to her as she rests on her cheek on her shoulder,

gently take up arms and kisses with my hand.

I had not yet dared to disturb the lady’s—your mother’s—rest,

fearing the angry protests of one who’s had enough of today.

So there I was, stuck, my eyes rooted as I gazed at her,

like a hundred-eyed watchman stares at a girl with horns on her head.

 

It’s late at night when I want to give her a crown to wear,

when I like tucking her hair that’s fallen in her face behind an ear,

when I go searching in my pockets (I have no pockets) 

for stolen fruit, coins, jewels, any offerings 

to this sleeping goddess unapproachable—

how they’d tumble from my hands.

Every time she sighs with the smallest flutter,

I’m frozen, tricked by this false alarm, worried

I’ll dislodge novel fears in her dreams if I wake her,

or that she’ll mistake me for a stranger.

 

When suddenly the moon, running through window after window,

the moon, its light lingering like a gossip hound,

opens her closed eyes in a wavering moonbeam and

she says to me, arched like a question mark on her elbow,

“At last some rejection brings you back to our bed,

throws you out the closed doors of another?

So, where have you spent the long hours of my night,

so tired, poor baby, the stars called back to their posts,

like a dishonored husband is turned out of his house, like a switchblade 

turns out of its case in a homeward bound woman’s hand.

I wish you could court nights like these,

just as you require I always have.

 

“Now I’ve been untrue to my rest, knitting myself tired with 

scarlet thread and sad love songs.

Sometimes I used to moan to myself gently like an owl when you stood me up,

your frequent absences long while you were in love with another:

then sleep ushered me on happy wings falling—like the untucked hair in my face.

There was a last time you made me care enough to cry.”



Original ↓

Qualis Thesea iacuit cedente carina

languida desertis Cnosia litoribus;

qualis et accubuit primo Cepheia somno

libera iam duris cotibus Andromede;

nec minus assiduis Edonis fessa choreis

qualis in herboso concidit Apidano:

talis visa mihi mollem spirare quietem

Cynthia consertis nixa caput manibus,

ebria cum multo traherem vestigia Baccho,

et quaterent sera nocte facem pueri.

hanc ego, nondum etiam sensus deperditus omnis,

molliter impresso conor adire toro;

et quamvis duplici correptum ardore iuberent

hac Amor hac Liber, durus uterque deus,

subiecto leviter positam temptare lacerto

osculaque admota sumere tarda manu,

non tamen ausus eram dominae turbare quietem,

expertae metuens iurgia saevitiae;

sed sic intentis haerebam fixus ocellis,

Argus ut ignotis cornibus Inachidos.

et modo solvebam nostra de fronte corollas

ponebamque tuis, Cynthia, temporibus;

et modo gaudebam lapsos formare capillos;

nunc furtiva cavis poma dabam manibus:

omnia quae ingrato largibar munera somno,

munera de prono saepe voluta sinu;

et quotiens raro duxti suspiria motu,

obstupui vano credulus auspicio,

ne qua tibi insolitos portarent visa timores,

neve quis invitam cogeret esse suam:

donec diversas praecurrens luna fenestras,

luna moraturis sedula luminibus,

compositos levibus radiis patefecit ocellos.

sic ait in molli fixa toro cubitum:

‘tandem te nostro referens iniuria lecto

alterius clausis expulit e foribus?

namque ubi longa meae consumpsti tempora noctis,

languidus exactis, ei mihi, sideribus?

o utinam talis perducas, improbe, noctes,

me miseram qualis semper habere iubes!

nam modo purpureo fallebam stamine somnum,

rursus et Orpheae carmine, fessa, lyrae;

interdum leviter mecum deserta querebar

externo longas saepe in amore moras:

dum me iucundis lassam Sopor impulit alis.

illa fuit lacrimis ultima cura meis.’

Translator's Note

Propertius’s style is notoriously difficult, typified by an inattention to prosaic grammatical rules, mythic allusion, abrupt transitions in subject and diction, neologisms, unusual vocabulary, and the corrupted state of the surviving manuscripts. My approach to this selection from his first book is to shift the subject away from the romantic to the familial, in anticipation of my first child. Sometimes, the implied “Cynthia” is my future daughter, and other times it’s her mother. In the case of obscure mythical allusions, I’ve left them vague, so that they’re recognizable to readers acquainted to classical mythology while still retaining the skeleton of facts necessary to be understood by a non-specialist. For example, the “woman who missed her boat” in the first line of the poem is Ariadne, the Cretan princess of Greek myth. Propertius describes her obliquely, first by specifying her boat as Thesea (i.e., belonging to Theseus, who famously abandoned Ariadne on an island after she helped him defeat the Minotaur), and then calling her Cnosia (“the Cnossian”) referring to her homeland on the island of Crete. Lyric poetry at the time was marked by the poet's ability to fill the page with a dense forest of these sly nods to classical stories, and so I've tried to retain their subtlety in my translation. Propertius’s poetry is self-aware about its own melodrama and its hero’s foibles, and his subject matter often focuses on the everyday, so his work runs parallel tracks with a young new father like myself.


CB Brady

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In the Classroom

Soporific Diversion: In the Translator's Note, CB Brady describes how his approach to translating Propertius includes shifting “away from the romantic to the familial.” Push this idea further by reimagining the poem as a bedtime story or lullaby sung to a child. If a bedtime story, construct a cast of characters based on the figures that appear in the poem, and retell the events between them in the style of a conventional fairytale or adventure. If a lullaby, distill the verses down to their most basic elements and choose one or two lines to be the refrain that recurs between stanzas or sections.
Bonus points if you test out its soporific efficacy on a restless baby, or any other loved one, pet, or plant.

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