Translation, free & wild: Catherine Theis on Catullus, the newlyloved, & other dislocations

Catherine Theis. Photo by Jessica Savitz.
Catherine Theis. Photo by Jessica Savitz.

Catherine Theis's The Fraud of Good Sleep begins the delicious logbook of its dreaming with the ancients who "loved in a way that allowed / them to relay their delicate campaigns / across opposite seas," a surety of guidance, if not arrival. No matter. As Hélène Cixous counsels in The School of Dreams, "This is what writing is, starting off. . . . This does not mean one will get there. Writing is not arriving; most of the time it's not arriving."

Most mornings I set out from my house to run — albeit not with any speed — urban sidewalks that lead to trafficked boulevards that merge with a California State Park trail, switch-backing up a hill of some height. From the top, you can see the Pacific curve into mountains. Clear days, you can see Catalina Island. Very clear, the notch where two harbors meet.

Largest of the Earth's oceans — larger than all the Earth's lands put together — the Pacific also holds the greatest depth, the Marianas Trench at 2,550 kilometers in length. Its name comes from the Latin pacificus: to make peace; related to pact, an accord, alliance, a covenant. In the ocean's wide expanse drifts a pact between dreamer and guide. "Walking dancing, pleasure: these accompany the poetic act," observes Cixous. Which is to say, even if our guides are unseen, we're never alone in the presence of making.

Virgil might be the most famous of ancient guides, but it was the Cumaean Sibyl who led Virgil through the underworld. The sun god Phoebus Apollo is said to have consigned her to an eternal life of aging when she refused his advances. An unwelcome alliance can raise a stormy sea.

The one who guides me a few miles inland of the Pacific is a neither divine nor immortal, but a constant, curious four-legged creature. Named after the way of tea for his color, Chado leads our late afternoon walks, pouting if we miss a day, as well he should. More often than not, we take the same route, each outing leading to new possibilities and no destination.

Among my provisions: key, notebook, pen. Pilgrims, writes Anne Carson, were people who carried little. They carried it balanced on their heart.

Pilgrim: Old French for crusader, foreigner, stranger; by way of Late Latin, from abroad, the acre beyond.

Question: How is a pilgrim different than a wanderer?

Carson: Pilgrims were people wondering, wondering. Whom shall I meet now?


To translate is to carry across, as a pilgrim might. Or a guide. Another version of Chado's name is happy imperfection. If you were to see his ears move independently of each other, you would know why. Imperfectly, we venture through the neighborhood, at once reassuringly familiar and filled with unknown treasures. Sometimes unanticipated dangers. A Rhodesian Ridgeback once leaped out the low-slung window of a bungalow to close his jaws around Chado's impossibly thick fur. When is a pilgrim like a letter of the alphabet? When he cries out.


It's said Magellan christened the Earth's largest body of water Mar Pacifico upon encountering favorable winds during his attempt to circumnavigate the world in 1521. For two centuries, the ocean was often called the Sea of Magellan. One country called it a Mare clausum — a sea closed to others. Forty-two sovereign nations are listed as bordering the Pacific's waters. When does an age of discovery become one of dominion? How does a pact become broken?


Q: How is an explorer different from a pilgrim?

A:  . . . the only rule of travel is Don't come back the way you went. Come a new way.


To walk is miracle of ambulation. It requires a mobility often taken for granted. Even for those accustomed to transport by foot, physicality is a temporary condition — feet will blister, knees won't hold out forever. Arthritis, accident, age. Recall the Sphinx's riddle, the Sybil's withering body in her ampulla shelter.

Injury or dislocation take us out of our customary mode — as does danger, lunging through a window; or language, newly made. "In order to go the School of Dreams," advises Cixous, "something must be displaced, starting with the bed. One has to get going." Sometimes one gets going by way of stopping; of not continuing as usual, but as strange.

Maybe to uphold the pact is not to keep the peace, but to upend the ship on which it sails. 

Maybe the ancients are still guiding us across unruly waters. The Roman poet Catullus dared to disparage one of history's most powerful rulers, and one poem tells of his crossing many oceans to deliver a "last gift" at his brother's burial, a farewell into forever. Reflecting on the experience of translating Catullus's elegy, Carson admits she "never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends."

We set out as pilgrims, wanders, dreamers, carrying little. On our breaking hearts, endless arrivals. So might translation enter once-mapped waters to chart a new course. A true alliance might not bring back the dead, but it sets out to do no harm.

Last winter, I noticed an irregularity in Chado's gait, a swelling that coalesced in the pad of his right hind paw. The vet X-rayed his chest to better discern the tumor's severity: benign. Treatment: surgical excision, followed by a month of no walks while the wound healed. Mornings, I laced up my running shoes outside Chado's range, as if to assuage the disappointment of the unaccompanied. But all the way up the hill to the Pacific, the strangeness of seeing inside a living body stayed close, like some secret light-switch of the gods, super-hero cloak of invisibility snatched off. Like love, catching the fall.


by Catherine Theis

It was strongly recommended that I take Latin in high school, though I was more interested in pursuing Dance, only offered second period and conflicting with Latin. (Terpsichore cocooned offstage.) First came Virgil. Later, Catullus appeared in a charcoal line drawing—his mask a divine descent into ecstatic contours of birds and bodies and flakes of gold. I can’t remember when I first met Calliope.

Both bound and unwrapped, Catullus’ “Basia Mille” stood before me, shaking in radiance with words I knew, and those leaping inside the dictionary. Wildness, a wilderness pressed into newer papyri. To be allowed inside the breaking split of a stranger’s land is a great vacationing. I travel often, and I travel drunk. To stay awake, I recline with rock in hand. (A trick I learned from the always-student Aristotle.)

But last New Year’s Day, I fell into almost fracture. Travel cusp of almost breaking. Reasons for swooning, aka weak knees? New in love, but guilty in old patterned love. A season of newlyloved, low gravity feeling. Drastic fluctuation in temperature (hot to the touch) but no dislocation, no lesions. Effused, yes. Poured out of myself and fused to acuteness, another loss of reason past sharpening. Here’s my report from the lab with a coda from Catullus. Who knew my modern doctor (in fabulous black boots) loves the ancients as much as I do?

EXAMINATION: AP, AP with flexion, internal rotation, lateral and patellofemoral views of the right knee.

HISTORY: 38-year-old female with history of patella dislocation x2. Pain and swelling.


FINDINGS: There is no acute fracture, dislocation or osseous lesion. There is normal bone mineralization. No evidence of significant degenerative change. There is moderate suprapatellar joint effusion.


Moderate right knee joint effusion. No acute fracture is seen. If clinically necessary, consider MRI for further evaluation.


                after Catullus


To the council of old men


you are newlyloved each day


and perpetual I say to their severe


maybe they collect the most

              recent                             (already to a thousand)

their uprightedness connected

to daybreak and pocket sums

               and how my quickmetered voice


holds                reroutes the newlyloved

               (again you are!)            except

                          we’re gone

from view into the brief

                 of day’s light                   the increase

of birds and movement

                 not bothering to measure—



Catherine Theis is a poet who writes plays. Her first book of poems is The Fraud of Good Sleep (Salt Modern Poets, 2011), followed by her chapbook, The June Cuckold, a tragedy in verse (Convulsive Editions, 2012). Catherine has received various fellowships and awards, most notably from the Illinois Arts Council and the Del Amo Foundation. Her play Medea was a finalist in the Leslie Scalapino Award for Innovative Woman Playwrights. Catherine is a Provost's Fellow and PhD Candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, where she also translates contemporary Italian poetry into English. 





Anne Carson, "The Anthropology of Water," Plainwater (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 123, 133, 187.

_________ , Nox, (New York: New Directions, 2010), 7.1; Catullus, 101.

Hélène Cixous, "The School of Dreams," Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, trans. Sarah Cornell and Susan Sellers (New York: Columbia University Press), 64-65.

J. Kates "Catullus by Night: Anne Carson's Nox," Harvard Review Online, July 23, 2011.

Catherine Theis, "Pacific" & "Basia Mille," The Fraud of Good Sleep (London: Salt Editions), 1-2.