Thursday, February 16, 2012

`Marvel at Sagacious Wit'

Published in the March issue of First Things is a curious poem by a writer new to me, Joseph S. Salemi, preceded by lines from Catullus: 

quam magnus numerous Libyssae harenae
lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis.”

Here is “All Gone”: 

Silph-bearing Cyrenaica, said a poet,
Alluding to a plant now long extinct.
The coastal plain of Libya could grow it
And nowhere else. The herb had a distinct
Fragrance of rosy fennel, with a whiff
Of spiciness, as if the gods had planned
To grace this stretch of desert with one gift
That made up for the scorpions and sand.

“The helpless herb fell victim to our tastes—
Human greed soon harvested it all.
The fields of sylph turned into barren wastes
Where sunbaked serpents writhe, and lizards crawl.
The last surviving stalk was sent to Rome
Where Nero ate it with a golden spoon.
Meanwhile, back in the plant’s ancestral home,
Saharan death spread northward, dune by dune.”

Silphium is a real plant with a complicated history. As to the lines by Catullus, they come from the seventh of the Lesbia verses, from a sequence Charles Martin calls the “courtship poems” (Catullus, 1992). Here is Martin’s translation, with the lines quoted by Salemi italicized:

“My Lesbia, you ask how many kisses
Would be enough to satisfy, to sate me!
--As many as the sandgrains in the desert
Near Cyrene, where Silphium is gathered,
Between the shrine of Jupiter the sultry
And the venerable sepulcher of Battus!
--As many as the stars in the tacit night
That watch as furtive lovers lie embracing:
Only to kiss you with that many kisses
Would satisfy, could sate your mad Catullus!
A sum to thwart the reckoning of gossips
And baffle the spell-casting tongues of envy!”

In his translation, The Poems of Catullus (2005), Peter Green renders the pertinent lines like this:

“Match them to every grain of Libyan sand in
silphium-rich Cyrene”

In a note to the poem, Green describes silphium as “a famous heal-all in antiquity” and the principle export of Cyrene. It was used to treat indigestion, baldness, sore throat, warts, dropsy and gout, and as an aphrodisiac, a contraceptive and an abortifacient. Catullus didn’t randomly choose his herb. On my first reading of “All Gone,” I took silphium to be a spice or seasoning for the table, not a reputedly powerful pharmaceutical. The story of Nero’s consumption of the “last surviving stalk” is drawn from Pliny’s Naturalis Historia.

What to make of the poem? Is it an ecological morality tale? A plea for conservation and biodiversity? An allegory on recent events in Libya? What do the editors of First Things make of silphium’s reputed medicinal qualities? I can’t answer these questions, but all of them are part of the reason I like this plain-spoken but hardly transparent poem. The final line is hauntingly ominous, and it left me intrigued enough to find more poems by Salemi. (Go here and here.) I liked “In One Ear,” which is prefaced by an entry from James Boswell’s London Journal dated June 4, 1763: “In the Strand I picked up a little profligate wretch and gave her sixpence”: 

“Boswell listened, Johnson talked.
Then the Scotsman went and walked
London's alleyways and mews
Seeking trollops from the stews.
All that weighty, sage advice
From the Doctor, without price,
Never made the slightest dent
On a youth whose natural bent
Drew him towards the rankest sluts—
Brains were trumped by churning guts.
Such are humans. At the best
We may listen, be impressed,
Marvel at sagacious wit—
Then go act as we see fit.
Mind and will stay far apart;
Reason does not touch the heart;
Impulse shatters logic's chain;
Argument goes down the drain.
Aristotle's books slam shut
When we are in heat or rut.”

Boswell had met Johnson for the first time less than three weeks earlier, on May 16. Besides writing the greatest biography in the language, Boswell was treated at least seventeen times for venereal disease. Salemi can be a provocatively funny poet, blurring the line between light verse and heavy satire. Here is “The New Third Reich”:

“The Belgians, with their beer and clogs—
 A perfect blend of Krauts and Frogs.
 They pass their laws and flex their muscles
 High up on a perch in Brussels.”

 And here, to offend those left unoffended, is Salemi’s “To an Earsplitting Unitarian Chapel Choir”:

“Full-throated, loud, big-bottomed female choir
Thundering in a menopausal key,
Whose earnest hymns swell upwards, ever higher,
Above a pew-renting liberal bourgeoisie,
Rapt in triumphant vagueness, you aspire
To be a church while leaving all thought free;
You hunger for that transcendental fire
(Though without Virgin, Saints, or Papacy).

“Half the assembly’s atheist, and dreams
 Of no fulfillment beyond earthly life;
 Each week the minister concocts new schemes
 Involving power, money, someone’s wife.
 When your religion is a mere charade
 Hymns should be less emphatic, and more staid.”


Andrew Rickard said...

Many thanks Patrick. As usual, you've introduced me to something new and interesting. I searched for Mr. Salemi on Amazon and Abebooks and found nothing, but this page provides an address for ordering his books directly.

Don said...

The last item reminds me of a description of his religion by one wise and impish Unitarian: "We're agnostics who are soft on Christ."

Tim Murphy said...

Thanks Patrick. That's the best Salemi poem I've read.