2006-11-13

"Irrumabo vos et pedicabo"

In my first year of college, long ago,
I took a class on Ovid and Catullus.
One of the sexual poems I found confusing,
and the book we were using
was quite devoid of commentary on it,
grammatical or otherwise.

So at the next class, I asked my professor
what the poet meant by such-and-such.
He was hesitating, doubtful, maybe-yes-maybe-no.
Yet at the following meeting of the class,
he was entirely changed:
he explained forthrightly just how the poem worked.

I could not understand the sudden change
until I looked about the studentry
and saw the only female student
absent that day.
I was shocked and outraged --
naïve nerd from a feminist family that I was --
to think that a professor! of the liberal arts!
and of Latin of all things! could be so sexist,
so crude, so utterly indifferent to his duties
to all his students.

Many years later, it occurred to me to wonder
if he had sunk so low as to ask her
to be absent that day so that he could answer my questions.
All the worse, I thought.
All the worse.

Looking back today, I think:
perhaps he was, poor man, in a cleft stick,
caught between the fear of being accused of harassment
by the woman for openly discussing sex in class,
and the fear of having his dean (who happened to be my mother)
coming down on him for neglecting the questions
of her precious darling (little did he know
that while she might have disapproved,
she would never have punished him for that --
my mother believed in justice).

It's a hell of a thing
when students can't learn
for fear or for shame
what the poets sing.

7 comments:

Raminagrobis said...

(with my most abject apologies to Edmund Clerihew Bentley):

Said Lewis and Short to Kennedy:
Irrumo’s a ‘beastly obscenity’.
That’s just a case of issue-ducking:
Just what is wrong with mouth-fucking?


Sorry.

John Cowan said...

No apologies needed. Pedantically I will point out that a canonical clerihew has varying-length lines.

Raminagrobis said...

You're right of course: it doesn't sound quite right, does it?

They look easy, but Clerihews are hellishly difficult things to do well, I find.

Ezra said...

While I'm pretty sure my freshman Latin professor would not have paused to explain any Catullus, my college was also all male. I've often wondered if he, who was both very flamboyant and also curiously traditional, would have said some of the things that he said— and most of them not even pedagogically relevant— had there been women present. A favorite was "Boys, this sentence is beautifully constructed; it practically has golden tits on it!".

Indira said...

I stumbled upon this latin verse today, with a more than weak self taught latin 14 years ago, and it totally attonished me, shoked me, and find it marvellous. I was looking for the meaning of irrumabo, this is how I got here, and it's such a shame so many eras have prevented us from enjoying such provocative and intense poems. I dare to say almost no one would dare to write like this nowadays. My regards!

slmshdy310 said...

My Latin teacher was a woman, and the semester we read Catullus, we alternated with Cicero. Contrasted with Cicero, Catullus seems even more outrageous. We had a small class, and at this point, it was the students 3rd straight semester of Latin with that teacher, so we were all pretty comfortable with each other. However, when she was trying to explain what the words mean, she never actually said anything vulgar. She always talked around the actual obscenities and described them in different ways. It was always funny but awkward when she was trying to describe the words that we all knew the meanings of, she knew we all knew the meanings of, but no one wanted to say it out loud.

Mattitiahu said...

This is AMAZING.