Friday, June 28, 2013

Wall Lettuce (Mycelis muralis)

Mycelis muralis

Wall Lettuce, now called Mycelis muralis. You still sometimes see the name Lactuca muralis, but surely these flowers are so different in structure from other lettuces (e.g. Great Lettuce, L. virosa)  that a generic distinction is called for.

Nevertheless, a fairly close relative of those delicious Little Gems and Icebergs. I'm sorry to report that the leaves tasted extremely bitter, definitely survival food only. They were probably better in the spring.

Mycelis muralis, flower

When I first got interested in wild flowers, I lived in Durham. Wall Lettuce is quite unusual in the north. I think the first time I came across it was beside a waterfall in Wensleydale. This gave it an element of glamour in my eyes.

When I moved to Frome in Somerset, I was quite surprised to find it as a weed in my garden. It is a common plant down here. Nevertheless the sense of glamour obstinately remains.

On the other hand, I couldn't imagine in that summer of 1982, alongside the river Wear, that some of the plants I then took for granted I'd never see again - at least not for the next 30 years. So now they have acquired glamour, too.

Mycelis muralis, stem-leaf

Mycelis muralis, base of plants

Mycelis muralis, basal leaf
These photos were taken in Swindon a couple of days ago (26th June 2013), just before the photos of Rough Chervil in my previous post.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rough Chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum)

Rough Chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum), here seen, as often, emerging out of a hedge.

In early June, just as the flowers of Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) are disappearing, little patches of Rough Chervil begin to show up. Rough Chervil is invariably described as "the" successor to Cow Parsley because, of the various umbellifers around in mid June, it's the one that most resembles CP - i.e. medium size, and divided leaves with a somewhat fern-like appearance.

But, common plant as it is, it has nothing like the ubiquity of Cow Parsley.  That's a measure of how much things have changed in six weeks.  Basically, how much more STUFF there is. The plants of spring have a blank canvas to work on. Now the leaves have spread on the overhanging trees, shading out many of the sites where Cow Parsley flourished. The hedgerows are bursting outwards. Above all, the grass is up. Not to mention the nettles, and the brambles, and the larger umbellifers like Hogweed and Hemlock....  So, comparatively speaking, Rough Chervil is just a here-and there kind of plant.
Date aside, you can tell Rough Chervil from Cow Parsley, even at a distance, because the umbels look brilliant white and are kind of dotty (i.e. the "umbellules" are well separated from each other). On their dark stems, they often appear to hover in mid-air.

Above and below, an umbel. I'm always struck by something small and dainty about the flowers. I think I associate them with memories of my great-aunt Joan, who kept miniature dachshunds; she was a dancer in her youth.

(Above) Close-up of an umbellule. If you click the photo to enlarge it you can see how the stamens of the innermost flowers haven't yet split open to reveal their pollen, they still look greeny-white and withdrawn.

(Above and below). Young fruits developing. I took these photos yesterday (26th June 2013).

(Above and below) Stem and stem-leaf - "Rough", of course.  Commonly the stem is only red-blotched, but this one was more or less solid red. The leaves (again in comparison to similar species) strike me as sort of rounded at the corners. Blunt is the word I'm looking for.

(Below) A leaf further down the plant. Emboldened by my experiment (five minutes earlier) with Wall Lettuce, I decided to try eating a leaf. Mmm - a bit hairy, but really not bad, not bad at all... UH-OH! Turns out that Rough Chervil is apparently somewhat toxic - though it doesn't say this in any of my Field Guides  - not in the Hemlock class maybe, but capable of damaging your nervous system. (After 24 hours it has had no effect on me at all; I guess I didn't eat very much.)

So OK, I should've checked first.  (Memo: Do NOT play games with the Apiaceae!). Like others before me, I mistakenly assumed that Rough Chervil must be just a harmless wild variant of the garden pot-herb. (Its English name was probably intended to distinguish it from "Wild Chervil", an alternative name for Cow Parsley that is now obsolescent in the UK, though I think it is still used in the USA. Cow Parsley has endless local names. I've just read about "Mother Die" (Lincolnshire) and "Lucky-By-Brain" (Devon) on Weaver's blog.

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

bus from Alicante

the razorback mountains
- one of them draped in a rainstorm.
The crowns of apple green on the silver, sappy, low pines
in the low sandy pine-glades.
Sea choppy, the
crinkly parachutes racing
close to the shore, black skiers below.
AMIGO CARS. The pinewoods of the shore,
the gnarled tree with its fresh crown of needles.
The hare in the car-park at Bristol Airport
early this morning.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

instant history - june 18, 2013

The landscape quieter. The leaves of the trees are converging to the same colour. The hawthorn coming to an end, elderflower now the most prominent blossom in the countryside,  and wayfaring-tree.  Cow-parsley almost over. Hogweed approaching its height, starting to make that steady magnificent spectacle among the tall silvery grass verges.

Contrasted to its greyish-white discs, the occasional brilliant white of rough chervil, and horse-radish.

Yes, it is grass time, no longer brilliant green leaves but shimmering inflorescences. Meadow-grasses, false oat-grass, cockspur, barren brome, lop-grass, red fescue all flowering. Yorkshire fog and common couch just beginning to show.  Also fern-grass, rat's-tail fescue, italian rye-grass, x Festulolium, black-grass...

In town, the departing hawthorn has made way for spiraea and pyracantha. White froth of lilac with just the first brown in it. Roses have got started. Big poppies in gardens; peonies; red-hot poker. Aquilegia just past height. 

Meadow-cranesbill. Ribwort plantain. Still lots of yellow buttercup-fields.

In ditches, celery-leaved buttercup and water-violet.

Nettle-stands becoming obtrusive, and flowering. Hemlock flowering, almost at height.

Teazels sprouting. I saw the first thistles in flower - welted and marsh.


Friday, June 14, 2013

Horace: The Odes

It is not easy to enjoy Horace’s Odes. Not just because they are densely-wrought patterns in a language that few people know, and not just because they employ a meter that I, at any rate, can’t hear (I can hear the difference in quantity between “thunder” and “butter”, but I can’t hear a rhythm based on quantity without being distracted by accents, and it hardly helps to be told that the first syllable of neque is to to be construed as short when in any pronunciation that I have ever heard it is obviously long).

The upshot of this is that a page of Horace’s odes looks distractingly like an opened box of expensive chocolates displayed behind shop-glass. They look great, but you know you can't eat them yourself, and you harbour a strong suspicion that they may not be edible at all.

This could all be explained to me. But a serious attempt to address our antipathy to Horace needs to deal with at least three other things, which are interlinked (they do become less important, however, if you are slightly tipsy).

1. Boredom. 103 odes is at least 50 too many; it’s difficult to concentrate on what is distinctive in a poem that mainly reminds us of poems we’ve just read. We miss variety and, in their more obvious forms, passion, energy, information.

2. Horace’s stasis. Others may go off on sea-voyages, brave the weather, engage in “War’s rattling tumults”, and so on. But all this is undercut by the image of the poet who very characteristically never seems to even stretch his legs. (Hence very little happens to him, except that he is almost killed by a falling tree.) He drinks wine and occasionally sacrifices an animal; which means, I suppose, that he gets a servant to do it. For his servants bustle (IV.11), though Horace himself moves only a finger (IV.6).

3. Advice. Despite the modesty with which he describes his own inactivity Horace is quite free with advice, and we don’t take well to this. He has been hated enough for “Dulce et decorum est”, so much indeed that the energy of that hatred still affects us. The image of the “terrible old clubman” is hard to erase.

These are problems that impede III.V (Caelo tonantem), a poem extravagantly admired by Landor and others, and more arresting in translation than most. The poem speaks out, in a most severe tone, against those soldiers who settled down under Persian rule in 53BCE (when Horace was eight years old). The speaker-out is the heroic Regulus, who sacrifices himself by returning to a hideous death in Carthage, making his departure – according to the last lines of the poem –

quam si clientum longa negotia
diiudicata lite relinqueret
tendens Venafranos in agros
      aut Lacedaemonium Tarentum

like a barrister for his week-end in the country. The intention, as we clearly appreciate, is to emphasize Regulus’ stoic manner. But troublesome ironies interfere. Was it not easier for Horace to imagine familiar Venafrum than Carthage? The simile rather tends to ennoble, by association, the Roman gentleman who (like Horace) does go off to Venafrum for the week-end; as if that was itself a rather patriotic act, in marked contrast to the behaviour of those degraded men who took their ease, and raised families, in foreign surroundings.

“Never translate Latin”, says Professor William Harris, whose website you should really visit if you want to get more of an idea of what we’re missing ( There is no use pretending that “English Horace” is a substitute, even when it produces the fine poems of Dryden and others. Nearly all the poetry of the Odes resides stubbornly in the structure of its original words and meters; and I suspect that the problems might resolve if I understood with more subtlety the differences between Horace’s culture and ours.

The same doubt, of understanding the social context of Latin verses, afflicts Esther Summerson, who makes this aside on the matter of Richard Carstone’s chronic half-heartedness, the cursed legacy of being born into Chancery (Bleak House, Ch XIII):

He had been eight years at a public school, and had learnt, I understood, to make Latin verses of several sorts, in the most admirable manner. But I never heard that it had been anybody’s business to find out what his natural bent was, or where his failings lay, or to adapt any kind of knowledge to him. He had been adapted to the Verses, and had learnt the art of making them to such perfection, that if he had remained at school until he was of age, I suppose he could only have gone on making them over and over again, unless he had enlarged his education by forgetting how to do it. Still, although I had no doubt that they were very beautiful, and very improving, and very sufficient for a great many purposes of life, and always remembered all through life, I did doubt whether Richard would not have profited by some one studying him a little, instead of his studying them quite so much.

To be sure, I knew nothing of the subject, and do not even now know whether the young gentlemen of classic Rome or Greece made verses to the same extent – or whether the young gentlemen of any country ever did.

Dickens, whose own state of ignorance on the subject matched Esther’s, was taking a flyer; he could reasonably expect his audience to give full force to the criticisms that Esther so modestly yet confidently ventures. This kind of attack on a classical education has since become so commonplace and so effective in destroying its enemy, that it no longer commands assent; at least, not from me. It looks, in fact, like an attack on all study. And there is something chilling, now, in the belief that it is the child who should be studied by the teacher, and have knowledge adapted to it.

The passage looks out of place in Bleak House – for nothing leads us to believe that Richard would have been good at composing Latin verses, to which skill, quite as much as to surgery, Mr Jarndyce’s pointed observation would apply: “The course of study and preparation requires to be diligently pursued”.

The true underlying theme of this aside is class, and it will eventually lead its author to the insights of Little Dorrit and Great Expectations.


This, somewhat reworded, was my part of an email exchange on the British-Irish-Poets forum, which started with Tim Allen’s assertion - I agree with him - that class is a central factor in how modern British mainstream poetry is read, interpreted and accepted or rejected.

1. The direct connection between class and reading perhaps has something to do with NOT-READING; the exclusion zones created by interpretive communities.

I have an idea that the limit of your theory might be post-Latin Europe and its offshoots. Horace springs into my mind as a paradigmatic exemplar of bad conscience.


2. Well I'm embarrassed by my rather unthought-out comment but such as it is the thought goes something like this; that Horace really NEEDed a class division to operate poetically - to operate as a human, too, no doubt. He wanted to piss all over the profane, whose opinions were of no account and who wouldn't even understand him, while at the same time indulging his need for humility by grovelling in front of Caesars and Maecenases. CLASS gave him what he needed.

Clipped Horatian tags have been, historically, the classical way in which the Euro/British patrician class identified themselves. Shakespeare wrote his play about the patrician class (Coriolanus) while Jonson was delighting in his discovery of Horace's potential - to praise, not daisies, but parks...

Oh, and then there's the Somme, Pound, Owen... and Horace exemplifying the "terrible old clubmen" in the home counties. These are the admittedly loose connections I'm making...

Obviously I'm not so naive as to suppose that pre-Horatian culture was in any way a golden age (it was the age of SIMPLE slavery; Horace might even register its passing - by developing the idea of "class" as a substitute, finding himself for the first time in Europe in a city culture where there were crowds of free people who needed to be divided from each other...)

Still it seems to me CONCEIVABLE that there could be a poetry and a culture in which class does not have the same centrality that it does for us. There might be societies in which children don't whisper behind their hands. I don't know. Maybe just as being socially "cut" depends on registering one's own blindness ("I can't READ this") , so when I stick a toe outside western culture perhaps I'm just doubly blind and can't even register that the "cut" is taking place.”


3. My last post could more straightforwardly have made these points: 1. that historically there is an almost-too-obvious-to-mention connection between literacy and class 2. In post-Latin culture this was exacerbated by pioneers such as Horace whose conception of poetry in particular was deliberately located in Greek forms, thus removing it from the contemplation of someone who was merely adept in speaking the home-language of their life and business, reserving it for the leisured and those who (in their own conception) could demonstrate their commitment to higher things.”

This is all highly speculative (where it is not merely trite), but I slap it on here as one attempt among many to account for why I have, at present, nothing much else to say about The Odes.


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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Catullus (84 BCE? – 54 BCE?)

(first published 2006 in Intercapillary Space.)

Grotte di Catullo, Sirmione - image from

This is about the dead past. Every one of us has sixteen great-great-grandparents, yet I wonder if there’s a single person on earth who can name all sixteen. (Perhaps there are cultures who would go this far, but really I doubt it; instead the ancestor-worshippers go for uni-dimensional lineage, which is the origin of canonization – but I’m anticipating myself.) It doesn’t sound so desperately difficult to know, those sixteen people, but why don’t we know, why would we have to “unearth” them, and why don’t we bother, why is there a repulsive pressure - just “let it go”? Simply, these personal ancestors, now dead and unable to affect our present lives, have slid off the desk of human relevance. They become like the zenith directly over our heads, where we hardly ever look. They become like the dreams of last night whose causality is severed by waking. And since anyway my sixteen are not your sixteen, we never have occasion to talk about them.

That’s how things go. They slip quietly away, those multitudinous ancestors and their loves and grievances, to make space for our own. [*see note at end]

Anyway, we have something better to talk about: the classic authors. By classic authors I do not mean specifically Greek and Roman authors, I mean authors who are widely embraced by educational schemes and arouse a usually unreflective excitement. And by authors I mean makers in the broadest sense, so this idea also comprehends artists in other media, scientists, thinkers, statespersons who left a legacy behind; for that too is an artefact. They who have left widely-embraced artefacts are in principle capable of causality – like a temporarily out-of-action toy that might if jiggled with long enough suddenly start working again. So it’s a convenient social contract, these canonical pseudo-ancestors, and we willingly agree to talk about Catullus, you and me, though he’s no relative of ours to our knowledge. Of course this is no mystery. It’s why the review pages of the newspapers contain hardly any new art but invariably turn with relief to biographies, histories and of course translations and other re-exhumings of these common inheritances. People are acquainted with Catullus and everyone can tag along to the miniscule debate even if they don’t have their own little axes to grind. And I’m not refusing the invitation; that’s just the kind of re-view I’m writing now – or Mario Petrucci’s pamphlet, to be honest, probably wouldn’t justify such extended attention.

But I’m uneasy. Because we do it, because of the very ease of doing it, we don’t know why we do it.

The poems of Catullus survive because of a single manuscript that surfaced in the fourteenth century. They were perhaps all written in the last couple of years of his life. He was part of a combatively innovative literary circle – the works of his friends Calvus and Cinna, however, are lost. They disliked most of the other Latin poetry around at the time; that too (fortunately, Catullus would subjoin) is lost. Thanks to that one lucky manuscript Catullus’ own work survives more or less complete, the first collected short poems in Latin Literature. The intimacy and directness of his poems – most of them, anyway – mean that he is easy to take as a sort of honorary modern poet who happened to live a long time ago, like Sappho. He was upper-class, he speaks his mind flippantly and fiercely on national figures but unlike Cicero was not involved in political controversy; we know very little of what he did, apart from have love affairs, see his mates, and travel (in what we suppose a junior capacity) on government service to Bithynia – his poems don’t bother to mention anything he did there apart from look around, so there’s no alienation effect. He is highly accessible and for the last hundred years perhaps the only Latin author who is widely influential on poetry; perhaps not so much a real influence as a sort of reassuring reflective mirror. Modernists (via the Zukofskys) and children of the sixties (see Whigham below) reached out for him, but the unfortunately widest impact of Catullus is on anti-modernist poetry which greets his work with relief as evidence of an a-historical conception of the eternal model of what a lyric poet ought to be; along with, for example, Herrick on Julia’s clothes.

Catullus’ accessibility manifests itself (as with other classic authors) as a pyramid which as you ascend it makes you pay more for less. The base of the pyramid is the immense number of texts, translations and notes that are freely available on the Internet and where this paper is content to take its modest place. The classical authors act as magnets that attract immense communal aggregations of enthusiastic work, a mixture of the amateur and the out-of-copyright.

Everyone knows that these authors sell ten times as many books as any contemporary literature. Their significance as a kind of adhesive of educated society is beyond my ambitions to discuss: it can sometimes feel inspiring, more often a little sad. One of the more impressive monuments of Catullan enthusiasm is This site only contains translations of the poems into many languages, but it has 154 contributors! Here is the English translation of V by Rudy Negenborn himself:

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and let us judge all the rumors of the old men
to be worth just one penny!
The suns are able to fall and rise:
When that brief light has fallen for us,
we must sleep a never ending night.
Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.
Then, when we have made many thousands,
we will mix them all up so that we don't know,
and so that no one can be jealous of us when he finds out
how many kisses we have shared.

That not-quite-idiomatic simple English isn’t the voice of Catullus (which spoke and still speaks Latin, nothing else) but it is the authentic representative voice of the great base of the pyramid, and so is this, for the base has many voices:


Lesbia, let us love and live,
While the greybeards shake their fingers!
Not a penny will we give
For their talk while life still lingers.

Suns may set and suns may rise,
But, as soon as we are bidden,
We must close in sleep our eyes
For ever, and our light be hidden.
Kiss me then a thousand times, etc.
That’s John Anthony Bernard Harrisson (1909-1983), whose translations – delicately bowdlerized and with a long-superseded biographical note – can be found on his son Geoff Harrisson’s family website (, and it's my example of the weird, various, moving, depressing, essentially un-dialogic murmur that arises from all of us when we’re not talking to anyone in particular.

Ascending to the middle cornice brings us to the books you can buy “in any good bookshop”. They are inexpensive and handy. For instance, for £6.99 you can buy all of Catullus’ 116 (or 117) poems with English translations by the classical scholar Guy Lee, and rudimentary commentary (Oxford World’s Classics, 1989); enough, anyway, to gain some kind of foothold.

The ostensible target of Lee’s waspish Introduction is Yeats’ disrespectful poem “The Scholars” (“Lord, what would they say / Did their Catullus walk that way?”); the real target I think is that bracingly anomalous Penguin Classic, Peter Whigham’s free-ish translation of Catullus (1966) in a Poundian spirit and a manner strongly recalling both W.C. Williams and the “Children of Albion” – a real piece of sixties culture.

 At his best, Whigham is like this (from IV, the boat poem):

        you witnessed the beginning
        when she stood
straight on a hill-ridge behind the port,
in your waters
        you saw the new oar-blades first flash,
thence through the impetuous seas
carrying her owner
       the call
first to lee
       then to larboard
sometimes the wind-god falling full on the blown sheet.
While in sharp visual contrast, on the facing page (you know the poem by now)

Kiss me now a
thousand times &
now a hundred
more & then a
hundred & a
thousand more again
till with so many
hundred thousand
kisses you & I
shall both lose count

Whigham comes into his own with the most artful poems (the long LXIV in particular) – where Pound and Jones proved fertile influences – and he instinctively weighs what’s at stake in our stupefyingly patterned way of employing the classic authors, as Lee (for instance) never thinks of doing. Faced with such pages as these we have new things to think about. On the other hand Whigham is inaccurate, disappointingly uneven and sets us a lot of unintentional puzzles – some of them, admittedly, the effect of forty years – that we have no hope of clearing up.

Guy Lee, true to the more conservative objective of giving us a credible “sense” of a historical writer, deserves praise too – for his really skilled deployment of the immense resources of common educated language; this is much better for the long-distance conspectus (as if the main reason people have for reading Catullus is to be able to talk about him, which is indeed largely true) – until the time comes when he too slips out of date, but meanwhile there’s the recent Peter Green translation, and by then no doubt there’ll be A.N. Other.... Lee is at his best with the discursive and epistolary, as here, from LXV:

For lately a wave rising on the flood of Lethe
Lapped the pale foot of my poor brother,
Whom the land of Troy has snatched away from our sight
And crushes beneath the Rhoetéan shore.
Shall I never again be able to hear you speaking?
Shall I never, brother more lovable than life,
Set eyes on you again? But surely I shall always love you,
Always sing songs saddened by your death,
Like those the Daulian sings beneath the bough’s thick shade
As she mourns the fate of murdered Itylus –
Yet still despite such sorrows, Hortalus, I send you
These songs of Battiades translated for you,
Lest maybe you should think your words were vainly spent
On the wandering winds and slipped my mind...

Lee makes no overt claim to be a poet and values accuracy above all, yet surprisingly is sometimes hard to understand. Thus he ends poem V (see above) thus:

Or lest some villain overlook us
Knowing the total of our kisses.

where Lee is so concerned to avoid the not-quite-accurate rendering of “invidere” as “envy” that he ends up not really translating it at all, so you have to go back to the amateurs to catch the drift.

Similarly that literary disagreement with Aurelius and Furius, who think the kissing poems are a bit soppy, starts off:

I’ll bugger you and stuff your gobs (XVI, 1).

(Pedicabo ego uos et irrumabo)

which in its search for brevity ends up introducing a fatal vagueness. You more or less get the idea, but the sociolinguistic tone is all wrong. (“I’ll fuck you in the ass and make you suck my dick”).

Finally at the apex of the triangle is the expensive stuff like new scholarship, comprehensive editions in hardback, and the efforts of modern poets.

Thus it will cost you £4.50 to be seen with Mario Petrucci’s Catullus, a pamphlet that contains the Latin texts of eight of the shorter poems along with sort of translations – free versions, imitations, travesties... Economics shouldn’t really come into this, but still, it seems a high price for being on the cutting edge.

Petrucci, of course, is trying to make poems where Lee thinks only of making translations. But this is not necessarily to Petrucci’s advantage. He can’t subside into Lee’s comfortable range of received literary language. Lee is tastefully at ease when he admits “maybe you should think” and “slipped my mind” (in the quotation above), but see what happens when Petrucci tries to mix spoken idiom and classicism:

Not one girl isn’t in the know...

I’ll not tire or wilt in extra time...

What does that sound like? A poet being slangy; no-one else.

Anyhow, down to business.

LXX (Nulli se dicit mulier)

This is the four-line poem about not taking literally what a woman says in passion. “Lesbia would rather tie a knot with me”, begins Petrucci – somewhat encumbered by the idea of marriage – his expression permits the interpretation “have sex with”. But when it comes to the crucial last line he does well: “consigned to air - / inscribed in skipping water”, which is lovely for “rapido” and throws open the prospect of delighting in Lesbia’s mutability and in impermanent inscription. I must add that the poem as a whole runs uncomfortably close to Whigham’s translation, so it’s only a minimal HIT.

XXXII (Amabo mea dulcis Ipsitilla)

Catullus’ lustful after-dinner request. Petrucci renders it more so by making the “tight little door” sexual. The original poem says “make sure no-one bolts your door” but this idea of a protective husband is unwanted. “If you’re up for it” strikes the blokey note but “I’ve pigged out” looks wrong sociolinguistically – blokes don’t talk like that. Why Petrucci thinks he makes things better by incorporating “Then add to this one further favour” (translationese, but he’s not translating anything) and a new weak ending (“as if already nine tenths the way to your place”) I don’t understand. MISS.

LXIX (Noli admirari)

The principal poem about Rufus’ B.O. Petrucci lets the imagery go into overload, and I quite like the climax “day and night in each cave of your armpits is tethered a goat”, but Petrucci says everything twice like someone who can’t decide which of his choice expressions to use. MISS.

XXIII (Furi cui neque)

Catullus’s fantasy about the begging companion Furius. Petrucci is even more fantastic:

                                You eat your way out
of trouble: forest fires, earthquakes, pillaging
armies, lakes of poison, Armageddon – all go
down before an advancing hunger whose each
carcass you call ‘body’ is a cornucopia stuck
in reverse.

And much more. It doesn’t start well but it turns out to be the best of these poems by a fair distance, mainly because the whole matter of supply and nothing, profusion and desert, strikes Petrucci’s environmentalist imagination. HIT.

V (Vivamus mea Lesbia)

The famous-to-the-point-of-hackneyed poem for which I gave those naive translations earlier. Aurelius and Furius might not accuse Petrucci’s version of being a bit soppy; those thousands of kisses have turned into a just-lie-back-and-enjoy-it blow-job, the penny’s become a snatch and even the sun works “its bright end in / and out of the planet’s soft quim”. In all this excitement the original reason for the sun being in the poem slips away. In Catullus’ poem those unnumbered kisses are a desperate recipe against “perpetua nox” – let’s never slow down enough to write our memoirs. Yet Petrucci (again in environmentalist mode) has something to say about unaccountability too:

                        And whoever
finds the forest of kisses our bodies
have made, would he not walk
in its loving shade?
The ease of a forest, for us, is so critically a matter of not being able to count the trees. So a MISS, but with qualifications.

XLVIII (Mellitos oculos tuos)

In Catullus, this is another poem about thousands of kisses, addressed not to Lesbia but to Juventius. Petrucci goes off on a word-association thing:
Honey – when it come to kissing
we’d out-score Juventus...

Cue footballing metaphors: Catullus as Nick Hornby. It also, of course, hetero-normalizes the poem, makes Catullus catch the 07:10 to Cannon Street every Monday morning and chaff his workmates about the week-end results, and does away with any exclusive elitism (which the neoterics, however, possessed in good measure). Besides, Italian teams and high scoring don’t go together. MISS.

VII (Quaeris quot mihi basiationes)

The third kissing poem – the one about grains of sand. This is free but the additions are very Catullan (“desires that lie deeper than marrow in bone”), and its ending nods at the future of Catullus’ poems, and at Yeats’ “Scholars”, besides contemplating the extinction of all our loving moments.

unless curiosity unleashed sets them peering
into our dark of sky a thousand years to gabble
away each speck of light with corrupt tongues.

Which, I think, is another way of expressing my earlier uneasiness. We keep dressing the marble monuments of these immortal classics, but isn’t the freshness of that past horribly betrayed by exhumation, and reverence a kind of irreverence? HIT.

XI (Furi at Aureli comites)

All of the Latin is given but Petrucci works only on the “not good words” that end it, which in fact he decontextualizes to make a fiercely moralistic close; the rhythm, biblical and crushing:

                                        and let this adulterer lose
all touch with the faithful who, through that adulterer’s
own folly, must fall – just as the furthest tallest flower....
But the sound is already contradicting Catullus’ individual pathos, the one cut flower; you can hear it: we’re all going down in swathes, faithful and false together. After earlier suppressions of a marital context this sermon is such an eccentric thing to produce that it collapses the fabric of Catullus and translator altogether, leaving us to witness a pencil-beam into a vast, still universality of expression. And adultery, as on the last page of Troilus and Criseyde, then becomes somehow irrelevant. HIT.

Mario Petrucci, Catullus is published by Perdika Press ( (ISBN: 978-1-905649-00-6)


*Note: Sixteen great-great-grandparents. My claim that no-one can name them is perhaps most vulnerable in regard to royalty: Prince Charles' sixteen great-great-grandparents are probably quite easy for anyone to discover; none, I imagine, were commoners. In aristocratic circles such distant forebears continued until recently to seem relevant from the point of view of inherited loyalties, claims and connections. Better documented still are the 16 (and even the 32) forebears of famous racing thoroughbreds, such as Seabiscuit - but of course their remoteness in time is less - records painstakingly maintained because of a widespread belief (probably erroneous, but valuable to horsebreeders) in the relevance of pedigree to racing potential.

* Reflections (in Swedish) on Catullus and Sappho:

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IS / brief hist

I've published a new essay in Intercapillary Space:

.... about unconscious plagiarism, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,   Eric Ambler, Scott Thurston, Nick Thurston, conceptualism, Matthew Robertson, academia and poetry, the 1991 anthology Floating Capital, José Luandino Vieira's Real Life of Domingos Xavier, Keston Sutherland's Stress Position, Leonardo Sciascia and Peter Robb on the Moro affair, and some other things.


Sharp-eyed readers will have grasped that since the beginning of 2013 I've started transferring the 200 or so articles of the Brief History into blog posts on this blog. Generally, the idea is to free this material from its primitive and unsatisfactory web format, and to bring it together with the increasing accumulation of literary material that I've composed on this blog and never got around to copying across in the other direction. Use the Labels (scroll down on the right) to navigate around for your favourite author.

I'm going along rather slowly. So far I've only transferred three articles: Avebury, Euripides, and Epicurus. [Since writing this, I've added Plautus.] I'm trying to seize the passing opportunity to re-enter the world of each article as I transfer it and to add a miniscule savour of new spice to it.

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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

plant landscape on the fly, June 1st 2013

[from my notebook]

Sunny day. Gardened, washed  and loaded van, and walked down town, L[aura] bought surfinia basket at Mintys. Cow-parsley at height. Lilac at height. Hawthorn at height. Horse-chestnut, Allium, Sorbus intermedia (Swedish Whitebeam).

Saw a 'Shimidsu', still just in flower, in Foster Road. ('Pink Perfection' is still in flower, too.) [nb these are the last of the ornamental cherries, Prunus spp.]

Honeysuckle just starting. Magenta geranium [nb Geranium pyrenaicum, Hedgerow Crane's-bill]. Oxeye Daisy just starting. Picked Meadow-grass and vased it - it all seemed to be Rough. We reckon this is an indicator of how rough Frome is. Cow-parsley at its height. Mauve cranes'-bills out in L's garden [species unidentified,  - they look like miniature G. sylvaticum, I'll try and remember to post an image one day]. Dame's Violet, Clematis montana.

Holly in bloom, not Elder yet. Nettles getting tall, Cleavers starting to sprawl.

All the grass is still green and lots of it with panicles, some flowering. Soft Brome and Barren Brome prominent. Beaked Hawk's-beard at height, also blotched hawkweed freshly out [nb Hieracium maculatum, Spotted Hawkweed], and Cat's-ear. Herb Bennet just starting. Sweet Woodruff in the lane. Aquilegias at their height. Poached-egg plant flowering triumphantly where I park the van, having sustained two strimmings. Green Alkanet at its early best. Stitchwort best ever in L's garden. Buttercups filling the pony fields. Chinese Wisteria best ever. Wallflowers, Forget-me-not, Herb Robert, Perennial Cornflower. 

Unfamiliar grass by R. Avon in Bath - maybe California Brome Ceratochloa carinata.

Hogweed some tall heads now. Hemlock springing still green.

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