THE HAUNTING OF CYNTHIA:
GHOST POEMS OF PROPERTIUS
Translated from the Latin by Jacob Rabinowitz
Cynthia was the first -- she made me
her moping prisoner with a single indifferent glance:
I'd never before been infected by love or gotten sick with desire
Love slapped my smirk and taught my confident eyes to stare submissively groundwards,
Love, like a wrestler, threw me down, set his foot on my head to show he'd beaten me completely,
nasty Love trained me to despise nice girls
and to live without plans, caution or expectation - to be carried at random by whatever happens, without all will or control.
This isn't "a phase" it's mental illness it's gone on a whole year without easing up
even though it angers all the gods at me and ruins my life, I'm forced, I have no choice.
Still, Milanion won the fierce manhating
heart of the huntress Atalanta
because he never backed away from any labor or pain: love-crazed, he would wander looking for her, checking every cave in her native Arcadia in case she was hiding out there
instead of her met huge shaggy fanged wild animals,
fought two centaurs who were trying to rape her and though he won
he took such a crack from the one centaur's club
he lay for days groaning on the bare Arcadian rock.
It took the sight of his agony to overtake the affections of the girl who outran all her would-be lovers:
just begging her, working for her, deserving her
that didn't get him far.
With me, Love becomes stupid, he doesn't
think up plans,
can't even remember what worked in the past.
Witches, you who claim to pull the moon
down to earth,
who fuss over ugly offerings made on altars of underworld gods --
see if your power's great enough to turn my Cynthia's thoughts to me,
make her go pale as I am now all sick from loving her.
Do that and I'll believe you when you say your chantings can whirl the stars backwards down the night sky, that you can send rivers gushing in reverse all the way back to their source!
My friends, who call down (too late!)
to me who've fallen so far
and lie here now so weak -- find me, my friends, a medicine to heal my mind diseased -
I'm brave enough for the scalpel, sear out the sick with red-hot iron
if only I could once more feel and speak my anger like a free man -- I've been her slave so long I can't remember how.
-- then take me to earth's furthest verge, beyond all inhabited regions,
take me somewhere no woman can ever track me down
But it's safe for you to keep living
here, you shallow happy people,
who've found your little likeness of a lovemate, your sweet peer and equal, who the gods brought you just 'cause you asked -- live sappily ever after!
The Venus who rules over my kind keeps my nights busy with misery,
every hour empty and full of longing.
Keep back -- it could be infectious,
stay where you are, mind your own business, stick to your steady
reliable kind of love
don't read any further but, if caution bores you and you're already skimming obliviously ahead
I promise this warning will come back to you in total recall,
bitterly vivid, loud and clear as pain.
Like exhausted Ariadne as she lay asleep
on Crete's deserted shores
while the ship of Theseus who swore he'd be her lover withdrew further off
and ever smaller on the sea;
or like Andromeda, daughter of Ethiopian king Cephys, rescued by Perseus,
like Andromeda laid out by the onset of the first sleep she'd known
since she was chained to the rough rocks, waiting to be eaten by the dragon of the sea;
or like a Thracian bacchante, who's danced in assiduous ecstasy all the way down into Thessaly,
when she collapses on the grassy banks of the Apidanus;
that's how Cynthia seemed, breathing soft and even, head laid on her folded hands,
when I dragged my drunken footsteps home, much of Bacchus still in me,
the night near gone, my slaves waving spent torches to keep them lit.
I tried to draw close to her, carefully
sustaining my weight on the bed so as not to press on her
I hadn't got entirely witless with drink. But even though doubly inflamed and driven
by Love and Bacchus, both hard demanding gods,
to gently slip my arm beneath her and tilt her head towards me, to steal a few belated kisses,
still, I didn't dare disturb my mistress' rest, afraid of her scolding, the cruelty I've learned to expect;
so I just stood there, unable to turn away, staring, hypnotized, like Argus all eyes
like Argus when Juno set him guard over Inachus' daughter Io,
Jove's girlfriend turned heifer, now marveling at the odd feel of having horns.
Now I was taking the garland from my
and putting it, Cynthia, over you temples,
I delighted in curling 'round my fingers your locks that had slipped down,
now I was setting apples in the hollow of your palms,
but all these gifts I lavished on your ungrateful slumber
kept rolling down the slopes of your clothing,
and whenever you moved a little or caught your breath
I was stunned like a fool when he hears his fortune told
afraid some creature of dream brought you surreal terrors,
afraid someone in your sleep made you, unwilling, his.
Meanwhile, the descending moon shone
in through successive windows,
advancing in haste, yet slow to withdraw its radiant gaze, reluctant to miss a bit of this,
finally its gentle rays shone full on your closed eyes, woke you.
One elbow propped in the pillow, you sat up and said:
"So you finally decided to give
my bed a try? You must have gotten thrown out of whoever
else's house, and that only after insults failed to give you the
Where was it you used up the whole night that should have been mine, coming back exhausted when the stars are already vanishing?
Scumbag! You should spend such evenings as I, and know what kind of misery you're always putting me through.
"I tried to cheat sleep out of the
hours till you came, now at the loom, now blearily reading poems
composed on Orpheus' lyre,
now whispering to myself how you'd abandoned me, how I'm always left waiting while you romance someone new;
finally Sleep pushed me down with his sweet soft wing I was crying, crying, crying over you."
I loved trading punches with you last
night at the hour when lamps are lit,
sweet on my ears were your screams and curses, dear to me your insanity
when, raging with wine, you overturned the table and pitched full glasses at me with adorable mad hands.
I really want you to yank my hair attack it!
score my face with your beautiful nails,
tell me how you'll put out torches in my eyesockets,
tear my clothes, make me stand bare for you to punish.
These and these alone are sure signs of true love;
no woman's feelings would hurt so deeply unless she cared.
The woman whose lips are spitting insults at you
grovels and writhes with passion at great Venus' feet.
Whether she's walking stately with full
entourage, or whether she plunges off by herself
running through the streets like a crazed bacchante;
whether she's unbalanced and trembling (as often) from nightmares, or from jealousy -
sometimes just a painting of another girl's enough
I'm the astrologer to read the night sky that is her mind.
I've learned these details form the constellation that is Love.
If she doesn't care enough to have screaming fights, she doesn't care about you much at all.
A woman who's even tempered, calm -- that is, dull that's what I wish my enemies.
I want my friends to see teethmarks on my neck, I want bruises for a proof she's been with me, is mine,
what I want out of Love is Pain, and if I can't have that,
at least I want to learn that she's in pain.
If I can't have my tears, then I want
When you look at me in that certain kind of way, glaring from under your eyebrows,
when your fingers tell me in sign-language something really unprintable,
then I despise those whose dreams aren't punctuated by gasps.
I always want to be pale with fear before an angry woman.
Paris enjoyed the sweetest of passions
-- how I envy the man
able to take his pleasure with Helen in earshot of armor's crash:
while the Greeks advanced and Hector stood firm, he soldiered nobly on between Helen's legs.
like Paris, I make love while I make war.
I'm always off to battle -- with you
or with my rivals.
I don't want a truce.
So be glad there's no woman as beautiful as you you'd surely grieve if there were
be arrogant! you're entitled!
But as for you, who try to snare my girl, I wish you eternal in-laws!
-- and if she lets you steal a night with her, it isn't that she likes you, she's only mad at me.
So ghosts really do exist! Death isn't
the end of it all, it seems some pallid shadow escapes, defeating
for I just saw Cynthia, buried in a quiet spot far from the noisy highway,
I saw Cynthia leaning over me.
I'd only now returned from the funeral and sadly had the whole cold bed to myself,
(unhappy king of a frigid new domain),
an uneasy sleep of erotic dreams had tentatively descended on me.
Her hair was the same as when they carried
her eyes too, but the fire'd scorched her dress on one side.
The heat had dulled and cracked the beryl she always wore on her finger.
Her lips had shriveled back a little from the touch of Lethe water,
but awareness still breathed through her and sent forth a voice
-- though the fingers of her flame-desiccated hand made a grating sound.
"You bastard! not much hope you'll
be nicer to another girl --
look at you, fast asleep and me just this minute buried!
Have you already forgotten our stolen gaudy nights in the after hours taverns?
My windowsill worn smooth from all the times I lowered myself by a rope, hand over hand, into your arms?
How many times did we worship Venus at the crossroads, body hot against body, paving-stones warming under your back?
But the loyalty was somewhat less than a tacit understanding -- or maybe the south wind, that neither hears nor cares, just blew your lies away!
"No one screamed my name when my eyes began to close
If you'd called out to me, I might have wheedled at least one further day of life
and no one hired a watcher to sit up by my corpse with a rattle to scare off soul-stealing demons.
That cheap undertaker propped my head up with a piece of broken roof-tile that made a gash in my scalp
But the worst is: no one saw you doubled over with grief, or soaking your toga with hot real tears.
If it was too much trouble to follow the mourners beyond the gate, you could at least have ordered them to slow down a bit!
Couldn't you have even expressed the conventional wish that the winds should fan my pyre
to release my soul quickly from its corpse?
Ingrate! and why didn't you sprinkle some incense on my bier to sweeten the flames?
Would it have strained your finances to pluck a few wild hyacinths and toss them on?
to shatter a jar of common wine at the graveside to honor my demise?
"I want to sear that slave Lygdamus,
heat a knife and torture out the truth
when he gave me that cup of greenish wine I should have known it was a trap!
-- or maybe it was the housekeeper, Nomas? Say she already ditched the secret fatal flavoring she slipped in my food,
a heated shard of crockery sizzling into her skin will make her damn her own guilty hands!
She used to be displayed in front of a brothel, and not that long ago, for nights of pleasure, cheap.
But now she'd scarcely honor the humble ground with the trailing golden hem of her gown!
"Yet for all that, she still makes
sure, as she hands out unfair wool-baskets for the evening's spinning
that an extra-heavy one goes to any maid so loose-tongued as to comment on how pretty I was.
And she made sure old Petala felt her wrists roped tight to the filthy whipping post
for bringing wreaths to my gravestone, and Lalaga
was tied upright, her long braids bound to an overhanging beam
and beaten because she asked a favor with the phrase 'Cynthia always used to let
me. . .'
And this same Nomas, as soon as I was dead, you allowed to take that gold portrait bust of me
and use it for her dowry, why you practically melted it down for money in the flames of my pyre!
"But, much as you deserve it, Propertius,
I'm not going to keep harassing you.
Long was my rule in the realm of your poems.
I swear by the song the Fates chant, which brings events into irrevocable being,
-- so may the three-head hell-hound bark softly in my hearing
I was always true to you. If I lie may vipers slip
hissing through my tomb and nap curled around my bones!
"The proof is: there are two abodes
assigned along that nasty river,
large as the crowd of shadows is, they've only two possible directions to row.
This way the wave leads to the husband-killing adulteress
Clytemnestra, and the Cretan queen Pasiphae who hid naked in a hollow wooden cow to see what it was like to get crammed by a bull;
but where I am, the other half flies in a yacht festooned with flowers,
here holy breezes stroke the roses of Elysium
in a harmony of harps, to the round bronze cymbals
of Cybele, among the turbaned Lydian mystics
plucking lyres as they dance: these are the initiates.
There's Andromeda, who almost ended up fishbait;
Hypermestra, who alone out of fifty sisters
didn't gut her husband on the group-wedding night
(she actually did love the man she'd just married).
These heroic blameless wives don't mind retelling the famous moments of their lives.
Andromeda describes how, served up for the sea monster, her wrists were bruised by chains her own mother'd locked on,
-- it felt cold, that wet rock, beneath her innocent fingers.
Hypermestra modestly asserts it was only lack of courage
that kept her from daring along with her sisters in their supposedly noble deed.
Thus we continue, though dead, to hallow with our tears the loves we knew in life.
But me, I keep quiet - about all your vicious betrayals.
"Now I'm giving you some instructions,
that is, if you still feel anything for me,
if that bitch Choris' love-potions don't control you utterly:
see to it my nurse Parthenia, shaky with age, doesn't want for anything,
(she never made you bribe her, though she surely had the chance),
and my dear maid Felicity -- my "perfect felicity" -- free her. I don't want her handing
another mistress the mirror. And any of your poems
that gained an easy dactyl from my name -- burn them, a sacrifice to me!
Why should you get a free ride from my reputation?
And pull that ivy off my tomb! I don't want its twisty tendrils eating into my tender skeleton as it swells its berries. Ah, my sweet grave,
where the orchard-bordered river Anio stretches sleepily out among the fields
in a landscape sacred to Hercules, through whose magic power the air's so pure that ivory never discolors there.
I want you to honor me by setting up a column, inscribing 'round its middle these brief but well-earned verses
and carve them large enough so a messenger running from Rome can read them as he gallops past:
'Here, in the soil of Tivoli, lies magnificent Cynthia,
adding, River Anio, new glory to your banks.'
"Don't dismiss this dream that comes
through the gate of holy visions!
Such dreams are truthful, sacred and weighty!
By night we ghosts are wafted off to wander, night frees the shut-in shades, and once the bolt shoots back
even Cerberus roves. But the eternal law of daylight commands us return to Lethe lagoon.
A careful Charon counts the whole boatload, back we go.
Other women may have you now, but soon you're mine alone.
Sexual craving, an immortal force, shall make our bodies jog together even after death
in an awful and inanimate copulation
till the dry grind of bone on bone at last confounds us into one common heap of dust."
When she'd run through every complaint in this indictment,
she vanished and my arms hugged nothingness.
Listen and learn of last nights rout, what sent folk running past the aqueducts and though the new park all the way down Esquiline hill:
About twenty miles southeast from Rome
on the Appian Way is the town Lanuvium,
with an ancient shrine to Juno the Defender, watched over since forever by a giant snake.
It's well worth stopping by once a year to see the rite. There's a black chasm in the sacred hillside, jagged as if it had been torn open,
and into it goes an offering made in honor of the hungry serpent,
down such a path as even pure guiltless virgins should hesitate to travel.
The monster twists and hisses from the depths of the earth to ask for its yearly provisions
and the young girls sent in to perform this rite go terror-white,
the baskets shake in their arms
as they trust unprotected fingers to that scaly mouth.
He snaps up the morsels they hold out to him. If the maidens are chaste
they return to their parents' hugs and the farmers shout "A year of good crops!"
Cynthia rode off to see this, in a carriage
drawn by newly-groomed ponies,
to honor Juno she said but Venus is more whom she had in mind.
Tell me, I implore, O Appian Way, for you were witness to her triumphal progress,
how she drove, wheels a blur of rattling speed, down your paving stones;
disclose the squalid brawls she caused in the small-town taverns en route,
(I didn't even have to be along for her to humiliate me!)
What a noble sight she must have been, leaning forward like a racing charioteer and flicking the reins to speed her horses on to the next rough bar!
I'm not even going to mention her girl-faced friend, that high-living young heir who rides in a carriage with a silk awning
like a wealthy woman who fears the sun might give her freckles.
Did he bring along his Molossian lapdogs -- who wear bracelets for collars?
-- he'll have to sell himself into slavery for a piece of moldy bread
by the time that manhood he's so ashamed of can't be hidden no matter how close the razor scrapes.
In view of all these outrages to my bed
and my affections,
I thought I'd pack my gear and try fighting on another front.
There's a certain Phyllis who lives near Diana's temple on Aventine hill,
no delight when she's sober, but if she drinks, she shines, whatever the setting.
The other is Teia from Tarpeian grove -- a cheerful unaffected girl -- but once she's drunk one man's not enough.
I decided to invite them and charm away the night refreshing my love life with a few new adventures.
There was a single banqueting couch for
the three of us in my secluded garden.
As for the seating arrangement: I lay between the two of them.
Lygdamus wielded the ladle, filling the summer glassware with the Grecian refinement of a fine Lesbian wine.
The flutist came from the Nile's banks, Phyllis danced with castanets
and so neatly, with so natural a grace, we couldn't help showering her with roses.
But though the lamps were full, the light kept flickering. The table fell over, back flat and legs in the air.
And me, try as I might to roll the seven sacred to Venus with my lucky dice the ominous snake-eyes kept glaring up at me.
the girls sang for a deaf man, showed their breasts to one blind.
I was alone, waiting at the gates of Lanuvium.
Suddenly our outer gates screeched on
we heard a faint bustle -- something flying up the path
and there on the threshold was Cynthia! the dining-room doors slammed flat to the wall on either side of her
like dreadful big wings. Her hair wasn't in its usual careful array,
but beautifully insane it really looked great.
My fingers went weak and let the cup drop; my lips, though steeped in wine enough to slur my words -- went white with terror.
Here eyes flashed out dire sparkles, she was raging in that infinite way only women can.
The sight of a besieged city's fall could not have been more awesome.
Cynthia leapt, talons out, for Phyllis' face -- a terrified Teia, to get the neighbors, screamed "Fire!"
Lamps appeared in the dark street's loud confusion, yawning bleary citizens doddered out of their houses
as my girls, with hair pulled and clothes torn, ran down the road to the first open tavern and dove in.
Cynthia exulted in her spoils - the rags ripped from their dresses - and gashed my face with a sidelong swipe of her hand.
She sunk a set of bleeding teethprints in my neck
and especially tried for my eyes "that like to look at other women."
Then, when she'd smacked me till her
arms were tired,
she dragged out Lygdamus (he'd hid under the banqueting couch).
The prostrating slave grabbed my knees and in that pose of worship
begged me to save him, as though I were a god.
What could I do, Lygdamus? I was just as much her prisoner of war as you.
Hands up, I made unconditional surrender.
She pointed to her feet, then barely let me kiss them, and said: "If you wish me to pardon your confessed offence,
accept my judgement and obey its stipulations!
"You're not to put on your best
clothes and stroll in the shade of Pompey's colonnade,
nor in the forum when they spread sand in the streets to make them look neat for a holiday.
In fine, you're never again to swivel your head for sneaky backward glances
in the theatre, to see what pretty girls are in the back row,
or on the street, when the curtain parts on a woman's covered litter —
no loitering! And above all Lygdamus, your slave and your corrupter,
is to have his ankles manacled and be sold on the auction block."
She laid down the law. I accepted. Then she laughed, proud of the power I gave up to her.
Then she sprayed perfume on any place the strange girls might have touched, scrubbed the threshold with springwater,
and ordered the oil and wicks in all the lamps to be changed:
she fumigated my head three times with smoldering sulfur
and changed every sheet on the bed. After all this solemn exorcism,
I said "amen" and we made peace all over the bed.
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