The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with A. E. Stallings
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
As a poet, I want to say a text—poetry does often comfort, and sometimes comfort is its purpose—and I find the act of translation very grounding, where you are wrestling with words and phrases and syntax and diction and tone. (I am currently wrestling with Virgil’s Georgics.) Maybe the Latin and Greek themselves are what comforts me—I might even say the Greek Alphabet! I found a discarded Greek Scrabble game over Christmas and eagerly scooped up all the letters and I treasure them!
But being in Athens, I think maybe it’s museums and objects—when museums have been open. It has been kind of wonderful, during some of the lockdown when museums (and sites) were still open, to be there even in spring and summer and be almost alone. We dragged our kids to a lot of museums during these windows.
And then I was thinking of favourite objects in museums—objects that I always “visit” when I get the chance. One that I always make time for is the figure nicknamed the “Little Refugee” (Prosfygaki) in the National Archaeological Museum.
When did you first come across this figure?
I couldn’t even say—we’ve been here over 20 years now. But I think I became more aware of its history during 2016 when the waves of refugees were coming through Piraeus and Athens, and I became involved in volunteer work.
Can you tell me a bit about the figure and its context?
The figure isn’t an artistic masterpiece, but it is full of charm—it is 61 cm high, of a chubby little boy, a toddler maybe, naked except for a hooded travelling cloak (a hoodie, if you will), and awkwardly clutching a fluffy puppy. It is supposed to be a Roman copy of a 3rd century BC original, and was discovered in Asia Minor in modern Turkey. One of the things that gives it special resonance is that it was brought to Athens by Asia Minor Greeks who were themselves refugees in the population exchange of 1922/1923.
What is it about this figure that appeals to you most?
I think living in Athens I find it appealing when we know something about the modern history of ancient objects, when they speak diachronically. The statue is timeless in a sense—the joy of a little boy clutching his puppy—but also time-ful, as people choose to see it as a symbol of refugee life, his travelling cloak, his lack of other clothing or belongings, and holding on to something that gives him joy and hope, that the statue itself has been “uprooted” and “rehomed.” That it spoke to people in 1922 in one way, and in 2016 in a similar but different way. And of course… puppy!
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I like to knit—there is something very satisfying in the busy-ness of the fingers and the mathematical calculations, something pleasingly tactile in fine quality wool, and at the end, you have something useful, like a sock! And I do love that fibre arts link me in some way to the lives of ancient women too.
A.E. Stallings is a poet, critic, and translator who lives in Athens. Her most recent verse translations are Hesiod’s Works and Days (Penguin Classics) and the Pseudo-Homeric Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice (Paul Dry Books). She is currently ploughing away at Virgil’s Georgics. Her most recent poetry collection, Like (FSG) was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.