LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Rebecca Cullen “How to Hang Washing”

It must be spring. There should be blackthorn/ blossom, a smudge of sun across your cheek.//From your patch of earth, you’ll hear the crest/of chatter from the playground at the school.//These pegs nip snugly, in time with magpie/calls as your arms lift, stretch, clip, repeat.

from NEW POETRIES 7: an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet, 2020.

FIELD OF REFERENCE The best of politics seeks to make good in the more moderate domestic middle, but the problem of tyranny merits special mention: on going to an extreme it seeks to generate an oblivion to the possibilities of an agapeic service, beyond sovereignty and servility. Agapeic service is itself something extreme, but in daily domestic life it is also a secret and intimate “therapy” against tyrannical will to power. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 188.

Lyrics, especially very short ones, carefully create their own “extreme” or individual contexts (betweens) to forge the sense of unity of meaning and understanding we call poetry. In her introduction, Rebecca Cullen describes her shortest as between a prayer and a news brief.

Take “How to Hang Washing.” The framing begins with the surprise that hanging washing requires a set of instructions. Yet each of the three stanzas depends on the rules of different sets of grammatical rules. In the first, the verbs are governed by must and should. The second stanza proceeds from necessary conditions: you will. That use of will may easily go unnoticed but suggests the unconscious. In the final stanza, grammar expands to include the figural this. The very clothes pins take on a reflexivity and refer to the words of the poem.

All this verbal art happens unobtrusively. And that’s the point. Hanging clothes on the line follows “unconscious” rules as in a Wittgensteinian language game. Look again! It’s springtime, children are playing, magpies call, and your habitual acts are part of the music of time. In a poem of carefully varied subtle metrical features, the actions of “your arms” are named by punchy mechanical formulae: lift, stretch, clip, repeat. It’s all a game.

The point seems not to be that hanging clothes on the clothesline is an impersonal “game” because habitual act. This is a vision poem. Read mindfully it has an intense inwardness. I find a key to one of the deeper configuring aspects in the FRAME OF REFERENCE. Modern art reveals the presence of conceptual consciousness, often exposing ideological rigidities. It must do so to allow the unified flow from the meanings of the words to the understanding of the mindful reader. But this “unity” has a mimetic function: it represents a shift from conventional construction to a “passive” reception of finite otherness. Desmond uses the double Eros/agape to sort this change of aspect. The mindful reader of “How to Hang Washing” catches a glimpse of an “underlying” original “agapeic” image which accounts for the strange luminosity of this poem. The war against the loaded concept or “universal” of tradition is waged in behalf of the intimate universal.

We live in a time of tyranny and lies are routine. It can be a relief to lose oneself in simple tasks.


This is how lemon feels between your thumbs, like a hard raindrop or a soft star. Pulsing, silent, actual. A stone with its moss on the inside, a counter-earth of spat champagne. A decorative statement about the future. If thought is the eroticization of consciousness then lemons are the eroticization of sunlight, hardwater babies growing wiser with each nap. Their pips scour the dark like owls.
from NEW POETRIES 7: an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet 2020)

FRAME OF REFERENCE There is never an absolutely complete presence. There is a presence but the intimate sensuousness of its making manifest is such that it can never be exhausted. It can never be exhausted because it can never exhaust what it seeks to make present in the image. The imitation undermines its own claim to completion, and must do so to remain itself. Were it to complete itself, it would no longer be an imitation. Its complete presentation of the universal would make it be simply the universal, and there would be no abiding otherness. WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal, 71.

Among other things, Luke Allan is managing editor of Carcanet Press, which published this anthology. He writes in many styles: style is everything and nothing here, which is disarming.

You could say, “Lemons” is a prose poem. So it foregoes several forms of determination, those classified as metrical. Which only foregrounds other forms of determination, like those swiveling on the axis of is/as. Each sentence is a bouquet of figures between being and likeness.

It would be fair to say this poem communicates a bunch of nested betweens. Lemons are A decorative statement about the future. Well, come to think of it, on the face of it they are decorative in an aesthetic sense and about the future in THAT sense, but then so are many things.

To catch another wave of poetic energy appears the eroticization piece. If/then maximalizes the is/as current. If you’ve been swimming in the poem’s ongoingness (choppy waters sentence by sentence), this figure about sunlight feels like a breakthrough of some kind.

Just what kind we know from the last several bits. Hard water babies, pips, and owls. The owls open up the gap in the between, the dark against all that lemony light. As Desmond might say, there is an abiding otherness.

I love this poem because it throws all the switches in my mind at, almost, once. Yet it flows toward the fertile void. It may be a small, self-conscious arty lyric but squeeze it and you get lemon juice.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Tomas Tranströmer “Female Portrait, 19th Century”

Her voice is stifled in the clothing. Her eyes / follow the gladiator. Then she herself is / in the arena. A gilt frame / strangles the picture.

from THE GREAT ENIGMA: new collected poems, translated by Robin Fulton (New Directions, 2006),p. 192.

FRAME OF REFERENCE The sign of contradiction might more fruitfully be seen as witnessing to a porosity on the boundary, asking from us more finesse for the equivocities of finitude. And perhaps this is not entirely alien to the philosophy of ambiguity sought by Merleau-Ponty. Metaxological finesse for these equivocities reads the sign of contradiction in terms neither servile nor sovereign and not in terms of a false choice between the intimate and the universal in the religious community of agapeic service. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 185.

It’s 9:30 on a sunny morning and I’ve missed my deadline for this post. The sloth induced by all the bad news is the cause. But I opened Transtromer and was, well, saved. If I don’t do my spiritual exercises with lyric, producing the trifold texts of this format, I can’t go on. And that’s a big problem.

Transtromer is one of the poets I turn to now. For decades I’ve loathed the hyperbolic formula that reconfigures salvation as in “our hope is in the X” (plug in “wilderness” or whatever floats your boat) but now I see. Trust in good verses sums up my apocalypticism.

The FRAME OF REFERENCE gives the philosophical setting of my “religion.” Transtromer’s lyric illustrates it. It fulfills the promise of the lyric narrative to take us through the labyrinth to the abyss. This describes the human condition, and its particular salvation.

So I say. Whatever. We are led to a question. That seems to repeat the formula of Four Quartets. But I think Transtromer improves on Eliot, who depends on the Christian universal (truth). Transtromer depends on the sudden silent sound of the lyric voice, which questions the framing of the question by the poet-in-the-poem. That is, the intimate universal.

See now the FRAME. What is this “sign of contradiction”? Read all about it.

Now I can go on.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Phoebe Power “Clarsach”

They lift the girl-harp in a hammock/ of silver wire not to touch the ground or snap // a clavicle. Her feet are blades / not pedals. They change the key In naturals // and sharps. On the lawn she tingles / her clitoris, and notes sprinkle with the grass-seed in the air.

from NEW POETRIES 7: an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet, 2020)

FRAME OF REFERENCE. The ecstasy of time is time’s own ecstasy, but as given from the origin, it is also a rejoicing with the origin which leaps with its leaping: in loving itself it loves eternity, though it may not know it; it loves eternity because in its ownness it is loved by eternity. William Desmond, God and the Between, p. 297.

Phoebe Power draws on Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Joyce among others, her lyrics revive metaphysical powers latent in the equivocity of language. As the FRAME suggests, her readers may access latencies mothballed by dogmatic materialism. I say “dogmatic” because materialism is now open to metaphysical sources, enriching the foundations of lyric, as this lyric shows.

The conceit entertained in Clarsach is an analogy between the Scottish harp and the female body. So to begin with there’s a complex configuration of senses made visible by “understandings” which, once accepted, move the reader forward deeper into the poem. Start with “girl-harp” and “hammock.” Let that become a thing in your imagination. Taken together as the line gives them requires of the reader an energy that should come from the images themselves and devoted to the movement forward.

I put it that way because the poem makes it if not easier harder and harder to go forward. It depends on the capacities of the reader. The semantic suspension of “lift… not to touch…” enacts its meaning. Then “her feet…they” evokes the literal bodily playing of the harp, in a less figural way, and THAT gives way with a splendid bump to the supersensuous imagery worthy of Joyce or even beyond his limited character- bound mode enriched with lyric.

No apologies here! Definitely lyric!

In undervaluing lyric we enfeeble our own resources of understanding. The conclusion of this poem is moved by energies of “time’s own ecstasy.” The poem’s space is the metaxu or between of mortals and hyperboles of plurivocal being. Which is to say there’s a metaphysics at work in Power’s work that can be celebrated once we’ve done the work to understood the moves.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Theophilus Kwek “Moving House”

These are things that shake us in our sleep:/ doors left open, drawers, the bare-backed chair/ that still, without a coat, swivels gently,/ books in boxes. Pictures taken down, squares / of darker paint turned over to the sun,/ and, above all, their wiring undone,/ the lights’ glass tubes put away in plastic. // Once is enough. The eye learns to plot / all of this in each new habitation, / recognize the empty room’s joints, pivots, / dimensions— every house has a skeleton—/ while the body learns it must carry less / from place to place, a kind of tidiness/ that builds, hardens. Some call it fear,// or change, or losing what we cannot keep./ Others, experience. Truth is, it has no name / or station, and only the weight we give./ Old friend, I feel its steep tug again / this evening, across wire and lens / as you show me the house, a bare continent. / (These are the things that shake us in our sleep.)

from New Poetries 7: an anthology, edited Michael Schmidt (Carcanet 2020)

FRAME OF REFERENCE 153. We are trying to get hold of a mental process of understanding which seems to be hidden behind those coarser and therefore more readily visible accompaniments. But we do not succeed, or it does not get as far as a real attempt. For even supposing I had found something that happened in all those cases of understanding,—why should it be the understanding? And how can the process of understanding have been hidden, when I said “Now I understand” because I understood?! And if I say it was hidden— then how do I know what I have to look for? I am in a muddle.

Ludwig Wittgenstein PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS German text, and translation by G. E. M. Anscombe (Blackwell Publishing), §153

Born in Singapore, Theophilus Kwek has established himself at Oxford as an outstanding new poet. MOVING HOUSE is both traditional and radical in its transformation of the lyric narrative by argument. More than the dialectics of Bishop, he pushes a skeptical (see the FRAME OF REFERENCE) point of view of “muddle” that rhymes with the metaxical “middle” of a sort of radiant relativity (relativity open to asymmetric diagonals of understanding that may seem to stop the movement altogether, an aesthetics of radical uncertainty. And he does so with the poise of Chaucer’s idiomatic conversational style. Can MOVING HOUSE reconfigure pilgrimage? At least we can say that with MOVING HOUSE the paradox of the chiasm opens on a parenthesis of understanding, with the emphasis on “under.”

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Readers of LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS need no introduction to the movements of the lyric. Even the shape of this poem on the page suggests the chiasm of outer/inner//lower/higher, though the last stage is definitely metaxical (assymetrical) rather than univocally conceptual. This chiasm opens into the fertile void of the parenthesis, which is very cool.

Before we get there we work through a catalogue of “things,” but things that comprise a pattern of understanding, each case seeming to illustrate what the poet’s voice has in mind. The fact that the “understandings” keep coming creates a sense of vertigo. Those lightbulbs packed in tissues and boxed up — I’m guessing here — that are “above all” is metaphysical in the old, 17th-century sense.

The chiasm turns inward in the second stanza. Outer maps inner but doesn’t contain it as the lower/higher figure begins to take over. The “eye” becomes the source of a formula that can only mean, to paraphrase, “disaster.” It should be noticed how Kwek’s playful resonance with past masters liberates his voice. Modern skepticism is all about loosening conceptual ties, so the sound fills the cracks in the conceptual scheme as the catalogue dissolves into behaviors, attitudes resisting the conceptual skeletons of the past.

It comes as a pleasant surprise that the chiasm transforms into a “transcendent” voice. I put transcendent in scare quotes not to undermine the meaning but to sharpen our awareness of the steepness of the tug. The “you” is the metaxical double that speaks from beyond the narrative scheme. It is the voice of the finite other of the poem itself. So this itinerary of MOVING achieves a new equilibrium between bareness of concept and richness of awareness of the muddle of the middle, the parenthesis.

I hope Kwek’s prominent base of operation in Oxford means his generation has overcome the metaphysical anorexia of the poststructural generation. Here in Rhode Island we can only hope.


When little matchsticks of rain bounce off the drenched fields, an amphibian dwarf, a maimed Ophelia, barely the size of a fist, sometimes hops under the poet’s feet and flings herself into the next pond.
Let the nervous little thing run away. She has lovely legs. Her whole body is sheathed in waterproof skin. Hardly meat, her long muscles have an elegance neither fish nor fowl. But to escape one’s fingers, the fluidity joins forces with her struggle for life. Goitrous, she starts panting. . . . And that pounding heart, those wrinkled eyelids, that drooping mouth, move me to let her go.

Translated from the French by Beth Archer, from A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, edited by Czeslaw Milosz

FRAME OF REFERENCE. What makes thought thoughtless about the holy? It is especially through fetishizing the univocities and of rationalistic and positivistic thinking that the philosopher can airbrush out the idiotic, the aesthetics, the erotics, and the agapeics: the singular love, the seeking love, the celebrating love. The eros-less of such thought has lost its intimacy, lost its body, lost the urgency of its desire, lost sight of the generosity of being that sustains all thought, even the most dessicated. It has abstracted itself from the intimate universal, and it is nothing but the skeleton structure of itself. The bare ruined choir of thought is driven out of hearing of the singing of the oceanic porosity. WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal (2016).

NOTE These “Investigations” explore the lyric as a challenge to our capacity to “go on,” having accepted the first step to take the next and the next until we can not go on. The lyric narrative engages different capacities or figures — description, metaphor, analogy, and so on. In lyric, the primary figure seems to be the analogy or chiastic relating of outer to inner and lower to higher. I borrow my title from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which dramatize the struggle for perfectly acceptable expression. These exercises are constructed in threefold aspects— texts, FRAME OF REFERENCE, and discussion, with the understanding that no piece has priority. Reading a poem this way is what historian of philosopher Pierre Hadot called “spiritual exercises” (see now Ryan G. Dunn, SJ. SPIRITUAL EXERCISES FOR A SECULAR AGE: DESMOND AND THE QUEST FOR GOD (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020)

Ponge (1899-1988) explores the space between consciousness and creature hood in curiously erotic terms, starting with the personification of a frog, in its natural seeming, with Shakespeare’s tragic Ophelia. Does this poem trigger you along feminist lines? Do you refuse to play along with the sexual personification of the little frog as Ophelia, especially when it breaks down as an analogy and so is discarded for more general schemes?

That is, does the poem frustrate your desire to “go on”? A close study of lyric in these pages indicates that lyrics are set up to question our capacity to read them. Time is of the essence of the poem which can only end by slipping the bounds of time in an act of transcending the narrative whole by opening to the possibility of freedom. Ponge’s frog becomes a symbol of Lyric! So we practice the poem and learn how to go on deeper into what can’t be said but only shown.

Eventually the struggle illuminates the doubleness of consciousness. The frog is a real frog—the description can’t be “airbrushed” to please reductive sensibility. It is also, in the poem, flesh of our flesh. That’s the problem. But the narrative transforms into an everyday situation and is resolved accordingly. Meanwhile the reader has been tested as to her capacity to go on. We can even take the hint from the FRAME OF REFERENCE and acknowledge the possibility of the holy.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Wislawa Szymborska “In Praise of Self-Depreciation”

The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with./ Scruples are alien to the black panther / Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions. / The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations. // The self-critical jackal does not exist. / The locust, alligator, trachina, horsefly / live as they live and are glad of it. // The killer whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos / but in other respects it is light.// There is nothing more animal-like/than a clear conscience / on the third planet of the sun.

from A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS edited by Czeslaw Milosz (1996). Translated from the Polish by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire

FRAME OF REFERENCE In truth, the inner exploration of the inner does not come upon a univocal innerness but rather to an inward otherness that is more like the opening onto an abyss. WILLIAM DESMOND THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL, 73.

When A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS became available in 1996 I assigned it to a special reading circle at Brown University. We started with Szymborska, whom nobody had heard of. In a few weeks she’d won The Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in Poland in 1923, she died in 2012, having become famous for her poems, whose matter-of-factness enlarged the range of the modern lyric.

Today this poem should be published widely in the US as a definitive statement on the newest member of the Supreme Court. Enough said.

But is it a lyric? It makes no effort to reveal the poet’s innermost self. Look again. It does have a confessional core, however ‘ironic.’ The final lines express a passionate belief in conscience. A very important poem for our nonexistent paideia.

How’d we get there? There’s a narrative — from outer to inner, from low to high— coming to rest at an abyss beyond thought, a perfect paradox of tone that is nothing if it is not lyrical. My heart leaps up whenever I recite it.

The narrative is inscribed in the movement of the examples away from univocal fact to something more like wonder. From buzzard to the expanded stanza— two whole lines!—on the HEART of the killer whale.

The final stanza is perfection in how it changes the point-of-view. We have been moved through the world— well, “the animal kingdom”—to a hyperbolic vantage point from “outer space.” Thus the lyric form of the poem breaks into its own unique voice. The whole thing rings with a crystalline analogy of being. Desmond’s “intimate universal” indeed.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Seamus Heaney “Whitby-sur-Moyola”

Caedmon too I was lucky to have known, / Back in situ there with his full bucket / And armfuls of clean straw, the perfect yard man,/ Unabsorbed in what he had to do / But doing it perfectly, and watching you. / He had worked his angel stint. He was hard as nails / And all that time he had been poeting with a harp / His real gift was the big ignorant roar / He could still let out of him, just bogging in / As if the sacred subjects were a herd / That had broken out and needed rounding up. / I never saw him once with his hands joined / Unless it was a case of eyes-to-heaven/ And the quick sniff and test of fingertips / After he’d passed them through a sick beast’s water./ Oh, Caedmon was the real thing alright.

FIELD OF REFERENCE When Wittgenstein’s approach is applied to the spiritual realm, its application is neatly summarized by Drury’s remarks concerning The Tractatus:


  1. ’Everything that can be put into words can be put clearly.’
  2. ’Philosophy will signify what cannot be said by presenting clearly what can be said’
  3. ’There are, indeed, things which cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are mystical.’
    from Peter Taylor, The Return to the Mystical: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Teresa of Avila and the Christian Mystical Tradition (Continuum, 2011), p. 47

The reasons for remembering certain lyrics are myriad and suggest our deepest needs. As I sort through my books looking for something that makes me calm down as the world seems to be collapsing around me, Heaney presents himself. He can be a little self-important but when it comes to “the witness of poetry” (I really must give Milosz another try), his image of Caedmon does the trick. I too want to achieve that human facility of effortless doing and also awareness of the other.

I leaned in school that Caedmon’s hymn was in the running for the earliest lyric “in English” albeit Old English. “Dark Ages” English. Like many legends it comes with problems. The story is that Caedmon was an illiterate cowboy. How could he have ‘written” a hymn. You can look it up.

Or you can read Heaney’s poem. In light of the FIELD OF REFERENCE the poem addresses the problem of the legend by observing “Wittgenstein’s approach” according to his friend Drury. It’s a pretty no-nonsense approach and it suits this blog by freeing poetry from its arguments with philosophy by agreeing with a basic distinction between saying and showing. Lyric by my lights reflects the distinction as it unfolds in the reader’s time/consciousness.

Here we call that temporal unfolding the lyric narrative or itinerary. Heaney’s first sentence grounds Caedmon in historical time— until the last phrase, which should come as a not- surprise: “and watching you.” For as practiced readers of lyric we hardly bat an eye. In lyric the self is double. So sure, Caedmon sees us hanging around the yard suspiciously.

We are waiting. We have not long to wait. The mystery part—the showing implicit in the legend—happens as the poem turns away from the known knowns of the literary tradition, or what we call, somewhat disingenuously,

As it turns out we must swallow a double image of sound—the big ignorant roar— and an analogy, an “as if.” Once that figure is out there the poem returns to the legend. Or the act of judgment that presents Caedmon’s claim, according to the Poet, as “the real thing.”

The REAL thing. Double gesture: eyes to heaven, fingers alive to the flesh’s equivocity in the being of the yardman, whose knowledge of these things is trustworthy. This double we recognize as the sign of the metaxu or between. Things just never resolve to the thing-in-itself. There’s always more.

Heaney SHOWS Caedmon’s specific intimate being by an act, we say in our scrupulous way, that “could well have happened,” in Caedmon’s world, we carefully add. BUT the “as if” of the historical imagination is doubled by the poem’s opening to the other than can be thought, what Drury considered “mystical.” And Drury was no slouch.

So the poet’s voice emerges from the mix of voices in the poem by a kind of fiat. That’s what I like to call the emergence of the open form of the poem. It supplies me with equilibrium in dodgy if interesting times, when nothing else will do.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Muriel Rukeiser “Islands”

O for God’s sake / they are connected / underneath // They look at each other / across the glittering sea / some keep a low profile // Some are cliffs / The bathers think / islands are separate like them

from A Muriel Rukeiser Reader, edited by Jan Heller Levi (Norton 1994)

FRAME OF REFERENCE The artwork is a wording of the between, an aesthetic wording of the between—metaxological in the literal sense of an aesthetic logos of the metaxu. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal 86

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) is not a household name, even in poetic households. She was a member in good standing in “the exact generation” (Rexroth); a Vietnam Nam War activist; above all an inspiration: Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, Marilyn Hacker, Grace Paley. And so on. Her sense of form was hybrid. A hardworking freelancer she possessed a hard-won, intimate feel for the English language that broke genre-barriers in honor of her wide variety of subjects. She’s a model writer.

This little poem exemplifies Rukeyser’s lyric craft. The sound recalls the Tudor plain style. Abrupt speech, short lines, energetic economy— the madrigal dance, lutes and drums. And a “moral poem,” a land/seascape lit by the light of truth. It opens with the force of discovery of the context of the obvious — distance, alienation— and proceeds through figures of speech before descending to the real subject: human stupidity. As an image however the poem radiates faith in the possibility of communication.

Lyric is a demanding form. Always at odds with the givens of the language, always seeking a fullness beyond mere thinking, it finally points beyond itself. Rukeyser’s political rage had the purity of prophecy. While it speaks out of immediate passion it sings the intimate universal. Not the “universal proposition” or commonplace pointed to in the opening outburst (the geographical facts), but the aesthetic intimate universal communicated by the direction of the poem toward a unity of human – and – world expressiveness: landscape ANDinscape. The bathers, self-obsessed, project their solipsism onto the wider truths of their existence. They are in this together — this “between,” this metaxu, they just don’t know it.

The poem speaks to a whole that transcends the oblivion of human participants. Fierce and rather tender, “Islands” has a voice that speaks well for its maker.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Catullus “Dear Veranius”

Dear Veranius, of all my close companions / by three hundred miles the foremost— have you / come back home to your household gods, to brothers / one in mind with you, to yout aged mother?/ Yes, you’re back! The news makes me so happy—/ I’ll see you safe and sound, hear all your stories / of Spanish tribes and cities, what you did there, / told in your special style. I’ll hug you to me, / rain kisses on your eyes and laughing face. Oh / take all the fortunate men alive now— who, pray, / could be happier, more fortunate than I am?

from THE POEMS OF CATULLUS: a bilingual edition translated with commentary by Peter Green (University of California Press, 2007).

FRAME OF REFERENCE To return to the Augustinian theme: there can be turns to self that are not loving homecomings to the intimate universal but platforms for accentuating claims made for the powers of self-determination, or indeed self-assertion. The turn to self is then a turn from an other perceived as equivocal, as a possible curb on my self-determination. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 50.

Catullus: 87-57 BCE. (Disputed.) Caesar was a guest at his father’s dinner table; Catullus would later write a perfect witty epigram to/about Caesar. Not nice, and dangerous.

Catullus helped invent the modern lyric. The edition cited here is a monument to the best kind of scholarship. Packed with references, it still showcases the poems. Peter Green’s agile English leaves the bitter-sweet taste of poetry in the mouth (“bitter-sweet” as Anne Carson reminds us grounds our sense of self in Sappho’s sensibility).

Catullus wrote personal and impersonal poetry and seems to have wanted them published together. As lyrics, one presumes. His sense of self as displayed in the poems is heterogenous, which is to say some of the epigrams are shockingly personal (like the one to Caesar).

School editions of Catullus tend to be expurgated.

The poem given here would not grab your attention as you thumb through this handsome book (lots of fucking and sucking) at the bookstore. Its art is subtle, its occasion public/private. Its lyric itinerary uses a zoom lens to create gradually diminishing separation. Outside to inside. The middle is a little interior dialogue, and it increases the energy. With the turn to the personal emotions, the poem builds in intensity until it stops at the conjectural extreme of unsurpassable happiness. Acme. Low to high. Conceptually this lyric is the complete deal.

The original Latin is dense with sound patterns observable by the inner ear of the Latinless reader: narrantem loca, facta, nationes/ut mos est tuus, applicansque collum/

Here, at the beginnings of the modern lyric tradition, we have not irony or self-lacerating confession, or unmoored nihilism (all of which feature here and there in the oeuvre) but a fully fleshed image of transhuman identity. We.