Thomas Thornburg Poetry Memorial: Ancient Letters

Published by Barnwood Press, Daleville IN, 1987
Ancient Letters

One wonders whom the next elected
Criminal for these troubled times
Will the feckless public, suspect,
Lever in the long direction
(Between the last war and the next)
We take in our quotidian crimes;
How long our matrons skirt the leering
Lawless on main ways to market;
How long our aged folk in fear
Imprisoned at their portals peering
On them convicted in their derring
And that with such cocksureness wear
The scutum of their darknesses,
Petronius? (I pray you, burn these letters.)

Agrippina

After the last trick had been turned in the game,
The bumpers drunk, the galley fallen apart;
The lying maid having drunk to a different name
A cup for the journey, so to speak, at the start;
One wonders whether that harried dame ever thought
In terms of that fat man she and she father had wrought.
Surely in knowing she would have aborted that plan
Before it came forth in this world and assumed the shape of a man,
Perhaps.  Nine gods were enough of a problem; she laid it on fate;
She even exclaimed on how simple it was and absurd
(She was dead for some time before they came to kill her, too late)
To have birthed and been part of the proof and power of Hate.
The guise it assumed and its manner have also endured:
Took its place in the capitol, developed a merchant for fire,
Was witty and sullen, hired artists to teach it the lyre,
Gave games for the people, and like an innocent bird.

Homage to Catullus

(The sequence “Homage to Catullus” has eight poems. I offer the first three.)

1

SWEET Lesbia,would you know the half
of all my pleasure when your husband laughs
delighted at your flyting and the flashing spite
that lights your countenance when we two fight?
watch out, my girl, your fat fool’s treasure,
I may absent myself and rob the only pleasure
he takes in both of us.  O, what frustration
should I reave your table of my conversation—
no, no, do not start up so hastily to weep;
this is a lover’s promise not to keep.
but still . . . his pleasure when your latest insult flies
against me, and the room lights from your brilliant eyes
as when I goad you fast between your thighs.

2

OCTAVIA, you bitch, when you deride
me in the taverns, it is time you knew
you build the envious world you hide in,
and every drunkard there suspects the true.
why is it now, fat forty, you should blame
my cold pursuits at something you’d not give
me years ago, now when you wear my best friends’s name?
sweet Mercury, the weird world we live in!
how you condemn me, now I am a poet
who never knew you slim, nor know you fat,
so stop pretending, dear, your friends all know it,
even they know that.

3

FLAVIVS, do you know rising in the Forum,
lisping your meums, tuums, how your colleagues
snicker to one another common knowledge
about your extra-curricular quorums?
could you believe the pupils would not talk you
in their graffiti in the public stalls?
why have you let the praetors and plebeians mock your
courses you offer on the taverns walls?
O tempora, mores! we all know you, dear,
each several senator and charioteer.

to be continued, check back for updates

Publication Status of Ancient Letters

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