The Word Exchange

There’s something about winter, with its outer gales andinner 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 warmingsense of connection to the past. Greg Delanty and Michael Matto’s lovely bookof  Anglo-Saxon poetry intranslation—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 Englishlanguage’s deepest roots. While much Anglo-Saxon poetry has been translated byscholars for scholars, this book lovingly gives each old poem to a contemporarypoet, offering present-day readers a chance to hear Anglo-Saxon in a panoply ofvoices that reflect the original poems’ diversity. In turn the ancient poemshave fresh space to haunt us—forging as true an exchange of words as we muddled21st-century types can hope to have with people who lived over athousand years ago.

More often than not, the poems bring us into acommon space we all yet share. In one poem, Eavan Boland captures the lament ofan abandoned and exiled wife. In another, Mary Jo Salter gives voice to aseafarer who watches icy waves and curlews “though elsewhere men werelaughing… though elsewhere men drank mead.” Although that ancientanonymous bard reminds us that “No kinsman can console/ or protect a sorrysoul,” it’s true that, by hearing these distant voices freshly, we canempathize anew with them, and also with ourselves.