"Crossing Over (To The Afterlife)" by Vincent Katz
The Ancient Greeks were big on ideas; the Romans, in their way, inherited that love, along with much else. When we think of Classical Athenians, we should think of people who appreciated the irony of gods that were fallible and, more than that, were able to see the gods, much as we do, as extremely useful psychological concepts. Much of their religion, we may imagine, had to with specific actions at specific times, and the calm that those repeated actions might bring.
With the Romans, this devotion to actions, or rituals, became ever more secular. The cosmopolitan Romans loved to import culture, and that included religion. Eastern rites flourished at Rome, from the early days of the Republic to the last days of the Empire. One cult in particular, that of Cybele, also known as Magna Mater, was particularly strong, its temple on the Palatine a short stone’s throw from the Emperor Augustus’ palace. Cybele’s rituals, with its raucous Phrygian tambourine and cymbal, devotees going into trances, and priests who performed self-castration, resonated with the poets who were trying to invent a new kind of literature. The story of Cybele’s ill-fated boyfriend, Attis, is the subject of a long poem by Catullus. Cybele also features frequently in the poetry of the Augustan poet, Sextus Propertius (c. 55-15 BCE), often to give an example of the kind of turbulent, violent emotion Propertius describes in his love poems to Cynthia.
In this context, it is interesting to think of how the afterlife functioned in Roman poetry; this may give us some ideas as to how it functioned as well in Roman life, at least in the lives of the cultured readers of poetry at that time. If we think of the Greek and Roman mythological world as a construct, a rich and beautiful palace with many fascinating rooms and categories of pleasure and impulse, then we may be able to gauge somewhat the Greek and Roman attitude to death as well. The afterlife, for Greeks and Romans, was mainly nothing. It was neither pleasure nor pain, but an eternity of ineffectuality. One of the most moving sections of the Odyssey is when Odysseus encounters Achilles in the underworld, and the great hero Achilles, who killed Hector and helped bring down Troy, says to him, “I would rather be a slave on earth than king of the underworld.” That insight is so valuable — and so tied to life on earth, not in some putative afterlife.
Thinking in this way, the underworld is neither frightening nor gloomy — it is simply boring. If consciousness continues after life, it will be conscious mainly of its missing ability. It is in this light, I believe, that we should look at the references to the underworld in the poetry of Propertius — death is significant not for what it will bring to the deceased but for what it says to the living.
One poem in particular seems indicative of Propertius’ attitude: the 27th poem of his second book of poems. He begins with rhetorical questions, implying it is useless for humans to attempt to know the future. He extends this, by way of example, into specifically war-related realms. As often in his poetry, Propertius contrasts his own path in life, that of the lover, with the violent, militaristic path of the traditional Roman. “Only the lover,” claims Propertius, “knows when he will die and from what/cause, and he fears neither Boreas’ blasts nor war.” He does not mean that the lover (or love poet) is any better at seeing into the future than other humans (though he does elsewhere claim special powers for the love poet). He means that storms and war do not affect the lover; what affects him, what could “kill” him, is the loss of his lover, either through death or disaffection, and he knows for certain what will cause that “death.”
The end of Propertius’ poem is muted and unpredictable:
Though the oarsman already sits in the Stygian reeds,
and he sees the gloomy sails of the infernal bark:
if only the whisper of his girlfriend calling would summon him,
he would make the journey back, obedient to no law.
This is remarkable and unprecedented in Greek and Roman poetry: the lover would be bound not by the supposedly immutable law of death and afterlife but by the stronger (for him) law of love. He will be obedient to his lover, even if it means (which is impossible, taking the Greco-Roman world view literally) being disobedient to the laws of Jupiter, the three Fates who weave, measure and cut the threads of our lives, and Hades, whose power, like that of all leaders, comes from his constituents. It should be noted that there is a typically Propertian murkiness in the syntax of these last four lines as well. Even though the sense is understandable, a momentary blurring of subjects adds to the visual picture of a place in shadows, where all is not clear. The “he” who sees the gloomy sails at first, syntactically, seems to be the oarsman; it is only at the word puellae in the Latin, the last word in line 15 of this 16-line poem, that we realize the identity of the lover, from the beginning of line 11, has been re-instated as the subject of the last few lines of the poem.
The final word of the poem in the Latin, iter, translated here as “journey,” is a significant word for Propertius, carrying the connotations in various poems of a life’s journey, a day’s or night’s passage, or of a transformation. The tenth poem of Propertius’ third book, on the occasion of his girlfriend’s birthday, also has iter as its final word:
When the time has passed with many drinks,
and attendant Venus introduces night’s sacred rites,
let us observe the annual solemnities in our bed,
and let us carry to the end your birthday journey.
I think it was the idea of a journey, or transformation, such the two hinted at in poem 2.27 (the journey to the afterlife, and the journey back), that were in my mind when I wrote section XVI of my poem, “Barge.”
“Barge” began with the idea that I wanted to do a collaboration with an artist. I had been looking over the Hudson River towards New Jersey in the area of Manhattan in the 20s and become enamored of the vision of nature that one can find there. There is so little nature in Manhattan, that the artist who wants to paint or write about nature must find it in narrow vistas or expanded glimpses. At the river, I could gaze for hours at untrammeled water; even the actions of boats and helicopters seemed to be part of a less structured urban life. In particular, I became obsessed with those heavy, flat vessels used to transport large containers and huge piles of grain. Their slow-moving choreography seemed at once ancient and modern; I fixed on the title, “Barge.”
I liked that “barge” could be a verb as well as a noun, a verb whose bruskness I welcomed as an organizing principle. This wasn’t going to be a well-behaved or logically thought out affair. It would allow for all kinds of unruliness, rudeness, and impromptu spasms of thought and vocalization. The poem was written during a period of two and half years, ending in August of 2006, in a variety of locales on different continents. The first sections set the stage for spatial and verbal experimentation, and the later sections, although they arrive in different formats, are not quite formal. Form is an expediency, to arrive at a different mode of expression, rather than a goal.
I often like to write my poetry in “frames.” I think of frames as temporal limitations; often an afternoon will serve. I begin accumulating observations and word combinations, attempting to remain somewhat aloof in terms of controlling either. I have found that within the frame I have set, in the stream of seemingly random occurrences, inevitably something will occur that sets the tone for the that segment of time. Sometimes, the frame is much longer. In 1990-91, I kept a notebook, an edited version of which was eventually published, in 1998, as the book, Pearl (powerHouse). In those poems, I found myself writing often late at night, after returning home from an evening’s events, and again, attempting a kind of poetry that left the decision-making to the non-logical part of the brain. In the Spring of 1991, the poet James Schuyler, who had been significant to me both personally and poetically, died. In my by-then accustomed mode, I responded to his death in poetry. One of the poems about Schuyler, “Pearl,” a reference to Janis Joplin’s last album, which Schuyler loved, became the central tone to the notebook and book.
In “Barge,” I had an open-ended frame, as I had in Pearl. I did not know when it would be complete; I only knew that I wanted it to be open formally. I also knew that the idea of barge would lead me ultimately to thoughts of transport, and the Greek idea of a heavy-laden, slow-moving boat that takes souls to the underworld. After several sections of the poem dealing with the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, interspersed with observations of children in the countryside, section XV of “Barge” ends”
Look, if the barge will take us over
All I care for now is poetry
And the picking, scratching, at your side
There’s got to be something more to it
Thus, from visions of death and destruction, the poem serves as a vehicle to transport the reader to thoughts of the afterlife, which he encounters in section XVI.
I wrote section XVI pretty much straight out, relying on my memories of many different depictions of the river Styx and its concomitant boatman, not only from ancient poetry, but also from later literature and visual art. This is how Propertius wrote, and probably how his Roman colleagues wrote as well. They wrote in the moment, with everything in past literature that could be summoned just there in mind, without excessive literary reference. I had an ulterior motive as well. I wanted to couch the entire section in the conditional. Hopefully, that conditional could be written lightly, so as not to overpower the reader. In the last stanza, for instance, there is only the verb in the first line to peg it to that tense. I chose to have the final line of the poem fade out in ellipsis as that is my characterization of the afterlife — a fading out into nothing.
There are a number of other references to river that separates this world from the underworld in Propertius’ poems. One of the most telling is the seventh poem of Propertius’ fourth and final book. In it, the poet narrates the appearance to him of his recently deceased girlfriend Cynthia’s ghost. The majority of the poem is taken up by a long list of complaints uttered by the ghost, mixed with many fascinating details about their relationship and the poet’s life after his girlfriend’s death. In Cynthia’s depiction of the river Styx here, there are different fates after death:
For separate resting places are alloted beyond the vile stream,
and each party is rowed across different waters.
One bears Clytemnestra’s disgrace, or it carries
the Cretan woman’s wooden monstrosity of a would-be cow.
Look! another route is taken by a crowned pinnace
where a happy breeze caresses Elysian roses,
where the rhythmic lute and where Cybele’s bronze cymbals
and Lydian plectra sound with a mitred chorus.
Primarily, for Propertius’ purposes here, as elsewhere, he uses the two implied boats to indicate two classes of women: unfaithful and the faithful (the latter accompanied by Cybele’s wild band). At the end of the poem, Cynthia concludes her list of demands like this:
Don’t spurn the dreams which come through the portals of truth:
when true dreams come, they have weight.
By night, uncertain, we are borne. Night frees the shut-in shades,
and Cerberus himself, the bar thrown aside, wanders loose.
By daylight, the laws decree our return to the Lethaean pools:
we are conveyed, the pilot counts his load of passage.
For now, let other girls possess you: I alone will hold you soon:
you’ll be with me, and I’ll rub my bones against yours, enmeshed.
In Propertius’ mind, the two portals of dreams, familiar to us from the Odyssey (19.562-7) and Aeneid (6.893-6), may have suggested two different “waters” leading to different fates after life. Here, as often in Propertius, there is an element of vagueness that I have attempted to preserve in my translation. I have translated gemina sedes as “separate resting places”; the “vile stream” (turpem amnem) refers to Styx. The obscurity is in diversa aqua, which I have translated as “different waters.” Does this mean two different rivers, or simply two different spots at the same river, leading to different zones of the underworld? It does not really matter; only that Propertius wishes to distinguish between the good girls and the bad girls and to importune, through Cynthia’s voice, the bad, though of course he would be bored silly with the good girls he often praises as a way of reprimanding his girlfriend.
I notice that my “count his load” from “Barge” comes directly from my translation (“the pilot counts his load of passage”) of vectum nauta recenset onus in Propertius’ poem 4.7. This pleases me, for I believe that this is how poetry is written and handed down from generation to generation. I conclude with the idea that death for Propertius, as for me, is not really the issue. It is rather a metaphor, to be handled lightly, for something that puts life into context.