A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
penitusque in viscera lapsum serpentis furiale malum totamque pererrat Aeneid VII. 374-5 Our newborn granddaughter is named Camilla from Aeneid VII’s warrior maiden, the speedy runner, skimming over wheat, scouring the ocean, keeping her feet dry. So there I was revisiting Camilla. And not content with the fifteen luminous lines evoking her, I started turning pages backwards, and, stumbling over rage and terror, slowed down. The appearance of the Fury Allecto, summoned out of hell by Juno and morphed into a serpent – maybe several – stopped me. No more skimming over images of devastation. The venom oozed in, and the sickness started To storm her senses, wrap her bones in fire – she being Amata, Queen of Latium, whose venerable husband, King Latinus, is hoping for alliance with Aeneas. But no. The snakes that slide into Amata’s heart, hang from her earrings, wreathe her throat, infuse their venom through her body and her mind, then flow into the women of the city and thence they strike the sleeping hero Turnus. Night terrors. Panic. Rage. I read this with the pleasure, and also with the dread, of recognition – avid, reluctant. It was so familiar. Haven’t we all experienced this year that rage, insidious, insatiable, infusing crowds? Once poisonous fires are lit, they are not easily put out. The gates of war once open, who is strong enough to shut them? Who has the authority? Amata, Virgil tells us, spun – was driven – wildly all through the city like a top which boys in empty courtyards, vacua atria (an image which evokes De Chirico’s desolate cityscapes – which these gangs of boys stare at in wonder. Yet they’ve set it going. Does staring signify entertainment or approval? Or are we all simply mesmerized by motion, by speed without direction, out of control? We gaze and do not know or worse perhaps do know where this is going. The Trojan refugees, the civil war, the dignified old king, the raving matron stained and soaked with venom hot from hell which once released cannot be washed away – It was time to shut the book awhile and think about this new beginning, new Camilla. Curled-up morsel, you will uncurl those legs and start to stretch and then to crawl and then stand up and walk. And then, Camilla, you will start to run.
Rachel Hadas studied classics at Harvard, poetry at Johns Hopkins, and comparative literature at Princeton. Since 1981 she has taught in the English Department at Rutgers University, and has also taught courses in literature and writing at Columbia and Princeton.
From Poems for Camilla by Rachel Hadas (Measure Press, 2018). Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author.