The Word Exchange

There's something about winter, with its outer gales and inner fires, that brings us back to the basics—hearth, home, tradition, song, and poem: even in its darkness, this season's inward turn kindles a warming sense of connection to the past. Greg Delanty and Michael Matto's lovely book of  Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation—released just in time for the solstice—participates in this return, inviting us anew into the earliest songs of the wandering, sea-faring, warmaking northern tribes whose speech patterns still form the English language's deepest roots. While much Anglo-Saxon poetry has been translated by scholars for scholars, this book lovingly gives each old poem to a contemporary poet, offering present-day readers a chance to hear Anglo-Saxon in a panoply of voices that reflect the original poems' diversity. In turn the ancient poems have fresh space to haunt us—forging as true an exchange of words as we muddled 21st-century types can hope to have with people who lived over a thousand years ago.


More often than not, the poems bring us into a common space we all yet share. In one poem, Eavan Boland captures the lament of an abandoned and exiled wife. In another, Mary Jo Salter gives voice to a seafarer who watches icy waves and curlews "though elsewhere men were laughing… though elsewhere men drank mead." Although that ancient anonymous bard reminds us that "No kinsman can console/ or protect a sorry soul," it's true that, by hearing these distant voices freshly, we can empathize anew with them, and also with ourselves. 

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