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Embodiment by Dinah Livingstone (Katabasis Press)

Embodiment by Dinah Livingstone (Katabasis Press)

Embodiment is a less scary word than incarnation but its choice as title of Dinah Livingstone’s tenth collection reflects her loyalty to Christian theology as a central metaphor. This consistency also allows her to lay claim to a continuous selfhood:

I knew that I was me when I was five,
I’m grown up now and not a little girl
but still myself, though I don’t look the same. ‘Keeping Faith’

The continuity is upheld despite physical changes in the body she speaks from. Livingstone maintains that the poetic voice is always embodied which is why so many of these poems are written in her own voice and explore her own experience. About three fifths of the poems use the first person where this can be identified with the poet. It is not egotistical self-indulgence that motivates her writing, but the belief that physical life on earth is a common or shared experience and that if the poet writes accurately and honestly in their own embodied voice the words will communicate and recognised by others. The first half of the collection uses not only the voice of the poet but includes and acknowledges the voices of others:

Any voice, whether
of someone dear, or hated
like an obnoxious politician,
though each speaks the language
of its social niche, its daily connections,
has its unique print. ‘Loved Voices’

Sometimes, she simply describes the other voice, be it neighbour, teacher, grandson or even the poet, Stevie Smith. In other cases, she takes different personas, as in the delightful sonnet shared between a boy and a fox. In ‘The Yearning Strong’, an eco-protest, she invents a voice from the future which uses the perspective of distance to record some of her own most cherished experiences: ‘There’s a huge animal you can ride on,/stroke its furry neck and trot/through the wood or gallop over the moor.’ In another very powerful poem, she reports the voices of drowning migrants in English and through some of their own languages. This poem records a failure of communication in one of the few moments where the overall tone of positivity falters:

‘Who listens?
Something is very wrong.
What can we do?

Perhaps the implicit message is the importance of listening and hearing, without which there can be no action.

In the second part of the collection, ‘Embodiment’, the voice is the same and themes are developed from the first section which are familiar from the writer’s other work. The first poem, which relates to the cover reproduction from Blake’s illustrations of Paradise Lost, serves as a manifesto. For Livingstone, as for Blake and Stevie Smith in the first section, gods are human inventions and their stories are metaphors or projections of what humans want:

the full embodiment of Christ will be
an actual reign of kindness long imagined,
which now – with nothing supernatural –
ordinary people try (or not)
by love and work to give something towards. ‘Alpha and Omega’

The confident ‘will’ in the first line of this quotation is slightly undermined by the bracketed ‘or not’ in the penultimate, perhaps reinforcing the recognition that it is up to humans what they make of the world.

In the sequence Keeping Faith, Livingstone brings together two of her concerns, the nature of the self and the embodiment of ‘faith and hope and love’ in a world where ‘kindness’ in its fullest sense prevails. I think this is because the fullest embodiment comes through self-realization, as in ‘November’ where she describes a plane tree: “Self-possessed, this London plane/spreads high into the blue’ , a notion of self-hood clearly derived from Hopkins. To oversimplify, the best community will be reached through ‘all those different selves’ achieving their full potential or selfhood. Sometimes it seems that ‘embodiment’ is purely physical; sometimes, it seems to include works of art, such as a poem.

Or you write what you didn’t expect
and it is beyond prose –a poem.
And when, at last, your living child is born,
you see his face and the midwife
gives you him to hold,
himself and snuffling in your arms. ‘Nature and Grace’

However, the age-old divide between body and spirit is challenged in ‘Prologue’, an introductory sonnet to the sequence Embodiment: ‘How could a disembodied spirit speak/or dance or sing the paradox, the power,/the passion and the truth of human hearts?’ We may note the verbs, ‘speak’, ‘dance’ and ‘sing’ are all rooted in the body, and presented as the only way in which the abstractions of ‘power’, ‘passion’ and ‘truth’ can be expressed, i.e., physically.

Among other things, this book confronts the process of aging with grace. Although it could be described as mellower than some of her other work, this is a collection in which Livingstone continues to observe, celebrate and strive.

Kathleen McPhilemy 2nd September 2019

Parables For The Pouring Rain by Paul Sutton (BlazeVOX)

Parables For The Pouring Rain by Paul Sutton (BlazeVOX)

Paul Sutton’s Parables for the Pouring Rain draws together recent work from the Oxford based poet. Sutton is an intriguing figure, one of his main concerns, revealing ‘how dull and pointless most “mainstream” poetry seems1’ has left him largely ostracised from “mainstream” poetry. Although no doubt he’s delighted by this ostracism, it is a shame because his poetry is rich and entertaining. Whether Sutton is better or worse than the mainstream he despises is another question, but his poetry is certainly different, which is something to be cherished. Sutton is, at the very least, a poet who deserves to be read.
There are poets who like to show the world at its best, Sutton is a poet who likes to show the world at its worst. This makes for gripping poetry. Elites, in all their forms, are the naturally enemy of Sutton. Opening salvo ‘Authoritarian centre’ demonstrates:

An elite that is ignored feels it needs to attack:
“We who have given so much. Universal suffrage is
disastrous – there’s no point granting free speech to
those who have nothing to say.

At first glance Sutton’s target may seem to be the political class. However, the Helleresque slogan: ‘free speech to / those who have nothing to say’ seems such a glorious backhander to “mainstream” poetry that Sutton’s attack must be multifarious. The poem reaches its crux in ‘I had a friend who married a working-class man. He beat her daily, posted / it online….that’s why I write’ (italics in original). This is all parody. Sutton identifies a weak point: the middle class poet’s glaring need for authenticity, then uses it to make his target look ridiculous. However, as a graduate of Jesus College, Sutton himself is surely part of the elite. Sutton has defended himself from this before, saying his poetry ‘makes no attempt to put me (the “poet”) above these, instead I’m participating2’. Whether he himself is implicated in ‘Authoritarian centre’ is debatable, his criticisms would seem to place him above the credibility hungry poet, rather than equal. Qualms over the moral high-ground aside, what is indisputable is the impact of the poem, it is a powerful start to the collection, proudly lifting two fingers up at anyone looking to be triggered.

“Angry poems” like ‘Authoritarian centre’ only make up a small proportion of Sutton’s repertoire, which might be a surprise to his enemies. Perhaps the mainstay of Parables for the Pouring Rain are lyrical, non-confrontational poems with a bittersweet sentimentality. ‘In a doll’s house’ is short enough to include in full:

In dreams of living with pistols.
We all did, firing at the white walls.

A child doll is brought to me:
tiny, dead-eyed, the only colour
blood up its nose. Then cradled,

her body emerging in warmth;
‘pink-budded life is too simple.’

The poem displays one of Sutton’s go to techniques: to take something delicate: a ‘child doll’ and to expose it to something cruel: the blood up its nose. It is a tale of innocence lost: the white walls are shot, the child doll’s tiny eyes are dead. The speaker protects the child doll, cradling it, nursing it back to life, before the last line scatters the meaning and the reader returns to the top. Why is the speaker so keen to protect the child doll? Is it because of guilt or an honest inclination? Why a ‘child doll’ and not a child or a doll? The poems brevity leaves these questions unanswered but that they are present shows the level of intrigue Sutton creates in just seven lines.
Sutton can be a poet of real human warmth. ‘Inorganic’, the first poem in a sequence dedicated to Sean McGrady, a scientist who Sutton met at university, is luminous:

Long first-term afternoons, Inorganic
lab, Oxford blue into violet. Whirring
magnetic stirrers, heart-ache colours
transition metal ions – surely that’s
magic? Somehow it’s passed me by.

Sutton is wistfully daydreaming about the long lost magic, working in the lab with his friend. His concern like with ‘In a doll’s house’, is with protecting the innocent: ‘Let’s worry/ for children, the damage they suffer’. Sutton writes about McGrady’s daughter, left behind for ‘tenure and funding’ in America. Sutton is not really the angry wasp he labels himself as, but rather a sentimental figure, it is a poem for ‘for evening and tears’, as Dylan Thomas described ‘Fern Hill’. ‘Inorganic’ exposes the soft core of Sutton’s heart. The seething rage that typifies some of his poems and the antagonistic persona which has led to him being labelled a ‘bottle-lobber3’, is perhaps just a protective shield. Sutton is loathe to reveal his tender side, yet he does so again and again, why? Because he values its poetic appeal and moreover because deep down, it shows who he really is.

1 Quote taken from Paul Sutton’s bio http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/Shop/new-releases/parables-for-the-pouring-rain-by-paul-sutton-519/ last accessed 30/4/2019
2 Quote from an interview with Paul Sutton conducted by BlazeVOX last accessed 30/4/2019
http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/news/15-questions-an-interview-with-paul-sutton-127/
3 Comment left under a blog post on http://toddswift.blogspot.com/2011/11/inane.html last accessed 30/4/2019

Charlie Baylis 22nd August 2019

Maldon – A Version by Michael Smith (Shearsman Library)

Maldon – A Version by Michael Smith (Shearsman Library)

I think that this is a startlingly powerful version of the Anglo-Saxon poem from 991 in which the fragmented narrative of the battle between invading Vikings and the East-Saxon earl, Byrhtnoth is given to us with an immediacy that is recognisably modern. Michael Smith’s note to his translation recognises the powerful influence of both Ezra Pound and Basil Bunting and in this way echoes the words of David Slavitt whose version of the Old English poem was published in The Word Exchange, Anglo-Saxon poems in translation (Norton 2011). Slavitt had suggested that his willingness to undertake the task of translation “was informed…by the echoes of Ezra Pound’s rendition of The Seafarer…in which the weird mannerisms of much of his own poetry look to be normalized and functional”:

“To a considerable degree, The Seafarer opens the door, then, to the rest of his work and illuminates it. The effort seems to be to depart as far as possible from normative English and still be intelligible. And what comes of that is a freshness, a response to his own imperative to Make it new.”

Michael Smith’s version of The Battle of Maldon is dramatically alive:

“…it was sundered.

He said to his soldiers

to set free their horses,

to drive them far off,

and on foot to fare forth,

to think of their hands

and boldness of bravery.

Then the kinsman of Offa

first found out

that the earl was unwilling

to countenance cowardice.

From his hands he let fly

his falcon, his fair one,

toward the wood in the distance,

and he went to the battle.

In his introduction to this lovely addition to the Shearsman Library, Smith tells us that he consciously retained the fragmentary nature of the piece because he felt that it added a sense of authenticity and realism. In terms of this ‘realism’ he then points us to a statement made by Borges about that small moment of the releasing of the falcon in which the Argentinian writer asserted that “Given the epic harshness of the poem, the phrase lêofne…hafoc (literally, ‘his beloved hawk’) moves us extraordinarily”.

In January 2016 I reviewed Kat Peddie’s Spaces for Sappho (Oystercatcher Press) and referred to Hugh Kenner’s fourth chapter of The Pound Era in which the American critic had focussed on one of Sappho’s fragments. Pound had written to Iris Barry in 1916 to complain about the “soft mushy edges” of British poetry and concluded with the suggestion that concision, “saying what you mean in the fewest and clearest words” was essential to the stirring of the reader. I go back to Kat Peddie’s poems to see once more those spaces on the page and those clearest of words which she leaves as stone markers.
And where else do I go? Well, to Christopher Logue’s version of extracts from Homer’s Illiad in War Music (Cape 1981):

“Consider planes at touchdown – how they poise;
Or palms beneath a numbered hurricane;
Or birds wheeled sideways over windswept heights;
Or burly salmon challenging a weir;
Right-angled, dreamy fliers, as they ride
The instep of a dying wave, or trace
Diagonals on snowslopes”

Michael Smith makes it clear from the start that he is not attempting “to replicate slavishly the original metre” of the Ango-Saxon but that he is instead making a new poem. It is with this in mind that one should recall the words Samuel Johnson used when asked about a newly published translation of Aeschylus:

“We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation.”

Michael Smith’s Maldon is a fine poem and I encourage all budding poets to read it!

Ian Brinton, 17th August 2019

Casket by Andy Brown, 2019 the vase in pieces by Rod Mengham

Casket by Andy Brown, 2019 the vase in pieces by Rod Mengham

As I have mentioned before there is something powerfully elegiac threading its sinuous path through Andy Brown’s poetry and “the bloodlines that flow through our bodies are those veins and arteries that pump our sense of immediacy: they keep the here and now moving” (Review of Bloodlines, Worple Press 2018). Reading the recent Shearsman Chapbook by Brown I am struck yet again by the poet’s haunting use of language as he traces the runic symbols upon the lid of an 8th century Anglo-Saxon treasure chest:

“In all these figures, filigree and knots –
In all this yielding bone that’s swum across
Sea-lanes and history to a monk’s refuge –
The ghosts we see, of course, are no such thing,
But simply what remembrance makes of them;
The laden look we witness on a stranger’s face
That houses recollections of our dead.”

According to Ralph of Coggeshall in his Chronicon Anglicanum a merman was caught at Orford in Suffolk during the reign of Henry II in the 12th century. When Kevin Crossley-Holland produced his version of this event he added a note to say that the merman “was imprisoned in the newly-built castle, did not recognise the Cross, did not talk despite torture, returned voluntarily into captivity having eluded three rows of nets, and then disappeared never to be seen again.” And so a tale is told and the world of the long-gone reappears on the page not only of folk-lore but also of imaginative reconstruction: one might well look at Conrad’s short story of ‘Amy Foster’!

The Franks Casket, housed in the British Museum, is made of whalebone and is decorated with runic inscriptions, some Latin text and images from various religious and mythical traditions. Like all tale-tellers Andy Brown attempts “to capture something of the layered histories, from ancient times to present”. As a lyric poet of distinction he also gives voice to an attempt at translation “of the place where I now live: the river Teign and its surrounding area”.
The poem is in five sections and it opens with an account of the casket’s front panel:

“From the river’s curved calligraphy
We haul up a trawl-net of treasures
And tip the shells out on the sorting rack…
Dark mussels fall in clattering cascades.”

The second section opens with an Olsonian sense of istorin, as the lines echo the words offered by Olson to Dorn in his ‘Bibliography on America’ where he suggested that the young poet should absorb himself intensely and entirely in his subject, “to dig one thing” in a “saturation job” that might require a “lifetime of assiduity”,

“To reach the present day, dig deep
Through the level berm that runs above
The ditch and counterscarp of Castle Dyke”

It was in a workshop session given in Vancouver in 1963 that Olson said the great back door is not only Hesiod but also Beowulf and the poems of Casket open up a gateway through which we can peer at a past.

AND as if from a past the Oystercatcher’s beak pulls up a new treasure: seven substantial poems by Rod Mengham two of which are dedicated to other poets, Peter Hughes and Jeremy Prynne. As if to emphasise the emergence of a distant past the opening poem of this little volume is deeply unsettling:

“those are not the colours of the dawn
but the painted breasts of Iceni women
as fierce and stubborn as sap”

As the past feeds the present a shimmering light of the long-gone acts as a mirage but this can only emphasise the unsettling awareness of isolation. With its quiet nod in the direction of ‘The Waste Land’ it must be clear that “there is no spirit who walks beside you / only a coincidence and its shadow”. In the Preface to ‘Inhabiting Art’, the second section of Grimspound (reviewed on Tears blog, a month ago) Mengham expressed his interest in different types of history:

“Although I have a personal interest in natural history, these essays are about cultural history in relation to landscape and cityscape, cultural history viewed episodically or in the form of a palimpsest, where the present state of the habitat both reveals and conceals its own prehistory, the record of its own formation and transformations.”

‘As It Is’ (to J.H.P.) opens with “Memory is recast from the ground up” and closes with fishes that swim down “under five crushing fathoms”. Ariel’s song to Ferdinand’s ears sinks deep to discover that “the bottom of all the land is this stone”.
Andy Brown’s conclusion to the opening of the casket, to the lifting of the lid, is to demand that “These fragments” are given “back to the machinery / Of the world…this shared and ever constant now.”

Ian Brinton 9th August 2019

Below This Level by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Below This Level by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Poetry of any real importance was never going to be the same after T.S. Eliot’s assertion that “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility” (‘The Metaphysical Poets’). In that essay from 1921 he continued in the manner often quoted as an example of Modernism:

“When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

It was one year earlier than this statement that Paul Valéry composed his ‘Le Cimetière Marin’ and only a few years later that he wrote some comments upon the composition of that startling account of a peaceful roof in Sète “trodden solely by the doves” and quivering “between the pines, between the tombs” (Tr. Brinton & Grant):

“…the memory of my attempts, my gropings, inner decipherings, those imperious verbal illuminations which suddenly impose a particular combination of words – as though a certain group possessed some kind of intrinsic power…I nearly said: some kind of will to live, quite the opposite of the freedom or chaos of the mind, a will that can sometimes force the mind to deviate from its plan and the poem to become quite other than what it was going to be and something one did not dream it could be.”

From mind to words on a page a transformation is in action and perhaps this is what most of all in-forms Kelvin Corcoran’s deeply moving lyric sequence recounting his experience of prostate cancer; its diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.

The sequence of fourteen poems and a letter opens with a sonnet titled ‘What the Birds Said’:

“I sit by the window and read the poetry received.
I can smell smoke from a neighbour’s garden,
hear a collared dove coo, a buried piano, a distant aircraft.
I can understand these things but in my reading
I lose track of the world in the would-be samizdat.”

Four of these lines from the opening stanza assert the focus upon self but it is a self in motion as sitting moves towards losing track. Awareness and memory are alert to senses of scent and sound but the increasing distance from the opening stasis is felt through “buried” noise becoming “distant” and “understanding” moves in the direction of an underground movement of forbidden publication: one should not talk about these naked feelings!
It is no surprise then that the second stanza should open with a repeated apology: the first being to the poet whose work Corcoran is occupied in reading, the second registering the awareness that “light is draining from the sky” so that “affective meaning has gone in darkness”. Any attempt at distracting the mind by focussing on names (“Rue des Hiboux and Zaventem”) is thwarted by the approaching white-out of snow being forecast. The sonnet closes with the most understandable of returns, to that of childhood when the mother’s song of “To bed, to bed…” concludes with the wise old rook suggesting opening a book so that “we’ll have prayers before we go”:

“a return to first things is forecast – I like that, said the rook,
I can pick at that, I might eat it and then take off into the sky.”

Proximity becomes distance and the act of reading merges with “a distant aircraft”.
Kelvin Corcoran’s poems are deeply moving and they are composed of lyric poetry of the highest order. Prufrock-like he wonders if the mermaids which sing “each to each” (transposed in ‘Oitgang, provisional’ to “Two older nurses” who “work the nightshift”) can be heard “singing in the night / on kitchen chairs in the hospital garden”. And just as Prufrock reflects that “I do not think that they will sing to me”, Corcoran knows the almost overwhelming power of imaginative association:

“Of course there is no garden,
and there is a garden where apophenia blooms” .

This is a major work written by a master and copies should be sought immediately from Tony Frazer at Shearsman Books at http://www.shearsman.com

Ian Brinton 5th August 2019

Grimspound & Inhabiting Art by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Grimspound & Inhabiting Art by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Referring to the photography of Marc Atkins whose contributions are central to the whole narrative of disappearances in two of Iain Sinclair’s books Rod Mengham writes:

“Photography is often thought of as a medium that fixes the moment, cryogenising it for future generations, but it can also become the means of showing how nothing is ever fixed, how the moment will always elude us, how all that can be recorded is irrevocable loss.”

Grimspound and Inhabiting Art is divided into two separate sections but as one reads more of the second half one realises how connected they really are. The first section looks closely at Conan Doyle’s novella from 1901, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the second larger section is comprised of twenty-nine short essays on different cultural habitats. Both sections focus on the elusiveness of reality and I am put in mind of Lewis Carroll’s 1872 publication, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of it all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold. ‘Things flow about so here!’ she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a workbox, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at.”

In writing about the Sherlock Holmes story, much of which takes place on Dartmoor, Mengham writes convincingly about the satisfactory nature of the detective tale by suggesting that its allure is the “harmony” it gives “to seemingly discordant elements; the underlying pattern that Watson gives voice to”. In a way this “harmony” is a piecing together of language in which its reconstruction “is what loosens the story’s tongue”. Language becomes a souvenir of a specific history. With a close examination of Conan Doyle’s story Mengham identifies some of the roots of this form of communication by alerting us to the fact that the murderer’s wife, Mrs Stapleton, is discovered bound round the throat and the hound itself attacks the throats of its prey:

“The legend reaches its climax with the spectacle of the giant hound standing over Sir Hugo Baskerville and ‘plucking at his throat; the Sherlock Holmes story leads to the same point: ‘I was in time to see the beast spring upon its victim, hurl him to the ground and worry at his throat’. Up until now, the hound has been heard but not seen, with its ‘muttered rumble’ seemingly dislocated from its source in the animal’s throat. Both in the legend and in Watson’s case history, the immediate object of the hound’s attack is the victim’s throat and the root of the tongue; which is where the voice originates; where language is housed.”

Given this context it is highly appropriate that in the old stone hut which is used by Holmes as a hidden lair there are a few items on the flat stone which serves as a table and they include a loaf of bread, two tins of preserved peaches and, notably, “a tinned tongue”. For the detective as things take shape they become coherent and the historian pieces together a version of the truth. However, as Julian Barnes pointed out “History isn’t what happened, history is just what historians tell us” and in his novel Flaubert’s Parrot Barnes’s narrator recalls the difficulties of seizing the past when he tells us of his experience as a medical student when “some pranksters at an end-of-term dance” released into the hall a piglet which had been smeared with grease:

It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet.”

When he writes a short essay about the photography of Marc Atkins in 2003 Rod Mengham brings to our attention the artist’s focus upon urban iconography. The photographs of Warsaw record a “city of disappearances” which also brings to mind the terrifying dystopia revealed in Paul Auster’s novel In the Country of Last Things. For Mengham the city brought to light by Atkins reveals a history “leaching out through the stone and brick of a fabric that could not be more distressed, whose patched and stained facades offer maximum resistance to the wipe-clean surfaces of modernity”. This is a city “whose foundations lie in sands and gravels” where the archaeology is all “above ground” and the record of past conflicts appear “only skin-deep beneath a thin layer of badly mixed plaster, apparently designed to fall away in time for each generation to have to rehearse its own strategies for oblivion”.
Grimspound and Inhabiting Art is a fascinating read that invites one to return to it time and time again as the roots of language feel out towards the conversation which had been “begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries” (Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind’).

Ian Brinton, 13th July 2019

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

Catullus wrote some very rude poems. And Roz Kaveney has made some very rude translations of them.

The Rome of Catullus and Kaveney is not one of colonnaded arcade and pomerium, of lush gardens fringing the Tiber and aqueducts delivering sparkling water to mansions on the Palatine. It’s a place of back alleys with ‘come-smeared walls’, where a lover ‘fucks / three hundred men queued up’, ‘sorry dregs’ who wash their teeth with urine in a time of ‘filth, love and death’.

Unlike some earlier translators, Kaveney does not beat around the bush of euphemism. Take for example what is presumably the gold standard, the Penguin Classics Poems of Catullus. Where Penguin has ‘remove yourselves’ (poem 33), Kaveney has ‘fuck off’. Where Penguin coyly refers to ‘services’ (41), Kaveney explains these are ‘fuck[ing] her scraggy arse’. In poem 42, Penguin’s ‘indelicate syllables’ are spelled out by Kaveney as ‘Fuck, felch, quim, rim’.

To be fair, though, sometimes even euphemism shrinks before Catullus’s meaning, as in Penguin’s poem 28: ‘Yes, Memmius, once / you filled me truly / slowly – daily – / with the length of your great beam’. (Kaveney renders this as: ‘My dear commander, Memmius, without oil // to smooth things, fucked me in the mouth and arse’.)

Would you like some more? Here is Kaveney’s translation of poem 16 in full:

Eat out my pussy while I fuck you hard
my hands up both your arses. Silly boys,
you prissy queens, because my verse enjoys
making hot love, that doesn’t mean I’m tarred

with the same filthy brush. I might be chaste
as anything. A poem might say “fuck,”
dabble its fingers in all kinds of muck,
turn people on perhaps, if they’ve a taste

for all that sort of thing. Old men with piles
don’t get hard otherwise; bored wives are wet
reading my verses. But you still don’t get
to think I’m a slut or virgin. Snarky smiles

will get you hurt. Oh, I will make you shout,
fistfuck your arses while you eat me out.

Catullus was a great innovator, one of the ‘new poets’ of the late Republic, who experimented with verse forms inherited from the Greeks. His mark can be seen on the work of Ovid, Tibullus, Sextus Propertius, Milton, Yeats and Pound. Kaveney’s translations are skilfully and unobtrusively rhymed in iambic pentameter; almost a third of them are sonnets, a form received from our own past, of course. Poems 63 and 64 are two of the longer poems that Catullus is famous for. The first tells the story of Attis who castrates himself (‘new girled’ ‘She plucks the last / bits of her former flesh / out by the chords’) to please the mother goddess Cybele who sets a lion on her. Poem 64 is another short epic about the marriage of Achilles’ parents, Peleus and sea nymph Thetis (part of which Virgil appropriated for the Aeneid).

The first century BCE was a time of scandal, chaos and civil war and Catullus’s poetry is ripe with intrigue and politics. Caesar and his lieutenant Mamurrus ‘are twins in sleaze / … You know it’s true. / They’ve fucked each other and they’ll fuck Rome too’ (57). There is bitterness, despair – but also love. For one lover, he wrote (48):

Juventius, to kiss your eyes is sweet,
as honey. I will not be satisfied
with thirty million kisses – so complete
is my devotion, I’ve not even tried
to cease from kissing. In a field of wheat,
harvest the grain and put each grain beside
the kisses I will give you. We’ll defeat
comparison, then kiss once more in pride.

Catullus also translated Sappho’s poem 31 for his great lost love, Lesbia (probably Clodia Metelli) (51):

He’s like a god, I think, or maybe more
than gods, the man who’s sitting next to you,
he gets to watch you. It is almost too
much that he hears your sweet laugh. I am poor

in spirit, Lesbia, because that sound
robs me of sense. It leaves me blind and dumb,
Soon deafness and paralysis will come.
I moan, and stagger, lie there on the ground,

and that’s just when you laugh. I cannot bear
to think of him, or you. And worse by far,
I know the truth, that all my problems are
trivial and silly, lighter than the air

and yet great kingdoms fall through such as this,
an idle dreamer, longing for a kiss.

Catullus, the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus: some English versions by Roz Kaveney is available from Sad Press https://sadpresspoetry.com/catullus/

Antony John 30th June 2019

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