Art Beck & Luxorius


Art Beck


LUXORIUS WAS A 6th century (c.e.) provincial Roman who lived in North Africa during a period which coincided with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and which might be characterized as the dawn of the dark ages. In any case, it was a time of virtually total obscurity for him. Although a few of Luxorius’s poems appear among scattered medieval collections, the manuscript containing his 90 extant poems literally was lost for a thousand years and didn’t surface until 1615. He remains one of the most obscure and infrequently translated Latin poets and nothing is known of his life.

This obscurity is due, in large part, to historical reasons. Based on the space devoted to him in the Carthaginian Anthologia Latina, he must have had a significant contemporary reputation. He lived, however, during the hundred year Vandal occupation of the Roman North African provinces. By the time North Africa was finally liberated in 534 by the Greek-speaking Byzantine “Romans,” the West had already embarked on its medieval path. And, after a war and occupation in which some five million people died, the Byzantines soon lost North Africa again — not to the German Vandals, but to Berber and Bedouin tribes which, in the next century, were swept into Islam.

At the empire’s edge, Luxorius looks backwards. He draws energy from the embers of a thousand year old Roman society as sophisticated, in language at least, as any of its successors. I think of him — for want of a better term — as “post-pagan.” In any case, he was of little interest to the monks who catalogued his poems as if they were museum curios of what, to them, was an irrelevant, failed world. Through a librarian friend in Istanbul I’ve tried to find if he fared better in Islam, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

Luxorius has been called the North African Martial, because he wrote short epigrams and because so many were sexual. But in the twenty or so years I’ve been translating him, I’ve found him both subtler and more serious than Martial-and never boring or repetitive. The two following poems are typical of Luxorius in that they’re both (at least in my reading) extended double entendres. The bear poem, however, with its gentle evocation of the restorative powers of oral sex administered by a strong, wise and loving woman, is an especially good example of the tonal differences between Martial and Luxorius — and, in fact, between Luxorius and almost any other Latin poet. —San Francisco, July 25, 1995



[They say, that when the fierce bear gives birth. . .]

They say, that when the fierce bear gives birth, she gently
forms her baby with her mouth,
shines and polishes its pliant, shapeless body
with her lips and, with pious devotion,
once more, tenderly, creates another generation.

The way a master craftsman sculpts
a soft clay limb into life, she molds the flesh
of her exhausted, battered whelp
into something promising.

Nature has surrendered its good duty
to a loving creature — who licks things into shape
first with her uterus, and then
with her wise tongue.

(Translated from the Latin by Art Beck)



Premature Chariot

You always shoot out first and never last, Vico,
because you need to get hold of that part you’ve
softened with your pitiful, constant stroking.
The only time you’re able to, somehow, hold
your horses, is when you let the sly guy,
who’s paid you off, come from behind.

(Translated from the Latin by Art Beck)


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