Over and Under in Catullus 1

In poem 1, Catullus uses understatement and overstatement to situate his work in his own era and beyond. Catullus begins with the highly alliterative and assonant line “cui dono lepidum novum libellum,” in which the diminutive “libellum” is “lepidum,” charming, and “novum,” new, characteristic of his neoteric school of poetry. By playfully asking to whom he will dedicate or send his new little book, he grants it authority that it may not otherwise command. The word sequence in the first two lines enjambs unusually across to the declaration that the little book has recently been polished by a dry pumice stone, with the verb “dono” coming at the beginning to allow for building intensity about the startling newness and delicacy of the book. The participial phrase ending with “expolitum” designates a completed work that, although new, is fully-realized. The symbolism of the “arida pumice” also entices the reader to imagine that his book, while its physical form can be worn down by objects, contains vibrant words that he wishes to remain “plus uno saeclo.”  It also implies that Catullus has polished his work quite carefully, despite the fact that he downplays his achievement.

This contrasts with Cornelius Nepos, who “ausus es unus Italorum / omne aevum tribus explicare cartis.” Again with consonance and assonance, Catullus strikes a different effect, with a slightly ironic tone, invoking the alterity and grandly different authority of someone who has set out to describe all the ages of the world in three papyrus rolls. The split of “tribus” and “cartis” around “explicare” evokes the expansiveness of Nepos’s project, one that is unlike Catullus’s.

However, Catullus says that Nepos is accustomed to think, presumably well, of his “nugas,” or trifling. A preponderance of sibilance characterizes the middle of the poem. “… tu solebas / meas esse” and “ausus es unus” are followed by “tribus,” “cartis,” and “Doctis… laboriosis.” The use of this forceful pattern of sounds instructs the reader or listener to pay special attention to the author Catullus is describing, as the author has done to Catullus’s “nugas,” which is sibilant as well.

Catullus invokes “Iuppiter” in characterizing Nepos, which comes across as either slightly tongue-in-cheek or earnest or both, and the result is amusing. Having assigned grandiose overstatement to his recipient, he writes “Quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli—/quaelecumque.” The understatement of his own achievement and the offhand manner in which he offers it to an accomplished writer further reinforces the ironic tone of the poem. Catullus seems well aware that the “little book, whatever it is, of whatever sort” is fit for Nepos to read. This use of aporia to express feigned or real misgivings about his book creates excitement both about this poem itself and about the rest of the oeuvre.

Paired with his eventual supplication to “patrona virgo” that his work remain for more than an age, the poem successfully creates a mixture of irony and sincerity that is relatable rather than irksome. His artistic sentiment is soundly underscored in the final line when he again splits and bookends his expansive plea around “maneat.” As he did in describing Nepos’s papyrus rolls, he urges the future to allow his words to remain everlasting for more than one age. Following the relentless alliteration of the understatement words “Quare,” “quidquid,” “quaelecumque,” and “quod,” the final exhortation to the patrona is musically accented with deep, long vowels and the three words that begin with p. Catullus effortlessly transforms his careful rhetoric into a poised and polished call to his peer and to his future readers.

Cui dono lepidum novum libellum
arida modo pumice expolitum?
Corneli, tibi: namque tu solebas
meas esse aliquid putare nugas.
Iam tum, cum ausus es unus Italorum
omne aevum tribus explicare cartis…
Doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis!
Quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli—
qualecumque, quod, o patrona virgo,
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo!

Sargasso Sea

Owning a pair of white shoes is electrifying. How long will it be until I ruin them by stepping in juice, blood, or grass?

Dream: I am drinking a glass of cold water in the living room. When it runs out, I walk to the kitchen for more. After I do this a few times, I decided to drink my water directly at the sink, for convenience. Someone in a small hat comes up to me and says “You don’t like water.” But I do, I tell him. I ask him if he has seen all the water I’ve been drinking. Yes, he replies, but it doesn’t prove anything. He thinks I could be drinking the water for another reason. He thinks I could be drinking it out of spite. I go on drinking water while I stare at him. He has a mean look, but mine is meaner. The water is very cold. I am chemically dependent upon the water. When I wake up, I’m not thirsty. That’s because I’m still dreaming, and the water is all gone. A bill comes in the mail. The charges for all the water I drank come to 72 dollars. “Very reasonable,” I say out loud. At the living room window, the man with the hat is counting his money. “I can’t cover it,” he says. He will have to get more work, somewhere.


I am in Ohio. From my own window I can see a man walking around in his apartment, pacing. He is only a block away. The light in his room is orange and soft. He is waving his arms around. He may be doing an exercise. I will keep an eye on it. This afternoon I fell asleep with a potato chip in my hand. I would definitely visit this state again and I will recommend it to my friends.

Dream: A solid cloud drifts into a fence and breaks into several pieces. All the pieces are still too big to fit through the gaps in the fence. A little girl stops to pick them up and shove them through. The cloud is so cold that it frosts her hands. Her mother hands her an ice cream cone. I look behind me. The ice cream shop is decorated with black balloons and the word “HASTY.” I look back at the girl. Her mother is holding her up, offering her to me. “I have to go to work,” she says. I ask her where. She says the ice cream shop. I cannot argue with that. The girl is crying. She has had enough ice cream from the ice cream store.


There are a lot of lemons on the tree in my back yard. But they taste like what a lemon would taste like if lemons went on strike to rally for higher wages and they smell like a hospital. The streets in this town are lousy with flying ants and pregnant cats and orange caterpillars. The man across the road does not roll his own cigarettes anymore.

Dream: I am sitting at a small wooden desk working very hard on a significant problem: how to get all the dogs in China to be quiet. They’ve been making too much noise lately and I haven’t been able to finish my important, groundbreaking work of fiction called “It’s Complicated.” The dogs of China make noise at all hours. It’s important that they stop. In order to silence them, I have kidnapped a dog from Bangkok; it has a nondescript, beige appearance, like a small, stocky whippet. I put it in a box under my desk and start typing.

The programming language that will shush the Chinese dogs forever goes like this:

same dealio if{
bark, moan, whine, howl, woof, yelp, yip, yap}


The language is elegant, if incomplete and somewhat campy. The dog from Bangkok begins to frighten me. His demeanor is nothing short of spooky. When I open the cardboard box he will not come out. The only sound he makes is a silent pant.


Every day my daughter draws a picture of a dog, colors it with markers, and cuts it out, then cuts out a paper leash, a fringed paper pillow, and a paper bed. The dog’s name is Lily. I don’t know what to do with all these paper dogs. They are piling up to the ceiling. She gives them to me when she gets home from school, a time when I have missed her and she has missed me. The dogs remind me of this. All day, she has been somewhere else, finding time to remember me. This is remarkable. It is strange that someone who can’t see me should be thinking about me. It’s as strange as the word “orange.” Because I admire her drawings she makes them every day. Sometimes the dogs have collars, sometimes bows between their ears. Sometimes tongues. The dogs seem tired, but I don’t say so. The dogs started off small, about the size of my hand, but now they are bigger, about the size of a platter. They have brown fur and orange stomachs, which makes them look like robins. Their eyes are very large, and they appear to sparkle because of the way she colors them, with “three white dots, going up.” Someone taught her this, somewhere. I have been in this house for too long.

Dream: I am walking in a meadow between white mountains. The ground is covered with grass that feels like a cheap sponge. I don’t carry anything. I have no supplies and no hat. There are a few people nearby, but there are no planes. I can’t see anyone’s face. I don’t want anything to eat. Part of the land is brown because of so much rain and time. Everything is huge and memorable.


Words and phrases I don’t like

  • With all due respect
  • Buff, in the sense of nudity or fandom
  • Transom
  • Mount
  • Late bloomer
  • Surviving, as a reply to “how are you?”
  • It’s not in my wheelhouse
  • Speculative
  • Maven
  • When we speak about the body
  • Glaze
  • Startup culture
  • Research indicates
  • Unspeakable beauty
  • Presidential
  • Nibbles, except when Cecily Strong says it

Dream: I don’t remember dreams anymore. I wake up every day at 5:58 when the dog barks.


The other night, I ate a meal cooked by people I didn’t know. I didn’t know if I should help them, what they were cooking, or what they were saying, at least part of the time, because they occasionally spoke to each other in Hebrew. At first I thought they were speaking Hebrew to keep something a secret, like their opinions of me or the exact location of their jewelry and valuables, but later, I realized with some excitement that they were saying things like “the eggs are burned” and “our son is annoying, get him out of the kitchen” or “take out the trash” or “did you remember to put my underwear in the dryer.” I too would like to use a language other than English to convey banal questions and instructions to my spouse. The only things I can say so far in Hebrew are “thank you,” “hello / goodbye,” “no,” “girl,” “boy,” “woman,” “man,” “cook,” “read,” “write,” “run,” “swim,” “dog,” “egg,” and “apple.” I don’t know how to say “does this food have meat in it,” or “please,” or “where is the laundromat.” Meanwhile, at the house where I had only just met the people who were cooking for me, my children and their children shot each other with Nerf darts and played with chinchillas, even though they—the children, not the chinchillas—did not share a language. Playing with Nerf guns and the softest animals in the world obviates language.

Dream: I’m sitting on the conveyor belt. It’s moving forward at its maximum speed of 8 miles per hour. The person in front of me announces that he has won an Olympic medal. The strap is visible around his neck. I can’t see what mint the medal is, and if it’s a bronze medal I won’t care, but it may be a gold medal, so I sit up straight with good posture and act like someone who also has a medal. The only thing around my neck is a chain with a car key on it. The key is black and it flips open like a switchblade. I like the way it opens very much. I close it and flip it open with the little silver button, for fun. It can be stored compactly when it’s in my pocket. It can ignite a 2.5-liter engine. These engines are manufactured in the factory in Shanghai where I’m sitting on the rolling conveyor belt. I have the key so that I can do quality control checks on the engines once they have been mounted on a chassis and inserted into a car. The key can turn on any of the engines. It will render most aspects of quality control meaningless, but I am not motivated to make waves or to complete my job in an ethical way. I am only motivated by my paycheck. I press the silver button again and again. The man in front of me turns around and we look at each other. His medal is silver, like the button on my key. I’m relatively impressed.


I moved to Israel. The hotel where I’m staying ran out of falafel last night. I ate a carrot for dinner, with hummus. I did not go to the dinner buffet. The head waiter, Abed, likes my children, because they are well-behaved. Many of the other children who come to dinner throw spaghetti noodles at the walls and slap their parents. He sends plates of fruit upstairs with us after dinner: pears, yellow oranges, something that looks like a plum. Soon, when we move to a house, I will be able to cook my own food again, if I can remember how. I will not be able to rely on Abed to make sure I have fruit to eat when I am lonely in the middle of the night.

Dream: The first elevator is the size of a master bedroom. It goes from the ground to the sky and back. The second elevator is the size of a dorm room, and rises only half as high as the first before returning to earth. The third elevator is the size of an IKEA elevator; the pattern of ascent and descent continues. The fourth elevator is the size of an elevator. When it stops, I get out and go into the next one; it’s the size of an accessible shower. It feels small. I disembark and push the button to open the next elevator. It’s no bigger than a single shower stall. This elevator ride is dark and upsetting, but it feels good to get out of it. I look for the next elevator. The button is in the shape of a cherry, and it flashes when I push it. The new elevator arrives. It’s the size of a dumbwaiter, and opens like one. Inside, where I will barely fit if I contort my body, it looks cozy and inviting. There is a candle burning in a recessed alcove. It occurs to me that the ride on this dumbwaiter-elevator will be very brief, if the pattern continues, and evidence suggests it will. I bend down and start to climb inside, arms and head first. But someone wakes me up before I can see if I will fit inside the small, romantic elevator, and where it will go, and whether the candle is scented or not, and whether it was the last elevator in the series, or if I would have been offered another elevator the size of a Christmas present.


In third grade, a girl hit me in the face with a tetherball and knocked me down. Her name was Vanessa and she had three ponytails. After she and her friends called me a bad word and walked away I stayed where I was, lying on my back and looking up at the sun through the fingers of one hand. The color of the sunlight going through my skin was pretty great. It was the color of ripe papaya flesh, but I didn’t know that yet. It was almost the color of one of my least favorite Crayola colors, Atomic Tangerine. I never liked that crayon because when you draw with it it looks nothing like the wrapper. From where I was, lying on the tetherball court, I could see the kids from first and second grade walking to the cafeteria for lunch. They were sideways and small. They sounded like windup toys. I have never been in a fistfight but I think I would like to be.

Dream: Someone has made me very angry. I go up to him and poke him in the chest, twice, in his ugly blue shirt with its embroidered logo that says “Golfing!” I tell him to get out of here, but we are standing in the middle of nowhere, in a brilliantly hot desert on a hill above a blue sea. If he gets out of here, I will have to watch him walk away to make sure he really leaves. “If you think you can tell me what to do,” I say, but before I have a chance to issue a threat I see him swimming far off in the sea in all his clothes. He is the size of nothing, but I can still see him, no matter how far away he swims. He waves his hands at me and I wave back.


Between Sunday and Wednesday of this week, I wrote nineteen poems. Last week, I wrote six stories. The week before that, I wrote a very long essay. It was weird. To make up for how strange it was—for how irresponsible it seemed—I then made a list of the things I’m writing that have been unfinished for more than a couple of months. I hoped the list would give me a sense of obligation: either finish these things or abandon them completely, but in any case do something with them. I don’t like making lists, but I do like deleting things. It was a big deal.

I learned a lot from my list. The main thing I learned is that in 2012, which was in a real sense the year I started writing seriously, I wrote over 200 things that never made it past the third line or sentence. In 2010 and 2011, I wrote almost 300 poems, and one of them was good. Last year, I cleaned up after myself; there are no drafts, just finished things, that I could do something with now if I wanted to. 2014 was the year of half-built projects. Everything from 2014 is an enthusiastic burst of unbridled intention that stops dead in the middle of a sentence or a line. According to my computer, which has never lied to me, I never modified any of these files or even opened them again.

The thrilling conclusion to this story is that I went ahead and deleted everything I wrote before 2015.

Anyway, here’s a typewriter