Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Catulla et al; and Catullus

Writing a blog should be enjoyable… I was wondering how to ensure this, looking through a pile of read/unread/half-read books.  I found Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al and knew I’d be OK.  Catullus reinvented for the 21st century - and female.  Sharp, lyrical, sardonic, vulnerable; of-the-moment and universal.  Here’s the end of ‘Basia mille’:

kiss me in the checkout queue
and let the tight mouths clatter -

scandal’s for neurotics and they live
on small change.  Kiss me then, as
daylight follows to the power of

[That is the end.]  This poem’s relatively close to the original.  I like the way it turns Catullus’ simple addition, ‘Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then..’ into mathematical formulae. 

The Catulla poems, which form the first half of the book, take Catullus as a jumping-off point… and jump, wherever, somewhere into the confusion of love and life.  Just as Catullus did in the first century BC, in his shorter, lyric poems.  I remember first reading him aged 15 or so, and wondering at how fresh the poems were, feeling myself in ancient Rome and modern Britain at once… not that I knew then about ‘Poetry Wars’:

Potayto / potarto, Sestius.  Avant-
garde indeed.  I’ve got handbags
with more counter-culture in.  You

who scoffed a hot fish supper
off my book then blogged about it
to the gods…

‘Clodia’ (Catullus’ lover Lesbia’s real name) starts from Catullus poem 51, ‘Ille mi par esse deo videtur’, itself a version of Sappho’s famous poem. 

How does hate swing through fixation into love,
or something like?  So if she drives past in the
family car I want to part the traffic
like a sea for her -

which is confusing, at the very least….

Catullus 51 is written in sapphics.  Atkinson’s poem is in a form she uses in several others too: syllabics, with sapphics’ 11-11-11-5 structure; but without the metre, which is so hard to reproduce in English.  And she takes the poem somewhere different:

Her husband left me green with want, she knows that.
But I’m sick for something further back.  Look: I’m
the stickyfingered brat still clamouring at
the apron, whining.   

Lesbia’s famous sparrow (though according to the notes in Peter Green’s text-and-translation, such a pet would more likely have been a prettier, tamer bird such as the blue rock thrush) becomes a large, elderly dog.  (The dog is a veteran of sexual escapades; the Latin bird-word was slang for penis. Not that we were told that at school.)  Here, the dog is being stroked:

rolls this demijohn of fealty, open as a palm.

Exquisite, how the skin takes touch.  The eyes
roll back.  The universe contracts.  And she
observes the soft jewels of the genitals

for she is known for thoroughness.

That last statement could be made about the author, who has a magpie eye - as the narrator says of herself in one poem in ‘et al’, the second half of the book, a miscellany of poems showing the same energy, style and ear for cadences.  I enjoyed these most where they deal in the everyday, as in that poem and ‘Thunder at Saxmundham’:

                             The engine

idles at a junction; this is the poet’s
aubade for his lover.  Someone closes
windows on the live air.  Buddleia

in the siding shakes its tacky dildos.
Any minute now the sky will fall point
blank on silos and conservatories…

Triplets is the most common form in the book, and this combined with tipping-over enjambments give the poems their switchback cadences.

But it’s the Catulla poems that have stayed with me, from first reading a couple of months ago until now.  Some of the excitement of that long-ago Catullus discovery has found its way into this book.  Here’s the end of Catullus poem 11, one of his most famous passages, with Peter Green’s translation:

nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,
qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati
ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
tactus aratro est.

Let her no more, as once, look for my passion,
which through her fault lies fallen like some flower
at the field’s edge, after the passing ploughshare
   cut a path through it.

And here’s how Atkinson reimagines that, at the end of ‘Catulla’:

.. May you never know
how slow unlovely women burn,
nor how we keep our heads down.
Sod you.  All the books say I must
break this at the stem.  Live long,
die happy. Take these petals as they come -
for kisses, curses, kisses. 

Now, the hard bit.  Would I enjoy this book as much, if I’d never read Catullus?  I suppose the answer has to be, not quite.  But that’s starting from a very high level.  What the poems get from Catullus - the persona, the tone, the zeitgeist, some of the accessories - would still add interest, make Catulla et al stand out.  I’d still have enjoyed it enormously; it’s one of my top books of the last year. 

Catulla et al by Tiffany Atkinson is published by Bloodaxe.

***   ***   ***

The Poems of Catullus by Peter Green is published by University of California Press, 2005.  (I got it for a song in Borders’ closing sale.)  Recommended: for the parallel text, the enjoyable verse translations, the interesting and extensive footnotes.  Also Green’s heroic and fascinating attempt to replicate the original metre in every poem: hendecasyllables, choliambics, elegiac couplets, and several others.  There’s an interesting discussion of the problems this throws up. 

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