Jan 2 2011

Tacitus, when you feel like hacking away at things with a sharp object

January 2 2010 Warm, in the mid sixties, with an unsettled sky.

It’s my favorite kind of sky—the kind that blows dark clouds across slanting sunlight and you can just feel the rain coming on. It’s hard to do anything but walk and look, so that is mostly what Ray and I did, with Tacitus in the earphones as a kind of sound track to the weather. I’m coming back to Tacitus, actually, having gone through the Histories at some point last year. I think when I was trying to come to terms with Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus—which was a struggle. Tacitus was among his source materials, and therefore I decided to read him. Because lately I’ve been reading with the idea that context is everything, and because I’ve always been willing to be blown (like the clouds above me this afternoon?) across literature from book to book to book.

Tacitus, it turns out, is better than Hesiod for gardening. Especially the kind of gardening that requires attacking last year’s recalcitrant weeds and clumps of grass and digging them out of the beds with nothing more than a hoe and a pair of hedge clippers. He’s all mutinies and violence, murder and machinations and dreadful punishments, is Tacitus. But he still manages to bring out the character and the nature of the men he writes about. It sounds like absolute madness from my perspective (as I hack hack hack away), but there is virtue there. And I can almost believe it when Edith Hamilton writes that the great gift of the Romans to civilization was the rule of law.

Jan 1 2011

Work and days

January 1 2011 Sunny and 68 degrees.

I’ve been in the garden, obviously. Sawing up old trees with the pruning saw mom and dad bought me, and feeling profoundly grateful for the leather gardening gloves they bought me as well. The beds are laid out, now I just need the extra dirt and compost.

The garden, january 1 2011I was listening to Hesoid, Work and Days, while I raked, sawed, hoed, pruned, clipped and cleared. I thought it would be appropriate. I went through it twice, but I think I’m going to give up on him. I like the notion of these long poetical works on practical and scientific subjects—Hesiod on farming, Lucretius on science (“the nature of things”), Virgil’s Georgics. But while Virgil is very beautiful, filled with vivid pictures of working the lands in season, and while Lucretius still manages to sing-song his way to a theory of an infinite universe (I love that his “proof” that all matter contains empty space is contained in the fact that you can hear sounds in another room, even if the door is closed), Hesiod is none of these things. His poem is pedantic and dry. It may be the translation that is wanting, but since the translator of the version I’m listening to is Richmond Lattimore, I think not. Mostly it is—at least on agriculture—a collection of directives: “On this day, sow your corn. On this one, harvest your grapes.” Useful, no doubt, but a far cry from Virgil, who tells us how birds fly up all of a sudden when they sense an oncoming storm, and how the light from the oil lamp in front of the girls working at their looms will gutter without warning, in portent of the same. Or how to tell if the soil of the land is light and good, or sour, by filling a leaky basket with the dirt and pouring water through, so that you can taste the run off for bitterness or salt.

If I had an ounce of poetry in me I’d write something like Georgics for my garden, which is, at the moment, a collection of raked and empty beds. Like my empty bookcases from last week, they are all potential and possibility.