Jordi Alonso holds degrees in English literature from Kenyon College (AB ’14) Stony Brook University (MFA ’16) and the University of Missouri (PhD ’21). He is currently a Classical Studies MA student at Columbia University. Honeyvoiced, his first book, was published by XOXOX Press in 2014 and his chapbook, The Lovers’ Phrasebook, was published by Red Flag Poetry Press in 2017. His work appears in Kenyon Review Online, Roanoke Review, Levure Littéraire, and other journals. Follow him on Twitter @nymphscholar or get to know his work at jordialonsopoet.com
Poet's Note on the Delphic Sonnets
The material that inspired the book-length manuscript of poems, some of whichyou’re about to read, is a list of sayings that barely occupies three heavily footnotedpages in the 1999 critical text of the Anthology by Johannes Stobaeus edited by KurtWachsmuth and Otto Hense for the German publisher Weidmann. Any readerconcerned for a writer’s well-being may well ask, “why were you reading critical editionsof obscure Late-Antique authors for fun?” and I’ll answer in an espresso-fueled frenzy,“well, Delphi is amazing.” The Oracle of Apollo at his temple in Delphi, known as the “Pythia” was, and is,famous for answering questions asked of her in lines of dactylic hexameter, the samemeter in which many Greek poems, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, were written.You’d be forgiven for thinking I’ve spent too much time with her and that’s why I ambeing cryptic about my reasons for reading Stobaeus. Let me explain. JohannesStobaeus was a writer and anthologist who flourished in the fifth century of our era. Hecollected a list of 147 short sayings, from which each of these poems you’re about toread take their titles, under the heading: Σοσιάδου τῶν ἑπτὰ σοφῶν ὑποθῆκαιThe maxims of the Seven Sages according to Sosiades. Some of these maxims which Stobaeus attributed to the “Seven Wise Men” ofClassical Greece, appear in other, older, surviving Greek literature. Like many thingssurrounding classical antiquity, different sources tell us different things about the samematerial. It is in texts like Plato’s dialogues Charmides (164d), Protagoras (343b),Phaedrus (229e), Philebus (48c), Laws (II.923a), Alcibiades I (124a, 129a, 132c) thatthe maxims are said to have been physically written on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.A verse inscription in dactyllic hexameter found in Asia Minor together with afragmented list of maxims, tells us that these sayings were indeed found in Delphi. ἀνδρῶν τοι σοφὰ ταῦτα παλαιοτέρων ἀνάκει[τα]ιῥήματα ἀριγνώτων Πυθοὶ ἐν ἠγαθέαι·ἔνθεν ταῦτ[α] Κλέαρχος ἐπιφραδέως ἀναγράψαςεἵσατο τηλαυγῆ Κινέου ἐν τεμένει.IK 65 382–4 These maxims of the ancients can be foundinside the temple of the Pythian god;Klearchos copied them there carefullyand put them here, in Kineas’ bright shrine. The Temple of Apollo and the Pythia, its main priestess, were active until theRoman emperor Theodosius I ordered that the temple cease all operations in 390 CE inorder to promote Christianity. Johannes Stobaeus presents the maxims with no context, and they all follow one after the other. In my telling of things, each one of the maxims is part of a response inverse by the Pythia, historically a young girl from the village of Delphi who was at timescalled the most powerful woman in Greece. Fantastically well-educated, she wasconsulted by city governments, by foreign rulers, and by common Greeks, and was apoet in her own right, responding to questions in spontaneously-produced lines ofpoetry that she could not have prepared ahead of time. In the small village of Pytho,later known as Delphi and considered to be the center of the ancient world, herresponses to all sorts of questions were delivered for nine days every year, influencingkings, rulers, and the course of ancient history from the eighth century BCE to the fourthcentury CE. The Oracle was active and prolific for over a millennium before its closure. Hear her speak again in these poems.
The Sybils once bound palm-leaf fronds as booksto keep their sacred knowledge secret, safe—but palm leaves rot, dry up, crumble, and burnand can be sold beyond the wine-faced sea.We’re sisters of the laurel and the sunand sing anew wherever shadows grow.Some say these are just stories to be told;Our words are chiseled deeply, painted gold.
4 γονεῖς αἰδοῦ
When Hera’s anger made the goddess Letogive birth on Delos to the sun and moonshe used an olive tree as firm supportin labor with hunting and with poetry.She said to them, “respect your parents, knowwe can be fierce as Zeus’s eagles andprotective as the mother of the godsby sunlight, star, or lamplight — never still.”Leto’s is the law of every parentwho nurtures children. Like the nympholeptsappease those wild girls of the grove and mountainwith honey cakes, warm milk, and promisesof better entertainment in the future,parents are not the only ones enthralled.
12 ξένος ὢν ἴσθι
Medea, away from Colchis next to Jason,if ever she stepped foot above the deckof that black ship they call the speedy Argowould have had a noticeable accent.Sappho in her exile—Helen, Homer,hostages all, would fit their winged words withodd intonations that did not seem rightto those who heard them speaking by the shore—and yet their words launched libraries and wars.Know when you are a stranger, wear it well.like dignitaries flaunting foreign fashion,you'll find yourself between and of two lands.Some who can read the sacred carvings saythe king of Egypt is also liminal.
20 Φιλίαν ἀγάπα
The goal of kindness is to cultivaterelationships like farmers nourish beehives.The Triai were three maiden sister nymphswho gave their power to the Delphic priestess.Thanks to that friendship with the god of song(they helped his childish powers grow with him)the gods decreed that honey should be sweet.Embrace the perks that friendship brings to us:befriending bees may well be unadvisedbut humans are, most often, decent choices.Some say that even dogs who cannot huntcan be good company. Gather your friendslike princesses in stories gather flowers:they'll make a lovely garland for your spirit.
23 σοφίαν ζήλου
Be sure to wrap a scarf around your facewhen you arrive in Egypt. Disembark,thank Ocean and the local nymphs, and learnhow best to pay the locals for their help:not every scholar understands our language,not every baker, porter, haberdasher keepsa little bag of oboloi for change.Orpheus studied by the Nile and learnedthe name of every hieroglyph and god.He looked for knowledge like his mother looksfor iron staffs to mark her rhythmic thoughts.Seek knowledge (like good olive oil) and useit every day, replenishing what's lost:its taste will linger and be richer too.
24 καλὸν εὖ λέγε
Speak well of lovely things, of good, of kindness,of friends who drop in unexpectedlywith figs and cheese in hand, who know a songto mark the moment when the olive treeturns out to be a signpost for the nymphswho share their water and their shade with uswho leave them cakes and honey when they're famished,and clean up after we have drizzled lighton one another's lips. Somebody saidthat Plato's parents climbed Mount Hymetuswith their child so they could sacrificeto Pan, Apollo, and the goddesses.There, bee-nymphs touched his baby lipsand made him eloquent and honeyvoiced.
33 ἴδια φύλαττε
Medusa had a lovely face, they say,but Perseus' story keeps our focus onMedusa's body parts, and not on heras priestess of Athena, knowledge-keeper.How do we know if, having survived the Sea,and learning how to use her goddess-gifts,she felt more like a goddess in her mindand playfully used her gaze to petrifyHer favorite chrysanthemums beforeThey started wilting, saving them from death?Keep watch over the fragile things you have,whatever they may be—they all could crumble:the shoes you wore to visit oracles,A lucky stone, a favorite text, a heart.
49 ὅσια κρίνε
The ship of Theseus moored in the Piraeusis worshipped by the carpenters who keepits planks well oiled and seasoned, free from rot.Each plank is replaced when time begins to breakthe pine interior clad in resined oak.Sykion on Pelops' island holdsthe two toned aulos of the satyr whodared challenge our Apollo to a contest.Choose what is holy to you, keep it safe—a vial of Lesbian sand that Orpheus touched,a rounded sherd inscribed with loved ones' names,a fist-sized piece of chert, a strip of ironsmelted by priestesses of Hestia,a sprig of laurel from a nymph-turned-tree.
65 ἀγαθοὺς τίμα
The baker who each morning, with the sun,spreads grains of salt on newly-risen breadbecause she knows you love to taste the sea.the lithe young dancer who can also singand knows that Aphrodite’s glances meanmuch more when she engages minds as well.The potter who will mend your favorite vasewhen its handles chip after a partyfor not much more than half-a-morning’s pay;the actor who will chant the new Medeain exchange for lodging for the nightfar from Athens and for bread and honey.Honor good people like these. Pay them well.The world would be too dull without their craft.
70 ἁπλως διαλεγου
The oldest stories are the simplest ones:a rustic shepherd, cornered by three godsproclaims that one of them is fairest, thenhe's promised the most beautiful of mortals:Helen of Sparta. Here's where things get messy.She went to Troy, one story goes; the restis evident. The other yarn says no,Helen sailed to Egypt, her cloud-double(an eidolon that Hera made) to Greece.This eidolon had layers like the clothHelen herself once wove while looking overthe walls of Troy. A story too, has folds.Speak simply when the time is right; embroideryour words with golden thread when that is best.