Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Livy’s Metamorphoses by Zbigniew Herbert

Livy’s Metamorphoses

How did my grandfather and his father understand Livy
for they surely read him at their classical gymnasium
in the somewhat unpropitious time of year
when a chestnut tree stands at the window—ardent candelabras of
and all my grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s thoughts ran panting to
singing in the garden showing her décolleté and goddess-like legs to the
or Gabi from the Vienna Opera with her cherub’s locks
Gabi with her snub nose and Mozart in her throat
or finally to good old Józia a refuge for the forlorn
she without beauty talent or extravagant demands
and so they read Livy—O season of budding flowers—
in the smell of chalk boredom naphthalene floor wash
under a portrait of the emperor
for there was an emperor then
and the empire like all empires
seemed eternal

Reading the City’s history they succumbed to the delusion
that they were the Romans or the decendants of Romans
those sons of the vanquished themselves under the yoke
it’s likely the Latin teacher had a part in it
with his position of counselor to the court
a collection of ancient virtues under a scruffy frock coat
following Livy he instilled in his pupils scorn for the mob
so popular revolt—res tam foeda—aroused their loathing
while on the other hand all the conquests seemed just
showing simply the victory of the superior stronger
they were pained by the defeat at Lake Trasimeno
while Scipio’s ascendancy filled them with pride
“they took Hannibal’s death with unfeigned relief
easily far too easily they let themselves be led
through entrenchments of dependent clauses
convoluted constructions ruled by the gerund
swollen rivers of elocution
syntactical booby traps
—into battle
for a cause not theirs

Not until my father and I after him did anyone
read Livy against Livy
studying closely what lies under the fresco
that’s why Scaevola’s theatrical gesture did not reverberate in us
nor did centurions’ cries or triumphal marches
and we tended to feel moved by the ruination
of the Samnites Gauls or Etruscans

we counted the many names of peoples the Romans trampled to dust
those buried without praise those who for Livy
were not worth even a ripple of style
those Hirpins Apuleans Lucanians Osunans
and residents of Tarentum Metapontis Locri

My father knew well and I know too
that one day on the farthest outskirts
without any signs from the heavens
in Pannonia Sarajevo or Trebizond
in a city on the cold sea
or in the valley of Panshir
a local fire will break out
and the empire will fall

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