Tag Archives: American Poetry

Pone Subit Coniunx: Robert Hass and Vergil’s Aeneid

Robert Hass has been another American poet that I’ve discovered from literary Twitter.  My favorite poem in his collection Time and Materials is entitled “The World as Will and Representation.” In this longer poem, which is typical of the longer ones in the book,  Hass tells a very personal story.  He is thinking back to when he was a ten-year-old boy and his family’s morning routine during which time his father would give his mother a drug called antabuse which was supposed to prevent her from drinking.  “It was the late nineteen-forties, a time,/A Social world, in which the men got up/And went to work, leaving the women with the children.”  The boy’s father would ground the medication very fine into a powder and put it in his mother’s glass of water was so that she couldn’t spit the pills out.   The poet lingers on the vivid details of crushing the pills, handing her the glass and watching her drink.

The ending is incredibly powerful. The boy’s father leaves for work and the child is left alone with his mother:

“Keep and eye on Mama, pardner.”
You know the passage in the Aeneid? The man
Who leaves the burning city with his father
On his shoulders, holding his young son’s hand,
Means to do well among the flaming arras
And the falling columns while the blind prophet,
Arms upraised, howls from the inner chamber,
Great Troy is fallen. Great Troy is no more.
Slumped in a bathrobe, penitent and biddable,
My mother at the kitchen table gagged and drank,
Drank and gagged. We get our first moral idea
About the world—about justice and power,
Gender and the order of things—from somewhere.

The passage to which Robert Hass is referring occurs in Vergil’s Aeneid Book II when Aeneas is telling the story of how he escaped Troy with his father and son.  Aeneas’s father, Anchises, is paralyzed so he must carry him on his shoulders and hold his young son, Iulus, by the hand.  But, but, Aeneas also has a wife, Creusa (2.705-710 translation is my own):

I will carry you on my shoulders, your weight will not burden me.
As things happend around us, we will either be in danger together
or we will both reach safety. And let little Iulus walk beside me
and my wife follow behind.

After Aeneas successfully convinces his father to escape Troy, he tells the rest of the family servants to meet him outside the city at a Temple to Ceres. Aeneas also hands his household gods to his father for safekeeping. Aeneas then sums up their escape (II.721-725, translation is my own):

Having spoken these things, I covered my broad shoulders
with the pelt of a golden lion and lowered my neck
for the impending burden. Little Iulus took hold of my
right hand and followed his father by taking large steps;
my wife walks behind.

That last line in the Latin is striking: pone subit coniunx (the wife walks behind). Aeneas, busy with his father and son, loses Creusa as Troy is burning and he never sees her again. She is one of the characters in the Aeneid that is sacrificed because of Aeneas’s future in Italy where he is destined to marry another woman in a political alliance. Creusa, I think, also foreshadows Dido’s tragic fate.

In his poem, Ross describes the details of Aeneas, the Father, taking care of his father and young son, but he doesn’t specifically mention the detail of the hero’s wife. Creusa does linger in the background of Hass’s poem in the figure of the boy’s mother, “penitent and biddable.” Creusa, like the poet’s mother, is also a victim of “justice and power” and “the order of things.” Hass’s poem brings up so many questions: why was the boy’s mother drinking in the first place? What were the other circumstances of the family? And, most importantly, did this woman also, pone subit, walk behind?

 

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Filed under American Literature, Classics, Poetry, Vergil

Odi et Amo: Half-Light, The collected poems of Frank Bidart

I have been voraciously reading an incredible amount of excellent poetry lately.  I’ve been sharing some of my favorite passages on Twitter, but I thought I would do a short series on the blog of my favorite collections.  Frank Bidart’s Half-Light, Collected Poems, which includes work spanning the years 1965-2016 was recommended to me by two of my favorite literary Twitter accounts.  It is one of those few collections of poetry that one can read from cover to cover in a few sittings.  I devoured it over the course of this past week.  My favorite parts of this volume are his series of poems based on Catullus 85 as well as his longer, Hour of the Night, series of poems.

It is always difficult for me to teacher Catullus Carmen 85 because, as his shortest poem—a mere two lines—the temptation is for students to translate it quickly and move on.  But there are so many layers to this deceptively simple poem (translation is my own):

I hate you and I love you.

You may be wondering why I feel this way.

I have no idea.

But that’s how I feel.

And I. am. tortured.

 

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?

nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

Bidart’s brilliant strategy for interpreting this poem is to compose a series of his own two line verses that each focus on a different aspect of the original.

The first version, Catullus: Odi et Amo is:

I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even

wants the fly while writhing.

The et in italics is subtle yet striking.  And the image of a fish writhing on the fly—why would the creature still want the very thing that is killing him?

Bidart’s second version is Catullus: Excrucior which shifts focus to the end of Catullus’s Carmen-–that all powerful Latin word, excrucior,  which literally means to be crucified:

I hate and—love.  The sleepless body hammering a nail nails

itself, hanging crucified.

The entire first phrase is italicized in this iteration, and the addition of pause with the em dash adds additional emphasis to these different emotions.. Finally, the images of the nails emphasize the “crucifixion.”

Bidart’s trilogy of poems ends with Catullus: Id Faciam, which brings us back to the middle of Catullus poem.  He has no idea why he feels such conflicting emotions:

What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds

the nail that now is driven into itself, why.

The addition of the relative pronoun is unique in the final poem; the person who is causing such conflicting emotions lingers in the background.  But there is also the hint of self-inflicted torment, the hand that nails its own nail.  All three versions are slightly different, but bring to our attention various pieces of the original. At the same time they all fit perfectly into Bidart’s work as a whole through the theme of desire.

There is a bonus interview with Bidart at the end of this edition in which he describes his series of The Hours of the Night poems:

The myth behind the series of poems is the Egyptian “Book of Gates,” which is inscribed on the sarcophagus of Seti I.  Each night during the twelve hours of the night the sun must pass through twelve territories of the underworld before it can rise again at dawn. Each hour is marked by a new gate, the threshold to a new territory.

Each poem in the series is an hour we must pass through before the sun can rise again.

The collection contains four Hours of the Night stories and a fifth was published this past summer in The Paris Review.  My favorite is the Second Hour of the Night for which Bidart uses as inspiration Ovid’s story of Myrrha from the Metamorphoses.  Once again, Bidart’s focus is on desire and how much control we have or don’t have over this powerful emotion.

Ganymede; Apollo and

Hyacinthus; Pygmalion; Adonis avenged upon

Venus; the apples that Atalanta found irresistible, —

fate embedded in the lineaments of desire

(desire itself helplessly surrounded by what cannot be

eluded, what

even the gods call GIVEN,—)

In addition to italics, words and phrases in all caps are typical of Bidart’s entire collection.  As he continues the story of Myrrha, Bidart emphasizes the pity and helplessness of this young girl who falls in love with her own father.  Like Ovid, Sade and Yourcenar who also write very delicately about matters of incest, Bidart’s character is young and sheltered; she loves what she knows and what is familiar and she wants nothing else:

four steps forward then

one back, then three

back, then four forward—

…but you have lied about your

solace, for hidden, threaded

within repetition is the moment when each step

backward is a step

downward, when what you move toward moves toward

you lifting painfully his cloak to reveal his

wound, saying, “love answers need...”

The gods—well, all those except the Furies—abandon Myrrha.  She prays in the end not to be alive and not to be dead—she can’t even face others in the afterlife.  As a result she is turned into the Myrrh tree:

Aphrodisiac. Embalmers’ oil. “insistence of

sex, faint insistent sweetness of the dead undead.)

Sacred anointment oil: with wine an

anodyne. Precious earth-

fruit, gift fit for the birth and death of

prophets:—no sweet thing without

the trace of what is bitter

within its opposite:—

…MYRRH, sweet-smelling

bitter resin.

These last lines are a chilling echo of the contrasting emotions we feel from the Odi et Amo poems.

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Filed under Poetry, American Literature