C is for Cy and Catullus and Carson
On Anne Carson's "A Rustle of Catullus" Lecture at the MFA, Boston
It's pretty cool when one's reputation as "poet" precedes "Classics professor." I, regrettably, only grew aware of Anne Carson last semester, as the author of a delightful 1993 academic article on Simonides called "Your Money or Your Life," so when I saw that Anne Carson, poet, would be speaking at the MFA's 22nd Annual Estelle Shohet Brettman Memorial Lecture, I did not plan to miss out. I was not alone.
Carson's sold-out lecture stems from and shares a name with her essay, "A Rustle of Catullus," in the exhibition book Cy Twombly: Making Past Present. (The exhibit itself is at the MFA until May 7 and is worth a visit!) The exhibit's curator, Christine Kondoleon, introduced this very accomplished woman and brought her and the artist together in two interesting ways: both Twombly and Carson accessed the world of classical texts through Guy Davenport's translation of poems by Archilochos, Sappho, and Alkman. Additionally, the poem Catullus 101 is close to the hearts of both: Twombly alludes to it in his 1994 painting Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shore of Asia Minor), and Carson translated it in her 2010 book, Nox, on the death of her brother.
In this way, the gendered chiasmus, chronologically speaking, of Sappho, Catullus, Cy Twombly, and Anne Carson joined forces when Carson came on to the auditorium stage and her dry, calm voice slowly soothed us into a half-hour hypnosis.
She began by sharing an ear-worm she's been suffering for some nights. One might expect the affliction to come from a catchy pop song, but this is the mind of Anne Carson, after all. She quoted an unattributed line of poetry (from Rainer Maria Rilke): "what birds plunge through is not the intimate space."
With that ice breaker, she took us through a story of a history through names. Since both Twombly and Catullus liked to name things and name names, she structured her talk by going through all the letters of Catullus. Sounds tacky, but not the way Carson does it. Her fresh, quotable strings of words made me instantly wish to hold onto them as mementos. I share below what stuck with me:
C–Catullus, Cy, and "convention," or the lack thereof in both the neoteric poet and the modern artist. The C could also be for Carson, as a fellow audience member later told me, but our lecturer did no such thing overtly, choosing to describe a general shared "boyishness" of the pair.
A–Aphrodite and Iliam, the accidentally misspelled form of Ilium in one of Twombly's paintings. He later complained that no one corrected him, that "no one cares," which got the first round of laughs in the auditorium. Anne Carson cares. The phallic thrust of the A often representing Achilles' "spirit of energy" is an energy also shared in Catullus' poems.
T–time. Twombly is known for his hasty-looking lines which create a "fiction of casualness." Carson connects this illusion with its anxious, sometimes ecstatic energy to Catullus' self-proclaimed libellum, "booky thing," and his nugae, trifles.
U-"uncertainty, unknownness, unclarity." Carson's desire to keep a a sense of mystery intact in these works was enhanced with a foreshadowed "untitled" for the second U.
L–line. Carson commented on Twombly's penmanship in his art, especially the series on Greek and Roman writers. I was taken aback by the question of how to make one's own writing look "not stupid," surprised by the relatability of a self-consciousness and sometimes self-loathing of our exposed selves in handwriting.
L–love, lasciviousness, and Lesbia, Catullus' lover in his poems. The hands-down favorite phrase of the afternoon was "a scattering of penises," which the Latin poetry and modern art share.
U–back to untitled. This was a great comparison of the two men's legacies. Ancient poets didn't title poems, perhaps due to the oral context of publishing by reading poems aloud to an intimate group of friends. In modern editions, they are often just named after the first line (which is, indeed, what Carson's ear-worm is), or are numbered, as in Catullus' collection. Twombly deliberately writes "Untitled" or gives highly specific names with parentheses, or sometimes plays with combination, such as Untitled (to Sappho).
S–sentimentality, sexuality, Sappho, sprezzatura. Carson analyzed the painting Catullus (1962), which I initially joined to the "scattering of penises" count. She, however, viewed the phallic form as two flowers in a vase and discussed the significance of the inscribed names of Sappho and Catullus. She spoke of sprezzatura as a hard-to-define Italian word that is better expressed with 5 (turned out to be 6) poems of Catullus via Carson's brilliantly unique translations.
Catullus 20–I'm doubting that this was the correct number I heard, since poems 18–20 are usually scrapped by modern editors and aren't considered the work of Catullus. This translation was also surreal because it included the phrase "alive in the 19th century." She also read Catullus 46-on spring. Catullus 72-is the next number I thought she said, though I heard Lesbia nostra, Lesbia illa, "our Lesbia, that Lesbia," which is actually Catullus 58. Catullus 89-again, is the number I thought I heard, though it seems that she was working with Catullus 97, where she really put the "anus" in "Aemelianus" by contemplating various names for that body part in quick succession. Catullus 50 -a poem to Licinius with a translation that seemed more faithful to the original had the surprising twist of the warning of Nemesis' power: "be careful, it's world-sharp."
Carson ended with her moving translation of Catullus 101:
Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed–
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
and talk (why?) with mute ash.
Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
now still anyway this-what a distant mood of parents
handed down as the sad gift for burials–
accept soaked with tears of a brother
and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.
The smooth monotone of her lovely voice began to waver in a truly intense moment that we left ringing in the air.
Including the introduction, this 40 minute, rather than the advertised hour, did not disappoint. Carson included one of the best definitions of lyric poetry that I've heard: it comes from accompaniment on the lyre, and it is small-scale, intense, and present tense. Although there was no lyre, the lecture itself was a lyrical experience quite futilely recalled but fondly remembered. Carson ended by repeating once more,"what birds plunge through is not the intimate space," which left us with an added sense of meaning and the loss of a beautiful moment.
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