The Nacreous Oughts

17 July 2008

    Elegy IV.8

Hear me, and learn
   what pulse of alarm
      struck through the night of the liquid Esquiline,
propelling a fearful throng through the New Field gardens
   when a foul tumult agitated the darkness,
      tumult in which I meant to be no contender,
   & in which my good name received certain injuries.
Lanuvium is from old times guarded by her tutelary snake,
      an ageless reptile; a pause there is worth your while,
      a pause for this distinguished attraction.
Sacred steps plunge down a black cleft there,
   down which his yearly sacrifice descends,
   when reptilian hunger requires propitiation
(Young woman, beware of such places)
         when his annual hisses curl from the hollow earth.
A pale virgin descends to lurid rites,
   hands held our rashly with provender
         for his honorable maw,
   canister clattering in fearful hands.
If she be chaste, she returns to her parents' arms
      & the farmers sing that it will be a prosperous year, a fertile year.
My Cynthia took herself there, with gleaming horses,
   pleading Juno's worship, intending Aphrodite's,
her chariot hurtling over the rocks,
   wheels reckless on the Appian Way.
Cynthia suspended at the pole's head, a spectacular sight,
   whipping her way through the bad spots in the road
   with somewhat more daring than the average beardless prodigal
in his carriage hung with Chinese silk
   & his necklaced poodle.
(...) Thus another of her absences from our bed,
   & I undertook a little diversion,
      & pitched camp elsewhere.
Two girls, Phyllis, who lives near the Aventine Diana;
   who lacks charm sober, although things improve when she drinks;
   & Teia, who resides near the Tarpeian wood,
      a glowing beauty, & when she is fired by wine,
         half a dozen lovers are scarcely sufficient.
I invited these two, set up a small orgy
      to soothe the long night & renew the dormant rites
      of Aphrodite
            with secret lubricity.
One couch in a hidden garden served for 3 of us,
   me between the two,
and Lygdamus manned the wine ladle,
   & our summertime equipage of chalices served for the wine,
      a Greek wine, odor of Methymna.
Flutist from the Nile, a treble flute was played that night,
   & Phyllis played the castanets, elegantly artless,
   pleased to receive roses of acclamation.
Magnus the dwarf hopped and waved his hardened hands
   to the fluted descant, song of the hollow boxwood.
The lantern was full; the flame wavered in the night,
   the table had collapsed with its burden,
      & as the dice clattered I prayed for the Venus throw,
but always the damned dog leapt into the light;
And they sang to a deaf man, & bared their bodies
            for a blind man,
for I was alone at the gates of Lanuvium.
Suddenly a hinge creak at the doorposts,
   loud and resonant, a light footfall at the Lares,
   & then Cynthia threw down the folding doors,
hair disheveled, in a fiery rage.
She smashed the cup from my fingers; my wine-stricken lips went white,
   her eyes glittered, female rage possessed her;
A city would burn less wildly than she did,
as she sank savage claws in Phyllis's face,
   & Teia's frightful wail floated into the watery environs;
      and the neighbors, aroused,
   raised torches and milled in the street,
& the paths of the night echoed with madness.
My two girls fled, hair torn & tunics loose,
   into the first tavern on the dark road.
Now Cynthia came back, victress, & took a menacing pleasure
      in the spoils she had captured, wounded my mouth
   with her nails & bloodied my neck with her teeth,
& undertook to darken my wandering eyes with her fists;
   & when her arms got tired with that she spied Lygdamus
         cowering by the sinister couch, & she dragged him into the light
      as he prayed that I protect him. How can I protect you,
Lygdamus, when she has me by the balls?
      With much supplication, she became more reasonable,
   though she would scarcely let me touch her feet.
"If you really want me to forgive this turpitude,
then you will no longer go strolling
      in the shade of Pompey's colonnade, dressed in
   your best finery; you will abstain from attending
the games in the forum; you won't loiter about eyeing the curtainless
      palanquins jog past; you will abstain also
   from craning your neck at those attractions
         in the high tiers of the theater, and finally,
   let Lygdamus, that great troublemaker, be sold;
   let his ankle chains clank as he walks."
To all this I acceded, and she smiled proud in her sovereignty,
      and she perfumed the contamination of those others,
   & washed the threshold with clear water,
      had me change my mantle, and with a fire of sulfur
      touched my head 3 times;
and then with the sheets changed
      we ascended into the covers,
   & we rolled over the whole bed,
   & thus resolved our quarrel.

--Sextus Propertius (tr J P McCulloch, 1972)

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