Mar. 15, 2014

The Lovers

by Charles Simic

In the woods one fair Sunday,
When we were children,
We came upon a couple lying on the ground.

Hand in hand, ourselves afraid
Of losing our way, we saw
What we first thought was a patch of snow,

The two clutching each other naked
On the bare ground, the wind
Swaying the branches over them

As we stole by, never to find out
Who they were, never to mention it afterwards
To each other, or to anyone else.

"The Lovers" by Charles Simic from Master of Disguises. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the Ides of March, the day Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by conspirators in 44 B.C.E.

The ambitious Julius had a tense relationship with the Roman Senate. The Senate felt he was a threat to the Republic, and that he had tyrannical leanings. The Senate had the real power, and any titles they gave him were intended to be honorary. They had conferred upon him the title of "dictator in perpetuity," but when they went to where he sat in the Temple of Venus Genetrix to give him the news, he remained seated, which was considered a mark of disrespect. Thus offended, the Senate became sensitive to any hints that Julius Caesar viewed himself as a king or — worse — a god. The tribunes arrested any citizen who placed laurel crowns on statues of Julius, and Julius in turn censured the tribunes.

Senators Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus formed a group called the Liberators, who met in secret to conspire against Julius. Several assassination plots were put forward and rejected for one reason or another, but finally they settled on attacking him at a meeting of the Senate in the Theatre of Pompey. Only senators were allowed to be present, and knives could be easily concealed in the drapery of their togas.

In the days leading up to the assassination, several people warned Caesar not to attend the meeting of the Senate. Even his wife Calpurnia begged him not to go on the basis of a dream she had had, but Brutus convinced him that it would be unmanly to listen to gossip and the pleadings of a mere woman, so Julius set off. According to Plutarch, he passed a seer on his way. The seer had recently told Julius that great harm would come to him on the ides of March. Julius recognized the seer, and quipped, "The ides of March have come." The seer remarked, "Aye, Caesar; but not gone." When Julius arrived at the Senate, he was set upon by Brutus, Cassius, and the others, who stabbed him dozens of times. He slowly bled to death, and for several hours afterward, his body was left where he fell.

The assassination that was meant to save the Republic actually resulted, ultimately, in its downfall. It sparked a series of civil wars and led to Julius' heir, Octavian, becoming Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

It's the birthday of botanist and horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey (books by this author), born in South Haven, Michigan, (1858). By the age of 14, he was helping the neighborhood farmers graft good apple stock onto their inferior trees. Cornell University offered him a position teaching horticulture in 1888. It was the first time they had ever had a professor of horticulture. His encyclopedia of cultivated plants, Hortus, is still considered a standard reference in the field.

It's the birthday of blues guitarist Lightnin' Hopkins, born in Centerville, Texas (1912). Hopkins wrote and sang and recorded a monumental catalog of blues songs. He played on street corners, in small clubs, and at Carnegie Hall.

It's the birthday of literary critic and biographer Richard Ellmann (books by this author), born in Highland Park, Michigan (1918). His parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. He went to Yale and decided to do his dissertation on W.B. Yeats, who had just died and who, as Ellmann put it, "seemed at that time a subject suspiciously and brazenly modern." But he chose Yeats anyway, and was partway through his dissertation when World War II began, and he left to join the Army. While he was stationed in London, he took a vacation and went to visit George Yeats, the poet's wife, who greeted him warmly and happily shared stories of her husband, and granted Ellmann numerous interviews. He published Yeats: The Man and the Masks in 1948 and went on to write biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde (1989) won the Pulitzer Prize, and Anthony Burgess called James Joyce (1959) "the greatest literary biography of the century."

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Ben Okri (books by this author), born in Minna, Nigeria (1959). He lived mainly in England until he was seven years old, when his family moved back to Nigeria. He grew up surrounded by storytellers; he said: "We are a people who are massaged by fictions; we grow up in a sea of narratives and myths, the perpetual invention of stories. ... Your mother would tell you stories to illustrate a hundred different points, lessons, morals she wanted to get across to you. Or you'd tell stories to one another as a way of making the moonlight more intoxicating, more beautiful."

Okri moved to London in 1977, living for a time in subway stations and with friends. He published more novels and short stories, but he didn't really get much attention until his novel The Famished Road came out in 1991. It's about a Nigerian child who hovers between the real world and the world of spirits, and it describes the horrible poverty and oppression in modern Nigeria. The Famished Road won the Booker Prize for Britain's best novel in 1991.

Okri said: "Literature doesn't have a country. Shakespeare is an African writer. ... The characters of Turgenev are ghetto dwellers. Dickens' characters are Nigerians. ... Literature may come from a specific place, but it always lives in its own unique kingdom."

His latest book is a collection of poetry titled Wild (2012).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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