Saturday, October 31, 2009

Talking about Catullus

Our readers group met on Friday to talk about Catullus. We spent two hours laughing and praising his work and his character. We began with the first poem of the surviving collection:

Who do I give this neat little book to
all new and polished up and ready to go?
You, Cornelius, because you always thought
there was something to this stuff of mine,
and were the one man in Italy with guts enough
to lay out all history in a couple of pages,
a learned job, by god, and it took work.
So here's the book, for whatever it's worth
I want you to have it. And please, goddess,
see that it lasts for more than a lifetime.

I said how much I liked the poem because Catullus praises the accomplishments of Cornelius. A. asked why that strengthens the poem and pointed out how Catullus often brought in other characters, so there was a trio: the poem, others, and the listeners. I said it made Catullus less of a big I-am.

L. said, his changing focus, quickened the poem. I agreed. Even when he expresses grief, he doesn't get mired in it. In a poem mourning his dead brother, he apologizes to a friend for seeming to ignore him:

Still for all my grief, Hortalus, I send you
these translations of some verse by Callimachus,
so you won't think that what you said to me just
slipped from the vague wandering fog in my mind
the way an apple her boy friend sent her in secret
pops right out of a girl's innocent young breast
because, the poor thing, she forgot all about it
under her dress and jumped up when mother came in,
there it goes bouncing across the floor, her face
is red, so she's so ashamed of herself and could cry.

We followed the poet, delighted when he veered from grief to the description of the young girl and the secret apple. The opposite of obsession, when the mind is locked in an endlessly repeating refrain.

There was so much to admire: his intimate, vital tone, his elegant lines, the way he talks to himself:

So why keep torturing yourself anymore?
Come on now, get tough, get yourself together,
the gods don't want your misery, so quit it.

He is withering on Julius Caesar and Caesar's right hand man, Mamurra. 'This could be a poem about Cheney and Bush,' L. said. Yes, but not the sex. I can't imagine them ever lusting for little girls.

They're beautiful together, the odd couple,
Mamurra, and Caesar his queen.
Naturally. you get two splats of shit together,
one from the city, the other from Formiae,
and you can never wash them off.
One's as sick as the other, twin diseases
in their little bed, with their little minds,
and both still fuck-hungry besides,
beating each other out after little girls.
They're beautiful together, the odd couple.

In poem 12, Catullus shames, teases and berates Asinius for stealing Catullus's prized napkins, gifts from his dearest friends:

It's not nice to use your left hand like that
at the table, Asinius, everybody busy laughing
and drinking, and you stealing their napkins.
You think it's funny? Guess again, creep . . .

I suggested that after Thanksgiving dinner, each of us write a poem in the spirit of Catullus to the creepiest of the guests. If not at Thanksgiving, after another occasion. Will we be as outspoken as Catullus?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Familiar Strangers

On my daily walk I usually pass this Cyrus Dallin statue. Lately I'm more interested in the familiar strangers I see who are usually out of doors when I am. Today I saw the elderly Muslim couple. She wears a head covering and a long dress. I worry about her. Her coat is not heavy enough for the cold weather, and her shoes are thin-soled sandals. I watched as she held on to her husband's arm and walked down Pleasant Street. Unlike Americans, they stroll, as if they were on the Corniche, gazing at the sea.

When I reached the Starbucks in Arlington Center, I saw the teenage couple with their infant baby. They are so terribly young. Bundled in winter coats--hers pink--they sat at an outdoor table and wheeled the baby back and forth and jiggled the carriage as they sipped their drinks. I've seen them every day this week. The father is fair with large eyes and a Roman nose--a face like the one of Alexander the Great stamped on so many silver coins. Sitting near them was a large man with long brown disheveled hair who sits outside Starbucks every day of the year. He speaks to some of the regulars. Sometimes he seems stunned. We exchange glances but we don't speak.

Tomorrow when I go out I will see other familiar strangers. Maybe some of them, over the weeks and months and years, have gotten used to seeing me.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Catullus (84-54 BC)

The Roman poet Catullus is famous for his love poems to Lesbia, "Let's you and me live it up, my Lesbia, Viuamus, mea Lesbia . . . " He is also famous for his wildly profane language:

Up your ass and in your mouth
Aurelius, you too Furius, you cocksuckers
calling me dirt because my poems
have naughty naughty words in them.

But right now I'm interested in the direct, engaging way Catullus begins a poem and plan to copy him. Here are some of his openers:

Hello, sparrow . . .
Just how many kisses do I want . . .
You feel bad, Catullus, but quit acting stupid . . .
Calvus, old buddy . . .
Aurelius, you father of every hunger . . .
Look Thallus, you fat little fairy . . .
Listen kid, go bring us something/ decent to drink . . .
I hate her and I love her . . .
You're invited to a feast, Fabullus, my place . . .

Lively, profane, irreverent, the most secular of ancient poets, Catullus speaks with what Bunuel called "virile insolence." He insults Caesar:

I've no big wish to please you, Caesar,
or to know who or what the hell you are.

I know very little Latin, but the liquidity of Catullus's lines comes through: Mellitos oculos tuos, Iuuenti . . . Your honeyed eyes, Juventius.

Next week we'll be talking about Catullus in our readers group. I've succumbed to his charms and won't say a word against him.

He was born in Verona, where this Roman road has been worn smooth, and died too young.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Family Reunion

Tomorrow I'll be with my cousins in New Jersey. I grew up in Passaic, where my family lived on Lucille Place, a few steps from the apartment house in the picture. When my cousins and I are together we're seldom nostalgic for the past. We tell jokes and talk about the present. A while back there was some talk about putting together a family tree but no one's done anything about it. Like all families, ours began long ago, but we have few records, only a paper with information about my grandfather's becoming an American citizen.

I'm grateful that he and my grandmother had the good sense to leave Europe. They had lived in a village, probably Jalowka, near Bialystok. From a population of approximately 800 Jews in Jalowka, there is a record of only one Jew surviving the Nazis. Most of them died in the gas chambers in Treblinka. There are no Jews now in Jalowka, still a rural village.

I've read that Jalowka is one of the best places to see the European Roller bird and like to think that my grandmother saw this brilliant blue bird. She was fond of blue and grew Heavenly Blue morning glories. Each blossom lasts only one day.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Workers: Sit Down

Years ago when I worked in a department store in downtown Passaic, New Jersey, the clerks were not allowed to sit down, except during short breaks. We were on our feet for most of the eight-hour shift.

Clerks and cashiers are still on their feet. They were lined up at their registers yesterday when I went to TJ Maxx; they were on their feet--most of them middle-aged and older--at the supermarket. The workers stand in toll booths; they stand in banks; they stand at cosmetic counters. They stand, their faces tense, and tell us to "have a nice day."

Things are different in France. I was amazed to see cashiers in the Casino supermarket in Aix ringing up our groceries and wine as they sat in comfortable swiveling seats. They smiled. Not one of them told me to have a nice day.

It might take a revolution before clerks can sit on the job in the United States. Think of how difficult it has been to insure that we all have health care.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cape Cod Reading

It was pouring rain when we left Arlington for a two-hour ride to West Falmouth. I was to read with Susan Donnelly and Fan Ogilvie for the Calliope series at the West Falmouth Library. Driving in a nor'easter is rough. Wind whipped rain against the windows; trucks sent up spray, which splattered against the windshield with a loud, wet noise. I was jumpy until we got to the Bourne Bridge. Traffic crept: there had been an accident.

It was still raining hard when we got to the library. I pulled up my hood and went inside. There were people! The wood-paneled room was warm, and there was wine. There was a children's corner.

Thanks to the fine work of Alice Kociemba , coordinator of the series, there was an audience of regulars. There's Alice in front of the fireplace.

We waited for Fan Ogilvie, who was coming from Martha's Vineyard, and learned her boat had been cancelled because of rough seas. Alice read from her chapbook. A phrase stays with me, "the rhythm of the day-dreaming soul." Susan Donnelly's poem,"The Fifties," gave us a picture of "What We Wore":

From the neck down
we were fortressed
with guy ropes and wires.

Plastic splints
pushed up our small,
worried breasts. We hooked

dress shields
over the smears
of Secret. From our waists

hung garters,
with rigging that
stroked our thighs.

Rubber girdles, crinolines,
sanitary belts
like holy medals.

I autographed a book for Susan, congratulating her on escaping the rigging.

It snowed on the way home but I wasn't nervous. I got into the "rhythm of the day-dreaming soul." Soon we were home and eating a dinner of curry and rice. Just enough heat in the spice.

Please tell me about your reading experiences.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


When I'm about to leave the house and music is playing, particularly ravishing music--Bach, Dawn Upshaw, Chet Baker--I do not turn off the radio. I take my keys, my camera, and wallet, and with my cell phone clipped to my waistband go out the door and down the driveway, pleased with myself as if I had done something remarkable. I don't leave the radio on for security, unlike a friend who used to leave his radio on to frighten away thieves.

The other day as I walked away from my house to the sound of "Night in Tunisia," I thought about leaving things on, not just the radio. All the books I've loved are still on, still playing. The volume is turned down but will increase if I open the book and read. The paintings that turned me on are still on. The ink still seems fresh on the letters my mother wrote to me: "Dearest Miriam, I want to tell you I can enjoy life again. My vital signs are good."

A few blocks away, the Buddhist monks have made a sand painting. On October 21 they will perform "The ceremony of dissolution." They will destroy the painting. I can't be like them. I want things to go on.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


It's rainy and raw. The yews drip. The sparrows at the feeder are drenched and sodden. Everything is a yellowed-over gray. I need a walk so I will walk in the house. I light a candle and put on my striped paw-gloves, which I found in the pocket of my winter coat. I must have washed them last spring: they smell fresh. Gloves on, red scarf wrapped twice around my neck, insulated in sweaters, fleece pants and long underwear, I should warm up.

I'm lucky to have rooms to move in. Even if I were back in one of the dismal, small, cold furnished rooms I once lived in, I'd find a way to move. I fall into a fast rhythm: kitchen, through the dining room, down the hall, into the living room, and back again, and again. The "Jazz Spectrum" is on the radio and I hear what sounds like a mellow throaty voice. I put my head close to the radio. A bass or a guitar? I'm not sure. When I call the station, I learn it's Steve Gilmore playing bass. His bass is a mouth, a throat, lungs, breath.

I've warmed up and can stretch--hamstrings, quads, arms, back. Hamstrings are the tightest but they let go.

Now I've got a pot of rice cooking on the stove. Rice and beans for lunch and then time to write while the last of the storm knocks down leaves. They're on the grass: copper, yellow, red.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Make-up has surprising value. It can raise my spirits. This morning I woke feeling low. I don't know why but I could speculate. A few days ago I saw old friends. Four of the nine people in the room had survived cancer, and one was facing a serious operation on his heart. We ate and drank and told stories. No one mentioned illness. To survive cancer is a good thing, but later I began to brood about the human condition, a dispiriting thing to do.

"If dying were a good thing, the gods would be mortal," Sappho wrote. I thought of her wry poem as I put on my make-up. As soon as I stroked "Charcoal" tint into my eyebrows I felt better, and even better when I lined my upper lids, put on Dr. Hauschka's "Translucent Make-up 02 and Alba Botanica Terra Tints lipstick. Dr. Hauschka is expensive, pricey enough to make a security attendant gasp when she saw the price label as she searched my carry-on bag; the lipstick is only a few dollars.

Why should putting on make-up raise my spirits? Maybe because it has a narrative shape: first this, then that. It's a little like writing and walking. Make-up improves my appearance, but not much.

After I was made-up for the day--a character, so to speak--I lit a candle, ran a wash, listened to the opening few minutes of the Episcopal service broadcast from Memorial Chapel at Harvard, which always begins with this hymn.

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home:

Under the shadow of thy throne,
thy saints have dwelt secure;
sufficient is thine arm alone,
and our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received her frame,
from everlasting thou art God,
to endless years the same.

A thousand ages in thy sight
are like an evening gone;
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
they fly, forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
be thou our guide while troubles last,
and our eternal home!

When the hymn was done, I went out for a walk. Everyone I saw seemed brave. They were out in the sunshine, not in bed with the covers pulled over their heads.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Metaphor: Melissa Stein

I was thinking more about my imaginary course, "Description," when it occurred to me that metaphor was one of the most potent forms of description. In Melissa Stein's super-sensitive poem, "Hinges," the title word is remarkably described.


You opened the door. Forced it back
on its hinges, drove in the thin wedge, saying

"I may need to enter at a moment's notice."
But don't you know that metal has memory, alive

the way rising dough resists a probing finger,
or trodden grass springs up against the foot's imprint.

Even flesh that retains the rare bloom of a bruise
soon lets it go. You keep these iron plates apart

so long they rust apart, flaking
into the slightest breeze, and still,

they remember what it means to rest
against each other, folded like wings.

(Bellevue Literary Review, fall 2009.)

The whole poem is metaphor--the struggle between an intruder and the "hinges," which seem human, virginal, once hidden and secret, angelical.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Dinner with MacBook

Our friend S. came for dinner on Sunday, and while we drank beer and ate almonds, J. showed him--on his MacBook--scenes from the great Russian film version of King Lear directed by Grigori Kozintsev with a score by Shostakovich. I myself did not watch, not even for a minute. Lear is too heartbreaking in English. Can you imagine what the Russians do with it? Break your heart and devour it.

We went to the table and ate penne with basil and roasted tomatoes. Our plates steamed; we ate slowly. I mentioned I had seen Peter Lorre's first film in America, "Mad Love." "Lorre had that eyebrow thing," I said, raising my eyebrows, twitching them. "But not as pronounced as in later films." Lorre is wonderfully creepy as the mad Dr. Orlac, who sews fresh hands, cut from an executed knife-thrower, onto the wrists of a concert pianist whose hands were crushed in a train wreck. S. told us there was a reference to Dr. Orlac in Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano." I googled; up came the poster, which the hero of the novel sees in one of his drunken rambles.

We ate cauliflower and potatoes with scallions, olive oil, and spinach, the vegetables from Wilson farms, herby and pungent. I said I had been reading the recent biography of Flannery O'Connor. J. tried to find her on youtube, without success. She and the chicken she had supposedly trained to walk backward had been filmed by Pathe news when O'Connor was a child. I took the computer, googled away and in seconds found an audio of O'Connor giving a talk about the grotesque in fiction. It was eerie to hear her thick southern accent and sweet voice. A candle shed its wavering light; the windows were dark. She went on talking:

Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.

We listened to the end. I shut down the computer and we ate mango sorbet and shortbread. J. sang:

Mammy's little baby loves short'nin', short'nin',
Mammy's little baby loves short'nin' bread.

Three little chillun lying in bed,
Two of them sick, the other 'most dead.
Call for the doctor, the doctor said,
"Feed them chillun on shortnin' bread.

We were a little hysterical. The MacBook was a robot-like helper, our fourth guest. The great god Google had given us too much, and J. sounded like the black characters in Spike Lee's film "Bamboozled," who act like players in a minstrel show--grotesques!

Here is a photo of the study in which Flannery O'Connor wrote her great stories.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Making Things Up

On Friday afternoon, I had two visitors, young girls. A. began playing with my exercise ball and then she and her sister S. began transforming it into a character. First they made a boy with a checkered hat and big feet. S. drew his face on an old towel, which we stuffed into the hat. I helped by searching the house for a shirt, gloves, shoes, the hat, a tie, a scarf. S. named him Chuck. A. did not like the name but did not put up a fight.

We stripped off the clothes and made another character, the one you see here. To turn Chuck into a girl, S. gave her eyelashes, fuller lips, and a beauty mark at the corner of her mouth. Her hair is a fuzzy scarf. We agreed our character liked to eat.

She still had no name. A. and S. argued about the name. A. chose "Jessica"; S. wanted "Tilly." "She's a Tilly," she said. A. did not agree. "Look at her," S. said. "Jessica does not fit her character." We were in the realm of fiction and fairy tale, where the name should fit the character. In real life our names often do not fit us. Our character was fat, untidy, goodnatured. No Jessica or Miranda or Annabel or Marilyn. A. turned her back on the chubby, jowly creature she had helped make, and insisted we call her "Jessica." She liked the name, but it had nothing to do with our fat creature. We compromised. S. said: "We'll call her T.J."

After they left, I took T.J. apart. (She's still "Tilly" to me.) Back in their original places in my closet and dresser drawers, the clothes have no memory of their excursion.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Stripping Down

A few blocks away, workers are stripping a house as if they were stripping a sofa to be reupholstered. They've ripped off the siding, exposing these wide boards, which have been hidden since the nineteenth century, when the house was built. Inside they smash plaster, which gives off clouds of white powder as it falls into the dumpster. They tear out ceiling fans, stoves, cabinets, white metal medicine chests with big globe lights. The workers wear masks. I watch from across the street.

If we were stripped down, we could not be rebuilt. We'd be soul-less, lifeless. Have you seen those flayed, embalmed bodies on exhibit in museums? They are processed: "A human specimen is first preserved according to standard mortuary science. The specimen is then dissected to show whatever it is that someone wants to display. Once dissected, the specimen is immersed in acetone, which eliminates all body water. The specimen is then placed in a large bath of silicone, or polymer, and sealed in a vacuum chamber" (Boston Museum of Science website). Ghastly! I saw the exhibit in the Boston Science Museum. Lifeless. Macabre.

The house is full of life. The more the workers strip away the more beautiful the house appears. It's girdled in granite, which has blackened from the steam engine trains that used to speed by, and an iron fence, which I hope they will restore.