Tacitus in the Afternoon
—The treatment Tacitus the historian
accorded Tiberius Caesar has always raised eyebrows
I – That writer of history taking
In the peristyle with his shrubs and blooms,
Reflecting on the nature of truth,
Is quick to the paradox of truth
That is every unspoken heart,
Caesar crucial to his pessimistic views.
For live long enough, you'll come to know,
When it comes to that which cornered you,
You only betrayed yourself
Far worse than friend or foe
Managed to direct your bent.
The absolute silence in the laughter you hear,
In the humming of an insect, in the sun’s wide rays
That break on the surface of the ornamental pool –
All of it confounds your inquiries
Into why a certain class of fool
Behaves as it does, those Caesars—
II – That writer of history taking the shade
Forgets himself: he grabs his head,
Not from pain so much as wonder.
And it’s elbows down on the elegant
Ebony table, the curved legs of which terminate
In a goat’s nimble feet, all the better with which to dance
On that most absurd ground, tragedy.
And though that past is antiquity, he's near,
As near as the corner of your eye and mine,
Our conversion of value to parody
Almost complete. The historian reasons:
“It’s seldom acknowledged that the brighter stars
Of a political firmament, high on acclaim, are dupes
Of their bright features. Wanting love, they bring to love
Circuses of hate. And for me here taking the shade
In the peristyle with my shrubs and blooms,
There's Caesar’s reign of terror to outlast
With pleasure in life intact.”
III – The bleak fellow that you see there in the
He with his shrubs and blooms, with his dark hyacinths,
Is thinking a dark thought even as
He’s using all the dark thoughts up:
That the mute fishes in their pool,
As they flash about in their element,
Catching light on their scales, seemingly without care,
Might as well have been the senate
That, losing its way, degenerated -
Band of brothers turned flunkeys.
For Caesar allowed the best and brightest
To gather, to debate, to double think
Their ritual applications of conscience.
“Oh yes, a man might solve much,
And, in solving, accomplish little.”
IV – The sun just now is a kind of laughter,
The way it plays about on surfaces,
On water and marble and bronze,
On olives glistening with oil,
On a dull gold coin of Caesar,—
On the mind that would seek self-understanding
But labours in the dark. Wasn’t it as simple as this –
That when there were fortunes to be made, when life was good,
If pointless, then living it up was the best life of all?
Yet live long enough and sanctuaries fail.
The moral thing to do? Alleviate pain!
Still, moral feeling gets beaten down
Even in the best men of conscience.
Busy moralists never seem to learn
That silence, sometimes, speaks loudest
And most tellingly when, comics tittering,
All there is is noise—
V – But what truly possessed one, what impinged
The bougainvillea in the corner of one’s eye,
The brooding, piss-washed stones of empire,
That intricate chorus of swallows in the sky,
Was the comradely grin of desire.
Prayer? Why pray, the gods giving you their backsides?
High on its worst instincts, the world runs
Proudly supreme, runs roughshod a while
Over those benignly asleep, who hurt no one, who maim all,—
Over the wishful dreamers blind to the writing
On the wall, for whom there’s always time
To shop for the best judgment and best justice,
Who intend great things and set loose chaos
In hearts and minds.
How pretty those wild flowers in their pretty beds.
How sharp the thyme and savory and else,
All of it an exercise in building memory,
The heat building of an afternoon—
VI – The man you see there taking the shade,
He will mumble aloud to a dead Caesar,
To Tiberius, that is, to the grim, dour one
Who saw only the worst in the human mind
As he was intimate with his own.
The man you see there of an afternoon
Taking his holy shade in proximity to
Diana the goddess whom he adores (as he used to hunt and loves her woodlands),
Went hard on the record of Tiberius Caesar
Who secured what Augustus brought about
Or the peace after the wars.
VII – What loosed in Tiberius was willed blindness,
A predilection, it’s said, for sexual encounters,
Those cherubs in his villa’s pool, that this defined him
As he leered at death and understood
That, try as he might, he might've done more
To right some wrongs, everyone up to no good—
And the ant you see there with its articulate legs
Going the rounds of the flower pot –
It tells us what might’ve been
Had we not made government.
And the bird with its eye on a crumb
And the fishes of a fountain-splashed pool—
VIII – But the silver-haired historian, eyes welling
Though the situation is pretty, the air pungent with herbs,
With the warm caresses of a breeze
(Diana the huntress all marble and shade)
Scratching out words on sedge, bitter words for the thing
That has his every loyalty, knows how the poisons of politics
Invite life’s poisons,—
And even Caesar can’t deny the abyss,
Can’t say his share has been lovely and precious,—
Can’t always arrange things to advantage,
Unlike the ant going around the pot,
Unlike the bird with its rational eye,
Unlike the silent fishes over whom
Massive cumulus passes.
—Tacitus: Pliny is always sending me his verses,
weaselling for compliments—
—Tiberius: Poetry? Pah. But it’s harmless enough—
IX - Then, as if preordained: America!
The colonial, scrappy, boisterous business,
And now here’s conviction, here’s the slap-happy passion,
Now here’s the thing once again made new,
And we are the idea and the excuse,
The antagonisms in us nothing more
Than so many degrees of difficulty—
XII – So that we are divided even now
In the only places where we cohere,
And all the disparate pieces drifting in us
Pine one for the other and look
For the ceremony that will join them.