I was sitting outside on a cold February day in northern New Mexico looking at a snowy field and reading Catullus. It was about 10 degrees above zero. Dressed in a heavy coat, scarf, woolen cap, and thick boots, I thought lovingly of sunny Italy and wondered what life might have been like in the time of the great Latin poets. Over the years I had read and reread most of them and I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone discovered a cache of poems by one of them or by an unknown poet. That not being likely, I decided that I would write a few poems in the Latin manner, to amuse myself.
Much to my surprise, the poems took on a life of their own. The poet turned out to be a clerk in a maritime company in Cadiz, Spain. As a young man, he wrote bad poetry and chased girls. A Roman poet has to have a friend and Glabbis appeared, a young nobleman and also a poet. Lovers were necessary, and Perenice and Paccia came to life. Paccia Glycera, an Iberian native and one of the notorious dancing girls of Cadiz, became the love of Caius Herennius Felix’s life.
The poems were the relatively easy part. More difficult was grounding their stories in genuine first century Roman Spain. Using the Internet and interlibrary loan, I read everything I could get my hands on about the time and place. It got to the point that I was living part of the time in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico and part of the time in Gades, Iberia.
It was only later that it occurred to me to invent not only the poet and his poems, but a story of how the poems were discovered and came to be edited and translated. This required more fictitious people, and by now, I half believed in all of them. I hope readers will too.
Jim Levy December 2014
I, the principal poet of this island,
sing of my subject: Gades –
this sweet dazzling marble town, Punic town,
Iberian town, party town, wine town,
babble town of mewling Jews, grasping Greeks,
howling Berbers, grunting Celtiberians,
legionnaires waiting for a war,
matrons fat with six kinds of sausage, *
portly Romans in their togas,
panting weight-lifters and whining slaves,
all true Gaditani, bloodthirsty innocents,
our lives squeezed between tower-towns of the north
and desert gods of the south,
between Empire in the east and Ocean in the west.
In the spring winds blow for ten days
licking the town, ripping sails, banging doors,
tearing off the roofs of wooden tenements *
(tenements that hate wind but love fire)
– then fog for a week
but in the summer, there is beloved sunlight,
and in the fall, wild cranes cross to Africa
and clouds sweep over the white city.
Meat, cheese, bread, and water,
sometimes wine with water, one to three, *
a little fish or veal, and love one woman:
keep it simple, in line with Epicurus. *
But Glabbis, you never listen.
No Epicurean, you aren’t picky,
devouring beef and cucumbers,
stale garum and fish fresh from Ossobono, *
swilling new wine from our Iberian slopes
and the finest Falernian, *
mingling sensuous and intellectual pleasures
like creatures in a sack, *
and like a naughty goat-god
selecting the grossest girl in the tavern
and yet loving Fabia Fabiana,
the flower of the town,
reciting Sulpicia to her in her father’s townhouse *
and yet sitting so close to the action in the stadium
that your shirt is spattered with the blood *
of slaughtered men and beasts.
When she said about her former lover
“That was different”
I knew exactly what she meant.
Mine too was different: her Roman skin
was white and cool,
her smile as tight as the lady of Tanit’s, *
but this one, grown in a hilltop town,
is olive-skinned and pungent
and when she smiles, she shows her gums.
Have I really fallen for a dancer
whose Iberian blood shows through,
with golden eyes of the wild cat
and plucked eyebrows like two birds in flight.
I had better go slow.
Or is this my moment?
Even her sneer is lovely to me.
I roam around town intoxicated with desire
and insane with fear,
wondering how best to woo
this mountain girl, child of the sky,
this peregrine woman.
Her upper arm soft
with a hint of muscle
and the way her neck smells
of soap and olive oil *
and something else
I can’t identify,
and the elegant way she bends
to pick at the rough skin on her heel
and how she plucks at her shirt on a hot day
and combs her hair with a snap of her wrist,
all these intrigue me.
But even more is how she mixes
sugar with water in a hanging bottle
and lures a hummingbird
barely larger than my thumb
and then a second hummingbird
– spouse, rival, daughter? –
and they brawl and dance
and hover, blurred, blue against the clouds
and penetrate the sweetness.
She made a hill-top meal of turtle and snake,
a feast of eels and garlic and acorns drained of tannic,
flesh of little song birds,
a dormouse dipped in honey,
and figs, custard,
and lots of wine from who knows where,
then tossed aside the dishes
and drove me into bed.
Satiated, she told her secret:
she has a doll she sleeps with,
a Turdetani maiden in headdress and skirts
who is – she says – a goddess who protects her
in the city and on voyages.
When I said “Look the light has found us,”
she said “O please, that my brother doesn’t!”
We listened to the flap of sails
and the cries of fishmongers.
By noon a multitude of tongues
streamed the streets.
A lost bird flew in the open window
and out another.
At sunset, slaves cried sundown, *
then gangs of youths were roaming the streets,
and drunks were bawling,
until all became quiet
except for the slap of waves on wooden pilings.
Paccia, if you marry me, then yes,
I will go to Hasta
and ask your father for your cheek
– that is what your people say,
for your cheek? or is it for your chest *
filled with milk for our children,
sons who hunt boar and bear
and daughters as beautiful as you.
I will create a life there,
with my quills to write elegies
and sponges to erase imperfect phrases,
in your hilltop town which specializes
in befriending and betraying Romans.
I will listen to your stories
about how you ran up steep goat paths
with hair flying and sat in high meadows
filled with flowers, singing native songs.
We will take excursions to the tombs
that house vipers and the spirits of your ancestors
and picnic in valleys with our children
under snow-rimmed ridges.
Alright, mi puella Gaditana, lead the way.
She is scared to make the passage by boat,
afraid of the sea and seasickness,
even in summer when the sea slides
serenely beneath the sky,
through the straits, five days over water to Sicily
and up to Ostia.
She thinks to take the land route,
north to Cartagena
and from there along the coast to Gaul
and over the Alps and down to Rome
to dance before senators
and high-born poets for gold.
But I tell her, don’t take the coastal road, *
there are bandits and renegade legionnaires on the loose.
I say: take the sea route, it is safer.
I hope she drowns.
I had forgotten the wonder of those days
until the sound of a water-organ
from a tavern brings them back,
the smoothness of your cheek
and the residue of mountain accent
in the way you said certain words
and of course your walk: dancer.
Yet, “The things we love in another
are the things we come to hate.”
I first read that in a Greek treatise
by one of those pitiless observers.
Later I learned it for myself.
No need to go into specifics.
Let’s just say that love not leavened
with anger is not true love.
Yet, when I remember you
and wine and singing,
what comes to mind is the time
a bird flew in one window
and out the other
and the evening
we pushed our way through thick fog
to our room and lay
above the ghostly world
and desperate in different ways
kissed each other everywhere.
I, of the south, praise the sea,
not the warm inner sea
but wild cold Ocean
and celebrate the mariner
who sailed pure west in search of fame
and fortune and found no steaming islands
or monsters or sunken cities,
only vast meadows of green water,
long swells of sunlit sea and an obscure sleep.
the sea shines
the sky shines
and caught between them
the city white in the sun.
Originally published in The Poems of Caius Herennius Felix, The Porcupine Press 2015.