The Ashley Press, 2011, £5.00
Reviewed by Fiona Sinclair, George Simmers and Nick Asbury
The Cost of All Desire is a sequence of poems based on original works by the Roman poet Catullus. Since I don’t possess a classical background, I felt it necessary to undertake some research here. In brief, Catullus’ poetry innovatively moved from the epic tradition to focus on more personal subject matter. This particular sequence is an anatomy of Catullus’ obsessive love for Lesbia.
After reading a number of other translations of the ancient poet, I found Page’s versions not dissimilar to older ones and here lay my quandary: was I reviewing Page or Catullus? I think I expected a modern take on the poems, perhaps like Heaney’s Beowulf or Armitage’s Gawain. However, this is not what Page is about. His language apes the style of an antiquated translation. This is undoubtedly skilful. Moreover, much like Catullus, he mixes a blend of classical language with invective as the persona rails against his rejection by Lesbia:
......long may she live and flourish
......with her three hundred lovers,
......pleasuring them all simultaneously,
......her legs apart, loving none of them truly
......but breaking their balls again and again. . .
I suspect Page follows the rhythm and nuances of the original Latin. However, the effect is language that seems clichéd and significantly lacks the very passion Catullus was striving to convey. The words “fire” or “burn” are frequently used to denote the character’s desire for his mistress but I couldn’t detect any genuine, visceral emotion.
The problem, I think, lies in the fact we live in a post-Romantic world. We’re used to emotions being discussed freely. We expect writers to find new and ingenious ways of expressing them. Here, in many cases, the translation seemed to me to slip into merely ‘telling’ emotions rather then ‘showing’ them. What may have been innovation in classical times is not any longer. Interestingly, other translations suggest Catullus’ language could be far riper when describing sexual desire. Perhaps a better use of such crudeness would have given the poems more punch.
Admittedly there were passages where Page brought out the pathology of a toxic affair. The sequence clearly delineated the transition from love to obsession. There were some thought-provoking lines describing the threshold between love and hate. However, towards the end of the sequence, I felt the narrator became a whingeing bore. No wonder Lesbia ditched him!
Representing the great unwashed as I do, the work’s numerous references to Catullus, his landscape and chums could leave the non-classically-educated reader cold. It’s my belief that such translations should stand alone without this requirement. If the work is sufficiently arresting, it may well inspire the reader to further investigation, thereby enriching their understanding.
In any top ten list of the all-time great poets, Catullus must have his place. Nothing else you read will quite match the poems in which enchantment with Lesbia turns to disenchantment, and the elegant concision of the poet’s phrasing deals equally skilfully with every subject from the gods to the lavatory.
Jeremy Page’s pamphlet The Cost of All Desire, smartly produced by the Ashley Press, contains twenty-three translations into modern-sounding free verse, enough to give readers lacking Latin a good sense of the original’s psychological sharpness on the subject of love:
......See what your promiscuous antics
......have reduced me to, Lesbia—
......mend your ways
......and I’ll still not like you;
......do your worst and my love persists regardless.
This is a non-slavish version of Catullus’s LXXV that conveys its gist well to a modern reader. Even here, though, one could niggle that the last two lines have nothing like the zing of the original “nec desistere amare, omnia si facias”, which allows the poem to end on a note that combines yearning with almost-wonder at the enormities Lesbia might be capable of. The difference between “omnia” and “worst” is immense.
The use of free verse usually allows lucid expression and accurate translation, but in this case the reader isn’t given much sense of Catullus’s formal neatness, or his command of metre. For most of the poems I prefer James Michie’s 1969 rhymed versions, though admittedly his translation of LXXV is wordier and less direct than the one just quoted.
But there will never be a perfect Catullus translation, and these versions convey the character of his writing well enough. They often lack the concision of the original, though. In LXX, for example, the sharp scornful “dicit” (she says) after the mistress’s excessive declarations of love becomes here the over-elaborated “This, at least, / is what she claims”. Maybe the translator doesn’t trust the reader to be alert to subtleties of tone unless they are explained.
And there are oddities. In his version of XLIII, Jeremy Page for some reason translates “O saeclum insapiens et infacetum” (O century ignorant and stupid) as “O tempora, o mores!”— as though Catullus needed to plagiarise Cicero to make his point.
But I shouldn’t cavil too much. If these translations introduce some more readers to one of the world’s great poets, producing them has been work well worth doing.
I’ll make myself sound cleverer than I am when I say I know one Catullus poem by heart. I encountered it in secondary school and have been able to quote it since then, without ever consciously memorising it:
......odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
......nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
The literal translation is: odi (I hate) et amo (and I love). quare id faciam (how/why do I do this), fortasse requiris (you perhaps ask) / nescio (I don’t know), sed fieri sentio (but I feel it happening) et excrucior (and I am in agony).
The power of the poem lies in the sudden switch from the detached, quizzical tone of the first 15 words, to the raw emotion of that final ‘excrucior’. English simply can’t match the concision of that single word. We need five: “I am in excruciating pain”. It’s a tough job for a translator.
I checked in a couple of standard translations and this is what you get: “I hate and love. Perhaps you are asking why I do that./ I don’t know, but I feel it happening, and am racked.” And: “I hate you. I love you. How do I do that? you might cry./ I don’t know yet I feel it so—and I’m crucified.”
This is what Jeremy Page writes:
......I loathe you as much
......as I love you.
......Don’t ask me
......how or why –
......I only feel the pain.
......The excruciating pain.
For me, that’s much better and it clearly comes from a poetic sensibility. I’m not sure about ‘loathe’—I can see the rationale, but I think hate is a stronger and harsher word. However, Jeremy Page rises to the big challenge, which is to re-create that final emotional punch. The repetition of ‘the pain’ and ‘the excruciating pain’ comes close to doing that. And he’s surely right to keep ‘excruciating’—it’s still the best word we have to describe that sensation.
I can’t offer a close reading of all the poems here, but for me, that one alone is enough to represent and recommend this collection. It’s already made me go back to my Catullus, who strikes me afresh as a brilliantly accessible and entertaining writer—the withering Morrissey or caustic Bob Dylan of his age.