Your Literary LOL of the day.
I know… I should be ashamed but it’s true. I like BIG books.
on Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s Blood Run
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
Salt Publishing, November 2007. 120 pp.
Located in Eastern South Dakota and Western Iowa, Blood Run is a series 176 well-constructed ceremonial mounds built by the Oneonta. The site is over 8,000 years old, but archeologists believe it saw its peak population between 1675 and 1705, when some 10,000 people occupied the area. At that time, the Blood Run complex extended over 2,000 acres and was an important nexus for trade, culture, and commerce. Evidence suggests a huge mound serpent once slithered in its lapidary way along the site, but it too has been desecrated. The area was unprotected for centuries. At one point a railroad ran through the mounds. People also built houses among them, farmed the land. Skeletons were stolen along with many artifacts. All that remains are traces of a once vibrant locus of service and ceremony. Since 1970, 650 acres have been designated as a National Landmark Site. Some of the bones have been repatriated, most have not.
We know some of what went on at Blood Run, but even contemporary scientists and archeologists are uncertain of many of the details. Where science fails, poetry succeeds. What time forgets, language remembers. Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s beguiling Blood Run is like no other book of poems; Hedge Coke’s project attempts to recoup, recreate, and restore the energy and symbology of Blood Run, and has made me think differently about the relationship between poetry, land, history, and Indigenous America. Herself a descendent of mound builders (Cherokee, Huron, and Creek), Hedge Coke animates the spiritual interchange embodied by the mounds. More than piles of dirt and far more significant than mere ruins, they are semiotic remnants of a pulsing, vibrant polis; proof of terrestrial connection and aesthetic ambition.
Love Poems, Letters, and Remedies of Ovid
Translated by David R. Slavitt
Harvard University Press, 2011. xxx, 352 pp.
The Gnat and Other Minor Poems of Virgil
Translated by David R. Slavitt
University of California Press, 2011. xviii, 68 pp.
In 1958 when Ezra Pound was released from the Washington, D.C. mental hospital where he had spent twelve years as an “inmate,” the press asked him what the experience had been like. “Ovid had it worse,” he said, to almost universal befuddlement. Publius Ovidius Naso, the greatest Latin poet of the Augustan age, spent the last ten years of his life (8-17 CE) banished to the Roman equivalent of Siberia, a city called Tomis on the far eastern edge of the Empire, almost a thousand miles from Rome. (The Latin word for his banishment was relegatio, or relegation; had he suffered exilium or exile, he would have been deprived of both his property and his citizenship.) Tomis was a small port city on the Black Sea, in modern-day Romania, and although not the furthest outpost of Empire in terms of distance from Rome (northwest Africa, northern Germany, Asia Minor, and the Iberian peninsula were farther away), it was definitely what any diplomat today would call a hardship post. It was in the province of Moesia, which had come under Roman subjugation only a half century earlier, and was still exposed to constant attack by various tribes. Recent scholarship asserts that Ovid may have exaggerated the crudeness and barrenness of Tomis as part of a continuing effort over the course of his exile to be recalled, first by Augustus and, after Augustus’s death in 14 CE, by his successor Tiberius. All the same, to an urbane, well-educated, well-off poet who had moved in the highest Roman circles, a colonial town — where Latin was the language of only a small minority, the food and drink atrocious, and literary culture and the book trade nonexistent — must have been depressing and difficult, Cicero’s fifteen-month exile in Greece a pleasure trip by comparison. Ovid knew what he was in for when he set out for Tomis. One of his love poems, published sometime between 20 and 1 BCE, describes his hometown of Sulmo (now Sulmona in the Abruzzo, whose main street is the Corso Ovidio) as being like the wastes of Scythia because his lover is not with him. Tomis, while politically not part of Scythia, was just next-door.
Until his still unexplained banishment, Ovid lived a charmed life. He came from a well-to-do equestrian family and was expected to enter law and politics. He chose poetry instead and became famous. The literary world of his day was as cowed by Virgil as the German-speaking music world in the middle of the nineteenth century was by Beethoven; and just as Brahms repeatedly delayed publishing his first string quartet and his first symphony because of the weight of Beethoven’s achievements in those forms, so Ovid and his crowd stayed away for the most part from the epic and concentrated of elegiac poetry. Ovid was not by nature at ease in the epic mode in any case, and while his only pseudo-epic work, the Metamorphoses, did employ the dactylic hexameters of epic poetry, it is not so much a narrative as a mosaic of what in another context he called fairy tales for grown-ups. Augustus’s support being something of a sine qua non for a poet in imperial Rome, Ovid concluded his book of changes with the advent of his sovereign ruler, Jove’s counterpart on Earth, as he calls him. Yet it feels like a mere doffing of his hat, this acknowledgement by Ovid of literature’s role in nation-building, and his final words propose that it is poetry that lasts, not the work of emperors no matter how brilliant. “My work will last” — vivam in Latin — the final word of the concluding sentence of the Metamorphoses, may strike us as an egotistical contention. It also turned out to be true, however, although it is ironic that Ovid had barely finished his long poem when his exile was decreed. The work would live on in glory forever, but the poet would live the last of his life remotely and in squalor and would be buried on the periphery of the country he had celebrated, however adventitiously.