Caroline Lemak Brickman

History of Catullus: A Translation


History of Catullus
by Elena Fanailova

Catullus writes to Lesbia, he writes to Caesar.
It’s not that he can’t cope with himself–
He’ll fly off with the pigeons, fly to the dove.
He has no other arms,
No shield or armor
His heart is bleeding
And his head is spinning
Not entirely from his successes.
More from horror.

His little ditties get around town
Under his window pretty women are sobbing
And people are exchanging business cards.
Rumors are spreading like an epidemic
That Catullus, the refined drunk, is grieving

He doesn’t care about the fate of local arts and letters.
He’s got a headache like a water beetle.
The topical and the oral stuff both kick in,
But they don’t work together.
He can’t really orient himself to locality,
But hangs on like a miracle.

Often he cries and turns away
In his secret forest.
The sparrow died, Lesbia won’t get better.
Nothing exists, except
The impossibility, the unlikelihood,
Of meeting each other
No real catastrophe
It doesn’t matter how these histories end
But they do charm inexplicably

This might be evidence of mania
Of an extreme situation
9/11, 02, 03, a fire escape
In a cathedral of the city of Namur
He slipped out onto the streets in his sleep
On his chest the traces of the feet of his foremothers’

Catullus howls at the pain, growls at the pain,
Like a little lapdog.
He cries when nobody’s looking.
Actually he’s not especially shy.
He doesn’t have any virility,
Any sodomy, any misogyny
He’s shitting himself from horror

He walks, walks, drives, drives,
And his path is hidden
From the Soviet search radars.
The Zarnitsa captains don’t pick him anymore
Like a she-wolf and a dancing female

— It seems to him that his body is leaking.
He knows each and every one of his own
By the list of snipers,
But even his own he doesn’t trust too much.
The sequence can be gauged by its scent.
No one can measure scent

Measurers to the wall,
He thinks gloomily; there’s no space
Ship, like in the seventeenth century.
Some orthodox hierarchies are left.
When is this country going to change? and these sequences?
So much is contradictory
To his sense of aesthetics, his sense of here and now,
When men weep, when your muses pick on you,
The girls don’t argue but they open right up
When they meet you with their profound grief, grief from somewhere else,
And the grateful boys,
Do they fuck purely out of gratitude,
Out of that rapture that gives rise to beatitude? Without jealousy or envy?
Catullus himself is usually jealous to the point of blacking

He’s generally perplexed.
Sometimes he’s so exhausted
That he’s in no condition
To answer business calls.
His natural charm
Doesn’t cover entertainment expenses anymore.
Caesar and his clique
Have lost all sense of propriety.
They think their affairs are more important than Lesbia’s disease,
More important than the sparrow’s death.
How can they think that, what dumb fucks,
Thinks Catullus; his bird
Is getting ready for an operation, he’s worrying:
What are the surgeons’ bronze knives like, are they sharp? Is the fire hot? Will they
               prescribe hemlock?
And how’s the family tomb,
In the event of an unfortunate outcome?
To philosophize is to prepare oneself for death,
And is he ever ready! But what about the rest of them?
Are they nostalgic for the now?
Did they all go fuck themselves, the rest of them – made of plastic, and of steel?
The evil clowns? who know how to make him work like Cinderella?

He doubts it.
He’s still in this world.
He has to concentrate.
The gods don’t like the absent-minded,
Those who make promises they can’t keep,
Those who make hasty claims.

It seems like it’s time to admit that his embodiment – as a woman,
It turns out –
Was chosen by him, of his own volition, sound of mind and memory
Out of a desire to save those around him.
And this means a total immersion in the abyss
And an occasional appeal to the higher-ups.
And it seems to him
That this isn’t the last time he’ll live,
And he doesn’t warn anyone about this,
And he heads off to the library.

i live fast
i die a young woman
every morning
like smoke on the water
like some singer-songwriter wrote me once
my neighbor will set this history in the morning

Catullus instructs a girl, he wants a girl,
He laughs at a boy, he pricks, kicks a babe,
He spits on a swallow, doesn’t cry anymore
Dry little crust, jacks off his stick,
Doesn’t think anymore what it means

His sexuality is kind of grieving
Apart from him. He agrees with it,
But can’t really be bothered.

He understands that he’s stigmatized.
He’s ashamed to be the husband of a dead girl.
To him this seems extremely significant.
But no one notices it.

The objects of his affection differ now
From socially accepted norms:
Incidental little girls and baby fags,
Ambitious provincials, big-city whatevers.
He drops his kinsfolk and casts off
To the city where he used to drink.
He doesn’t reflect on it much
And doesn’t want to meet anyone like himself.

The interviewers’ questions confuse him.
He dodges them with difficulty,
Word for word.

In general, the truth doesn’t bother him any more,
Only extreme conditions: d-th, treachery,
Questions of style, imperial wars, spooky travels—
Short, but effective, like hemlock.
It’s well known that Catullus’ health is fucked up,
But that’s not a topic of general discussion.

And Lesbia! Lesbia! She appears in the night
With her dead sparrow! They play! They kiss!
He wakes up sobbing! He looks at pictures of her
At Peterhof and Pavlovsk Park; he turns away
To the portrait of St. Nicholas.
But she’s so beautiful, her gestures like stars,
Her arms, her ankles, her ass; this is unbearable, this innocence and this fucking harlotry.
He’s never seen anything more absolute.
Of course, he can after all be bothered.

He keeps loving a dead girl,
Doesn’t want to accept death,
Doesn’t want to admit that.
He lives in some kind of virtual despair,
In a secret forest,
Where everything will return again, swing back around,
Like the garden
Of Paradise

His comrades
Act like they’re Caesar,
Spitting on general propriety.
They’re ready to write epitaphs
To build worthy tombs
He’s ready to hit his head against a wall
(And he occasionally does),
Just so that they won’t.
If only to restore the vital chords,
The goddamned truth, the tormenting ellipses,
The unjust
Bombings of those cities where he could
Slander her like a man exploded.

It’s well known from the history of literature
That a Roman hysteric
Died before his dove
By some horrible degree of distinction still on top

He lives fast, dies a young man.
On the water bullets go stok-stok, mok-mok, smoke-smoke,
A boat leaves for another country.
Indian makeup on the deadman’s cheeks.
Lift the bedsheet over him, tug it taut.

Here comes the groom taller far than a tall man.

He’ll dream at daybreak, he’ll say: I ran away.
You know, there was a kid there,
We arranged things and together we lifted
These planks and nails and clumps of earth.
And not one of the witnesses denied him.

I took his hand and he, well, he took mine.
And then I’ll say:
I kiss the foot of this kid.
And finally I’ll confess: He’s right.
I’ll ask my friends of Him: support him, help him,
Let me burn out, to my juniper roots I’ll burn out,
But get him on his way.

like dry woodchips after lightning, like a slow racial oak
like dry firewood and dry leaves
deadened tree lightning to the brow
and she was once alive after all
and water flowed

none of these are questions of the mind, or a problem of artistry
like a dry needle, like a dry star of sorcery
amidst the black light of the engraver the dry needle the sepulchral needle
lift your frozen brow

o is it possible to praise a dead woman?
yes, of course, possible and necessary
so even there she knows she’s loved

and afterwards i got sick of telling everyone that you’d died
over the phone,
your cellphone with your pictures
of your favorite boys and girls
and i’m not picking it up anymore
not answering calls anymore
just laying and crying
with my

catullus pretends to be orpheus, and goes to hell

In effect, there is no barrier
Between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
It’s just one big muddle,
The idea that this barrier exists.

Remembering dreams.
Mother stands beneath the window,
She wants to go back.
But your stupidity and fear
Won’t let her
Go into that wonderful house
Into her father’s garden
Into the garden of her husband
Into the garden of her husbandry, her house bondage.
Into the house with a garden
Guarded by her men,
First her father,
Then her husband, my father.

There’s my window.
It opens out there
Where the apricot tree blossoms in spring
Or just gets snowed on for half a year.
For some reason she
Asks me to let her in,
As though she couldn’t herself,
Through my window.
I say come in.
But I still can’t understand
Why she’s standing there
And can’t get in –
Is it because she’s dead?
And I can’t accept it?
And I can’t answer?
Or I just think it’s like that,
And she doesn’t need to come here at all?
I’m scared to let her in?
I was stupid then.
I couldn’t decide.
I didn’t see daytime phantoms then.
I didn’t see nighttime phantoms then.
I just heard faint voices
When I got on the tram.
I didn’t know, then, that the phantoms here
Are our beloved dead in the heavens
Some are at peace, others are silent
And they look at the Russians after the war
With great pity, as if they were sick
At us
Their green “hauses” next to the houses
Of the living. We built them after the war,
Like reaping. Like sacrifices. Like breathing through gills.
We wanted to breathe. Multilevel children of the nation.
We were immortal, valiant,
Like Russian airships, later burnt up
In the higher strata of the atmosphere.
Like martyrs
Resigned to the smell of sulfur

Usually, you take him/her by the hand
And say: let’s go.
I’ll never leave you.
I won’t abandon you.
I’ll always be with you.
Usually, that’s the same as alive.

It’s not scary there.
It’s just awfully weird
And easy to lose yourself.
And that’s stressful.
They’re not used to it yet.
So they always have to hold on,
Everything is for the first time,
Like an umbilical cord
When you’re the mother and the cub at the same time.
It’s awfully hard work.
You have to be absolutely focused.
It’s probably kind of like
The work of an air traffic controller
In Frankfurt or in Beijing.
A lot of different nationalities
A lot of sound waves
A lot of graphs on the monitor.
In short, it’s a ton of responsibility.
Plus you’re also living with insane grief,
Mountainous, ancient, jihadic grief,
But you’re not afraid of it
Because you’re busy with real relief.
Like 9/11

The guy who died
Has a lot more to deal with than you do.
He – let’s face it – is seriously fucked.
Your task
Is to just constantly be on the line.
Say everything’s okay, we’re coping,
We’re landing the plane
And the passengers are fine.
This is hard to believe,
If you know the pitiful panelling job,
The level of technical deterioration,
And the general dickery of Russian pilots.
Whatever, we’re still coping.
Russian emergency response never has enough
Medical supplies or ambulances
But we certainly can’t let ourselves
Work like Russian emergency response during a defeat.
This is the last game.
No overtime.
No penalties.
Gotta work really carefully.
Most important thing is to keep saying,
I love you and I’ll never abandon you.
But without, you know, that sentiment,
Without compassion for yourself
You get really cold, with your strong will.
Send him to the space
That suits him.
That belongs to him. But he’s not ready yet.
Higher, higher, to the very clouds
To Rome if you want
To the Russian garden if you want
With a lamp and some tea, like that pop writer Bulgakov.

It seems that stylistic subtleties
Are not especially necessary
According to custom over there.
Most important thing is to concentrate.
Don’t get distracted.
Then you’ll pass through customs easily.
Open your visa.
You personally, you do some kind of work for the consulate.
And what’s more, it’s none of your business,
How the trip is going.
How much the tour costs
And which stars are staying at the hotel.
Most important thing is to do your work.
Don’t be bothered.
Like the monks in the book of the dead
Like Russian priests
(They cut through despite the horrors
Of local accountability)
Definitive manhood
Is, of course, desirable.
Experience in stability.
A little erudition.
The understanding that there is no boundary
Between worlds

coming soon:
“catullus thinks he’s oedipus,
and goes to see a psychoanalyst”
“catullus, like kafka, enters the archives
and gets lost in evidence”

He’s troubled by the pale shadows of sex.
He what, can’t go without fucking? No, no, he can –
And even wants to cope somehow without it.
He doesn’t like this human tradition,
Which reminds him of deportation,
Emigration, and other means
Of expulsion across the borders of his motherland.
He just feels that he is alive.
This is an enormous achievement
After two years of unbearable mourning.
Like when a retard remembers his multiplication tables
And realizes: not all is lost
And smiles his sort of nightmarish smile.
With that kind of uncertainty.
He looks at the wrist of the woman interviewing him
In the café and figures:
He could grip that wrist right now
And he is momentarily distorted
By irrational lightning.

He’s a bad Christian
Doesn’t understand how to repent,
How to confess to the priestess,
A woman, Lord forgive us,
With that lustful spark in her eyes
Lit by church, by candles.

Catullus has a black box in his head
That needs to be decrypted after a catastrophe.
Where did the pilots let the mistake in?
What’s left of divine providence?
What in this meaningless event
Is just pure cruelty
He still doubts it all
He’s the decoder he’s the weeping widow

Like Grabovoy, he calls for the resurrection
Of the children of Beslan, declaiming:
What, children, is it scary for you with me,
Joan the Mad,
Given the kingdom,
Transgressing all the laws of of god and man?

There, in your head, the autumn cemetery,
The cold church with its glamorous
Heroes of the capital.
If the service of heavenly deportation had come,
She would have locked up their persons, confiscated their passports
Appeared in the guise of a real police officer
And then there would be some kind of cremation with urns
And the pitiful little plumes of tsar-maidens
Books of alms above the coffins
Horrible cold
And someone would give it to me bad in the shoulders
Bowing me to the earth
When they tried to embrace me

Crows are crying in Catullus’s head.
In Moscow – as in Rome – it’s November.
Nothing human interests him anymore.
He’s looking more like Platonov and Filonov,
But pretends to be like Sholokhov and Plastov
With their simple naturalism.
In Catullus’ head it’s empty, knock-knock, let’s go
He doesn’t think
Just feels
Watches, records

November, dipshit, it’s November
Clouds in the brain, wind and lightning over Moscow
A person’s not his own
Well anyway he shouldn’t be.

Here there’s a break in the tape recording

Catullus simply can’t live after Lesbia’s death.
His head has grown dull.
He went to his friends, drunk, and complained,
What did she have to leave him for. Why did she abandon him.
Just like Russian women weeping in a cemetery.

He’s shitting himself from horror
Literally like Mitrofan of Voronezh
Who went into the monastery after the death of his wife

He went around to his friends and complained:
Give me some wine, give me a little vodka,
Some cognac, whiskey and beer,
I need it right now.
Give me some hemlock. Give me some cunt. Beat me the fuck up.
Distract me, tell me
Some other guy’s worse off than me.
But his friends said to him,
Seriously go and fuck yourself, Catullus, Roman cabbie,
Driving folk-wisdom around,
Moscow driver, hewing more than ours,
How much from Kursky to Paveletsky, I bet you never even dreamed of it,
From Gazgolder to Belorussky, how much, eh?
What’s there for you to complain about, motherfucker?

There were very few who could sympathize with him
Only bums hanging around the station
If they weren’t too busy
With a good fight or their booze
Well he wasn’t particularly expecting it

Catullus recalls his travels
In the Roman provinces with the Roman army
Gotta admit that wasn’t exactly the subtlest moment
In Roman arts and letters. The dead,
The wounded, the shell-shocked and the pissed-on.
Catullus summoned all his skills
In medicine and psychorhetoric
He summoned other powers
Human and nonhuman resources
His comrades walked away

He was practically like Blok the nurse
Or the medical doctor Konstantin Leontiev
Chekhov, Veresaev, Bulgakov
“Etc.,” as they say

He visited his brother’s grave. He wrote an elegy.
The tombstone showed some signs of neglect.
He swept up a little.
But he didn’t have time to build a new monument.
The army moved on. It was hot.
He returned to the capital.
He found that Lesbia had become even more of a whore than before.
She had become really cynical.
Catullus himself was an expert in cruel jokes,
But not at this level.
He knew how to respect the now.

He lived quietly, but fast
Died a young man in the streets.
We would have said, from alcoholism,
His heart couldn’t take it.
He didn’t slit his wrists like Petronius,
That representative of local glamour.
Catullus was somewhat interested in glamour, but from afar.
Style as externality (clothes, slaves, orgies)
Didn’t concern him particularly.
He was troubled by the conformity
Of his poor soul to the furious appearance
Of its dreams expressed in a joke,
In a character sketch, in some dumb lines of verse, in the inscription
On a gate; in short, something quick, effective, and poor,
Designating collapse, imperfection,
Charged with unbearable fury
On which, as a republic rests,
So does an empire.
As the doctors, so the administration.
As the dead, so the weeping widows.
As father and mother, so lovers, boys and girls.

In short, Catullus was a little bit of a Camus, or better Cioran.
These people
Do not depend
On the regime, they’re incarnated
In spite of social stupidity
And they kick out, balls to the wall,
At human stupidity, and rightly so.

Here ends the history of Catullus.

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