Sunday, May 29, 2011

Literary Gents

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.

Poets in a Lanscape Highet
Sextus Propertius
I didn’t find Cuba. But back in the stacks at Russell’s, I ran into a lost love from long, long ago, Poets in a Landscape: Great Latin Poets in the Italy of Today by Gilbert Highet. It’s a beautiful little sketchbook on the lives, loves, lusts, and rustic retreats of Horace, Catullus, Ovid, Vergil et alia that I first read in fourth year high school Latin when we finally graduated to poetry after three years of horrendously boring Latin prose. The “Italy of Today” in the title is actually the Italy of 1957 (!) when the book was first published, lending Professor Highet’s ramblings in the Roman countryside an air of quaint antiquity too. I'm thinking Vespas, fountains and Audrey Hepburn here. 
   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:  
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 hands
quivered meanwhile, the frail knuckles snapped.
"Cheat! Liar! false to me and every other girl..."
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."

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.


  1. Good to see you on here again. Your 'voice' makes everything interesting and peaks my curiosity about things I would only skim. Have a great Memorial Day weekend. I may grab a copy of either book just so I can press you for your insight ;-D

  2. Arthur, I replaced Hitler's Tischgesprache (aka Hitler's Table Talk) some time back. I think I told you about ordering a second hand copy from Amazon and receiving the book from some neo-Nazi bookstore in Nebraska! Quite an unsettling experience for this Texas Jewboy, let me tell you. Anyway, you are forgiven, and you could have borrowed my Cuba book in spite of your track record.

  3. @ Red, thanks gurl! Good to be back. Had a major falling-out with Google over design and formatting and thought this blog may be gone for good. Actually set up a Calliope Street WordPress site to start fresh; this was going to be the first post over there. But I'm brand loyal to a fault, and found a way to work around tech problems -- all by my widdle self, he said proudly. Have a great weekend too, A.

  4. @ Lar, many thanks for the awesome new Deutsche word which you can sure I'm going to inflict mercilessly on friends at tables around New Orleans. You are a mensch, always, A.

  5. A thoughtful piece Art. And so glad you enjoyed your book...nothing like the best friendship of a book.

  6. Thanks, Di. Reading that old Roman from 15 B.C. convinces me that people really haven't changed at all. This might be a good book to tote around on your next visit to Italy. Lists the places they were born, villas they lived in; springs, streams, woods and farmland that inspired them -- all described as they looked in 1957, which is a big part of the charm as I mentioned. Much love to you, Di and Juan, wish we could hang at your villa this summer. A.

  7. my old blog "the little termite" was on WordPress. i didn't care for it at all. they made it more complicated than it needed to be. i prefer Google Blogger. :) nevertheless, i'm just happy to read your posts again. xo

    **don't you just love a good book? except when you come to the end of it.. it's like a really bad breakup. :'(

  8. Missed you too, T., and then I found out where you were. Can't tell you how much I admire what you do. Simply wonderful, A.