February, and on this chilly –and for some of you no doubt cold – February evening in St. Petersburg, a little joke:
A man walks into a bar, with his dog. The bartender says, “Hey, you can’t have a dog in here.” So the man says, “But this dog can talk.” In disbelief, the bartender says, “Really? If that dog can talk, I’ll buy you all the beer you can drink. If not, I’ll throw you and the dog out the window.” The man agrees, and asks the dog, “What’s the inside of the upper part of my mouth called?” and the dog goes “roof”. Next, the man asks the dog, “What is the outside of the top of houses called?” and the dog goes, “roof”. Then, the man asks the dog, “Who is the greatest baseball player of all time?” “Roof” goes the dog. Suddenly furious, the bartender throws the man and the dog out the window. So the man and the dog are lying there in the broken glass, out on the street, and the dog turns to the man and says, “Do you think I should have said DiMaggio?”
As I said, a little joke. An old—even ancient in joke-time—one, too, as I learned within a few appropriately directed clicks. Although apparently widely told informally for years, it was first recorded by a columnist for the New Brunswick, NJ, The Daily Home News in 1949, and another for the Akron, OH, Beacon-Journal in 1950 (which seems right, given the baseball reference/s); in 1959 it reappeared in Unnatural History, a Merrie Melodies cartoon; later via (Super) Dave Osborne on a Norm MacDonald podcast. After that, the floodgates: Reddit, You Tube, websites (Unijoke, AmoMama, etc.). Each rendition, I noticed, slightly – or wildly – different: varied in tone or structure, mood or focus, yet always circling around, while retaining, the gist. Which, of course – so much for segue — brings me to Catullus. And Frank Bidart’s successive “recreations” of the former’s “Odi et Amo”, as explored by the ever-perspicacious Joseph Campana, in his short essay below.
February, a time for love? Snow pummels the northeast as I write this. My parents, west of Albany, spared: hardly any accumulation. Also, western Connecticut, where my husband’s family lives. Grim predictions for Boston and New York City. In Houston it’s chilly, for Texas, which isn’t so bad: abundant sun. I love and hate winter. It’s less a state of ambivalence (as if I just can’t decide between them) than it is a simultaneity. Maybe an oscillation, a rapid shifting back and forth. How easy to both love and hate things, like winter or even people. Oneself, even.
No one captured the fundamental two-minded-ness that is love better than the ancient Roman lyricist Catullus who managed in the restricted space of an epigram to capture a whole universe of contradiction. So what is titled Catullus 85, C crystallized some 2000 years ago paradoxes of desire we live with and that still shape poems:
Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
or in my own fairly literal translation:
I hate and I love. Why I do this perhaps you ask me.
I don’t know, but I feel it happened and I am tormented.
Many have returned to this epigram over the years to translate, to appreciate, or even to re-create it. I did in my first book of poems, some years ago. This month I’m turning back to one of my favorite re-creations and one of my favorite poets, Frank Bidart. Over a quarter century, Bidart recast Catullus 85 three times: first as “Catullus: Odi et Amo” in The Sacrifice (1983), then as “Catullus: Excrucior” in Desire (1999), and finally as “Catullus: Id Faciam” in Watching the Spring Festival (2008). All three appear in Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 (2017). Each iteration translates while simultaneously adding and altering and augmenting the epigram.
“Catullus: Odi et Amo”
I hate and—love. The sleepless body hammering a nail nails
itself, hanging crucified.
Here, we begin with a dash: “I hate and—love.” Do we take that to be a gesture of quickening or elongation? Perhaps both. Bidart adds a sleepless body—a staple of tormented love poetry from Dante and Petrarch forward. Then there’s the addition of a metaphor for the central form of torment Catullus imagined. As a friend and colleague, a classics professor, reminded me, in Catullus’ day “excrucior” refers generally to torture, but in the wake of Christianity, crucifixion dominates the word. And Bidart not only gives us crucifixion but also elaborates on process, as one tormented by desire “hammering a nail nails itself.” If Catullus focuses us on the uncertainty (why do I do this?) Bidart insist on the self-inflicted nature of the wound that is love.
I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even
wants the fly while writhing.
Here the opening line again the self-lacerating nature of desire dominates. What Bidart supplies is another, an exquisite metaphor for this state of simultaneous love and hate. The lover is now an “ignorant fish” who desires the lure of the fisherman not just in the anticipation of being caught but after the fact. The lover “wants the fly while writhing.” Torment has a new body, a new practice, and a new idiom teases from behind the words. “I’m hooked,” as they say.
Catullus: Id faciam
What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds
the nail that now is driven into itself, why.
Catullus juxtaposes: odi et amo. I hate and I love. The only difference comes in sequence. The terms, hate and love, are otherwise indistinguishable and they are actions. Here, Bidart adds an object: “what I hate I love.” He also asks the reader to ask a question. The question is “why,” which brings us back to Catullus who, famously, has to admit, “I don’t know” when asked why he hates and loves. Bidart defers the content of the question, holding that word “why” until the very end. He visualizes and makes bodily what seems like an impossibility: a hand nailing itself to the cross. Or does he? The nail “is driven.” Odd place for a passive construction, one might say, and such constructions are always elusive about who is the agent of some action, which must be why legal documents use passive constructions. It’s ambiguous who is to blame, and the lover is perhaps even more desperate in that he “holds the nail” rather than nailing it into himself. If one dilemma concerns love and hate the other concerns cause and action. Who is doing this? With Catullus, we might have to say, “Nescio.” I don’t know.
Astonishing what can happen in the exquisitely compact space of an epigram traveling through time and space. Perhaps I should have chosen something sweeter, but it’s also a time of years when the red foil, the tinsel trappings of a holiday can seem all too saccharine.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Catullus and Frank Bidart. I simply and I solely love your poems.
For more on Frank Bidart see his Academy of American poets page here.
But, wait! There’s more – wonderful-ness, I mean: accomplished poet and editor Frances Richey has agreed to join the already – IMHO — stellar staff of Plume, as an Associate Editor-at-Large. You’ll be reading one of her Featured Selections before too long, among other projects as yet pinned down. Her biographical note can be found on our Staff Page, along with her photograph.
Also, given we are nearing Valentine’s day, check out our Featured Selection, curated by Nancy Mitchell: A Crucible of Rubies: Love Poems selected and written by the Plume Staff.. Lovely poems and commentary on each, from Amy Beeder, Sally Bliumus-Dunn, Joseph Campana, Chard deNiord, Leeya Mehta, Nancy Mitchell, Mihaela Moscaluic, Chelsea Wagenaar, Mark Wagenaar, and Amanda Newell, with a short film by John Ebert.
Anything else? Right — Plume Poetry 10. All contributions have been received and a draft should be sent to layout this week. We are looking at a late spring/early summer release. A few more names you’ll find in # 10, as I still want to tempt you: Kelli Agodon, Kwame Dawes, Ani Gjika, Bob Hicok, Daisy Fried, Alan Shapiro, Maggie Smith, Rafael Campo, Timothy Donnelly, WU Yu Hsuan, Carol Muske-Dukes…
Finally, as usual, some recently published/forthcoming books from Plume contributors: