Tag Archives: Poetry

Entrusting One’s Sleep to Another: Propertius 1.3

Auguste Jean Baptiste Vinchon. Propertius and Cynthia at Tivoli.

Sextus Propertius, a Latin elegiac poet of the Augustan age, is, rather unfortunately, not as well-known as other poets of this era. He was friends with the most famous men of his day including Vergil, Maecenas and Augustus. His talent as an elegist is evident in his four books of poetry which contain 92 poems. I was fortunate enough in graduate school to be in a program that appreciated his work and I took three different classes that focused on this poet. I admit that I haven’t looked at or translated his work in many years, but he seemed like just the thing to suit my mood this week.

In Poem 1.3, he visits his lover, Cynthia, while she is fast asleep in her bedroom. In his amorous and drunken state he is tempted to wake her with a showering of kisses, but holds off for fear of angering her. He, instead, watches her sleep. I find the images of the first 20 lines, comparing her to a sleeping Ariadne and a Bacchante, simple yet sensual and intimate. I offer here my translation of lines 1-20:

Cynthia seemed to me to be breathing softly and quietly while sleeping with her head on her entwined hands; similar to weary Ariadne as she was lying on the deserted shores while Theseus sailed away on his ship; or similar to Andromeda, finally freed from the harsh cliffs, as she was resting during her first sleep; and similar to a Bacchante, exhausted from her continual dances, as she collapses on the grassy banks of the Apidanus. As the slave boys were shaking the torches late into the night, I dragged my feet, drunk with too much Wine, into her room. Not quite yet completely out of my senses, I softly attempted to lie on the bed beside her. Although two relentless gods, Love and Wine, were driving me, seized with a double passion, to disturb Cynthia while she was sleeping and to slip my arm under her and to steal drawn out kisses, I did not dare to interrupt my lover’s rest for fear of incurring the reproaches of her anger with which I am all too familiar. Instead I remained fixed to my spot with my eyes intent upon watching her—I was like Argus, the 100-eyed monster, who kept a vigil over Io with her strange horns.

Propertius’s last few lines, in particular, capture the vulnerability and sensuality of one lover watching another while asleep. It reminds me of the intimacy and trust involved in the experience of sleeping beside another person as described by Quignard in his novel Villa Amalia:

Entrusting one’s sleep to another is perhaps the only real indecency.

To let oneself be watched while sleeping, feeling hungry, dreaming, growing erect or dilated is a strange offering.

She could see his eyes quivering beneath his lids, moving beneath the pale, fragile skin. She could see everything. She could see he was dreaming. Who was he dreaming of? Curiously, she dreamt he dreamt dreams that weren’t dreams of her.

It turned out that he too sighed in his sleep—just like his little daughter.

They both of them gave enormous sighs—like sighs of relinquishment.

Stuart Shotwell’s novel Tomazina’s Folly has, for me, one of the most tender scenes in literature as a woman looks through her lover’s private sketch book in which he has drawn erotic and caring images of his ideal marriage:

As she went on through the book she discovered that a conspicuously recurring theme was that of one spouse watching the other sleep: the wife, sometimes gloriously nude, sometimes fully clothed, either in bed herself or in a chair, watched her husband as he slept; and likewise the husband watching over his wife. There was a tenderness and curiosity and protectiveness in the expression of the watchers, as if they themselves could not sleep, but wanted their spouses to dream undisturbed.

Finally, Jean-Luc Nancy in The Fall of Sleep touches upon the reasons why falling asleep beside another person is an extension of an act of intimacy:

Sleeping together opens up nothing less than the possibility of penetrating into the most intimate part of the other, namely, precisely into his or her sleep. The happy, languid sleep of lovers who sink down together prolongs their loving spasm into a long suspense, into a pause held at the limits of the dissolution and disappearance of their very harmony: intermingled, their bodies insidiously disentangle, however intertwined they can sometimes remain until the end of sleep, until the instant joy returns to them as renewed for having been forgotten, eclipsed during the time of their sleep, where their agile bodies surface again after having been drowned at the bottom of the waters they themselves poured out.

Propertius’s poem ends with his lover waking up, accusing him of being in the embrace of another woman, and complaining that he wasn’t there to fall asleep with her. Cynthia’s wish for him is that he get a taste of his own medicine and that he also experience a lonely night without her in his bed.

8 Comments

Filed under Classics, French Literature, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Poetry

I Hold You in Imagination: The Poetry of Elizabeth Jennings

I finally received in the mail today a volume of poetry by Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) that I have been eagerly awaiting for weeks. The edition, entitled “Timely Issues” is published by Carcanet Press, which has also printed the other volume I own, her “Selected Poems.” Jennings was very successful with her poetry in her earlier years, publishing her work in various literary magazines and winning awards and prizes. But as her life progressed, she was mentally and physically fragile and suffered from breakdowns which caused her to be hospitalized. Her illnesses, her deep Catholic roots, and the difficult love affairs in which she engaged pervade her poems. I find her poetry simple, yet profound, quite lovely, and even soothing. I include here in my post three of my favorites from the Carcanet collections; they need no commentary or analysis as I think that would ruin my post—they stand better simply, on their own.

About These Things

About these things I always shall be dumb.
Some wear their silences as more than dress,
As more than skin deep. I bear mine like some

Scar that is hidden out of shamefulness.
I speak from depths I do not understand
Yet cannot find the words for this distress.

So much of power is put into my hand
When words come easily. I sense the way
People are charmed and pause; I seem to mend

Some hurt. Some healing seems to make them stay.
And yet within the power that I use
My wordless fears remain. Perhaps I say

In lucid Verse the terrors that confuse
In Conversation. Maybe I am dumb
Because if fears were spoken I would lose

The lovely languages I do not choose
More than the darkness from which they come.

Remembering Fireworks

Always as if for the first time we watch
The fireworks as if no one had ever
Done this before, made shapes, signs,
Cut diamonds in air, sent up stars
Nameless, imperious. And in the falling
Of fire, the spent rocket, there is a kind
Of nostalgia as normally only attaches
To things long known and lost. Such an absence,
Such emptiness of sky the fireworks leave
After their festival. We, fumbling
For words of love, remember the rockets,
The spinning wheels, the sudden diamonds,
And say with delight, ‘yes, like that, like that.’
Oh and the air is full of falling
Stars surrendered. We search for a sign.

Assurance

My love, I hold you in imagination,
Either mine or yours,
And it is stronger than remembered passion.
It uses memory with all its force.

O the clocks go silent, time departs,
Now is forever here.
How delicate yet strong are our two hearts,
Mine beats for you now almost everywhere.

Only when my world is rent with storm,
Threatened by sadness or
Overcome by black words which can come
And threaten me with the inner, hideous war

Only then, I’ve lost you. O but fast
A little flash of sun,
A hurrying memory returns you blessed
And our great love is stalwartly at one.

In a wonderfully written and compelling article entitled “Clarify Me, Please, God of the Galaxies” Dana Gioia concludes about Jennings’s poetry, ” Her poems flash like meteors illuminating what it means to be human.”

What poetry is everyone else reading lately? I would love to have some new recommendations in the comments.

8 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, Poetry

in the kitchen it is cold: Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker

Friederike Mayröcker and Ernst Jandl lived together from 1954 until Jandl’s death in 2000. They were lovers, companions, friends and creative partners; as we read Mayröcker’s elegy to Jundl the feeling of being lost and bewildered without him pervades her text. In a partnership that spans more than forty years, it’s fascinating to see what images and thoughts she brings to her poetic reflection on their time together. After spending so much of her life and her passions with him, how could she possibly choose what to write about in order to honor properly their memories?

One of my favorite pieces in the book is a reflection on a poem fragment that Jandl writes that is stuffed, with many other literary fragments, into his desk. In the winter of ’88 the two are painstakingly excavating the contents of his desk and Mayröcker recollects:

Afternoon after afternoon, actually the entire
winter of ’88, we are absorbed in
viewing, approving, conserving what
has been written down. And then, suddenly,
one day I come across four lines
dashed off in pencil:

in the kitchen it is cold
winter has an awful hold
mother’s left her stove of course
and i shiver like a horse.

She goes on to connect the poem to her current state of grief over Jandl’s passing:

The last line, which informs of the most
profound abandonment, aloneness, exclusion
seeking solace in an attempt
to identify with that mute creature—a carriage
horse in winter’s cold depths, standing
in one place for hours, head hanging, in no
one’s care, waiting for a human to get it
going—is so poignant.

And it is the very last line of the poem that haunts Mayröcker:

This line: mother is not at her stove:
conveys the damnable utterly graceless
transience and finiteness of this life, mother
is not at her stove—where did she go.

I’ve read two other books on grief recently: Will Daddario’s To Grieve and Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing with Feathers. Of all these, Mayrocker’s text elicited the most emotional response from me. Her multifaceted response to grief in all its forms—emotional, philosophical, social—struck a nerve.

5 Comments

Filed under German Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books

Here of a Sunday Morning: The Poetry of A.E. Housman

“On the Teme”, one of William Hyde’s coloured illustrations to A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1908)

I am very familiar with Housman’s academic writing on classical subjects, but George Steiner’s discussion of Housman promoted me to read his poetry.  I have been reading a few poems a week from The Wordsworth Poetry Library edition I bought and here I offer two of my favorites so far.  They are from A Shropshire Lad collection.

XXI
Bredon Hill

In summertime on Bredon
The bells they sound so clear;
Round both the shires they ring them
In steeples far and near,
A happy noise to hear.

Here of a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.

The bells would ring to call her
In valleys miles away:
‘Come all to church, good people;
Good people, come and pray.’
But here my love would stay.

And I would turn and answer
Among the springing thyme,
‘Oh, peal upon our wedding,
And we will hear the chime,
And come to church in time.’

But when the snows at Christmas
On Bredon top were strown,
My love rose up so early
And stole out unbeknown
And went to church alone.

They tolled the one bell only,
Groom there was none to see,
The mourners followed after,
And so to church went she,
And would not wait for me.

The bells they sound on Bredon,
And still the steeples hum.
‘Come all to church, good people,’—
Oh, noisy bells, be dumb;
I hear you, I will come.

XIV
There pass the careless people
That call their souls their own:
Here by the road I loiter,
How idle and alone.

Ah, past the plunge of plummet,
In seas I cannot sound,
My heart and soul and senses,
World without end, are drowned.

His folly has not fellow
Beneath the blue of day
That gives to man or woman
His heart and soul away.

There flowers no balm to sain him
From east of earth to west
That ’s lost for everlasting
The heart out of his breast.

Here by the labouring highway
With empty hands I stroll:
Sea-deep, till doomsday morning,
Lie lost my heart and soul.

2 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, Poetry

Io Saturnalia: My Translation of Catullus Poem 14a

John Reinhard Weguelin. The Roman Saturnalia. 1884.

The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia held on December 17th in the Julian calendar involved decorating, partying, eating, gift giving and general conviviality.   This special day, gradually expanded to a full week, was dedicated to the agricultural deity Saturn whose temple in the Forum was the center of sacrifices for the holiday.  A general spirit of frivolity was felt throughout the city as Romans of all classes participated in the merrymaking.  Catullus, the 1st century B.C. poet, calls Saturnalia the “best of days.” In his Carmen 14a, Catullus describes his great annoyance when his friend, Calvus, gives him a joke gift—a book of bad poetry!—for Saturnalia.  Catullus then plots the sweet revenge he will inflict upon Calvus (Translation is my own):

Oh Calvus, if I didn’t love you more than my own eyes
I would hate you as much as I hate that guy Vatinianus.
What could I have possibly said or done to make you
destroy me with so much bad poetry?  May the gods
do very bad things to that client of yours who originally
sent you this wicked gift.  Because if, as I suspect, Sulla
the elementary school teacher gave this new and well-chosen
gift to you then this situation has not turned out so badly
for me, and, in fact, it is good and fortuitous, and your
efforts are not in vain. Oh great gods, what a horrible
and accursed little book! That very book which I am
convinced you sent to your friend Catullus on this best
of days, Saturnalia, so that I might die again and again
on this day!  I will not, absolutely not, let this go,
you trickster.  As soon as it is light out, I am running
to the bookshop and collecting all the poisonous poetry I can
find for you—Suffenus and Caesius and Aquinus.  I will
pay you back with these punishments!  And as for you,
bad poets, goodbye! Go away!  Go back to that place where
you got your bad feet, the troubles of our generation,
you absolute worst of all poets!

We know from his other poems that Calvus is one of Catullus’s most dear and well-respected friends.  In addition to being a poet, Calvus is also a lawyer and Vatinianus who is mentioned in the first few lines in the poem is an odious man that Calvus once prosecuted.  Catullus considers Calvus an excellent poet and the two close friends would have contests and challenge each other to poetry duels.  A book of lousy poetry seems a fitting joke gift between these men.  What makes Calvus’s gift especially bad (and funny) is that he regifted it!  Catullus calls Calvus out in the poem for his regifting—Calvus received the book as payment from one of his clients, named Sulla, and Calvus then passes the book off to Catullus.  Catullus also calls Sulla, the original giver of the books,  an elementary school teacher, which in ancient Rome is an insult to Sulla’s intelligence.  The part of the poem that has always amazed me is that Catullus threatens to get Calvus back by emptying the bookshop of every bad piece of poetry he can find, and he names names!  Of the three he mentions, Suffenus is the poet whose writing we know the most about; in Carmen 22, Catullus describes Suffenus’s verse as akin to lines composed by a goat herder or ditch digger.  Oh to have seen the look on Calvus’s face when he reads that book of poetry.  Nice burn, Catullus!

To all of my fellow readers: Io Saturnalia, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays.  May you receive lots of excellent books of poetry during your Saturnalia celebrations!

Leave a comment

Filed under Classics