Thursday, November 12, 2009


Mrs. Goodman's Latin Class

Patrick Kurp sent me an email with the subject line "This might interest you." The email contained a link to a poem by Herbert Morris with the title Latin. The poem does interest me, and it might also interest readers of this blog.

The only bit of Latin quoted in the poem, however, is puzzling. Morris recalls his Latin teacher, Mrs. Goodman, saying "Lapsa de memoria." I wonder if she may have really said something like "Lapsus memoriae" (cf. "lapsus linguae" and "lapsus calami"). No matter how charitably I try to construe it, I find it hard to extract much sense from "lapsa de memoria." "Lapsa" could be a participle from the deponent verb "labor," and "memoria lapsa" could mean "memory which has slipped, fallen, or failed," but "lapsa de memoria" is an odd phrase, at least to my ear.

At any rate, enjoy this wonderfully evocative poem:
We are, once more, in Mrs. Goodman's class,
geraniums crowding the sun-struck windows.
I occupy the third desk, second row,
on which are carved initials of those students

who grappled here with Latin long before me.
An inkwell has been drilled into the wood,
upper right, and the slender legs, cast iron,
filigree grillwork, grip the creaking floor.

I wear those trousers woven of rough tweed,
their color some drab brown the shade of mud.
Mrs. Goodman wears one of her black wigs,
hair black as night, each styled in the same fashion,

bangs fringing the pale forehead, two spit curls
glued to the temples, cut to slash each cheek.
She paces back and forth, tapping a pointer
against the blackboard with each definition,

predicate, object, subject, gerund, noun,
seven uses of the conditional,
one more subtle than the next, more exotic,
"should she," "were I," "could you," "if we," "might someone."

Some days she smells of lilac, some days jasmine.
She wears black fishnet stockings, kidskin pumps
with thin spike heels four inches high; her hemline
grazes a calf as shapely as her ankles.

Today, it seems, we come to the subjunctive,
but we approach it sideways, from behind,
advance on it as if by inadvertence,
almost refrain from mentioning its name

(a backward look, a sideways look, a glance,
less than a glance, a glimpse, with eyes half-closed),
slowly, quietly, with great stealth, great care,
that care beyond mere care, are made to sense

an assault broader, bolder, more head-on,
an advance other than by indirection,
might very well, students, frighten it off.
I am twelve that winter, perhaps thirteen.

I love this room; love the geraniums
misting the panes, pane by pane, with their breath,
reaching in one direction for the sun;
love the fragrance of ink the monitor

pours at each desk from a tall, capped blue bottle,
the spout held low, just so, that it not leak;
love the feel of the tweed scraping my legs
when I stir in my seat or rise to speak.

Impatience rides the morning, restlessness
half the afternoon: I want time to pass
until we climb the dim flight to 310.
The bell rings; clamor; scuffle; we change rooms.

At two-fifteen, precisely, we begin
(the sun cuts diamonds on the frosted panes),
predicate, object, subject, gerund, noun,
stand, one by one, when called on, to read from Caesar

(battle on wind-swept plains, snow in high passes),
translations knotted, tangled, rock-strewn, dense
(now the strategic pause, the cough, the stutter),
pored over, worked, reworked, pulled this way, that,

to fit our stumbling, to accommodate
the desperation seizing us mid-plot,
hesitation a tense unto itself
having to do with ignorance, not grammar.

(That winter was the winter syntax seemed
a route to all I thought I wished to be,
who I wished to become, the agent by which
one was delivered, somewhere, to one's self,

the magic which, in time, bestows, transforms,
that, if one could piece the sentence together,
word by word, step by step, worked and reworked,
if one might learn the phrasing, deep and clear,

as clear as water, say, as deep as night,
it might well lead, or open, to one's life;
if one could learn the principle involved,
one might know how to live, or what to live for.)

I love the scent wild lilac trails, or jasmine,
as she patrols the aisles between the desks
attending to the pains of conjugation,
reminding us verbs shall agree with subjects;

love to move my fingers across the grain,
touching the nicks and grooves of old initials,
the cold, forged latticework of iron legs
swirling gracefully, looping to the floor;

love even the chipped song the radiator
rouses itself to sing these afternoons,
plaintive, tentative, frail, occasionally
wavering, in a voice reedy and thin.

I am twelve, as I said, perhaps thirteen,
sit in the sun, diamonds etched on my lids,
grapple with Latin each day at my desk
(not yet having carved my HM across it,

never having carved my HM across it),
predicate, object, subject, gerund, noun,
rising to read, when called on, hesitation,
as always, trailing me, my twin, my double,

student of light, of language, of that longing
rooted in neither, yet rooted in both,
finding my way, losing my way, those passes
profound, immense, endlessly taxing, all but

impenetrable, untranslatable,
should she, were I, could you, if we, might someone,
having waited all day for afternoon,
for this moment, yet dreading being called on,

content, for now, to wait for light to pour
(light pours, light pours), for gifts to be bestowed
(gifts, that winter, are not to be bestowed),
comprehension, fluency, grace, sheer daring,

all that might matter most to Mrs. Goodman,
all that might matter most, that year, to me,
for the radiator to sing its song
and the sun to cut diamond after diamond

afternoons on the frost-encrusted panes;
for, best of all, Mrs. Goodman to enter
at two-fifteen, precisely, to begin
(her stride high-arched, deliberate, seamless, slow),

the plains wind-swept, the passes lashed with snow.
I read, read poorly; Mrs. Goodman points
to her head, her black-banged, black spit-curled head,
cries "Lapsa de memoria," cries it twice.

I pause, I cough, I stutter, start to blush
("Lapsa de memoria"), yet persist.
Mrs. Goodman moves to my side, corrects me
(waves of lilac and jasmine overwhelm me,

I, who fail, for some reason, to remember
the deepest needs of the infinitive,
exchange pronoun for noun, invert the order
by which all parts—the world, as well?—cohere),

asking what one is to do with the clause
it seems one quite forgot, the participle
one decimated, dropped, wanting to know
how one is to live, what one is to live for.

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