The Last Poem I Loved: “Caligulan” by Ernest Hilbert

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I was born in New York City, but grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Every summer in the late 1970s, my parents drove us down the Atlantic coast in our indestructible 1964 blue Dodge truck to Inwood, Manhattan, to visit my mother’s family. I have strong memories of the streets of New York, especially Times Square and Coney Island, as sprawling with an exuberant wildness, and also a certain menace. In my child-mind, I thought of the US—in contrast with Halifax, which was simple, calm, safe—as a dangerous place where misfortune would likely befall you if you strayed too far from your parents.

In February 2017, when my partner, Tiina, was accepted into a PhD program in Philadelphia, we were living in a village in northern India. Having watched the 2016 presidential election closely, we worried about what we were getting ourselves into by going to the US. Although I hadn’t lived in an American city as an adult, I’d held onto my childhood anxiety about the States. As we prepared to move to Philly, the daily antagonistic rhetoric against immigrants and women was spiraling on the news and on social media. Racists were speaking their minds with impunity. A new alt-right was flourishing. The number and frequency of mass shootings seemed ever on the rise.

When we arrived at our new apartment in West Philly, the locals were welcoming, warm even, but there did seem to be a kind of panic in the air. We read and heard about nearby murders and robberies. The neighborhood was full of the constant cry of sirens. Everyone was telling us to be careful—but of what? And how? I wouldn’t have known what to call this paranoid, dark-cloud feeling until I read Ernest Hilbert, who coined a word to describe it: Caligulan.

Hilbert’s book, Caligulan (Measure Press, 2015), came out a year before the last presidential election, but accurately predicts the anxiety of recent years, and provides language for us to talk about it. The title poem, in particular, embodies and enacts some of my own lifelong negative associations with the US: a sense of ubiquitous suffering, of being surveilled, of powerlessness and stress.

Your bank calls. Events begin to register
Some unwelcome forecast. The dreamy nurses
Switch to Goodfellas on the overhead TV.
The omens come and signs are sinister.
Texts go unreturned. You’re out of coffee.

The reader of this poem—the “you”—is having a bad day, but the contemporary references (bank, TV, texts) are somehow soothing. So far the poem exists in a space we recognize, about a familiar type of day, without too much danger. The “dreamy nurses” seem to indicate that we are in a hospital or institution of some kind, but the coffee invites us back to a comforting normality. In the next few lines, however, there is a dark shift.

The Olympian Jupiter curses.
In sleep, a great toe kicks you back to earth.
The slaves stage a play about the Under-
World. The smoke alarm fails, and your computer crashes.
Your favorite gladiator is lashed
For theft…

A god is cursing, a dream toe is kicking. Something has gone very wrong. We are starting to feel jarred, stirred. In fact, the ontology of the poem itself has shifted. Earlier imagery places us in the present day, but with these lines we are suddenly in Rome in the era of Caligula (AD 37 to AD 41), with a Roman god (“Olympian Jupiter”), “Your favorite gladiator,” and slaves. Now we are untethered, which is disquieting.

Hilbert, in the prefatory pages of his book, defines the word “Caligulan” as:

Illogical fear that disaster, especially of a gruesome kind, might befall one at any time… The condition denotes: … painful or apprehensive uneasiness of mind over a seemingly impending ill … sensations akin to those experienced by Roman citizens, nobles, and senators, as well as immediate family members of the emperor, during the brief but profoundly sadistic reign of the Roman emperor Caligula…

There is also an epigraph by Suetonius: “[Caligula] seldom had anyone put to death except by numerous slight wounds, his constant order, which soon became well-known, being: ‘Strike so that he may feel that he is dying.’”

The last lines of the poem—after all the “slight wounds,” like paper cuts, have been accumulating into a kind of terror—gush with a choppy, stammering music, describing the great onslaught of nature, ending in death.

______…lightning blackens your temple, thunder
Sinks your song, because, like the day of birth,
The day you’ll wake and have your death is set,
But just hasn’t, just hasn’t happened yet.

These lines assert how inconsequential we are compared to the forces of nature. We live, powerlessly, then die. By the end of the poem, we have been trampled under a stampede of misfortunes. No one event is catastrophic, but cumulatively the “slight wounds” add up to a conviction of “impending ill.” The result is that, even if we are perfectly healthy, we feel that we are dying.

One poetic technique Hilbert uses to create this almost nauseous “at sea” feeling is to upset the form of the poem itself, which, in this case, is a sonnet. In past books, like his Sixty Sonnets, he developed his own highly innovative (“Hilbertian”) rhyme scheme. Readers who know his work will notice that “Caligulan”—while beginning familiarly, following the pattern of his other sonnets—quickly disrupts expectations. This “unnatural” variation, which we might not even notice at first, plants in us a subtle intuition that something is not quite right.

This poem describes my own pattern of thinking on any given day in West Philly. A few negative things happen (the insurance company calls, I’m out of milk), which are bearable. But then when more bad news follows (the car won’t start! my package was stolen!), and I begin obsessing, feeling attacked, paranoid, as if the events were personal, about me specifically. This is the Caligulan mindset. There is actual violence and injustice happening every day, as we hear about on the news, to someone if not to us. The Caligulan feeling can be thought of as a side effect of our proximity to the real horrors, like a kind of secondhand smoke that comes from breathing the air of the real horrors.

This poem gives me the sense that I am not alone, which is one of the great joys of reading. As James Baldwin says, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” Of course I’m not the only one with the Caligulan shadow over my head! The images of the poem are universal, indicating that terror and fear and autocrats are not unique to any one person, country, or era. While the US might be my own personal Caligula, people all over the globe know the Caligulan feeling

I also appreciate “Caligulan” because of its underlying sense of humor, and even delight. Like some blues songs, the poem manages to talk about calamity in a playful way. The juxtaposition of certain lines (“You’re out of coffee. / The Olympian Jupiter curses.”) undercuts the serious tone. The poem lets us process our anxiety about the state of the world, in a safe, hypothetical space. Jupiter curses but does not strike us down. The “great toe” that “kicks us” is in a dream, the underworld is in a play, and Goodfellas is just a movie. The sonnet form itself is another artificially constructed space separate from “real life” (arguably more separate than the space created by a free verse poem), where we can experience these ideas and feelings without harm. Even the darkest lines—“lightning blackens your temple, thunder / Sinks your song”—have been sung to us with ebullience. And as sinister as the ending is, we cannot help but notice that we are not dead yet. So the poem can be taken as a warning, not as defeat.

Anxiety transmits a sense of gruesome foreboding, of things that might happen. Hilbert’s poem admits, as Buddhism does, that suffering is omnipresent and death is inevitable, but then responds, “And so what?” After all, there will be a myriad of slight wounds every day of our lives. Perhaps it’s better just to face our Caligulan nightmares with a wry grin, and learn to befriend the dread.


John Wall Barger’s poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Rattle, The Awl, The Cincinnati Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem, “Smog Mother,” was co-winner of The Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. His fourth book, The Mean Game, is coming out with Palimpsest Press in spring 2019. He lives in Philadelphia, and is an editor for Painted Bride Quarterly. Visit his website at johnwallbarger.com. More from this author →