Inadequacy Battles the Immense: On Rachel Hadas’s Poems for Camilla

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Poems for Camilla
by Rachel Hadas
(Measure Press, 2018)

Poems for Camilla works from the initially startling assumption that an ancient war text can serve as a natural meeting point between a grandmother and granddaughter. Hadas, however, focuses on the timelessness of the text, rather than its martial aspects. The Aeneid becomes, in her lyric poems, not just the means by which she can share wisdom with a beloved young person, but also a living, literary world into which she can insert herself past her own life’s boundaries, there for her granddaughter to find.

The Camilla of the title is the poet’s only grandchild, whose birth has caused her “to revisit / the second half of the Aeneid / for the first time in more than fifty years,” looking for references to Vergil’s Camilla. Reading the sections about Camilla draws the poet-grandmother into reading other surrounding passages, and she is soon, in response, making her own art, marveling at the accidents that elicit poems. The resulting pieces form something of a lyric commentary. Hadas offers her take on Vergil’s lines—whichever ones seem to strike her—simultaneously for her granddaughter and for any, like us, who might want to listen in.

Each poem begins with a Latin epigraph. A piece titled “Grief and Solace,” for example, is epigraphed with a phrase from Aeneid XI.62-3: solacia luctus exigua ingentis. The phrase means something like “small solace for such great grief” (though Hadas opts to leave her epigraphs untranslated, preferring simply to reiterate their meanings in her poems). She opens:

The zany disproportion
between grief and consolation
indicates a deeper disconnect:
the yawning gap between inside and outside.

After some further reflection, the poet begins her work of image-building, keeping her young granddaughter in mind:

Sometimes the consolation and the grief
match perfectly, as when a mother comforts
a child who has fallen down and scraped her knee.
As she scoops up the child, her loving gesture
dovetails with the hurt. The hurt’s a small one;
so is the consolation.
The child turns to the mother, who is there.
But in the absence of the mother, who
to turn to?

The absent mother—the incomprehensibly vast need for healing and answers—is so much greater than the potential hurt. And yet poetry can provide, if not answer, vision and task:

Solacia luctus exigua ingentis—
even the word order demonstrates
the checkered nature of experience.1
The dark corrects the light.
The kindness cancels out the violation.
Inadequacy battles the immense.

And so the lyrics in this collection are readings of Vergil—teaching us how to engage an epic poem, in part by bringing our griefs and joys to it—but also private pieces of caution against despair.

One way in which the poems caution against despair is by seeking to provide perspective for social upheaval. Though the pieces mostly avoid referring to current divisions in the U.S., an opening reference to the chaos of “this year” and corresponding “rage, insidious, insatiable, / infusing crowds” suggests politics. Another poem about fate and decision-making ends dryly: “The act trumps the regret. / The resolution trumps the might have been.” And Hadas’s “fast-moving Rumor, growing as he goes,” is deliberately masculine in contrast to Vergil’s feminine Fama. Yet present as these critiques may be, they are not the main point. What matters is that, regardless of Rumor and Rage, and as inevitable and painful as divisive social realities may be, upheaval doesn’t surprise a person steeped in poetry. As “The Long View” indicates, “geologic time’s / power to change is too vast to take in,” and, soon enough, “the angle of light shifts.”

In the majority of the poems, Hadas maintains her signature candid, conversational tone, adept but casual rhymes, and an underlying pentameter just distinct enough to highlight the essential humor the poems convey (there are key exceptions, like the vigorous trimeter of “Poetry Out Loud”). The humor is understated but effective–perhaps, for example, manifesting itself through a wry reference to another writer:

……………… We have taken a tour
and come back to the climax of the battle
all in the compass of a single sentence.
In writing, said Neil Gaiman, unlike movies,
the special effects budget is unlimited.

Or Hadas might use the stanza break to enact the way “inadequacy battles the immense.” In the final poem, which deals directly with mortality, the speaker asks a heartbreaking series of questions: “How can groomed horses glisten / if there is no light? / How can you read a poem / or memorize a baby’s features in the dark?”2 But, following the pause of the stanza break, the tone shifts to become charmingly dismissive:

No worries; for this has been given thought.
A certain quarter of the underworld
has been provided with a sun and stars
and air — a different air, a larger air,
and special shimmering light,
as if a private sky
stretched like an eternal awning
over the virtuous and fortunate.

Hadas’s ability to blend humor with a sense of lyric mystery is something I have long admired. Her prior book of poems, Questions in the Vestibule, often left me breathless, and “The Bridal Door,” published some years ago in The Hopkins Review, has been a formative poem for me, containing an effortless, deeply memorable gravitas and an extraordinary sense of timelessness that enfolds the entire, cyclical female experience of life into a few lines.

Yet in spite of what Poems for Camilla might share with these former pieces, I admit that initially it left me waiting for a climax that never materialized. I was enraptured by no single poem, feeling that as metrical lyrics they felt almost too extemporaneous, and as readings of Vergil too simplistic.3 Many of the poems, for example, seem only to point out elements of the epic plot, such as Euryalus’s raid, the Latin mothers grieving on the wall, or the groundless charge that the war was Lavinia’s fault. Or they might mull over turns of phrase, such as the iron chambers of the Furies, or the eagle and serpent, but fail to bring in the poet’s personal stakes, relying overmuch on the overall premise of writing for a family member for their significance. On the one hand the poems seem to assume knowledge of Latin, which requires a classically educated readership, but on the other hand the meters and diction are more casual than scholarly. Altogether there is a kind of unevenness of tone to the project, which is sometimes authoritative, other times uncertain.

Perhaps, though, my feeling of dissatisfaction has to do with expectation. Perhaps I, a reader in my 30s, a student and a young mother, come to a text which depends so heavily on the Aeneid with certain fervid unspokens: that because the epic is so ancient and formative (and yes, so male), a contemporary female lyricist’s uses of it ought to involve a kind of–what?–esoteric subtlety? Clever revisionism? Cultural calling out? Anger?

When in fact one of the most remarkable things about Poems for Camilla is its aching peace. The poet is not defending the value of the Aeneid so much as finding value in it. She is, in a way, attaching herself to it, so that once a reader has encountered her poems, he will afterwards hear her calm voice, too, when he reads Vergil’s. And teacherly as the tone may sometimes be, (“we see a snake and we think hiss and strike,” or “‘in vain’ refers not to the body part / but the idea of arming up in the first place”. . .), it is a remarkable thing that the poems are patient, sure of themselves, not afraid to question, but not afraid to say some things with firmness either: “The underworld is overrated”; “Once the decision is made / it cannot be revoked”; “We’re all afraid of something: / hope is the twin of fear.”

I read, “Fidus Achates: my Latin teacher taught us / to snicker at the epithet as too / predictable,” and find myself indicted, as the older poet continues:

…………. But that’s not how I see it
now. The companion, the fidelity,
the sharing of a burden
too heavy to be carried all alone–
far from predictable. Precious and rare.

Indeed, how easily I forget that a lyric’s role is not to explicate, but simply to call attention. If here the calling attention is to facets of a war text rather than life experiences—to “the fearful mothers standing on the wall,” to “the snakes that slide into Amata’s heart,” to “Fast-moving Rumor, growing as he goes”—do I not have something to gain from the “predictable” reminder that my philosophical problems and Vergil’s are not so different?

It requires earned wisdom to pair the tenderness of “Camilla will be three months old tomorrow” with, in the poem beside it, “death often hangs around the battlefield, / but it can appear at any time of the day.”4 If these poems are indeed for Camilla, they are for someone as close to innocent as possible, to whom the discovery that “nothing’s changed at all / of our self-inflicted miseries” will be something new, and for whom poetry could indeed mitigate the pain.5

And the poems are not, after all, without individuality. I prize the places where they suddenly (yes, even unpredictably) go to battle with themselves, and where the teacher finds herself demoted to the place of bewildered student. In “Filing System,” the speaker flings up her hands: “The hell with it. Let my new order be / disorder, enigmatic, aleatoric.” Is this a cry for a return to a childlike perspective, prompted by the newborn, or simply frustration with a mysterious art? “So let them come to me to learn their future / incompletely, which is how we see things; out of order, which is how we live.” And then the humble truth: “I do not know where my own words come from, / or if they are my words.” The poet’s only resolution to this comes in the penultimate poem, “Poetry Out Loud:” “Say your songs to me. / Your verses must be heard. / This is the spoken word.”

So if I sense an uncertainty of purpose in Poems for Camilla, perhaps I am only responding to a paradox in the wisdom the poems convey. For despite their overriding peace, and the surety they’ve earned, they must, like all lyrics, face the continuous invasion of mortal limits into the subjects of the poem. As much as Hadas’s language is imbued with a sense of continuity (“he taught me he and I / were part of something bigger than our dyad; were figures in a pattern / that stretched in both directions, back and forth”), there are also sudden and personal confrontations with an ending:

………… It stands still and you approach it,
this border you will reach in time and space,
yours and no one else’s,
invisible until you’re face to face.

In a way, then, Poems for Camilla is an exercise in the inadequacy it articulates. There are not enough poems, not enough insight, not enough craft. There is not enough wisdom. “Whom we love we want to help by teaching / what we know, our specialties, or arts,” the speaker of “The Herbalist” admits, but then goes further: “and make them into copies of ourselves. / But the beloved has their own agenda.” How true.

………… Herbs can ease the pain,
but they cannot give eternal life,
a gift the gods themselves
should not, cannot easily bestow.

Poems can ease the pain, give perspective, teach, and overthrow long-held perceptions in a line. They can grant us a sense of assurance that endures in the face of all kinds of misfortune–personal, social, and otherwise. Writing them, we place something of ourselves in a text that may outlive us (and if, like Hadas, we are particularly wise, we can bind our own text with one that already has withstood some time). Poems are deeply necessary. And yet the self inside them is a shadow-self, elusive as the sibyl’s voice. Camilla, too, must face it in the end: no poem can give eternal life.


1 The word order of the Latin is “checkered” because the two nouns appear first, followed by the two adjectives: solace (solacia), grief (luctus), small (exigua), great (ingentis).

2 One hears an echo, perhaps, of the Hebrew psalmist, who cries, “in Sheol who will give You praise?”

3 This in spite of the value I place on Yeats’s insight that “if it does not seem a moment’s thought / our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” Perhaps, though, I am unduly influenced by having also just finished reading A.E. Stallings’s Like, which employs slightly stricter meters to explore similar themes. Consider Hadas’s “Anxiety Attack,” about insomnia, and a selection from Stallings that communicates almost the same idea. Hadas writes:

How exactly do thoughts move at night?
Vergil depicts it as perpetual motion . . .
Just so, the hero’s mind—our mind—careens
up and toward and then again away from
the object of anxiety,
zigzagging even as the body rests . . .
the mind is not a quadruped. It spins,
flies, springs, returns, and comes again to rest
a moment, only to zoom off again,
ceaseless motion hooded in our skulls.

While Stallings writes:

[Just] as a poet stalks a skittish rhyme
Behind her lidded eyes, beneath the mask
Of sleep—because the mind has no free time
But keeps at night to its diurnal task
And pushes the stone as high as it can climb
Before it trochees down again. Don’t ask
The mind to rest, though someday it must cease;
In life, only the flesh has any peace…

Both are insightful metric renderings of the way an insomniac’s mind works, Hadas choosing “skittering” while Stallings chooses “stalking” iambs. In the Hadas poem, I particularly like “The mind is not a quadruped. It spins /.” But I suspect that for many readers the Stallings poem may produce the more memorable shiver.

4 Cf. Hadas’s “Mortalities:” “In my yellow dress I pick / a dandelion, hand it to the baby / whose fallen nature blights the soft new grass” (in Pass It On, Princeton University Press, 1989).

5 As Berryman says, “Feel for your bad fall how could I fail, / poor Paul, who had it so good. / I can offer you only: this world like a knife.”