Carcanet (2021) p/b 112pp £11.69 (ISBN 9781800170742)

W. is an artist and writer. In 2017, she published The Supreme Court: A Guide for Bears, a paperback in which teddy bears take the reader through the crannies and processes of the Court. Now she has combined a new interpretation of Catullus’s poetry with line drawings of Japanese shibari, a form of rope-bondage performance art. Her versions of 60 out of the 113 poems are not literal translations, but ‘take an elliptical orbit around the Latin, brushing against it or defying its gravitational pull’.

W. writes a pertinent introduction, observing that 20.35% of Catullus’s poems include numbers or counting. She took time out to attend a philology seminar at Oxford. Her notes quote from Herrick, Shakespeare and the Financial Times. Her versions demonstrate a range of creative approaches, but she has a poet’s ear and a determination to reveal Catullus as she sees him, sometimes reaching deeper into his troubled psyche than the poet himself. Her drawings highlight the intense physicality and volatility of Catullus’s relationships.

W. makes no attempt to recreate Catullus’s rhythms, but there is a poetic urgency in her renderings that can make the heart stop. In Carmen 72, a pair of elegiac couplets become five lines in W., including her own italicised gloss:

nunc te cognoui: quare etsi impensius uror,
multo mi tamen es uilior et leuior.
qui potis est, inquis? quod amantem iniuria talis
cogit amare magis, sed bene uelle minus.

‘Now I see with unstreaked eyes,
Your squalid lies turn up the flame.
You ask “How come?” As if you didn’t
Because the talons in the wound
Make the lover more feverish, less kind.’

In Carmen 5, W. responds astutely to the sibilants of Catullus’s opening hendecasyllables before she deliberately sacrifices orality to a play on Roman numerals and Anglo-American kisses:

uiuamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum seueriorum,
omnes unius aestimemus assis!

‘Open out to life and love with me,
Clodia, and we’ll set the regulators’
Hisses at the lowest rate of interest

Suns go down and dawns will come
But once our pinprick light is out
The night will never be for more than sleeping

I love doing this, let’s
Take a long position, swell the
Abacus with kisses
M Cxxx
MM CxCx Cxxx
MMM CxCx Cxxx CxCx

And when we’ve made a killing kissing
Shake the totals to lose count,
Take them beyond the kiss inspector’s reach’

Not all her versions are so successful. Carmen 7, quaeris quot mihi basiationes / tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque loses the original in a confusion of shibari movements:

Stress-testing, are we, Mistress?
How many of your tropes in rope
Can be endured before the poet chokes?

Ply me hemp silk jute and tie me
Ichinawa, takate kote,
Futumomo, hishi karada…

W. is most rewarding when she confronts Catullus’s sexuality head-on. In Carmen 2, the implications of passer deliciae meae puellae have long been debated. Is it a sparrow, a penis or both? W. calls it enigmatically a ‘little beak’: ‘She is the glowing core of my desire / but looks to you for flights of entertainment.’ The next line, credo, ut tum grauis acquiescat ardor, encourages W. to write a pseudo-orgasmic couplet: ‘And a fluttering release, we trust, / To let the tide of urgency subside.’

In the Sapphic Carmen 11, Catullus writes:

Furi et Aureli, comites Catulli,
siue in extremos penetrabit Indos,
litus ut longe resonante Eoa
tunditur unda
.

W.’s version appears beneath the Scout motto, ‘Be prepared’. In responding to the nuances of penetrabitlonge resonante and tunditur, she is perceptive, fearless and witty, qualities to which Catullus himself lays claim:

‘You, two—you’re my camp
Followers when I want to penetrate
The rim of India, surf-deafened beach-bum paradise…’

Later in the poem, her rendering is brutal. She breathes new life into old lines, and reacts memorably to the drawn-out elisions of identid[em] omni[um] / ilia:

cum suis uiuat ualeatque moechis,
quos simul complexa tenet trecentos,
nullum amans uere, sed identidem omnium
ilia rumpens.

‘Goodbye. May God bless all who sail in you,
Three hundred Romeos at a time rammed in your
Hold. Forget romance. It’s your obsessive
Quest to give them all a hernia.’

Before W. published Catullus: Shibari Carmina, some of her translations appeared in ‘New Poetries VIII’, which received a special commendation this spring from the Poetry Book Society. One reader admired the way she captured ‘that masculine voice, cocky and strutty and in-your-face.’ Another observed: ‘They fizz and crackle … just my kind of literary smut.’ Smut it is not. This collection may not be suitable for every teenager, but it sheds new light on Catullus’s struggles as he saw them. It is a striking attempt to present his poems in the moment and is enhanced by the innovative illustrations. Now priced at under £12, it will be given and received with pleasure.

Stuart Lyons