Jerome Rothenberg: From 'A CRUEL NIRVANA: Two Narratives from The Lives of the Caesars'

I. Augustus

Caesar of ribald songs & nose & blemishes
of seven birthmarks on his stomach
gravel in his urine
negligent of personal appearance when granted
an audience with the Great Bear
& on dropping off in summer
slept with the bedroom door open
to protect himself
especially by not bathing with an oil rub
after which he took a douche of water
(sulfur water)
on a wooden bath seat
with a sharp sprint in the company of little boys
regarding them as freaks
& his hair yellowish & rather curly
one did not realize
how small a man he was
unless his body
said to have been marred by chest & stomach
had a weakness
caused him great distress
but always
wore a broad-brimmed hat
his feet uncovered
lying sleepless in the dark
his limit was a pint
or a slice of cucumber
if he ever exceeded this he would deliberately
he had a weakness in his left hip
suggesting ringworm
but this is an exaggeration
caused by an itching of his skin
& as a rule
preferred the food of the common people
or the heart of a young lettuce
or a slice of cucumber
fresh hand-pressed cheese
& green figs of the second crop
but his shoes had rather thick soles woven & sewn for him
or merely lengths of goat-hair cloth
or sponges
“not even a jew farts so scrupulously on his sabbaths
(fasts, I mean) as I have done today”
his limit was a pint
& when the civil wars were over
stripped the mothers of their clothes
or softened the hair on his legs
by singeing
lying sleepless in the dark
& as a rule
preferred his invert’s finger
“Look! the gods have gobbled
all the left hip, thigh & leg
for gross debauchery”
a joke?
a wild boar?
running sores?
the gods?
Mark Antony alleged that Julius Caesar
made him submit to gross debauchery
one did not realize
how small a man he was
for gross debauchery the gods
have gobbled Caesar
& this invert’s finger sways the world!

II. Nero

When he staged “The Fire”
also a ballet performance by certain young Greeks
& simultaneously opened the baths
but refused the titled “Father of his Country”
Nero, not satisfied with the passion he felt for his mother
raped the Vestal Virgin Rubria.
And this was because of his youth
& a wild beast hunt in the circus:
this was when he shaved for the first time
presided at shows of this sort
planned only two foreign tours
likewise expelled from the city all “food of the gods.”
A naturally cruel heart
ugly omens were voted him:
he actually raced four-camel chariots!
& the password he gave the colonel on duty was
“The Best of Mothers.”
He had reached the age of 17.
Giving Claudius a lavish funeral
Nero watched from the top of the proscenium
a Roman play by Afranius called “The Fire”
& occupied the hindquarters of a hollow wooden heifer
(he early developed a taste for it)
wearing masks
would address the judges,
played a flute
on one occasion fractured a praetor’s skull.
Clearly the true Nero
because one of his games
(from noon ‘til midnight)
was to drop the bodies down sewers:
a turban party, yes
a rose banquet.
Also forced noblewomen,
cruised past brothels
tried to turn Sporus into a girl by castration
with stones & broken bottles.
Gradually Nero’s vices gained the upper hand.
A rather amusing joke:
the passion he felt for his mother
(“The Best of Mothers” the password
he gave the colonel on duty)
now lasted from noon till midnight
was notorious.
Nero practiced every kind of obscenity:
skins of men & women in the same litter
incest with Agrippina
(“the best of mothers”)
he imitated the screams & moans of a girl being deflowered.
Snow-cooled water.
Feasts from noon till midnight.
Artificial lakes.
A handkerchief.
A rain of flowers, bracelets, sulfur water.
1000 assorted birds daily.
Pearls, paintings, slaves.
Ceilings of fretted ivory.
City tenements.
The state of his clothes every time they rode in the same litter.
He also had men at work on a covered bath
& condescended to remark:
the food of the gods!
now at last
I can begin to live like a human being!”
Jeers & catcalls.
“I really must get back to Baiae.”
At last he tried it on a pig:
the screams & moans of a girl being deflowered
& showed equal generosity to his monkey-faced banker.
Agrippina to be killed:
handling her arms & legs, discussing their good & bad points:
Now mother may come & kiss my natural resources.
A cough mixture.
A comet.
The baths which he had built.
The Fall of Illium.
Orestes the Matricide.
Oedipus Blinded.
And “The Fire” a Roman play by Afranius
in which the actor playing Icarus
while attempting his first flight
fell beside Nero’s couch & spattered him
with blood.

[NOTE. The preceding poems, after a long hiatus, appear in the forthcoming A Cruel Nirvana (SplitLevel Texts, Ann Arbor), a compendium of three of my otherwise unavailable books from years gone by. The obvious source of this one is Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars, and the procedure is one of appropriation & extreme reassemblage – my first deliberate move in that direction. Beyond that, the poems were originally published in 1977 by Braad Editions in France (and prior to that in an aborted shorter version by Black Sun Press). To all of whom I am forever grateful. (J.R.)]