The sixth century Latin poet from Catharge is rollicking and outrageous in these artful translations.
I first stumbled on Luxorius almost forty years ago, when a small green volume slipped itself into my hand while wandering the old San Francisco Main Library. That, now out of print, book in the no longer existent stacks was Morris Rosenblum’s (1961 Columbia University Press) Luxorius: A Latin Poet Among the Vandals. A publication that appears adapted from Rosenblum’s doctoral thesis. There were a couple of things that attracted me.
One was Luxorius’ story. Not only an obscure poet, but a truly lost poet. He wrote at the dawn of the dark ages, around 525 a.d., in Roman North Africa. Those old, prosperous Roman provinces had been occupied by the German Vandals and cut off from Italy for a hundred years. But it remained a vibrant and thriving place, paradoxically, in part because the occupation insulated North Africa from the disintegrating Western Empire.
In picturing the 5th and 6th century Vandals, it’s more accurate to conjure the image of Prince Valiant than Attila the Hun. The Vandals came to Carthage, not to loot, but to live like Romans. They numbered less than a hundred thousand in a population of many millions, but formed a stable military ruling class. The region had been violently torn by chronic religious and social unrest for a generation. The West was steadily disintegrating. For most North African Romans, the blond barbarians probably represented not a “yellow peril”, but – “a kind of solution.”
That provisional peace came to an end during Luxorius’ lifetime. In 534, the Byzantine Eastern Empire invaded the “Vandal Empire” and took back what Rome and the West couldn’t hold. It worked for a while, and then didn’t. Procopius’ contemporary assessment of the aftermath of Justinian’s invasion evokes a sense of holocaust. Between war, plague, famine, mutinies and internecine conflict, Procopius estimated some five million died. Roman Africa never really recovered.
So it’s not all that surprising that Luxorius survives in only one manuscript, the Anthologia Latina, a compilation of fifteen contemporary North African poets laced with a broad sampling of Classical Latin authors. Luxorius has 91 poems in the Anthologia, more than any other poet. Only one copy of the Anthologia Latina is known, and that, 8th century, copy remained unknown until it surfaced in France in 1615. Except for scattered, sometimes anonymous, poems in a few medieval manuscripts, Luxorius was literally lost for a thousand years.
The other attraction is what seemed an instant tap on the shoulder, a whisper from a very simpatico voice. In addition to historical and textual background, the Rosenblum study provided almosr-decipherable, intriguing trots of all the poems. Not really translations, but invitations to translation. I began to translate Luxorius – intermittently, the way one would visit a new friend, cautiously, so as not to wear out my welcome. I browsed Luxorius in no particular order, stopping on images that caught my eye. But as the translations began to accumulate, I began to notice a sequence and cohesion in the poems. When last year, at the urging of Paul Vangelisti, I progressed from a “selected poems” ms. to the complete poems ultimately published by Otis/Seismicity, I realized the sum of Luxorius’ lost manuscript gave added life to its parts.
Given the necessary leaps over cultural and linguistic chasms, I once characterized my Luxorius translations in an earlier chapbook as “transcriptions from sitar to trombone.” And “guesses, not statements.”, because …“at best, every translation contains an interjected voice, an unanticipated duet.” But I took comfort in Luxorius’ own quizzical sense of history. Writing – knowingly or not – at the edge of an abyss, he seems to have no interest in the long-prevailing Christian narrative or the nascent medieval. But he also takes little solace from the Classical. The gods and myths seem to haunt – not console – him. And perhaps, it’s that uneasy irony and alienation that allows him to still resonate.
A Selection of Luxorius poems printed by permission of the author and publisher from Luxorius, Opera Omnia or, a Duet for Sitar and Trombone, tr. Art Beck Otis Books/Seismicity Editions
Well, Fame, the painting is
a fine likeness, don’t you think?
It really catches the life in your eyes
and your trim figure. With all that energy,
no wonder you’re able to flit all over the world
so quickly. But you’re so much more beautiful,
sitting down in one place, with the door closed.
As if you were one of those double-organed
monster women who, rather than joyfully
stuffing herself when she gets excited, can’t help
her compulsive erection…
Why hide behind that frantic
pretence of pleasure? You never really
give your cunt, neither open up nor
squeeze. If you want to prove
you’re a grown up woman,
quit playing the role and be my girl.
The notorious Balbus, who furiously chiselled
all the filth he could on his own coffin ––
as if he could pump and bugger the underworld
into some kind of submission. If he’d had time
to think, would he be ashamed of himself?
His recent death had no effect
on the continuing flow of that raucous life,
that coffin, like one of his erections
carried in solemn funeral procession
to a pale, insatiable tomb.
Recognize the difference, Romulus.
Yours was a pious crime.
When you struck
your brother down, Rome
gave herself to you.
Don’t tolerate any criticism.
Don’t let anyone
call it murder. Who’s
going to bring charges
against a priest
prophesying on the walls.
The Eyes Painted on the Venator’s Hands
No matter how many times
he went hand to hand with the savage
bears, his spear never failed
to surprise them with death.
And so the painting even places
eyes on his fingers. Because,
his right hand saw more quickly
than the eye can see.
note: A “venator” fought wild animals in the arena.
The new arena’s promenade
astonishes the countryside
and the woods note the approach
of unfamiliar beasts. The struggling
farm laborers pause at their plowing
to examine the strange, passing mob,
and from the open sea, the boatmen eye
a jumble of delights. The abundant
fields lose nothing, the orchards
will bud all the better.
But the wild animals
watching from the trees
all shudder at their fate.
The reason you’re so popular is that we’re grateful
for the show, Olympius, animal fighter. And
your name fits your gnarled body –– with the neck,
shoulders, biceps and back of a Hercules.
Astonishing, quick, daring, impetuous and ready for anything;
that you’re black doesn’t hurt your looks a bit.
Nature created, dark, precious ebony. Royal purple
glimmers deep within the noble murex.
Blue-black violets blossom in the soft grass.
Dark jewels invest us with a special grace.
The dusky trunk of the terrible elephant thrills us.
Black incense and pepper from the Indies civilize
us. Need I say more? Scarred by your countless
wins, you’re as beautiful in the people’s love
as those elegant fops are hateful.
The Blind Man at the Brothel
In need of some light, losing
his way, the blind, uncertain
lover with the widowed face gently
touches and strokes the skin
and examines the limbs
of the women, to judge, for himself,
which are the most
beautiful, which are snow white.
Skillful lust has given him
so many eyes, why should he want
two more, simply to see?
Especially, with that precious,
snow-white skin, you know
how desirable your body is, but all
you seem to desire is to conform
to all the icy rules of chastity.
It’s wonderful, the way
you, so commendably, govern
your contradictory nature,
that you can live like Pallas Athena,
with the body of the Cytherean. No,
you don’t think it would be nice
to catch some nice man to live with;
you long for the day you could, completely,
avoid men’s looks. And yet, voluptuous
longings (no matter how you detest them)
keep quickening in your soul. Isn’t there any
other woman like yourself?
When the cat dismembered and gulped
the great shrew mouse down, it perished,
poisoned by this indigestible delicacy.
It died, putting the nourishment
it needed to live in its mouth,
condemned to its final agony by the instincts
of its predatory heart.