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Review: 'Saint Aldhelm's Riddles,' edited by A.M. Juster

A.M. Juster is the pen name of a contemporary poet and translator, steeped in classical literature. His own poetry is of a kind that often gets described as "formalist," a term I dislike. It means that he likes to work with rhyme and meter and such. I would call his poems witty, concise, playful, often with a sharp irony, sometimes unusually gentle.

In everyday life, Juster is Michael J. Astrue, a lawyer, who was commissioner of the Social Security Administration from 2007 to 2013. Though he is not an academic, he relishes scholarship, as is clear from his new book, "Saint Aldhelm's 'Riddles,'" a translation and commentary.

Aldhelm was a prominent churchman in Anglo-Saxon England. Born between 635 and 645, he died in 709. Although Latin was not his native tongue, he wrote poetry in that language, including a sequence of 100 riddles called Aenigmata, which Juster has translated (in verse).

Why undertake such a project? Three passions animate Juster's work for this volume. The first is a love for riddles, which even now many children take delight in, though except for folklorists, semioticians and such, adults generally don't. (Juster remarks that "contemporary poets tend to sneer at the riddle as a genre.") I share this delight. So as not to deprive readers who want to try to solve the riddles, Juster omits the titles and heads the poems by number only. At the end of the sequence of 100 poems, an "answer key" supplies the title for each, in Latin and English. Here, for example, is poem 6:

I share now with the surf one destiny

In rolling cycles when each month repeats.

As beauty in my brilliant form retreats,

So too the surges fade in cresting sea.

The answer? Luna/Moon.

The second passion that gives life to

this book is Juster's pleasure in the challenge of turning 7th-century Latin verse (sometimes dauntingly obscure) into 21st-century English. "I want to stress," Juster writes, "that this translation is not a 'literal' one. I tried to keep as much of the thought as possible in each of the poems, and to avoid injecting thought not reasonably present in the text, but I have been free with syntax, word order, and compounding of concepts in order to produce a fair yet fun version of the text." Juster's unselfconscious use of "fun" here will give you a sense of his personality as a poet and translator. He takes great pains, yet he doesn't take himself too seriously.

And then there is Juster's love for God (the God whose son's wildly improbable birth is celebrated at Christmas). "Scholars," Juster observes, preoccupied with philological questions, have often "overlooked the freshness of Aldhelm's insistent vision that close attention to the mysteries of our pedestrian world can lead us closer to an appreciation of the mysteries of God's world and God Himself." That word "mysteries" is suggestive. At the beginning of the commentary that follows the translation, Juster tells us that Aldhelm's title Aenigmata "could be translated as either 'riddles' or 'myster-ies.' " Seen in one aspect, the world itself — the whole kaboodle in which we find ourselves, willy-nilly — is a mystery, or a riddle. But a riddle requires a Riddler.

Juster's commentary is a treat for a certain kind of reader (me, for one) who likes to browse with no particular agenda. Some bits (many, in fact) are intended primarily for scholars, others for civilians, some for both. I came across one tasty morsel after another — learning, for instance, about "Eucheria's delightful sixth-century 'Carmen Eucheriae,' also known as her 'Adynata' ('Impossibilities'), which is the earliest extant humorous poem in Latin by a woman." And I learned that "because Benedict's Rule did not allow the eating of four-legged animals," creatures of the river and the sea were vital to a monk's diet: "Studies of monastic sites indicate that Anglo-Saxon monks ate more whale and dolphin than expected"!

This modestly sized book must represent years of work, but reading it is no labor. Thank you, A.M. Juster.

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture.

Saint Aldhelm's 'Riddles'

Translated by A.M. Juster, University of Toronto, 200 pages, paperback, $29.95.

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