What strikes me about the lesser-known Roman god Dis Pater (Dis as he was called) are his glorious celebrations. Every hundred years from 240 BCE on, at the Ludi Tarentini held in his honor, a large round marble table was dug up, arrayed with tasty offerings to be happily consumed, wine galore and unstoppable during the much loved “games” --also an offering--the races, wrestling, etc. Then it was ritually reburied. A curious element in this was not the table exactly but the long stretch between those wild festivities, century upon century, which is to say memory was vital, keeping in mind where it lay in the dark cold among roots and blind insects.
Or not so curious. Dis, originally the god of wealth, became a god of the Dead and the Underworld where even dirt was sacred. Named more formally Rex Infernus, he was husband to Proserpina, the Roman knockoff of Persephone who went underground for half the year—the reason we have winter. That table (sometimes cited as altar) was excavated for good in 1887 near the Tiber. I’m not fooled by its daylight status now. After all, the city of Dis is located in Dante's Divine Comedy, a huge bit of real estate in his lower Hell. Poetry honors and partakes of that darkness, remembering T.S. Eliot’s “the pastness in the present” as well as “the present in the past.”
Here’s my point: it's on that table I’ve been trying to write a long poem here in Budapest whose first draft (really third? tenth? I’ve lost count) is now in hand. During my time at IAS, I’ve been living largely in the first and second century, talking to archaeologists at Aquincum and Eötvös Loránd University, wandering through public excavation sites, reading madly, and haunted in the process. I’ve put out what I call my “begging bowl” for images in this city that might trigger and deepen this new poem.
My presentation will be, in part, my ongoing thoughts about this process. I will also read a few earlier poems in addition to some or all of “In the Winter Ruins” though I am still revising to see what more this piece might decide to reveal to me.
In the movement from image to many images to a poem’s always sudden release, I keep wondering: is the human mind relentlessly migratory? Is poetry? As for that table, those ruins, the digging down for them: Is metaphor another urgent instance of migration?
Photo by David Dunlap