trans. C. H. Sisson
Less pub than brothel, and you, the regulars
The ninth pillar from Castor and Pollux
Do you think you are the only ones equipped with a penis,
That you are the only ones licensed for fucking
And that the rest who do it are merely goats?
Do you think, as you sit waiting in rows
A hundred or two hundred together, that I shall not dare
To do the whole lot of you, two hundred together?
Think again: I will draw scorpions
All over the walls of the place.
For my girl, who has escaped from my arms,
Who was loved as much, and more than any is loved,
From whom I have expended all my forces,
She is there. You, the great and the good, all love her,
You the valueless, corrupt, adulterous all love her;
You above all Egnatius
Long-haired son of a rabbit-toothed Celtiberian,
Only made good by your beard
Your teeth whitened by Spanish piss.
Ray Bradbury on Catullus 37
I want to identify myself. I’m Ray Bradbury. The cyborg Jillian Weise asked me to say a few things about Catullus. What can I say? You’ve read Catullus, haven’t you? You’ve noticed the turns in this poem, haven’t you? You’ve met a turn in a poem you liked before, haven’t you? Jillian is afraid to say why she likes the poem. It’s too personal, she thinks. Anything that’s worth a damn is too personal.
Catullus is a dinosaur in the imagination and I like dinosaurs. Nobody can say who Catullus is, or what he ate for breakfast. If you know the real Catullus, I defy you to tell us. Here he is standing in some place—pub, salon, front lawn in Rome—threatening to fight or fuck a group of men. Here he is distraught over his girl, the presumptive Clodia, a.k.a. Lesbia, because she left him. She isn’t named in the renunciation poems. Maybe he takes that cue from Virgil’s Aeneid. Or maybe it’s personal. Think about a person who ruined you. And did you much want to say her or his name out loud?
The poem begins as an invective against a place, a group of men. The first turn arrives in line nine, “Think again.” This is a rhetorical turn: the speaker asks us to re-think his position. He moves to the future tense, “I will draw scorpions / All over the walls of the place.” Sisson translates the Latin word “sopios” to “scorpions.” Sopios are those drawings you see on Roman frescos of men with their brobdingnagian erections exposed. Have you seen them? Yet still, why is the speaker so angry? The second turn reveals the motive: “She is there” (line 14). The beloved is there. Thou-whom-we-shall-not-name is there. What began as an insult poem warps into a love poem. The final turn occurs in line 16, “You above all Egnatius.” Who is Egnatius? How should I know? I haven’t been introduced. I’m outside, wearing my Ray Bans, drinking my Coors Light, about to graffiti the bar, bereft of my girl, and suddenly: Egnatius on the lawn. I don’t expect it. It knocks me out. It takes me by surprise. The poem turns the corner with the mention of Egnatius. The poem runs the red light and guns it to the skyway. I have to admit: I’m not as balls-to-the-wall for this poem as Jillian. She thinks it’s the best. My complaint is that it’s too familiar. It’s not you; it’s me. It’s not her; it’s him. It’s not us; it’s them. Who do you love?
May I tell them why you like the poem? We’ve gone this far, haven’t we? Sure, I’ll tell them. She asks me to call her the cyborg, so then—the cyborg Jillian first read this poem when she was twenty. She had a boyfriend named Dane (names have been changed) with a warrant out for his arrest in Illinois. She had a part-time job working the teleprompter at Fox. She had to get up at 3:30 a.m. There was Dane, on a bench outside her dorm window, waiting to borrow some dollars so he could buy some drugs. I’ve never liked drugs. They asked me to write a screenplay about drugs and I couldn’t do it. I just don’t care enough. She gave him the money. She was always giving him the money. She was afraid that nobody would love a cyborg. Dane called himself an artist and to prove it bought a canvas from Hobby Lobby. You know this place? You’ve seen it? He painted sad little junkyard sunsets. So she was in love with Dane. She thought he hung the moon. When I proposed to Maggie in 1947, I said: “I’m going to the moon. Do you want to come?” One night Dane stood on top of a table at Denny’s and proposed to the cyborg Jillian. Jesus God, they were going to get married.
Then she heard rumors that a certain Alexandra was hanging out with a certain Dane at a bar called The Epitome in Tallahassee, Florida on Friday night. What should she do? Should she go to the bar and see if it was true? Or stay home and sob into her broadcast journalism? Of course, she went to the bar, and it was worse than true. Alexandra was sitting on Dane’s lap. And Phoebe had sat on Dane’s lap. Also, Elizabeth had sat on Dane’s lap. It wouldn’t have been so bad if someone had told her sooner. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she didn’t know about it. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she weren’t a cyborg. With this in mind, she decided: It’s not so bad. She continued to love Dane’s lap. There was no time for teleprompters or study groups. There was only time for her and Dane and Alexandra and Phoebe and Elizabeth. She began to feel close to the women. They saw each other at parties. They shared a dick. It was their dick. The law caught up with Dane. He called collect from the Effingham County Jail and she accepted the calls for a while. Turns inside poems happen fast. Turns outside poems take a while.
Jillian Weise’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Tin House and elsewhere. Her books include The Amputee’s Guide to Sex and The Colony. Her next collection, “The Book of Goodbyes,” won the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award and will be published by BOA in 2013. She is an Assistant Professor at Clemson.
Catullus 37, from C. H. Sisson’s Collected Translations. Copyright © 1996 by C. H. Sisson. Reprinted with permission of Carcanet Press.