Ovid in the 21st Century: Jane Alison’s Novel “Nine Island” & Laurel Fulkerson’s “Ovid: A Poet on the Margins”

Bernini’s sculpture of Apollo and Daphne

I came of literary age with a close reading of Metamorphoses.  If I had not taken an Ovid class, I would have been a Greek snob forever.  I loved Greek; I still love Greek. I was an avid Greek student. But after studying Latin at the urging of a classics professor, I fell in love with this resonant, elliptical language.

In a seminar room with a clanking radiator, a small group of us translated  Metamorphoses. I had never read a poem so elegant and loopy, fluid and witty.  I spent evenings with Lewis and Short (the dictionary) and Allen and Greenough (the grammar) as I translated Ovid’s myths about nymphs who turned into trees,  beautiful women seduced by Jupiter and transformed into cows, a hunter turned into a stag and killed by his own hounds.

In Ovid’s tragicomic epic poem, Metamorphoses, the  meaning of the transformation is sometimes ambiguous and baffles. One of the most famous is the story of  Daphne and Apollo.  Pursued by Apollo, the nymph Daphne runs away and prays to her father to save her.  Her father transforms her into a tree, but Apollo still claims her as his own:  the laurel tree.  Is this myth about empire? There are many interpretations.

Ovid is my favorite poet.  And so you will not be surprised that I recently enjoyed two books centered on Ovid: Jane Alison’s nonfiction novel, Nine Island, is narrated by a woman who is translating Ovid, and Laurel Fulkerson’s Ovid: A Poet on the Margins, is a scholarly guide to his poetry.

In Alison’s Nine Island, which won the Independent Publishers Award in 2017, J, the narrator, is Jane Alison, or someone like her:  both are translators of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  J is on deadline:  she has 124 days to finish her book. J writes elliptically, “Sort of translation, but only to start:  am changing his stories around.  I don’t think Ovid of all people would mind.”

J is divorced. A series of futile infertility treatments destroyed her marriage. And so she is having sex with old boyfriends, and trying to meet someone new.  When we first meet her, she is driving back to Miami  after spending a month with a man she calls Sir Gold, the best of her old boyfriends.  Sir Gold told her it was over, to leave.  Now she is alone in her high-rise apartment, with her ancient cat Buster (who wears diapers) and Ovid for company.  She spends much of her time by the pool, alternately swimming and translating.

Alison’s style is lyrical, elliptical. She writes,

No, I’ve sailed no seas.  I’ve driven south down I-95, driven south for days, until 95 stopped, and I was back in Miami.

No country for old women.

I’m not old yet, but my heart is sick with old desire, and I’m back in this place of sensual music to see if it’s time to retire from love.

J compares women’s lives to those of Ovid’s women turned into trees.

A girl appears. Not the girl turned into a tree, but the trees she passes might have recently been girls like herself:  that’s the kind of world we’re in.  Sighing trees, fingering with green sprigs the air they adore.  Their trunks might someday be cut down but will never be fucked, and for this they shiver in relief.

The spare narrative is exquisite. J’s days are uneventful:  she takes walks under a pink umbrella, makes friends at the pool with an older white-blond woman (her older alter ego?) who swims to numb pain, and visits her mother, who falls and must sell her house. Back in Miami,  the members of the board at J’s condo insist that the pool must  be rebuilt at great expense.  It has to do with shady deals with concrete companies, and the mob is involved.

This is the kind of novel you read for the style and only later realize the depth of character.

I very much enjoyed Alison’s earlier novel about Ovid, An Artist in Love. She is also the author of Change Me:  Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid.  

Laurel Fulkerson’s Ovid: A Poet on the MarginsThis short book is an excellent guide to Ovid.  Fulkerson sketches his life and emphasizes the ambiguity and paradox in his poetry.  In Metamorphoses, what does it mean that so many gods are rapists?  In a weaving competition with Athena/Minerva, Arachne’s tapestry depicts 21 rapes committed by gods.  Is Ovid just trying to tell us gods are rapists, or is it political?  The poem Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a light guide to how to pick up men or women, may have led to his exile from Rome.  According to Ovid in his poem written in exile, Tristia (Sad Things),  he was exiled because of  carmen et error, a poem and an error.  Fulkerson writes, “We never do learn what happened, though many historians and novelists have put together the intriguing hints in a variety of ways, some connecting the relegation to political scheming, some to adultery with imperial women, and some to a combination of the two.”

There is much crammed into this fascinating book, which has only 101 pages–just the right size for an introduction or a review.

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”: The Separation of Ceres and Her Daughter

There is a book, one book.

Everyone has a book.

For me it is Ovid’s epic poem, Metamorphoses, a lively collection of Greek and Roman myths. In this saucy Roman classic, the theme of metamorphosis links his elegant narratives of myths and legends. The poem begins with the creation of the universe and ends with the apotheosis of Julius Caesar. Much of it is comical, though he has his serious moments.

Ovid enchanted me as a young woman. I took Greek, then fell in love with Ovid, then added Latin, then went to graduate school in classics. As I read the Latin, I appreciated the maturity, flexibility, and joy of Ovid’s poetry, and its allusions to Greek and Roman literature and philosophy.

Many of Ovid’s retellings of myths make us  feminists uncomfortable, especially his tales of rape, which in our current political climate I have begun to read, perhaps not accurately, as  double tales of empire.  There is the myth of Daphne, a virginal nymph dedicated to Diana who would rather be turned into a tree than raped by a comically out-of-shape Apollo, huffing and puffing as he chases her and begging her to run slower.  Ovid makes it slapstick, but is it? We are in suspense as Daphne prays to her father, who thinks Apollo is a good match. After her  transformatione, Apollo claims the tree, a laurel, as his own.  Even as a tree, Daphne is colonized.  Is this a subtle criticism of empire?  Or just a myth?

Since my mother’s death,  I identify most with Ovid’s version of Ceres (Demeter in Greek)  and Proserpina (Persephone in Greek).  It is  a story of a mother’s loss of and search for her daughter. Ceres, the goddess of agriculture,  loses Proserpina to Pluto (Hades, god of the underworld), who abducts and rapes her after  he is struck by one of Cupid’s arrows.  And, horrifyingly, Ovid presents the rape of Proserpina  as another imperial mission.

Cupid’s shooting of Pluto is part of Venus’s political plot to expand her empire. She speaks to her son Cupid of  their conquest of the other two parts of the tripartite kingdom:  she says Cupid already rules Jupiter and Neptune , so why should Pluto hold out?

Ovid writes (and this is my literal abridged prose translation):

“..My son, pick up the weapons by which you conquer all,
and shoot your fast arrows into the heart of the god
who drew the last lot of the tripartite kingdom ( the underworld).
You rule the gods in heaven and Jove himself,
you rule the gods of the sea and Neptune himself.
Why should hell resist? Why not expand our empire?
The third part of the world is at stake.”

During Ceres’ search, she curses the earth and there is famine. She is violent:  she transforms a rude child into a newt, even though his mother prepared her a snack. Ceres is a god, and gods are terrible.  Ovid doesn’t sentimentalize.  No cozy mothers here.

And yet she  loses her daughter not only to Pluto and Venus, but to patriarchal politics.  Jupiter, the father of Proserpina and Pluto’s brother,  tells Ceres that Pluto is powerful and not a bad match.   Is he colluding with Pluto?  B Ceres cannot free her daughter from her marriage to Pluto ebcause Proserpina has eaten seven pomegranate seeds in the underworld.  (Don’t eat if you want to leave.)  But Jupiter arranges for Proserpina to spend six months above ground (and that’s spring and summer).

How were we like Ceres and Proserpina?  My mother lost me to my father in a divorce (not sexually). Like so many girls, I was enchanted by my hitherto absent father:  he began to park outside my school  and complained about his loneliness. He rented a dungeon-like basement (the underworld), with sinuous pipes and high narrow windows in the snot-green walls.  At night  I was terrified by the woman upstairs screaming at her voiceless husband, whose larynx had been surgically removed:  I thought he beat her, but could I have known this?   And after my father left town… well, I won’t go into it, but my mother was beside herself.

She never gave up, and we finally reconciled. Many years later our roles were reversed. As Ceres to her Prosperpina, I rescued her from neglect in an assisted living facility.  But I lost her again two years later.

At the funeral she appeared as an energetic poltergeist:  as the priest swung the censer, the incense burner flew off the chain.

Yes, I am sure it was my mom.

How to Get Sloppy: Ovid in Exile

This spring I read and very much enjoyed Ovid’s The Black Sea Letters, Book 1 (Epistulae ex Ponto), in Latin.  Written in exile in Tomis on the Black Sea, this little-read collection of epistolary verse is brilliant and fascinating.

Exiled from Rome in 8 A.D. by Augustus for carmen et error (a poem and an error), the poet Ovid  wretchedly describes his imitation of life in a land assailed by  fierce storms and extremes of temperature.  He lives among the smelly Tomitae barbarians and their bellicose neighbors, the Getae. In his elegiac letters home, he reminds his influential friends that he is the only Roman exile in this barbaric land so far from Rome, and he hopes they will plead his case and hustle him back closer to Rome, if not to Rome itself. He reminds them he was exiled for a fault, not a crime.

Exile also means he has lost the will to write elegantly.  Circumstances are far from ideal.  It’s not as though he has poetry readings, the theater,  or dinner parties to keep him up to snuff.    He has no incentive to polish his writing now.  He is homesick for Rome and the life of a celebrity poet of equestrian rank; he misses his wife and daughter; and may he just mention the horror of  daily deadly faceoffs with bellicose men waving spears.  He reminds his highly-placed friends of their obligation  to him, even though association with him may put them in danger.  He reminds them that his books are not banned:  they are still in libraries in Rome.  Alas, there are no libraries in rough Tomis.   There are no poetry readings, either.

Many writers know what it is to be in exile–and I don’t mean literally.  Many are in exile in the 21st century from the 20th century, when publishing throve, and thus lose the incentive to polish.  Of course Ovid’s apology for his work is merely rhetorical: Roman poets conventionally apologize or their lack of skill, while meaning the opposite.  But many of us do take it literally.  The provincial publications for which gentle housewives wrote book and movie reviews between loads of laundry have “folded.” We may not live in Tomis on the Black Sea–we may live where we have always lived–and because we have always written, we continue to write, but this is the scribble-and-post age.  We polish less.

Anyway, as I read Ovid, I kept putting asterisks and writing “BLOG!” beside passages.

Here is one of my favorites.  In the lines below, Ovid  is depressed.  My translation is slangy, and, sorry, it doesn’t capture the poetry or the literary devices or the tone or reflect the sophistication of rhetorical devices.  It’s all I’ve got. We all do our best, but it’s poetry. Go get the Peter Green if you want elegance.

Publius Ovidius Naso addresses Maximus here (and refers to himself as Naso):

Your old friend Naso—once not the least of your friends—
asks you to read his words, Maximus.
Don’t look for my former flair
lest you seem unaware of/insensitive to my exile.
You perceive how idleness corrupts a slothful body,
just as water, if it is not moving, acquires a taint.
The skill I used to have at spinning poetry
is failing and lessened by neglect.
These things also, which you read, if you believe me, Maximus,
I write forced out with an unwilling hand.


Ille tuos quondam non ultimus inter amicos,
ut sua verba legas. Maxime, Naso rogat,
in quibus ingenium desiste requirere nostrum,
5cernis ut ignavum corrumpant otia corpus,
ut capiant vitium, ni moveantur, aquae,
et mihi siquis erat ducendi carminis usus,
deficit estque minor factus inerte situ.
haec quoque, quae legitis, (siquid mihi. Maxime, credis),
scribimus invita vixque coacta manu.

Abortion 1973-Now and in Ancient Rome: Ovid’s Poems about Abortion (Amores 13 & 14)

Women still marching after all these years (the Women's March on Washington)

Women still marching for rights after all these years (the Women’s March on Washington)

”Good job,” my professor said, smiling.

He was talking, thirtysome years ago, about a letter to the editor I’d written about abortion rights. He joked that I could count it as a publication. The department was big on publication. .

Having finished my master’s,  I was working as the volunteer coordinator of a state abortion rights organization, and I was standing at a table in the foyer of B—- Hall, collecting signatures for pro-Choice petitions and postcards, with the slogans,  “I’m pro-Choice and I vote” and “Keep abortion safe and legal.” Over a period of three months, we collected thousands of signatures. And then I packed a suitcase full of postcards and petitions and transported them to Washington, D.C.,  because I was going there anyway, and it saved the organization postage costs.

Who would have guessed that in 2017 women would still be marching for abortion rights and Planned Parenthood?

I am passionate about reproductive freedom.   I never had an abortion; I was good at  birth control: the diaphragm, because it wasn’t smart to take hormones. Many of my friends wisely chose abortion over dropping out of college.  While sharing a house, I brought cup after cup of Celestial Seasons tea to a housemate after her abortion. She was discreet about her sex life, which was conducted entirely outside our house, and one afternoon she wobbled into the kitchen to tell us she was “woozy” after an abortion and could we please sit with her. She soon fell asleep, and the next day she was completely fine and went to classes and work.

On a recent long walk, I thought about the Republicans’ plans to defund Planned Parenthood and criminalize abortion. In some ways, the attitude is very like that of men in ancient Rome.  Concerned about the low birth rate among the upper classes, the emperor Augustus  attempted to regulate marriage and the family with rewards and penalties. Starting at the age of 20, women were penalized for being single and childless; beginning at age 25, men were penalized for not marrying and childlessness.  Women were rewarded for having three children.  As Sarah B. Pomeroy said in her excellent book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, “Augustus’ marriage legislation was designed to keep as many women as possible in a married state and bearing children.” But Roman women did use contraceptives, some more effective (the barrier method) than others (charms and potions). And abortion was practiced, sometimes by drugs, sometimes by surgery.

Ovid Amores 419-MO1CbKL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_

Ovid wrote two poems about abortion (Amores 13 & 14). Other poets had written about their mistresses’ illnesses, but he is the first, to my knowledge, to write elegies about abortion.  The first elegy in Ovid’s diptych, though not quite pro-Choice, is certainly sympathetic to his mistress Corinna, whose abortion has gone drastically wrong.

He begins the first poem (and this is a literal translation, so don’t expect poetry):

While she rashly is overthrowing the burden of her pregnant womb,
Corinna lies exhausted in danger of her life.
Having attempted so great a danger without telling me
She deserves my anger, but my anger dies with fear.
But indeed she had conceived by me, or I believe,
It is often for me a fact because it can be.

In the next several lines Ovid writes a formal prayer, which is not unusual in ancient poetry. He prays to Isis, a maternal goddess and healer who had a cult in Rome, and assures her that Corinna honors her and has participated in her rites on given days. Then  he prays to Ilithia, the Greek goddess of childbirth. He assures her he will bring gifts and incense.  “I will add the label, Naso has given this for Corinna’s recovery.”  (His full name is Ovidius Publius Naso.)

He is frantic about Corinna’s illness.  He wants above all for her to live. He is not criticizing the act of abortion per se. But he ends the poem with a gentle rebuke,

If it is right to have warned in such great fear,
let it be enough for you to have struggled in this combat once.

The second elegy in the diptych is a raging attack on abortion.  It begins with a reference to Euripides’s Medea, who said, “I would rather stand in front of the shield three times than give birth once.”  Ovid writes,

What does it help for girls to loiter exempt from military service
and not to wish to follow the wild troops armed with Amazon shields
if they suffer wounds with their own weapons without Mars
and arm their blind hands in their own fates?

He brutally attacks women who have had abortions, saying the first to do so should have died as a result of her action. He adds that he himself, as well as Corinna,  mythological heroes, and the entire Roman population would not have been born if their mothers had had  abortions. He says Medea’s killing of her children was understandable because she wanted revenge on Jason; the tearing of an embryo from the womb is wrong, because it must naturally grow first and why deprive it of its life?   (Nothing about exposing babies, especially female babies on a hillside, which was sometimes done). As always, it is easier for men to deal with the fetus, just an idea to them, than with actual human begins.

Interestingly, the last two lines relent somewhat and echo the last two lines of the first poem.

Gods, concede that safely she has sinned once.
and it is enough: let her bear the punishment a second time.

I love Ovid.  Don’t get me wrong.  But he was macho and sexist, and in this case, at least in the second elegy,  he seemed to stand with the state.   But which poem did he mean?  The first is much gentler than the second.  The points of view are very different, almost contradictory.  Is he angry now that Corinna has survived, if she survived? But the name Corinna is not mentioned in the second poem.  Only the last couplet seems to link it to the first poem.

Well, it is fascinating.  Roman women did not necessarily want to have many children.  They did have abortions.

Corinna and I are still struggling.

Ovid and the Art of Love: Still Fun, Still Politically Incorrect

If anyone in Rome does not know the art of loving,
let him read this poem and let him love.
—Ovid’s “The Art of Love”

art-of-love-ovid-51cogrldpfl-_sy344_bo1204203200_It could be said that Ovid taught me Latin.

It didn’t seem that way at the time.

Ovid? I loved Ovid. I  read his epic poem, Metamorphoses, a collection of retellings of Greek and Roman myths, when I was eight, because it was in the “mythology” section of the library.   Years later, I wrote an “effervescent” paper on Metamorphoses  (i.e., not scholarly: I was the master of bubbly pop prose) and was urged to take Latin.

Latin? Who had time?  I was busy. I had no time.  And overnight life had changed when I signed up for Greek. Before that, I had long lunches every day at the Union, coffee at Grace and Rubies (a women’s club immortalized in a story by T. C. Boyle), and at night went to movies. To acquire leisure, I signed up every semester for at least one class where I had already done the reading:  the Brontes, Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, Hardy, Lawrence.

But now there was Greek.  I could no longer get by on witty little essays about gender issues.  No,  I had to know things!  I memorized paradigms, learned the strange rules of grammar and syntax, and translated adapted Xeonophon. Then we read tiny amounts of Lysias, parsing every sentence and identifying rhetorical figures of speech. Why did I love it? Who knows?

Ovid Amores 419-MO1CbKL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Finally I agreed to take Latin.  I do not know what happened to my brain then.  The Latin fell into place like tiles on a Scrabble board.  Honestly, it had to be reincarnation:  I was a Roman matron in another life.  I scanned poetry at sight, while everybody else laboriously divided lines into syllables and marked the feet…

I fell in love with witty, charming Ovid during a summer poetry class.  Breezy Ovid for breezy summer.    His Latin is indescribably elegant:  lines of poetry are braided with  figures of speech and interlocking word order.  Take  Ovid’s version of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus.  When Daedalus makes wings for himself and his son to escape from Crete,  he puts the finishing touches  on the work and then,

“the artisan balanced on twin wings…”

But in the Latin,  the word “artisan” is placed between the adjective “twin” and the noun “wings,”making it literally seem that Daedalus is balanced on wings.

…geminas opifex libravit in alas
… [on] twin the artisan balanced on wings

We can’t do this in English, because word order determines meaning.

In addition to Metamorphoses, I have enjoyed Ovid’s witty love elegies (Amores) and  The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria).  These poems are mostly comical, but occasionally touch on serious issues:  in Amores, there are two poems about his mistress’s abortion.

I am now rereading The Art of Love ( Ars Amatoria), a satiric didactic poem on how to  pick up women (and the last section is for women on how to pick up men). May I just say this is my least favorite of his poems?  There was a tradition of Roman didactic poems, Lucretius on Epicureanism, Virgil on farming, but Ovid’s is silly, lusty, satiric, and outrageous.  It goes too far sometimes.

Love is a frivolous entertainment in Ovid’s world.  He acknowledges the goal is to find a woman you love, but is not adverse to a one-night stand.

How do you meet women, if you haven’t read his book of love?  He has many suggestions:  parties, porticos, the Palatine, the races. The best place?  The theater.

But especially hunt in the theater’s curve,
this place is more fertile than your wildest desire.
There you will find someone to love, or someone you can play with,
someone to touch, or someone you wish to hold.

And  sometimes he goes far, too far, really too far, in his mythological parallels about love . In fact, there is a whole section on grotesque myths about women’s loves, starting with Pasiphaë, Minos’ wife, who falls in love with a bull and gives birth to the minotaur. (What IS the origin of that myth?)

And, by the way, Pasiphase and Minos are connected to Daedalus, who built the labyrinth for the Minotaur, and then angered Minos by giving the clue to help Theseus escape.

The exasperated editor of my Latin commentary writes copious notes on  Pasiphaë but then abruptly pauses to explain,

327ff.  More stories of disgusting and unnatural female lust.

And, yes, they are disgusting, but I have never seen a note like that/

Ovid’s version of the  Pasiphaë  myth is often hilarious.  He asks why she brings a mirror  on the mountains among the cows and why she keeps foolishly combing her hair:  “Trust the mirror, which says you are not a heifer.”

Pasiphaë wonders why the bull thinks the heifers dancing in the grass are pretty.  And she eliminates some of his mistresses by sending them to plow, or sacrificing them for some made-up religious ritual..  She is very violent during the sacrifices.

At one point Ovid flippantly comments,

Whether or not Minos pleases, no adulterer should be sought;
but if you prefer to deceive a man, deceive with a man.

I agree!

Finally, she deceives the bull with a wooden cow and is impregnated with the minotaur.   He does not give details, thank God. There was a similar rumor about Catherine the Great and a horse.  What is the origin of these stories?  Well, hm, one day, maybe next year, or the year after, I’ll go to a library in a distant city and look it up!

Poor Ovid.  He was not living in good times–are any of us living in good times?–and it was not apparently a  good time to write racy poems about love.  Augustus banished Ovid to an island  for carmen et error, a poem and an error, or at least that’s what Ovid wrote..  Scholars speculate that the poem was Ars Amatoria.  But speculation means so much to scholars…and so little to the rest.

Literary Fantasy Parcel, # 2: Metamorphoses


I’m almost finished with the holiday gift fuss.  I’m  assembling book parcels, tied up with a ribbon and tucked into  cotton bookstore bags.  Every year I organize my book parcels by theme, hoping a stack of themed books will entice readers.   I am happy if my friends read one or two of the two-to-three books in the parcel.  (See yesterday’s post.)

This year’s theme is “Literary Fantasy.”  Why?  It has been a strange year. Reading fantastic literature teaches us about our conscious and unconscious selves, and can make us see our world differently.   We are still mourning the election, and our society doesn’t seem to be going in the right direction.  And so let’s read some fantasy.

Literary Parcel, # 2:  Metamorphosis

Woolf penguin Orlando+cover1. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

Orlando is one of Woolf’s lightest books, dedicated to Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West. In Alexandra’ Harris’s Virginia Woolf, a wonderful short book about Woolf’s life and work, she says that Woolf’s teasing novel is a a fanciful biography of Vita Sackville-West, with a tip of the hat to her ancestors. And it had the tone of Woolf’s playful letters to Sackville-West. The hero, Orlando, is a beautiful androgynous man, a courtier, and an aspiring poet. He lives for more than three centuries, first as a man and then as a woman.  There’s too much whimsy in this fantasy for my taste, but Woolf’s writing is gorgeous, especially her description of a Renaissance winter festival on the frozen Thames. You can read my post on Orlando here.

2. Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Ovid’s epic poem, a collection of Greek and Roman myths linked by the theme of metamorphosis, is the most brilliant fantastic comedy I have ever read.  As Ovid describes the clash between gods and ovid-metamorphoses-folio-mtsgoddesses, and their bizarre obliviousness and frequent violence toward human beings, we begin to understand our own reality and, beyond that, change and entropy.  We witness the extent of Ovid’s joyousness in his mythic exploration of metamorphosis in an imperfect world.  His style  is bubbly and elegant at the same time. His  descriptions of nature are charming and lovely, and his characters jump out of his vivid verbal sketches. There is much absurdity in Ovid:  Apollo, struck by Cupid’s arros, falls in love with the  nymph Daphne and asks her  to run a little slower so he can catch  her, but she prefers to turn into a tree than “marry” him, because she is a virgin dedicated to the goddess Diana.  At the same time as we laugh at Apollo, we imagine the nymph Daphne’s terror as she prays to her father, who tries to persuade her Apollo would be a good match.  In the end she turns into a laurel tree, which Apollo obnoxiously claims as his own.  So she gets away, but does she?

Here is an excerpt from Apollo’s comic complaint to Daphne

…But I, who follow,
Am not a foe at all. Love makes me follow,
Unhappy fellow that I am, and fearful
You may fall down, perhaps, or have the briars
Make scratches on those lovely legs, unworthy
To be hurt so, and I would be the reason.
The ground is rough here. Run a little slower,
And I will run, I promise, a little slower.
—Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Rolfe Humphries


humphries-ovid_meta1Like Apollo, many of the gods are bullies and even rapists, but the goddesses can be equally violent: in the moving story of Ceres and Proserpina, Ceres punishes the world with drought as she searches the earth for her lost daughter.  She turns an insolent boy into an owl to vent her rage at a rude remark. Finally she learns that Hades, king of the Underworld, abducted Proserpina. Ceres appeals to Jove, who is Proserpina’s father, but he believes Hades is a good match for her.  Ceres brokers a deal whereby Proserpina lives half the year above ground (and that’s how we get spring and summer).

As Woolf in Orlando, Ovid is also fascinated by the blurring of gender and the sexes. The story of Tiresias is short and strange:  he sees two serpents mating and strikes them apart and then is turned into a woman for seven eyars; seven years later he sees them again and does the same thing so he can turn back into a man.  It does not end well:  Jove and Juno have argued about who has more sexual pleasure, men or women, and Tiresias says women do.  Juno, furious that he disagreed with her, blinds him as a punishment, but Jove tries to compensate by giving him the gift of prophecy. Some compensation, some of us would think.

Ovid understands the randomness of fate. A lucky, lucky reader will get this in her Christmas parcel.

The Passion of New Eve angela carter 51BAQglKXzL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_3. Angela Carter’s The Passion of the New Eve.  At the British Library, I saw the manuscript of Carter’s The Passion of the New Eve in a display case, and decided I wanted to read it.  A few blocks away at Skoob, a used bookstore, I found a copy.  I cannot pretend it is my favorite book by Carter, but it does fit in well with Orlando and Ovid.

In The Passion of New Eve, a surreal novel rich with symbolism and satire, she walks a fine line between feminism and tedium. In Carter’s mordant exploration of what it means to be female in a post-apocalyptic society, the ideal woman is defined by men in Hollywood, or by a cult of militant Earth-worshipping female plastic surgeons.

This novel is Carter’s homage to the myth of Tiresias, the Greek prophet who spent part of his life as a man and part as a woman. (Naturally, being a woman was best.) Well, the story is part Tiresias myth anyway: the rest is Caitlyn Jenner crossed with Charlie’s Angels.

You can read the rest of this post here.

National Poetry Month! Every Poet Needs a Bawd


“THE PROCURESS,”by Dirck van Baburen, 1622

In honor of National Poetry Month, I have just finished Ovid’s Amores (love elegies), which are flashy, facile, and very funny, with roots in Roman comedy.  He wrote these when he was very young, and developed many of the themes more elegantly in his later work.  Amores I.8 is very comical indeed:  the narrator happens to be hidden behind a door and eavesdrops on a bawd/procuress who  is advising a young woman on how sluttily to attract a prosperous man who desires her.  “Beautiful women frolic; chaste is she whom no one has asked./Or, if peasant breeding does not forbid it, the woman herself asks.”

If, like me, you do not live in ancient Rome,  you are unlikely to attend such entertaining readings.  But there are many amateur workshops in every city, and you no doubt know some poets.  You are always going to some bar or dark cave of a cafe to hear your friends give a poetry reading. One friend will be talented; the rest just love to write.  “Great feminist image of the filthy t-shirt soaking in the sink,” you will say wildly.

And you dread the moment when they whip out a manuscript for you to criticize.

“This is so good!”  Say that, no matter what.  Your friend does not want your criticism. It doesn’t hurt to lie and say you read little poetry and don’t like to criticize, because (a) it will get you off the hook; and (b) make your friend feel superior, since she has no qualms about criticizing others. Don’t tell her to throw it in the wastebasket.  That is the job of the teacher at the Summer Writing Conference (and if she is a good teacher, she will be tactful).



2013-artwork-poetry-reading-sketch1. Do not ask the Poet in Residence to play the role of bawd.

A friend thought she would publish her poetry if she had contacts. She was as beautiful as the dawn, but very quiet.   She wrote pared-down poems, two or three words per line, as if she could never let go.  When a colleague poet agreed to read her work and discuss it over lunch, she was excited.   I didn’t dare say it might end badly.  She had attended some New Age workshops where everyone was positive and empowering, and had no idea how ruthless professional writers could be.  She came back from lunch furious, because he mercilessly criticized her  work. Perhaps  he dealt thus with the situation so he wouldn’t be inundated with manuscripts. He was in an awkward position.  But couldn’t he have told her he never criticized friends’ work and just had lunch?

2. If you have friends, you will sell more poetry.

Small presses are the places for poets.  Or so I thought.  Then an employee of a small press  showed me boxes and boxes of hundreds of unsold books.   “If I had my way, I’d never publish a poet who didn’t have friends,” he said sadly.   Heavens, I didn’t like the sound of that.  Were all poets garrulous?  Were they popular?  Where on earth did they make friends who buy poetry books?  The small press was local and funded by grants, so did it matter?  Well, they probably were expected to sell the books.

3. Publish a chapbook.  You’ll be happier!

I have seen many beautiful chapbooks of poetry:   they are small books or pamphlets, sometimes illustrated, sometimes hand-stitched.  Most are self-published, but no less wonderful for that. You won’t need contacts.  And you can give them to your friends!

4 Get a patron.

Poets need patrons. They need a rich person who wants to give them gifts so they can write.  You need somebody to lend you a free house on Cape Cod for the summer, equipped with a liquor cabinet and jacuzzi, and then whisk you into New York City for a poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y.  You’ll open for Robert Pinsky.  What?   You don’t have a patron?  You don’t live near the 92nd Street Y?  Well, how about Java Joe’s?  What do you mean, it’s not the same?

5. Get an agent!  Do poets have agents?

Well, I am not a poet, but I cannot imagine that many have agents!


Reading Ovid’s Amores

Livia roman sculpture 498349221

Roman statue of Livia Drusilla, wife of the Emperor Augustus. She would have sat through many poetry readings.

In a previous life I may have been a Roman matron who raptly listened to poetry readings at dinner parties.  Latin was my third foreign language, and perhaps because it was the third I found it easy.  I breezily won the Latin prize in college and was one of two students to pass the Ph.D. Latin exam my year.  Latin is complex and highly inflected, and I quickly realized that some of my very intelligent fellow students enjoyed the study of history or linguistics but were incapable of translation.  We who could translate stuck together (and salute you)!

Throughout my long life, I have been especially fond of Ovid, a brilliant poet who eventually was banished to an island by Augustus for carmen et error (a poem and an error, perhaps one of his racy poems).  He is best known for his epic poem, The Metamorphoses, which is superbly funny and clever and the source of our knowledge of Greek and Roman myths.  It is also one of the few Roman poems that is really wonderful in translation.

Ovid’s love elegies (Amores), addressed to a fictitious mistress, Corinna, are very light and saucy. He is the last of three Roman elegists whose work is extant, the others being Propertius and Tibullus.  Ovid  incorporates the stock themes, style, vocabulary, and situations of elegy.  It seems odd that it would have flourished only in the first century B.C., but its roots are in Roman comedy.  It does not go back to Greek lyric poetry.

Ovid Amores 419-MO1CbKL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Ovid’s elegies in Book I are frivolous and fun.  A love affair with a married mistress is not easy, and we learn it often involves metaphorical chains.   In Amores I.6, the narrator begs a doorkeeper to take the chains (catena) off the door and make a small gap so he can slip in sideways and see his married mistress.  He says he has shrunk so he can do this.  I love the idea of a guy dieting so he can sneak in.

I went on to Amores I.7 , expecting more silliness, but the use of chains in this poem are different.  The narrator has assaulted his mistress:  he asks to be put in chains by any friend who may be present. And it is one of Ovid’s poems that shock us  feminists (we all love Ovid, but scholars have written about  rape in Metamorphoses) because the treatment of the violence is light.  We see it from a Roman male point of view, and there is repentance, but perhaps not very seriously.

Here is the opening of the Latin elegy (my translation is below)

adde manus in vincla meas (meruere catenas),
dum furor omnis abit, siquis amicus ades:
nam furor in dominam temeraria bracchia movit;
flet mea vaesana laesa puella manu.

Here is my literal translation.
N.B. The word order in Latin is flexible, so the impact of the original is very different. (You only get approximations.).

Put my hands in bonds  (they deserve chains)
until all madness leaves, if any friend be here.
For madness moved my rash arms
My girl cries wounded by my raging hand.

The narrator has struck his mistress. Violence against women is common in our society, and against men too, but we do not expect to read a love elegy about it.  The narrator regrets his actions, but his hyperbolic mythical comparisons don’t apply–in fact, they undermine the expression of his sorrow.  He compares himself to Ajax, driven mad by Athena so that he slaughtered sheep instead of the Greek leaders he wants vengeane on.  The narrator’s mistress is like Cassandra, the prophetess who was dragged from a Trojan temple by the Greeks, “except that Cassandra’s hair was bound with a priestess’s headband.”  Ovid has torn her hair, but he adds that she didn’t wear a headband.  And he adds that disordered hair is becoming to her.

And yet we forgive Ovid.  He realizes that if he had struck a Roman citizen, he would have been punished. He mocks himself, comparing himself to a military hero who is celebrated in Rome, where the crowd that follows the chariots will cry, “Oh, a girl has been conquered by this brave man!”

Her face is scratched and her tunic is torn.  It is while he looks at her, pale as a marble statue, that he first began to know he hurt her.  He says her tears are his blood.  But he lightens up again: at the end he advises her to scratch his eyes and tear his hair.

This subject of violence against a woman is common in Roman poetry.  It has also been treated by Propertius and Tibullus.

I must admit, I do not know what to make of this poem.  And I do not know of a very good translation of Amores.  Peter Green’s translation for the Penguin, The Erotic Poems, is adequate but wordy.  Some poetry does translate better than others.

Washington, D.C.: Music, Art, & Money

National Gallery of Art

National Gallery of Art

I spent three days in Washington, D.C.

I visited my kind friend Ellen.

I love the feeling of city streets.

Long ago, when I lived in D.C., my haunts were Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe at Dupont Circle, The National Gallery, The Freer Museum, Safeway (my daily destination after work, naturally), and 10K races. In those days I thought Washington a very dowdy city, but now it seems glam beyond my wildest dreams.

Ellen and I did enough to last me a year (and it will have to, as I live in a city where there is nothing to do–though that has its own virtues). We enjoyed a Classical Master Session at the American Voices festival at the Kennedy Center, where Eric Owens, an opera singer, coached young singers and almost brought them up to professional level when he told them not to sing like opera singers.

It made me think not of opera, but of rock (yes, that is more my medium):  R.E.M.’s “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)”

Your Achilles heel
Is a tendency
To dream
But you’ve know that from the beginning
You didn’t have to go so far
You didn’t have to go.

Then, at the Millennium Stage at Kennedy Center, it was moving to see the enthusiastic Washingtonians lined up in their warm coats to attend a free concert of opera and blues on a first-come, first-serve seating basis.  I very much liked Afro Blue, Howard University’s jazz ensemble, who  sang “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “This Can’t Be Love,” and “We’ve Only Just Begun.”

Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worries on the doorstep
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street

Now let me critique the one event that was in my line of expertise.

It is an exhibit is at the National Gallery: From the Library:  The Transformation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Alas, as soon as you walk into the tiny almost-corridor space, you realize that the curator doesn’t know Ovid.  The books on display are, inexplicably, translations in Italian, French, and German–none in English, oddly, if that’s the route he/she is taking–and only one in the original Latin.  Clearly he/she did not understand that the Latin text of Ovid was widely read from the Middle Ages through the beginning of the 20th century, not only by scholars and schoolboys, but by brilliant writers like Chaucer, Petrarch, Thomas More, Marlowe, Marvell, Erasmus, Milton, and Pope.  In fact, Marlowe, Dryden, Pope, and Joseph Addison all translated Ovid.  Many European writers wrote not only in their own language but in Latin, or exclusively in Latin:  Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, some of Milton’s poems, and Thomas More’s Utopia were written in Latin).

I left a nose print on the glass case as I squinted at the one Latin edition of Ovid I saw, with a commentary by Thomas Farnaby, published in 1637.

Thank you, Guard, for not warning me to step away from the case.  (When I got too closed to the scroll of Kerouac’s On the Road at the University of Iowa Art Museum, I had to step away from the case–slowly–no, I’m kidding about the “slowly.”)

There are a couple of nice engravings and a lithograph by Braque of Phaethon, but it’s really just a very few books in a very few glass cases.

And scholars’ heads will spin if they read the brochure.  The “Selected Reading” was apparently chosen at random by a person with moxie whose boss fortunately knew nothing about Ovid. Recommended is a 1955 Penguin edition of a prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Mary M. Innes (why the 1955 edition? when there are so many brilliant poetic translations); and a random article that does not apply to the exhibit;  and a book that barely applies.

Have I trashed this enough?

I think so!

I love the National Gallery, but skip this exhibit.

I very much enjoyed the Impressionist paintings, and we admired the 19th-century photographs of Paris by Charles Marville.

I’d love to live in D.C., but every time you leave the building you spend $10—and then $10 more–and then $20 or $30 more–and then maybe $50 more–and then your Metro card gets mysteriously demagnetized and the guard has to let you through the gates because frankly you’re out of money.

For those of you who read about my harrowing flight to Washington (here), let me say that flying home was great.  I was pre-approved.  Yes, I got to WALTZ through security with only an ID card.

It’s the way to go.