Ave Atque Vale

Even though I managed to swerve around the lump
of groundhog lying on its back on the road,
he traveled with me for miles,

a quiet passenger
who passed the time looking out the window
enjoying this new view of the woods

he once hobbled around in,
sleeping all day and foraging at night,
rising sometimes to consult the wind with his snout.

Last night he must have wandered
onto the road, hoping to slip
behind the curtain of soft ferns on the other side.

I see these forms every day
and always hope the next one up ahead
is a shredded tire, a discarded brown coat,

but there they are, assuming
every imaginable pose for death’s portrait.
This one I speak of, for example,

the one who rode with me for miles,
reminded me of a small Roman citizen,
with his prosperous belly,

his faint smile,
and his one stiff forearm raised
as if he were still alive, still hailing Caesar.

When I was in Amherst with my parents, we stopped into the Jeffrey Amherst Bookstore, where my father bought all his textbooks in his college days. They were having a bit of a sale, and on the table in front of the store I found a heavily discounted copy of Billy Collins’ Nine Horses. I should not be buying books right now, as I have no room in my apartment (seriously—boxes take up most of the floor space in my room, so that I can barely maneuver (is it wrong to want to spell that with the œ ligature?)), and I don’t have a ton of cash on hand, either. Of course, I bought it. One of the first poems I opened to when I had a chance to glance through it was “Ave Atque Vale.”

The title, of course, comes from an elegant elegy by Catullus written just over two millenia past in mourning of his brother’s death (Beardsley’s translation taken from cypherpress):

Carmina, Poem CI

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale

Ave Atque Vale

By ways remote and distant waters sped,
Brother, to thy sad grave-side am I come,
That I may give the last gifts to the dead,
And vainly parley with thine ashes dumb:
Since she who now bestows and now denies
Hath taken thee, hapless brother, from mine eyes.
But lo! these gifts, the heirlooms of past years,
Are made sad things to grace thy coffin shell,
Take them, all drenchèd with a brother’s tears,
And, brother, for all time, hail and farewell!

I’m trying to figure out what Collins intended by invoking Catullus’ poem in his title. Did he choose the reference simply because the groundhog’s arm was sticking up as he drove past? Doesn’t that seem a bit silly, particularly since there were many, many prosperous Romans more likely to hail Caesar than was Catullus? Or is he trying to suggest that he felt a bond of brotherhood with the dead rodent? Was he merely using the phrase for its rhetorical rôle, as a trope as it were, to signify that he was writing an elegy of sorts? Is it an elegy of sorts? What would allow one to draw such a conclusion? His “hope” that the lumps will be tyres and coats, rather than groundhogs? Was the reference made in an effort at irony? Or was it not intended as an allusion at all?

I don’t get it. I just don’t. Help would be appreciated.

Note: In 1880, Tennyson, whose brother Charles had died less than a year before, visited Sirmio on Lake Garda, where Catullus had passed his summers. While there he had a little fun:

Frater Ave Atque Vale

Row us out from Desenzano, to your Sirmione row!
So they row’d, and there we landed—‘O venusta Sirmio!’
There to me thro’ all the groves of olive in the summer glow,
There beneath the Roman ruin where the purple flowers grow,
Came that ‘Ave atque Vale’ of the Poet’s hopeless woe,
Tenderest of Roman poets nineteen-hundred years ago,
‘Frater Ave atque Vale’—as we wander’d to and fro
Gazing at the Lydian laughter of the Garda Lake below
Sweet Catullus’s all-but-island, olive-silvery Sirmio!

Note: Tennyson had fun with Catullus on more than one occasion: see also his “Hendecasyllabics.”

Note: If I thought anyone else on the planet had an interest in reading yet more Swinburne than I have already plastered all over our little wintry mind, I might point out that he wrote a beautiful dirge to Baudelaire called “Ave Atque Vale,” and also composed some very nice “Hendecasyllabics.” I might also highlight some of Swinburne’s better swipes at Tennyson. Alas, I know you grow tired of the Swinburne.