The Aeneid—From Books 1 and 2. Translated by David Hadbawnik. Illustrations by Carrie Kaser. Little Red Leaves Textile Series, 2013

Reviewed by Lisa Ampleman

[Review Guidelines]

In David Hadbawnik's translation of the Aeneid, Aeneas describes the Trojans who flee after Priam's death as "pussies." He calls Helen of Troy "that bitch," and Hector, in a dream, says to Aeneas, "RUN / fuckhead." These are not the words of a stilted, archaic epic. This chapbook is faithful to the themes and plots of Virgil, but Hadbawnik's language makes the Aeneid entirely new, a la Anne Carson.

The short form of the chapbook necessitates a truncation of the story, and Hadbawnik, a medieval scholar who has edited two different translations of Beowulf, has chosen well. He skips the "of arms and a man" opening for a more lyrical scene when Aeneas and his men land in Libya, "wringing their soaking limbs out on shore." Soon after, in three key scenes, we see the meddling of Venus, Aeneas's mother, who sends him to Queen Dido's palace and then transforms Cupid into the image of Aeneas's son, Ascanius, to bring Dido and Aeneas together. And in a story about the fall of Troy, Venus also tells her son to "RUN / ... save your ass and your family/ while I hover nearby watching out." The chapbook emphasizes the heavy hand of the gods, beings who fight a war through others and determine Aeneas's fate.

The emotional center of the book, though, is the sack of Troy—the rest is necessary set-up to get to the harrowing narrative, told in the rough language a soldier would use. It's impossible not to think of our contemporary wars and how this translation comments on them through its choices. For example, instead of being speared in the side, Priam is raped by Greek soldiers (the phallic symbol becoming literal). He "whined out his soul like an old hag," Aeneas tells us, and we think of the stories of war crimes that have emerged from recent conflicts. In addition, our movies and books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed that soldiers, not surprisingly, have salty language. So, how would a member of the armed forces describes the gods working against him? Those gods helping Greece would not be "dreadful shapes" (A.S. Kline's 2002 translation) but "divine mother-fucking cocksuckers fighting for Greece."

Juxtaposed with the gore and horror are Carrie Kaser's amazing illustrations, which evoke both the soft touch of watercolor and the grittiness of smudged charcoal. Deer and sheep graze. Swans, like the ones Venus describes "flock[ing] and sing[ing] in the sky," soar, and some "in a long line look down / at the others," echoing the image of the wandering men of Troy. Although we see the smoke of destruction in other images, and a body amidst rubble, we do not see the most traumatic moments, including the rape of Priam or the death of Laocoön and his sons.

The chapbook ends as Creusa's shade ("familiar and strange all at once") tells Aeneas to leave ("RUN," she says, that capitalized word appearing throughout Book II), and he exits "broken Troy" with his father, son, and remaining men. Because Dido was built up as a character in the excerpts from Book I, I wondered if we'd get more of her story—though we didn't here, perhaps we will in the next installment of the series, due out soon. This book, just the right size for a pocket or purse, is a beautiful artifact in its own right, with a soft cloth cover and hand-stitched bindings; I look forward to seeing what choices Hadbawnik and Kaser make for future volumes.