Facing a Saturday night alone – no kids, no date, no plans – I was desperate for a book. In particular I was craving Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom by Hugh Thomas. I had spent many hours absorbed with Thomas’ comprehensive and even-handed accounts of the Spanish Civil War and the Conquest of Mexico. His 1,700-page history of Cuba from the British capture of Havana in 1762 to the Castro revolution had been my guest bedside read during a recent sojourn in Texas. I was just getting hooked when I had to leave. I dared not ask to borrow it from my host’s library, however, owing to a serious abuse of that privilege some years ago (Larry, if you’re reading this, I’d like to get off the shit list and promise to restore the lost copy of that unmentionable book). If anyone in town had Cuba, I knew it would be Russell’s Arcadia Books on Orleans Street opposite the Bourbon-Orleans Hotel. I hopped on my bike and headed over.
This is a book to savor. I read one sketch every night for a week. They were all enjoyable, but my re-introduction to Propertius was absolutely mind blowing. It’s a shame he died so young (in his early 30s, around 15 B.C.) and left so little behind. Otherwise, we’d all be reading him today. His voice is fresh, almost “modern”; always passionate, sometimes macabre. Most of his poems were addressed to his lover Cynthia, a real she-cat. They were always sleeping around on each other. But they couldn't let go of each other either, even in death:
Cynthia's rage and jealousy subside. She tells Propertius to get another mistress and offers him a long and beautiful "consolation," a unique Latin verse form in which the freshly dead speak to the living and wrap up any unfinished business. I found myself emotionally exhausted and close to tears when I got to Cynthia's last words: "Though others may possess you, later I shall hold you alone/clutching closely, bone to bone."Ghosts do exist. Death does not finish everything.The pale phantom lives to escape the pyre.Yes: bending over my pillow I saw Cynthia--interred that day beside the highway's roar.Still sleepless, brooding on my mistress' funeral,I loathed the chilly empire of my bed.Her hair was just the same as at her burial,her eyes the same; her dress scorched down one side;the fire had eaten at her favourite beryl ring;her lips had tasted Lethe and were pale.She spoke, in a voice panting with life and passion: her handsquivered meanwhile, the frail knuckles snapped."Cheat! Liar! false to me and every other girl..."
Propertius wrote another profoundly moving consolation, the last poem of his life. It's in the voice of a virtuous and faithful Roman matron named Cornelia to her children and to her husband, the poet's friend, Paullus. She tells him:
You must be their mother and their father, Paullus, my darlings’ weight now clings around your neck. Kiss them when they weep, and add their mother’s kisses. And if you grieve for me, they must not witness it. When they embrace you, cheat them – dry your eyes. And, when you talk in secret to my portrait, speak and pause a while, as though I might reply.
Now you know why I could handle only one of these poets at a sitting. In between, I dug into a paperback copy of The Freedom Trap, a Cold War-era thriller by Desmond Bagley, which I bought for 35 cents on Russell's always reliable say-so. And how could I resist a cover like this? An exploding yacht, a frogman, a frightened redhead in a tight bikini? Perfect. Just the book I needed for a lonely-guy Saturday night.