Catullus and Forgetting

The thing about September 11th, for me, and maybe for some other people my age, is that it all happened so quickly and at once. Suddenly a time in my life that was already moving faster than it should have been, sped up even more.

The memories of that day will always be mixed up with my AP Latin class, my best friend’s dad, the punk rock musician I’d started dating that summer as I crept around the Lower East Side, hiding out from my parents. I was full of contradictions and just learning how to handle all of them. Plenty of people experienced much worse trauma and loss that day, but we each have the memories we have— I’m not one to enter into emotional competition.

The day before, one of my best friends got kicked out of school for selling weed. No one was paying attention that morning; we sat around gossiping. Mrs. Lovell, my Latin teacher, an Armenian immigrant, wheeled the television in as the second tower hit. It was one of those old teevees with the glass screen. The wheels trembled across the floor. We were reading Catullus.



Cui dono lepidum novum libellum
arido modo pumice expolitum?
Corneli, tibi; namque tu solebas
meas esse aliquid putare nugas,
iam tum cum ausus es unus Italorum
omne aevum tribus explicare chartis,
doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis!
quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli
qualecumque, quod, o patrona virgo,
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo.


And what am I to do now with this freshly

copied book?

Cornelius, you are the only one who

has seen these Italian scrolls,

you and the all knowing Jupiter know my work!

Now that you know I have made this little book,

with your help

let it live on and on

and on.


I didn’t lose anyone I loved closely on September 11th and I am grateful for it. But I lost people later, for other reasons. On one of those occasions my father came to visit me in Italy, where I live. We drove north to Lake Garda and I didn’t know it before hand but we found ourselves in Sirmio, Catullus’s home town. Sometimes memories of one great pain, shock, can help to endure the next one. Sometimes it is the remotest most distant work of art you know that can lend comfort.

There was a time I could translate poems like this with some accuracy.  I can barely read Latin anymore; I’ve forgotten or blocked all of its grammar from my mind. I’ve made room for ideas and languages I’ve decided are more important. I go to churches sometimes and imagine what prayers may be surrounding me.



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.


Many, many people for centuries have endured miseries worse than this.

My brothers and sisters have died, lost everything, burned to the ground.

And what is it that makes me the fortunate one now.

I haven’t been better than them

and now alive like a traitor but sad and lost

in a never ending search.

Brother, goodbye.


But language, like trauma, is a process of continual forgetting. Perhaps this is even truer for translations. Memories, especially those most painful, replay in our minds, we fixate on the smallest words, the smells, the images. Like with all of the terrible moments I’ve experienced I am driven to remembering them as much as I am repelled. But if they can be mediated through some distant language, maybe then I can gain something valuable for myself and maybe move forward.







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