Roz Kaveney’s Catullus joins a number of English translations and reimaginations of the Catullan corpus that women have produced in recent years. Josephine Balmer’s 2004 Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate takes ownership of the poems by regrouping them thematically. Anne Carson’s 2010 Nox is a personal scrapbook of grief based on Poem 101; Catullus’s mourning over his brother’s death inspires her to create her own mixed-media collage after the death of her own brother. Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al. (2011) and Daisy Dunn’s The Poems of Catullus (2016) both bring a female perspective to traditionally “masculine” poems.1 Kaveney gives the speaker of the poems a voice that is irreverent, colloquial, and at times entirely female; she goes so far as to give the poetic “I” a woman’s voice. Her collection upends traditional understanding of what Catullus—in all his aggression, obscenity, and sexuality—represents.
Kaveney provides no introduction or Latin text, although a brief afterword describes the inspiration for the collection. Rather than set out with the sole purpose of creating a new English version of Catullus, Kaveney began translating his poems as a way to “win [an] argument” about countercultural views in the Classical world. Catullus, she believes, provides a more nuanced view of the “standard assumptions about penetration of inferiors and sexuality as subjugation” (153). Though she admits to an “imperfect command of Latin” and an “extensive reading of cribs,” one can hardly detect this in her translations. Her command of the language, doubtless enhanced by her poetic dexterity, captures a speaker who is, as she describes, a “bitchy sentimental brilliant twerp” (153).
This voice is clear from the opening lines of the first poem, which Kaveney uses as her own dedication: “Who gets first dibs on this cute little book / fresh from the printers all shiny and new? Neil, you encouraged it. It goes to you.” This is Catullus, certainly—but updated for a contemporary reader. Kaveney captures Poem 1’s flippant, self-deprecating tone in her final couplet: “Anyway, here’s my Catullus. Its pages / have filth, love and death. It is built for the ages.” This first poem, as well as many of the following, takes the form of sonnets; poems that are too short to constitute full sonnets still maintain an ABBA rhyme scheme, lending the entire volume a playful lilt and a familiarity that hendecasyllables no longer offer a modern reader.
Kaveney’s language is at once poetic and precise, casual and slangy. In Poem 3, the Latin pipiabat (line 10) becomes “chirrup pipip,” and the sparrow is “darkling” as it descends to the Underworld. Yet two lines later, grief loses its eloquence, as the speaker exclaims, “So fuck you, greedy death” (at vobis male sit, malae tenebrae / Orci, quae omnia bella devoratis). Rather than try to translate the Latin verbatim, she updates references for a modern audience while preserving the playful tone: In Poem 13 (Cenabis bene, mi Fabulle, apud me), Kaveney writes “Just bring some takeaway, perhaps Chinese / with rice and noodles. Chopsticks, if you please / …We could / play Cluedo, or Monopoly, or Chess, / if you could bring them round.” Similarly, the speaker tells the puella in Poem 43 (Salve, nec minimo puella naso) that her “fingers are quite stubby, and the nails / bitten and badly painted.”
In Poem 50, which describes a poetic exchange between Catullus and Calvus and the resulting sleeplessness that afflicts Catullus that night, Kaveney again brings the scene to the modern day. Hesterno, Licini, die otiosi / multum lusimus in meis tabellis, / ut convenerat esse delicatos becomes “We were up late. Our keyboards nearly burned / from all the jokes and bitching, even verse.” These changes make Kaveney’s poems accessible and appealing to contemporary readers.
Kaveney goes yet further in Poem 50. While the Latin alludes to a potential romantic, sexual relationship between Catullus and Calvus, it leaves the details ambiguous, steering clear of obscenity and letting readers decide just how incensus Catullus is (line 8), whether his limbs are literally or metaphorically semimortua (“half-dead,” or “exhausted”). But Kaveney eliminates any uncertainty. Starting at line 8, she writes, “Why is our conversation always tame / the nights we’re fucking? Lying in your bed / legs wrapped around each other pretty boy, / this simple verse is beating in my head.” She relocates Catullus from lying lonely in his own empty bed to lying intertwined with his lover. And by adding “fucking” where no such Latin equivalent is present—as she does in Poem 3—Kaveney introduces profanity into a poem that originally had none.
This over-profanation of neutral language, dysphemism, has become somewhat of a trend in recent translations of Catullus, perhaps to preserve Catullus’s reputation as a “dirty poet” for a modern audience inured to the usage of explicit language in everyday conversation and media.2 In Poem 50, no profane words are present in the Latin; in Poem 42 (Adeste, hendecasyllabi, quot estis), however, Catullus demands back writing tablets from a putida moecha (“filthy whore”), calling her by this insulting title repeatedly. Kaveney introduces more dirty language to this poem right at the outset:
Fuck, felch, quim, rim—I need you at my side,
you dirty little words. She thinks it’s smart
to pad her tits with verse, to take my art
and wipe her arse. And I’ve already tried
to ask her nicely; she is now fair game.
In Kaveney’s version, the opening line slaps the reader in the face with a list of obscene words, striking an irreverent tone that continues throughout the poem and the rest of the volume. Such a string of obscenity can remain in the minds of readers as they progress through the remainder of the book—even into Poems 61-68, which remain free from explicit language in Kaveney’s translation.
Catullus’s Poem 88 accuses Gellius of cuckolding his uncle, “quid facit is patruum qui non sinit esse maritum?” (“What is he doing, he who doesn’t let his uncle be a husband?”). Kaveney’s takes this a step further, writing that Gellius “pulled his uncle from a bridal bed, / he slapped him silly and then gave him head.” Here, Gellius’s poor uncle is not only a cuckold, but also the recipient of forced oral sex. Catullus’s 88 closes by asserting that Gellius’s crime is so wicked that nothing can surpass it, not even if he were to perform oral sex on himself. Kaveney’s 88, however, asserts that Gellius is, in fact, doing just that: “He’s practising a swivel of the hips / to get a blow job from his own sweet lips.” There is no hypothetical element here.
No examination of profanity in Catullus can pass over Poem 16, one of the most infamous in the corpus, and in Kaveney’s volume Poem 16 stands out as a tour de force of poetic perspective.
Eat out my pussy while I fuck you hard
my hands up both your arses. Silly boys,
you prissy queens, because my verse enjoys
making hot love, that doesn’t mean I’m tarred
with the same filthy brush. I might be chaste
as anything. A poem might say “fuck,”
dabble its fingers in all kinds of muck,
turn people on perhaps, if they’ve a taste
for all that sort of thing. Old men with piles
don’t get hard otherwise; bored wives are wet
reading my verses. But you still don’t get
to think I’m slut or virgin. Snarky smiles
will get you hurt. Oh, I will make you shout,
fistfuck your arses while you eat me out.
In a poem whose Latin version exhibits masculine sexual domination, Kaveney has written a female speaker. Yet the roles remain the same: the speaker is the violator, the penetrator, and the one who wields power; the critics are violated, penetrated, and powerless. Kaveney shows us how a woman can embody a persona just as aggressive and dominant as the male speaker of Catullus 16. This poem still shocks with its obscenity, but to a reader familiar with the Latin text, it shocks in its unexpected inversion of genders as well. It becomes an adaptation, rather than a translation: Kaveney does not simply change Catullus’s Latin words to English ones; she creates her own original work.
Although Catullus’s Poem 16 focuses on Roman male sexuality, Kaveney’s Poem 16 is a show of female rage. Though female speakers are not consistent throughout the corpus—in Poem 56, for example, the speaker “buggers” a boy while “stiff as a spear”—her emergence in Poem 16 makes a strong poetic statement about sex and power in antiquity and in the modern world: it may be shocking to see a woman wielding it, but she wields it effectively.
There were a few typographical errors throughout the book, but none that detracted from understanding. Poem 37 is missing a final period. Poem 67, line 6 should read “Doors,” not “Door’s.” In the third paragraph, the afterword on p.153 has a period following the phrase “Like us” when it should have a comma.
Overall, Kaveney produces a light, readable, enormously fun Catullus that will delight classicists and non-classicists alike.
1. Richlin, Amy. 1983. The Garden of Priapus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2. Atkinson 2011, Balmer 2004; see also Gallagher, Ryan. The Complete Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus. Lowell, Mass.: Bootstrap Press, 2008.