Book Bag: ‘River Voice’ by Gary Metras; ‘Four by Euripides’ by Robert Bagg

Published: 1/10/2020 8:59:36 AM
Modified: 1/10/2020 8:58:57 AM

RIVER VOICE

By Gary Metras

Adastra Press

Aside from his writing, Easthampton’s first-ever poet laureate, Gary Metras, has a number of other passions in his life. One is running Adastra Press, a publishing business specializing in handset type and letter-press printing that focuses on poetry collections and chapbooks. The other is fishing — fly-fishing in particular.

Metras’ newest poetry collection, “River Voice,” is dedicated to the meditative joys of casting for trout on the rivers and streams of western Massachusetts. Though the beauty and mystery of the natural world has long been an important theme in Metras’ work, in more recent years he has expanded that vision, looking at nature through the prism of fishing, the flow of water and his own place in that world.

In a mix of mostly short, free-verse poems and some longer prose poems, Metras offers close observation of his fishing expeditions to a range of places — the Westfield, Housatonic, North and Swift rivers as well as other spots in between — noting how the landscape can change from year to year, as in “Parable of the Bobcat and the Osprey,” where the water now flows differently on a section of the Swift River.

“Last year a bobcat napped on the tree that fell across / the river in that heavy snow storm a few years ago, / so that the pool the tree forced the river to scour // is now the Bobcat Tree Pool. Perhaps the cat / slept to dream of succulent trout too deep for it to claw out of the water, where so many fly fishermen // leave shaking their heads in empty bewilderment / after they tried and failed to fool any fish in this pond.”

The places Metras fishes, often in cold weather that numbs fingertips and toes, also give him opportunities to watch a wide range of other creatures — otter, mink, kingfishers, clouds of insects — take their place in the dance of life. In the poem mentioned above, there’s a laugh-out-loud moment in a later stanza when an osprey swoops down into the same Swift River pool that defies fishermen and grabs an enormous trout in its talons — then is forced to release it because the fish is too heavy to carry away.

And in “A Strand of Partridge Feather,” the poet finds the connections between fishing and other aspects of life, calling them “The pleasure of small tasks, / tying some flies, / reading some pages / of a friend’s new book of poems. I pick up a pencil to mark / a line beautifully formed / and stuck to the knife-sharpened point, / a single strand of partridge feather / clinging to the graphite.”

In the end, “River Voice” is also a plea for a simpler, less-hectic life, one in which people might live more in the moment and find contentment in the natural world and simply “being.”

Indeed, the conclusion of the prose poem “On the Last Day of the Year” recalls the end of Norman MacLean’s novella “A River Runs Through It,” in which MacLean finds an inner peace as he fishes on a Montana river, thinking of the passage of time and the people now gone from his life. In Metras’ poem, the narrator fishes alone on a section of river in deep winter and still finds delight even as the trout he’s trying to land gets away.

Delight, because he’s simply “one more / feature of this little environment,” a place where everyone can find value in simply “spend[ing] a few hours outside / a box, breathing fresh, cold air, watching water flow / beyond themselves, water that is rich with purpose, with / destination, even if we don’t know what these are ...”

FOUR BY EURIPIDES: MEDEA, BAKKHAI
HIPPOLYTOS, AND CYCLOPS

Translated by Robert Bagg

University of Massachusetts Press

robertbagg.com

Robert Bagg, professor emeritus of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has had a varied career as a writer and poet, and as a translator of ancient Greek plays. His earlier translations of the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, according to publisher notes, have been performed over 70 times on a variety of stages.

Bagg, a 1957 graduate of Amherst College, also co-authored a biographical study of the late poet Richard Wilbur in 2017.

In “Four by Euripides,” published by UMass Press, Bagg offers four new translations of works by Euripides, believed to have been born about 480 BCE and considered, along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, one of three great Greek tragedians of the fifth century BCE.

The plays in question — “Medea,” “Bakkhai,” “Hippolytos” and “Cyclops” — don’t make for light reading. Bagg writes in an introduction that all four “dramatize violence committed by characters who punish those who have hurt or offended them.” Murder of offspring, either youths or young adults, by a parent is a recurring theme. Suicide, flesh-devouring acid and deliberate blinding of a character are involved as well.

That’s not for gratuitous purposes, Bagg writes: “Each of these four plays confronts us with Euripides’ view of the violence inherent in human nature.”

The new translations, according to publisher notes, are made in iambic pentameter, “a meter well suited for the stage. They sustain the strengths that Bagg is known for: taut and vivid language and faithfulness to the Greek.” The books also include introductions to the dramas, explanatory notes and stage directions that evoke the plays’ original ancient settings.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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