Harriet Zinnes, a poet, introduced me to Robert Lowell when I was in my junior year at Queens College, CUNY, in 1969. I bought a copy of Near the Ocean, a small volume then in its 4thedition.
I remember liking his poetry very much. Particularly this collection. But I hadn’t seen it in years. It had mysteriously disappeared. Then – just as mysteriously – it reappeared in my library at our home in Nicaragua. And so, when the family was at the tennis courts and Helen, my mother-in-law, was napping, I sat under the palapas-topped pavilion by the pool and read it.
Among its many virtues, is this example of concentration – loosely translating the Cleopatra story (from Book 1 of Horace’s Odes) to something modern and powerful and deep:
Now’s the time to drink,
to beat the earth in rhythm,
toss the flowers on the couches of the gods,
Before this, it was infamous
to taste the fruit of the vine,
while Cleopatra with her depraved gangs,
germs of the Empire, plotted
to enthrone her ruin in the Capitol,
and put an end to Rome…
yet drunk on fortune’s favors…
but Caesar tamed your soul
you saw with a now sober eye
the scowling truth of his terror,
Of Cleopatra, scarcely escaping,
and with a single ship, and scarcely
escaping from your limping feet, on fire,
Cleopatra, with Caesar running on the wind,
three rising stands of oars, with Caesar
falling on you like a sparrow hawk
fallen on some soft dove or sprinting rabbit
in the winter field. And yet you sought
a more magnanimous way to die.
Not womanish, you scorned our swords,
you did not search for secret harbors.
Regal, resigned and anguished,
Queen, you even saw your house in ruin.
Poisonous snakes give up their secrets,
you held them with practiced hands,
you showed your breasts. Then bolder, more ferocious,
death slipping through your fingers,
how could you go aboard Octavian’s galleys,
how could you march on foot, unhumbled,
to crown triumphant Caesar’s triumph –
no queen now, but a private woman?