Poetry Porch: Poetics


Carmina Carmentis by Julia Budenz. Pivot Press, 2005. ISBN 0972658270 $12.00 (paper).

Reviewed by William Doreski

Julia Budenz is a classical scholar of considerable reputation and the author of the longest, although still uncompleted, poem in the English language, The Gardens of Flora Baum. At a modest 46 pages, Carmina Carmentis is only a small part of the third section of Budenz’s ongoing five-part epic. This elegantly composed fragment spans much of the history of the Western World. Set in modern Rome, it looks back to the founding of the cult of Carmenta, the Roman goddess of childbirth. Her festivals, the Carmentalia, on January 11 and 15, straddle the Ides of that month, as the speaker notes in a wry reference to Budenz’s entire lifetime project:

    So many numbers and so many names,
    So many ancient strangenesses are summoned
    To knowledge, erudition, scholarship,
    The pedantry that paws and plods and puffs
    And blinks and squints its way to vision . . . .

“Numbers,” of course, refers to verses, rhythms. While this poem unfolds in iambic pentameter frequently with an added unstressed syllable, its narration constitutes the carmina, the poems, of a goddess, and in those poems the vision engendered by the pedant’s knowledge can erupt into songs of praise. Budenz, like Anne Carson, has invested her learning in a creative engagement with the past that brings into focus both the rubble of the Classical aesthetic and intellectual world and the sensibility of the postmodern world caught in the act of beholding.
           This act of witness does not occur without moral and intellectual confusion and obfuscation. Experiencing the past in the present requires a recalibration of the senses that may fail in the face of the obvious:

    I came down from the west. The yellow river…
    But is the Tiber yellow, green, or brown?
    Yes, it is yellow; gee, it is green; but brown
    Might be the color witnessed, witnessed to,
    The present word without a precedent . . . .

And once past the river’s serpentine barrier, a more or less unalterable expression of nature, the speaker confronts the shrine of the goddess and finds no great clarity in the presence of her surviving artifacts:

    I stand at noon before the altar-desk.
    Its base of brick is reddish, yet its table
    Gleams white. Or is that gray? or grayish white?
    The sky glares grayish white or whitish gray.
    The white page flashes answers to the sky.

Despite or maybe because of the doubtful issue of the color of the altar table and its relationship to the originating sky, the speaker’s presence invokes a lengthy meditation on the genesis of Carmena or Carmentis, her human or godlike qualities, her metaphorical journey to Latium, a “land of latency,” her subsequent shadowing of Rome’s devolution through medievalism to the present, eventually to ask the central question: whether gods create us or we create them through our obsessions with the mysteries of space and time:

    If gods are sacred space and hallowed time,
    If she is capitolial, hibernal,
    Can she exist before, beyond, this climb,
    Can they be universal and eternal?

           Eventually the speaker, revealing herself as “Julia Flora of the Tiber,” confronts the goddess in her shimmering actuality and perhaps also experiences her own capacity for the divine. This eloquent climax of the poem engenders a vow: “To smile, to stare, to sing.”
           Appropriately, then, the poem closes with a song:

    Let the dark evergreens be evergreen.
    Let the bright golden blossom be eternal.
    Let the brief blackbird’s song be everlasting
    Let endless Rome become and let it be.
    Is this a cry, good-bye, or whisper, listen,
    Or click, arrivederci, now? Good night.

           In many ways, Budenz’s project stands outside the mainstream of postmodern poetry. Her work is epic in concept, classical in subject, and neoclassical in performance. And yet while she rejects the fragmentation, collage effects, and rigorous irony of Pound’s Cantos, she has taken up his challenge to create a poem that incorporates history and weaves it into the present. How successful is this as poetry? This poem avoids the intensities of Crane’s Bridge and the segmentation of Lowell’s History or Williams’s Paterson. But the effectiveness of its narration, the intelligence of its observations, the cunning of its rhetoric, and the felicities of its syntax and word choice more than sufficiently compensate for its refusal of conspicuous formal experiment. Budenz handles her iambic pentameter with great ease. Although adding that extra syllable blunts the usual crisp effect of stress-concluded lines, she writes with a fluency comparable to Wordsworth’s in the Prelude. Neither too formal nor too colloquial, she catches with expertise the appropriate meditative tone in a context flexible enough for a variety of rhetorical modes, some of them competing in the mind of the speaker. Even when she breaks into rhymed quatrains, the voice remains consistent in its diversity:

    O let the mortal author have her say
    Before the judges and the judgment day.
    The thesis is the theater of clay.
    The poem is the puzzle is the play.

The great intelligence and learning of Budenz’s massive project is matched by the eloquence and flexibility of her line and the drama of her rhetoric. She has retired from teaching and research to spend the rest of her life completing this unique, ambitious work, and I hope that when she finishes, she has her say “Before the judges and the judgment day.” Surely they will smile on her.