"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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Tom Hanks Has a Short Story in the New Yorker. It’s Not Good.

Brow Beat

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.