Sunday afternoon. I’m sitting outside Randy’s Car Wash in beautiful Watertown, Massachusetts. It’s the most famous car wash in the literary history of Greater Boston since it was used as a setting by George V. Higgins in one of his crime novels. It’s also a good place to meet shady characters of the sort I’m waiting for: Gaius Valerius Catullus, or as he’s known to his friends, just “Catullus.” There’s lots of cars waiting in line–you don’t draw anyone’s attention if you just sit and park on the side.
In case you don’t know him, Catullus was a poet of the late Roman Republic. When he was alive, he had a big influence on Ovid, Horace and Virgil, but once he was dead his star fell from the poetic skies. In the late Middle Ages he was “rediscovered,” like an aging bluesman about to kick the bucket, suddenly called on to wow pot-besotted undergrads at liberal arts colleges. For long-time fans such as myself, to paraphrase Dostoevsky, there is nothing so galling as to have the object of our formerly private enthusiasm become a subject of popular acclaim.
The problem was that the newbies were attracted to Catullus for all the wrong reasons. They’d read the reference to him in Yeats’ poem The Scholars:
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?
and figured he was like something out of Playboy magazine. They ignored the beauty of his line, the grace of his meter. They just wanted to read the smutty parts, about people sticking various appendages into others’ orifices.
This new-found attention did nothing to help the old boy in the afterlife. He was confined to Tartarus after he crossed the River Styx, and the Furies have been whupping on him good for a long time–2,070 years to be exact. He asked for a weekend pass since he’s only got 348 more years to go before he’s paid his debt to Roman society for all his naughty poems, and to his and my surprise the three judges of the underworld–Minos, Rhadamanthos and Aeacus–let him out. As long as he gets back by 6:00 a.m. Monday and brings them a six-pack of Narragansett beer.
I’ve been selected to act as his probation officer since he dedicated his poems to none other than yours truly. Who can forget the stirring opening to his Poem I:
Whom do I give a neat new booklet,
Polished up lately with dry pumice?
You, Cornelius, for you always
Thought my trivia important.
He’s got that right. Nobody’s mind is more trivial than mine.
I check my watch: 2:46. The first event on our itinerary is a poetry reading that starts quasi-promptly at around three. I had to add something high-toned to the program in order to get the Lords of the Underworld to agree to the C-Man’s little field day, and he’s looking at potentially another century or two added to his sentence if he misses the cultural component of our proposed excursion and we go straight to a bar.
I look up when I hear a knock on my window and see the old poet himself, not looking too shabby for somebody whose odometer just hit 2,100.
“How they hangin’?” he says as he knuckle-bumps me.
“Same shit, different century,” I say. “Get in, we’re going to be late.”
He climbs in the passenger side and says “Where are you taking me again?”
“A poetry reading,” I say. “I had to promise you’d do a little community service to get you out of the hoosegow.”
“What in the hell does that mean?”
“It’s a quaint and curious name for a jail.”
“I’m not in jail, I’m in what you lapsed Christians would call purgatory. And anyway, why didn’t you just say that–even if it was wrong?”
“I like obsolete usages. Makes me feel like my parents’ money was well-spent on my liberal arts education.”
“Clarity, my boy. Strive for clarity. Call a thing what it is.”
“I’m afraid I can’t. This is the internet, where offensive, crude and vulgar language is barred so as not to corrupt impressionable youth or make burdensome the last days of the feeble elderly.”
Everybody comes clean at Randy’s Car Wash!
“In a pig’s ass,” he says. We get into it a little on the way; he claims, as he said in Poem XLIX, to be the Worst Poet of All, I say I’ve far surpassed him in Worstness–it’s not even close.
After a while we swing into the parking lot of St. Zepherin’s Church where the Watertown Poetry & Mutual Aid Society is having its Sunday Open Mic! for budding versifiers.
“This is it?” Catullus says, his facial expression contorted in disbelief.
“This is all I got. It’s August, all the real poets are either on vacation or slitting their wrists.”
We walk in the side entrance and down a flight of stairs where we find a low-ceilinged room half-filled with men and women and a guy in a kilt sort of thing who’s somewhere in between, all clutching notebooks bursting at the spiral metal spine with poems they want–for reasons known only to them–to expose to the public ear.
“Do you know any of these people?” Catullus asks.
“I recognize one from a drama club I came to once,” I say, slightly embarrassed. “See that woman over there?” I nod in the direction of a short female with her hands stuffed into the pockets of non-designer jeans and her hair in a Caesar cut.
“She wrote a play about HUS–Heinrich-Ulwig Syndrome.”
Catullus gives me a look of wild surmise, straight outta Keats. “What’s that?”
“It’s a debilitating disease that prevents you from touching your elbow to your ear.”
“And why did she write about that?”
“Because she has it, and somebody told her to write what you know.”
We take seats in two folding metal chairs and exchange hesitant smiles with the rest of the gang. The woman with HUS extends a hand in greeting, and I take it.
“I recognize you from somewhere,” she says, giving me a gimlet eye.
“Metrowest Drama Group,” I say.
“You wrote the play about the guy who has sex with the sheep?”
Heads turn in my direction, and I try to correct the record. “He doesn’t really have sex with a sheep, he’s just putting on a guy in a bar who’s bothering him and his wife.”
“Huh. I guess I forgot that part. And who’s your friend here?”
“This,” I say, my chest puffing out with pride, “is Gaius Valerius Catullus.”
“Nice to meet you,” the woman says.
“Same here,” Catullus says, and I have to say he can be a charming devil when he wants to.
“Catullus is a very famous poet,” I say. “He actually got name-checked by Yeats in a poem.”
“Really?” the guy in the kilt says. Nothing like a little glamour to liven up what I’m sure will otherwise be a head-bangingly dull reading, I figured, and I figured right.
“Which one?” a willowy woman with dishwater-blonde hair asks.
“The Scholars,” Catullus replies modestly. “Maybe not his best . . .”
“I know that one!” a guy with wire-rimmed glasses says. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre . . .”
“You’ve got it mixed up with The Second Coming,” Catullus says, and the guy’s face turns a redder shade of pale with embarrassment.
Yeats: “Good Lord–do I have to stay here to the end of this post?”
“Why don’t we get started,” the HUS woman says. “Ariel–you go first.”
The willowy woman with the dishwater-blonde hair–a walking mixed metaphor–gets up and shyly makes her way to the front of the room. She clears her throat so quietly it sounds like a mouse with a coughing fit, and begins:
O my life is like a Catherine’s Wheel
all sparks but very little heat.
Whenever I happen to meet someone nice
He elects someone else by voting with his feet.
The ethereal Ms. continues in this fashion for several verses before her poem expires, T.S. Eliot-style, not with a bang but a whimper. The sore-afflicted HUS woman applauds, as does everybody else except for Catullus, the One True Poet in the room.
“Angus, you’re up next!” our hostess declaims.
The guy in the kilt stands up but, like the tree that’s planted by the water in the Old Negro Spiritual, he doesn’t move. He clears his throat–one is reminded of the rumble of a snowplow on the MassPike–and begins.
Och, Lassie, you and me
could make a great and goodly couple
if only you’d be my lover.
But you tell me to my great sadness
That you’re betrothed to another.
The faux-Scots dialect continues for twelve tedious stanzas before the Laird of the Bay State gives it a rest.
“Wonderful!” our hostess says, and again there is polite applause from everybody but Mr. Sourpuss.
“Listen,” I say as everybody else is putting their hands together–and then taking them apart again–“if you’re not going to join in the cultural fun I’m going to send you home early.”
“I’ll give them one more chance,” he says. “If the next guy’s fuse fizzles, I’m going to light my own fireworks.”
The man with the wire rims is up next, and it’s as if Jackson Pollock has stormed into a auto body paint shop. He’s more mixed up and tightly wound than a ten-year-old’s kite string as he launches into surrealistic verse that’s like a verbal salad bar:
nothing, save urinals,
and decapitated goldfish
separating us from . . .
“All right–I’ve had enough!” Catullus snaps as he stands up.
I look over at the leaderette of the group and do a little pantomime to show that I’m going to pick Crabby Appleton and get him back in his crisper drawer.
“Let’s go, Cat. No need to cause a scene.”
“You people will never be poets unless . . .”
I’ve got him by the elbow and begin to push him towards the stairs when a chorus of voices calling “Wait!” stops me.
“Hold it,” Catullus says as he turns around. “Not everybody is as sensitive to criticism as you are.”
“We can take it,” the blonde woman says. “How can we become better poets?”
Catullus nearly jerks my shoulder out of its socket as he pulls his arm away. “Unless I miss my guess,” he begins, “there’s a smoldering subterranean undercurrent of sexuality flowing through this room right now. You’ve got to tap into that. You–in the kilt.”
“If this guy over here is cock-blocking you, give it to him good and hard.”
Mr. Wire Rim gets a look on his face not unlike that one would expect to find on a veal calf being led to slaughter.
“Make fun of the size of his pee-pee. Give him a shout-out in your next poem and say his eye lingers too long on the bums of the boys he teaches squash to.”
“You mean it?” Kilt-Boy asks.
“Sure I mean it. You’re not fooling anybody with the sensitive ‘Woodsman, woodsman, spare that tree’ bit. And you?”
“Me?” the blonde asks with poorly-feigned innocence.
“Yes, you. You’ve been dick-teasing these two to beat the band. Write about that.”
“But that’s . . . vulgar.”
“If it’s good enough to do, it’s good enough to write about. I can see through your peasant dress and granny glasses like Colgate toothpaste’s Gardol Invisible Protective Bad Breath Shield of the 50s.”
“I don’t know what that is,” she says sheepishly–and try saying that five times fast.
“Your omniscient narrator can explain it to you at next Sunday’s soiree–I need a drink.”
He starts to move–voluntarily this time–towards the exit, but the woman with the mysterious affliction she loves to exploit for the sake of her art catches him by the elbow.
“You’re the kind of man I’ve been looking for all my life!” she gushes.
Catullus looks at me, then back at her.
“Why’s that?” he finally asks.
“Because dead poets are always more famous than living ones.”