My mother died two years ago today. All day I've felt like I have nothing to say about it, caught between the feeling that I should feel more and the realization that, if I am not reconciled to her loss, I've become used to it in the past year in a way that I don't feel like I quite was before. And frankly I'm not sure I like that use. My mother would be fifty-nine right now; when I think about how I've lived nearly ten percent of my life without her already, and my younger sister even more, I just…no, I don't understand in any but the most superficial sense, and I don't think there is anything to understand.
By way of a tribute to my mother, here is my translation of Catullus 65, which the poet sends to his friend Hortalus as an accompaniment to his translation of some lines of Callimachus (Battides in the poem), one of the great Hellenistic poets whose work is mostly lost and whose influence Republican poets are thought to have felt greatly. Those lines are poem 66, one of Catullus' epyllions ('little epic'). Catullus' brother apparently died near Troy and was buried there; the poet visited his grave before composing poem 101
. 'The Daulian' is Philomela, who killed their son Itylus in revenge for her husband Tereus' rape of her sister Procne; Zeus changed Procne into a swallow and Philomela into a nightingale so that they might escape Tereus' wrath. 'The learned maidens' in line 2 are the Muses, mentioned by name in the next line. The disjuncture of the simile that closes the poem is intentionally so, in the classic style of the Homeric simile.
Etsi me assiduo confectum cura dolore
sevocat a doctis, Hortale, virginibus,
nec potis est dulcis Musarum expromere fetus
mens animi, tantis fluctuat ipsa malis—
namque mei nuper Lethaeo in gurgite fratris
pallidulum manans alluit unda pedem,
Troia Rhoeteo quem subter litore tellus
ereptum nostris obterit ex oculis.
numquam ego te, vita frater amabilior,
aspiciam posthac? at certe semper amabo,
semper maesta tua carmina morte canam,
qualia sub densis ramorum concinit umbris
Daulias, absumpti fata gemens Ityli--
sed tamen in tantis maeroribus, Ortale, mitto
haec expressa tibi carmina Battiadae,
ne tua dicta vagis nequiquam credita ventis
effluxisse meo forte putes animo,
ut missum sponsi furtivo munere malum
procurrit casto virginis e gremio,
quod miserae oblitae molli sub veste locatum,
dum adventu matris prosilit, excutitur,
atque illud prono praeceps agitur decursu,
huic manat tristi conscius ore rubor.
Although being worn out by persistent painful distress
Summons me away, Hortalus, from the learned maidens,
It is not possible to expel the fruit of the sweet Muses
From my mind: it surges like a wave itself from such great evils--
For the running wave from the raging abyss
Of Lethe has recently washed my brother's pale foot,
Whom the Trojan earth crushes beneath
The Rhotean shore, torn away from my sight.
Shall I never see you, brother more lovable than life,
Hereafter? But certainly I will always love you,
I shall always sing sad songs on your death,
Such as those the Daulian sings beneath the dense shadows
Of the branches, lamenting the fate of Itylus gone away--
But despite such great griefs, Hortalus, I send
These translated songs of Battides to you,
Lest you should think your words to have flowed out
By accident from my mind to restless winds,
Just as an apple that has been sent as a secret pledge
From a fiancé rolls out of a pure maiden's lap
Because, placed and forgotten beneath the wretched girl's soft robe,
While she leaps up at her mother's approach, it rolls out,
And by its headlong course she is driven, stooping,
And self-conscious blush flows over her sad face.