"The Queen of Tragedy"

A weekly poem, read by the author.
July 30 2002 11:30 AM

The Queen of Tragedy

                            —after Catullus

Listen to Carol Muske-Dukes reading this poem. Here she comes, the Queen of Tragedy, dragging her train of black feathers … Grieving publicly, grieving at the great communal well. Tears, tears everywhere!

But Catullus' lover lost her pet sparrow
and that small moment fit grief perfectly.
The Latin: pipiebat—uncanny the precise
sound of the tiny bold piping—heard

no more. In her lap or at her breast,
Her sparrow lifting like that my sorrow

cheeping all the time, hopping from one
shoulder to another … pipiebat, little incident.

Yes, in all the translations, it is a small bird,
it is a needless act. This is what makes me
want to talk to you tonight, Catullus. You,
tagging the off-white walls with immortal

graffiti—making Lesbia's tears also eternal.
You eulogized the sparrow—bright-eyed
hopper on her breast, who inspired the great
sentiment—who flittered down the dark

alleyway of the Infinite. You did not flinch.
You'd rather have written of a drag queen,
of Aemilius' ass-breath, a botched campaign,
back-alley buggery. Anything but grief's needless

and sentimental acts, ridiculous forms—
from the tiny chanteuse whom she loved more than
her two eyes and more than you, Catullus—loved all
the way to tonight, this full moon in Los Angeles,

my sparrow asleep in her white cage, her lover flown away.
David dead. Veil Venus is what you said, veil the figures of
conquest in love, veil the image of love itself—for it mocks grief
in its swaggering, is that it? I want to know what lies between

love and grief—I want to know why we thought we'd live forever,
he and I—so unequipped for eternity with our bad jokes, domestic
strife. Caught between love and grief, the Queen of Tragedy
touches her brow, starts up again and everyone, Catullus,

I mean everyone, tells her to shut the fuck up.

Carol Muske-Dukes is professor of creative writing and English at USC and the author of eight books of poems, most recently Twin Cities.

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