For most of the people in Margaret Kennedy’s Latin classes at Bellaire High School in Houston, language held the truth about existence—and existence, as they saw it, lacked meaning unless preserved in history and literature. Language, ancient language, was an opening to the mysteries and development of thoughts, but at the same time a vague hindrance, depending on how you understood it. If learning to interpret the world could have a source tongue, we thought, Latin was it. But Latin was difficult, hidden, and perplexing.
Mrs. Kennedy’s classes were like being inside a Roman schola. She considered the Pax Romana sacrosanct. If she could have chosen a time to live in other than late 1970s in southwest Houston, she’d have chosen something around the year 63 BC when Cicero gave his first oration against Catiline in the Roman Senate that began with a series of blunt questions—
When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now? Do not the nightly guards placed on the Palatine Hill—do not the watches posted throughout the city—does not the alarm of the people, and the union of all good men—does not the precaution taken of assembling the senate in this most defensible place—do not the looks and countenances of this venerable body here present, have any effect upon you? Do you not feel that your plans are detected? Do you not see that your conspiracy is already arrested and rendered powerless by the knowledge which every one here possesses of it? What is there that you did last night, what the night before—where is it that you were—who was there that you summoned to meet you—what design was there which was adopted by you, with which you think that any one of us is unacquainted?
She didn’t think of Latin as something fundamental, that’s for sure. She was certainly not one of those brute classicists you imagine, slicing off your fingernails when you bungled a declension. It was more she treated ancient languages like fine bourbon. She made you want to come forward and drink. When I first read George Herbert’s “Love (III),” I thought of her for the way Herbert portrays the believer as lured to faith and faith as something that must be tasted slowly:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.
I too sat and ate—and drank up Latin as Mrs. Kennedy offered it. At least I wanted to. I went to her classroom in the school’s annex as if I were a pilgrim to Trastevere in Rome. I wanted to be immersed in the archeological dirt of my language, to become a member of a society of words. Even though I had been hearing and speaking Hebrew since I could talk, and as familiar a tongue as it was to me, I also never felt drawn to it. Where Latin seemed to exclude even those who studied it, I never felt shut out. There was a catch though, and one I had to hide from others. My circle of friends during high school saw the kids who took Latin as a little pretentious and that anyone who liked Latin (loved it, in my case) represented the epitome of smugness. I tried to wear my interest lightly as if to stride outside my own body, and would couch my attitude toward Latin as affection for Mrs. Kennedy and not wanting to let her down. Perhaps this doesn’t really matter much now. But when you’re trying to locate your imagination in a world in which your identity is supposed to be something else, every stake you spear into the ground does matter.
And besides, I was falling deeply in love with an ancient Roman poet’s lover. I truly was. My sight-readings of Cicero’s witticisms or my noodling around in Livy’s elegies—or in Horace’s longings for the simple peace of country life on his Sabine farm, or what Pliny thought of the races, or Virgil’s pastorals—were of far less interest to me than the sweet and dirty little poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus and the object of his (no, our) affection, Lesbia. More than any other poem of Catullus’s in which he extols the carnality of the mind, I loved this one—
Ode et am. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fiero sentio et excrucior.
I hate and I love. Why do I feel this, you ask?
I don’t know. But feel it and I am in torment.
Without Catullus—and especially without Lesbia, the paramour of paramours—Latin classes might have been just dull drills of conjugations, vocabulary quizzes, raunchy dramas about Roman emperors, and a series of iambic trimeters, Sapphic stanzas, and rhetorical textbook blobs for translation about what makes a good appetite or Cicero’s anecdotes on Themistocles at the Battle of Salamis. It takes imagination to love the fact that Romans indicated future time in the first two conjugations by inserting a future tense sign between the present stem and the personal endings, or that the present indicative and the future indicative of verbs of the third and the fourth conjugations, though not inherently difficult, could cause you as much trouble as any other thing in the paradigms of conjugation. These forms, Mrs. Kennedy reminded us from behind her slender wooden lectern at the head of the room, are among the most common, and a little extra effort invested in mastering these form properly, she would say, will pay rich dividends. Then again, there was Lesbia.
There were all sorts of rumors about Mrs. Kennedy. We believed that when she traveled in Rome a few summers before she had sat all alone in some unknowable piazza just to enjoy shunning Italian men who’d pass by whistling at her. She would shun them, we believed, while all the while declaiming Horace’s “Carpe Diem”—
Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius quicquid erit pati!
Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.
Ask not—we cannot know—what end the gods
have set for you or for me;
nor seek Babylonian reckonings, Leuconoe.
How much better to endure whatever comes,
whether Jupiter grants us more winters
or whether this is our last, which now wears out
the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs!
Be wise, drink the wine; and since life is brief,
prune back your far-reaching hopes!
Even while we speak, greedy time has passed:
pluck the day, putting little trust in tomorrow!
Maybe not. But she did tell the girls that when they travel to Rome not to wear a red dress in public, so there was that. Anyway the story fit her personality. In keeping the past alive, she exposed us to the present. With her disapproving eyes she could make you squirm, even if you felt certain your answers were correct. Latin had turned her into a glorified soul. She had martyred herself to roomfuls of First Year stutterers. For others, like me, she was the incarnation of hope and offered us reasons to embrace the stories of life and their various meanings.
Mrs. Kennedy was in her late fifties, I’d guess, when I took all four years of her classes. Slight with low shoulders, slender, she had a look of practicality in her eyes. She liked to wear silk blouses, usually red or reddish, cut lower than the usual schoolmarm, and hooped earrings. When she spoke she seemed to chew her words into a whisper as if she were trying hard to hide some knowledge from us. If we kept listening, she would let us in. Somedays she seemed not to be talking to us at all, but carrying on an ongoing conversation with Agrippa or Nero or Octavia. She exuded a skittering acquaintance with the occult. She could whistle about something scandalous in a text we couldn’t quite translate. Dumb darlings, Mrs. Kennedy would say, and pout a little—her the sole, extravagant genius in the room, praising the genitive of the whole in a sentence not just for being used after the neuter nominative and accusative of certain pronouns and adjectives but as something that might heal wounds and bring balance between order and wildness. A vocabulary pairing like patientia / patientiae didn’t mean endurance alone but represented a moment in our existence when something undiscovered could seize us. Rilke says something similar in Letters to a Young Poet:
For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.
She was a kind of a remorseless insurgent on behalf of western civilization. I remember Mrs. Kennedy telling us the vague details of Caligula’s sexual exploits. And, too, she described, with great tenderness, how lonely Ovid was in his fatal exile in Tomis—“Sweet love of country held me”—and she seemed to walk back into these pictures of the past as a form of salvation. For her or for us, we couldn’t be sure.
One afternoon during my senior year, I’d arrived in 5th period Latin with Jim Beam on my breath and tried to pass by Mrs. Kennedy’s desk in the front of the room without her detecting it. I sensed she was onto me. It was the spring semester, and all the windows were thrown open. Mrs. Kennedy was telling us that the Roman poets of the Augustan era must never be forgotten. Horace, Catullus, Virgil, Propertius were revolutionaries. I remember she told us that their poems would always be with us, that we could always enter them as if entering a dangerous life. When she said dangerous she appeared to look at me. But she said the poems were not like life. You had to go to them, into them, to catapult yourself into their continuums. She quieted the room when she got philosophical like this, and at about that moment I could feel the tingle of bourbon right up into my teeth. Language prays, she suddenly blurted. It prays! And do you know what it prays in? She again looked in my direction. I was just drunk enough to know what she was getting at. In poetry, I wanted to say but didn’t. She looked at me with a kind of slap of the eyes. It’s salvation, she said. For a moment I felt that Mrs. Kennedy had explained life to me. Be it Latin or poetry, or whatever it was—I was feeling woozy by then. If I couldn’t love what I was reading, I took it, it was better to have never read at all. But that couldn’t be it.
She had moved away from the front of the room after telling us we could have the rest of the period to work on our homework. Students appeared to me to be wavering from left to right in their seats now, and when Mrs. Kennedy walked across the room back to her desk, I thought I could hear the floors cracking. The whole business of poetry and life felt suspended suddenly as if Mrs. Kennedy was manipulating the topographies of the future. I was relieved the windows were open. Outside the air smelled of dirt and you could already sense the failures of springtime. It was nearly 90 degrees out there. That was the best Houston had to offer in May, a kind of painful joy of hot air. I could hear a few students in the open corridor talking, and beyond them a car with its windows down and the radio turned up. It was something country western but of the countrypolitan variety, some tambourine and a brute back-beat. It was the kind of music that made you want to forget everything as if you could exist beyond the body. I looked back down at my Latin papers. Whatever it was, the mysterious words were beautiful in a wholly different way. They emitted the rhythms of my life, and like the rhythms of life you might not always remember them but you never forget them either.
“Be Wise, Drink the Wine” is the eighth entry in a sequence of autobiographical portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my beginnings as a writer.