En la Librería con Photographica Ovidiana

‘I come in fear, an exile’s book, sent to this city:

kind reader, give me a gentle hand, in my weariness:

don’t shun me in fear, in case I bring you shame:

not a line of this paper teaches about love.

Such is my author’s fate he shouldn’t try,

the wretch, to hide it with any kind of wit.

Even that unlucky work that amused him

in his youth, too late alas, he condemns and hates!

See what I bring: you’ll find nothing here

but sadness, poetry fitting circumstance.

If the crippled couplets limp in alternate lines,

it’s the elegiac metre, the long journey:

If I’m not golden with cedar-oil, smoothed with pumice,

I’d blush to be better turned out than my author:

if the writing’s streaked with blotted erasures,

the poet marred his own work with his tears.

If any phrase might not seem good Latin,

it was a land of barbarians he wrote in.

If it’s no trouble, readers, tell me what place,

what house to seek, a book strange to this city.’

Speaking like this, covertly, with anxious speech,

I found one, eventually, to show me the way.

‘May the gods grant, what they denied our poet,

to be able to live in peace in your native land.

Lead on! I’ll follow now, though, weary, I come

by land and sea from a distant world.’

He obeyed, and guiding me, said: ‘This is Caesar’s

Forum, this is the Sacred Way named from the rites,

here’s Vesta’s temple, guarding the Palladium

and the fire, here was old Numa’s tiny palace.’

Then, turning right, here’s the gate to the Palatine,

here’s Jupiter Stator, Rome was first founded here.

Gazing around, I saw prominent doorposts hung

with gleaming weapons, and a house fit for a god.

‘And is this Jove’s house?’ I said, a wreath of oak

prompting that thought in my mind.

When I learnt its owner, ‘No error there,’ I said,

this is truly the house of mighty Jove.’

But why do laurels veil the door in front,

their dark leaves circling the august ones?

Is it because this house earned unending triumph,

or because it’s loved by Apollo of Actium forever?

Is it because it’s joyful, and makes all things joyful?

Is it a mark of the peace it’s given the world?

Does it possess everlasting glory, as the laurel

is evergreen, without a single withered leaf to gather?

The writing gives the reason for the coronal wreath:

it says that by his efforts citizens were saved.

Best of fathers, add one more citizen to them,

driven away, and hidden at the world’s end,

the cause of whose punishment, which he confesses

he deserved, lay in nothing that he did, but in an error.

Ah me! I dread the place, I dread the man of power,

and my writing wavers with the tremor of fear.

Can you see the paper’s colour, bloodless pale?

Can you see each other footstep tremble?

I pray, that, some day, your house makes peace with him

who authored me, and, under the same masters, greets him!

Then I was led up the high stairway’s even steps,

to the sublime, shining temple of unshorn Apollo,

where statues alternate with exotic pillars,

Danaids, and their savage father with naked sword:

and all that men of old and new times thought,

with learned minds, is open to inspection by the reader.

I searched for my brothers, except those indeed

their author wishes he had never written.

As I looked in vain, the guard, from that house

that commands the holy place, ordered me to go.

I tried another temple, joined to a nearby theatre:

that too couldn’t be entered by these feet.

Nor did Liberty allow me in her temple,

the first that was open to learned books.

Our wretched author’s fate engulfs his children,

and from birth we suffer the exile he endures.

Perhaps one day Caesar, aware of the long years,

will be less harsh to him and to us.

I pray, gods, or rather – since I shouldn’t address

the crowd – Caesar, greatest of them, hear my prayer!

Meanwhile, since the public forum’s closed to me,

let me lie hidden in some private place.

You too, ordinary hands, if it’s allowed, take up

my poetry, dismayed by the shame of its rejection.

[When I discovered the book Photographica Ovidiana by Joaquín Bérchez in one of my favourite bookshops in Madrid, La Central, I was immediately excited by the connection between the Roman poet’s exile and a contemporary photographer’s retracing of his journey to the Black Sea. At the same time, I had the nagging feeling that this was a prime example of one of the pitfalls of exploring the Classical in Contemporary Art – not every engagement with antiquity today is interesting in and of itself. Given this feeling, I decided to embed Bérchez’s photographs within its immediate context of the bookstore as an homage to Ovid’s Tristia 3.1 about the poet’s own book’s search for a home from exile. Today we are leaving Madrid and heading north to Bilbao, so knowing I wouldn’t have much time to prepare this post on a travel day, I put it together last night. That said, I am writing these words now on awaking to the news of yet another terror attack in the UK – in London. Ovid’s poetry, Bérchez’s photographs and these horrific events show, in their own way, the subtle shifts in time and space and our struggle to keep pace.]

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