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a lyric essay on reading Ovid
a lyric essay on reading Ovid

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Published by: Wm. Anthony Connolly on Sep 09, 2009
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Wm. Anthony Connolly
I’ve changed my hairstyle so many times now; I don’t know what I look like.– 
Talking Heads, “Life during Wartime”There ought to be in every hand a well-thumbed and annotated copy of Ovid’s
. It should be found –splayed, its leaves fattened with moisture and sun – wedged between windshields and dashboards. The work’sperfect spine should be cleaved. The book-length poem ought to be rummaged through like an over-stuffed suitcasefor a daily dose of myth, magic and wonder. We ought to all speak a little Ovid. Never mind the 12,000 lines of hexameter found in some translations; never mind the work, sometimes in blank verse, at other times in prose,simply undulates like a fulsome river through fifteen books and flooding a landscape that begins with the source of creation, transitions through successive epochs of moral decay, deluge and seismic shifts, and ends with a plea for continual rejuvenation. Never mind the incredulousness one must endure tripping along the unpronounceable placenames and personages here; there are gods here too and creatures whose nomenclatures sing as sublimely as thenames of fungi. Never mind the oddity of people turned into beasts, into trees and rock over the two hundred and fiftyepisodes of transformation at times grotesque and churlish, and often shocking.Never mind.For this is
song.Who among us has not changed? For us changelings and transformers this is our blog;
tales arethe loquacious updates from a better-educated, better-read Twitter friend. This is the sound your blood makes.It is a Saturday morning, clear and bright with a hint of autumn in the air. I am taking another journey into a strangecity to be amongst those I don’t know. Having resided in three countries and numerous cities over the last twentyyears, I wonder as I drive along I-70 who I’ll be for them, for me. It’s a modern art gallery today – the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, a concrete and glass modernist edifice perched, iconic and cold, in the Grand Center districtin Saint Louis, Missouri. I am attending “A Marathon Metamorphoses” a two-day reading of Ovid’s classic poem. Over seventy readers from the St. Louis area will read in fifteen-minute intervals finishing the poem in its entirety the over aweekend. The event is in conjunction with its exhibit
Ideal (Dis-) Placements: Old Masters at the Pulitzer,
whichincludes Dutch artist Joachim Wtewael’s “Cephalus and Procris (The Death of Procris), which is said to be inspiredby Book 7 of Ovid’s poem
I am no classicist, but my home library shelves do hold a few volumes of Homer, Virgil and a Loeb reader or two.Latin poet Ovid is a recent acquisition, to be honest (each reader has their blind spots). Publius Ovidius Naso was hisreal name – the last name ‘Nose’ for all intents and purposes a family inheritance from a relative with a big, youguessed it, nose. Ovid was born 43 B.C.E. in Sulmo, and died in 18 C.E. Ovid’s popularity waxed and waned in hisand our lifetimes. It is for the poem
The Art of Love 
that Emperor Augustus expelled Ovid in 8 A.D. out of Rome toTomi on the Black Sea. I teach English at a local private Catholic university and Ovid’s
The Art of Love 
is one of thetexts we are reading.
is arguably Ovid’s most ambitious and well known verse. The title of the poemis Greek for “changes in shape.” The opening line, “My mind is intent on singing of shapes changed into new bodies”establishes a charge the poet fulfills over 12,000 lines composed in hexameter the meter used for Homer’s songs to Achilles and Odysseus. The hexameter was a change for Ovid, from his usual line of the elegiac couplet. It is saidOvid destroyed the work before he died, only to have the poem resurrected by one of those proverbial friends whohad a copy and rescued the classic from the flames of obscurity. Its popularity peaked and bottomed out over theyears depending on milieu. A modern translation came in 1567 introducing the work to modernity and Ovid hasbeguiled and beat up readers ever since.The poem begins with the great metamorphoses – our emergence from chaos to form. Then Ovid focuses our attention on the transformation of the human race through its ages, from gold to bronze; from high morality to alowered form. Creatures and folks are transformed, and the changes are wrought by their own egregious agency or 
at the caprice of persnickety gods. Here you’ll find Cupid and his quiver of dubious arrows. Here Apollo chasesDaphne who is turned into a tree by her river god father. Here survivors of the flood re-people the earth with rocks.Here the baseness of humanity is writ, but also its yearning for what ought to be. Here when the world is made anewof all the creatures of the clay and muck, humankind were the sole formation made to look up at the firmament.Over the first six books the changes are for the most part the result of divine action. In the next six, gods do thechanges, but is the result of human passion and crime. Greek myths are used in the first part of the book, but thesegive away to Roman. For me, the surrealism gives way at the end to political opportunism when Ovid givesPythagoras a 400-line speech on the nature of the universe, which ends, perhaps famously, with the poetproclaiming: “Wherever Roman power rules over conquered lands I shall be read, and through all centuries, if poets’prophecies speak truth, I shall live.” Or in another translation “then in my fame I will live.” Or in the one read duringthe marathon, “I shall have life…”The Pulitzer marathon is based on the painting that depicts the unfortunate end to jealousy and misunderstandingbetween Procris and her husband, Cephalus. The section of the poem and the painting illustrates what happenswhen mortals and gods interact. The dawn goddess fell in love with Cephalus and he was tempted, but stayed withhis wife Procris. But his love of dawn expressed aloud one morning and overheard by his wife, Procris results inirrational jealousy and death. Procris hiding in nearby bushes, cries out when she hears Cephalus praising the dawn,and in the process is mistaken by her husband for quarry. Cephalus throws his javelin and it pierces Procris and killsher. As I watched the novelist give way to the preacher who gave way to the poet and then the journalist reading, as bestthey could, their fifteen-minutes of Ovid that Saturday I recalled a line from a play by Mary Zimmerman I’d seen inNew York a few years back.It has been said that myth is a public dream, dream are private myths. Unfortunately we give our myths sidescant attention these days. As a result, a great deal escapes us and we no longer understand our ownactions. So it remains important and salutary to speak not only of the ration and easily understood, but alsoof enigmatic things: the irrational and the ambiguous. To speak both privately and publicly.This has been a year of transition for me; if that sounds too clinical I can say this has been a year of change. Mymother died in February at the age of seventy-seven of lung cancer. Still to this day her passing is hard for me tofathom. My father, in the process of losing the partner he’d been with for sixty years, lost a lot of strength anddiminished right before our eyes. This is the year of my new back. For almost nine years I suffered with chronic backpain with the occasional acute paroxysm that left me incapacitated. My spine was cleaved. An eight-hour operationrepaired pinched nerves and replaced back discs for new ones. Today I have inside me rods and screws of titanium; Ihave synthetic bone marrow. I learned German this year. I learned how to read five books a day preparing for myPhD comprehensive examination. We change, that’s what we do.I learned that time devours.Each Ovid reader to the task. Fifteen minutes.There are no introductions for the doctors, the priests, the poets and publishers. One blends, morphs, into another.White hair, black glasses. Pink dresses, dark skin. Bow-tied. Bangles and baubles. Eyes down on the open bookbefore them, stationed beneath the art gallery’s Ellsworth Kelly “Blue Black,” while nearby a painting of a gap-mouthed Saint Jerome, the patron of librarians, sizes up the scene. Outside a twenty-four tall steel spiral torque byRichard Senna oxidizes in the sun. I sit, alone, together with others and take in the faces around me.We have been nighttime travelers

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