by Julia Budenz 

(1) To Joseph Orcome.
From Cambridge, Massachusetts, December 17, 1983.

                                                    Sat., Dec. 17

Dear Joe,

Tell Suzanne,
If she should ever wonder,
That my desire was only hypothetical,
Subject to some unimaginable
Supposition, twist
In reality itself, whereby we all became
Angels that stay, face, lock, merge, and part
Ethereally, without the body’s hurt,
Exclusion, or exclusiveness. Tell her
My body was excluded, though it hurt.


(Not sent.)

(2) To Francis Petrarch.
From over the western Atlantic, December 20, 1983.

Flora Baum to Francis Petrarch greetings.

I don’t like to boast,
But as I write I’m looking down on clouds.
They look, I think, like the Apennines feather-bedded in snow.
From them no snow
Is likely to feather the ocean
At a latitude of thirty-two degrees
Even near our far point from the sun. You’ve heard
Of Copernicus? Galileo? Newton? But wait,
That might be an avalanche. Remember the Alps?

I’m sitting in a ship that flies with large gray wings.
We’re impatient. This head wind
Constitutes an obstruction. More than three hours
For not much more than fifteen hundred miles!
I’m blushing. How silly it will seem
If six hundred years from now there is anyone who reads Latin,
Or anyone who reads English (I’m supplying a translation),
Or anyone who reads, or anyone.
That’s what comes of looking down on clouds.

You know from Mont Ventoux. More than six hundred
Years have elapsed since you were writing epistles
Not just to fourteenth-century correspondents
But to Cicero (who died more than twice six hundred
Years before you wrote two letters to him
After searching for, finding, and avidly reading, you said,
His letters), Seneca, Varro, Quintilian, Livy,
Asinius Pollio, Horace, Vergil, Homer.
You see, therefore, why I must write to you.

What is from here abysmal
Is sunlight to a non-flying ship.
If one abyss is filled with blinding gold,
In a wider one we glimpse down there
What up here we don’t fear all day:
Shadow, shade, umbra, call it what you will
Down there among the shades or up
In higher worlds of which we have lost sight.
Now we start plunging. I’ll fasten my seat belt and get ready
      to go down.

Dated among those above, the 13th day before the Kalends of

(3) To Marcus Terentius Varro.
From Miami, Florida, December 24, 1983.

Flora Baum to Marcus Terentius Varro greetings.

Though not quite the rustic thing,
This would interest you—would draw
Your scholar’s mind. I wish you could see
And smell this garden. These flakes,
White in winter, not snow, are petals for fragrant
Flowers, their scent sensed on the breeze
Before they are glimpsed on their Costa Rican shrub,
Euphorbia leucocephalia, which, of course, will mean
Something to you, whether or not the binomial system
Means something to you,
Or before they are seen on their little East Indian tree,
Pittosporum Moluccanum, which, I think, will mean
Something, as will leguminous lemon-peel-blossomed
Cassia polyphylla from Puerto Rico, or as will
Arikuryroba schizophylla from Brazil.

Swift on the breeze
Sifting through the fan palms,
Shifting through the feather palms,
Odoriferous words and half-words wisp.

The 9th day before the Kalends of January.

(4) To Joseph Orcome.
From the air, December 28, 1983.

                                                     Wed., Dec. 28

Dear Joe,

There is always someone else or something else—
In the garden one slim copernicia gleaming behind another,
One slim bird of paradise gleaming behind the first,
In the sky one plump soft cloud rising above another,
Another hard sun rising above the one
We see and know. I saw you before I knew Suzanne
Existed. She existed. I saw you

(Not completed or sent.)

(5) To Marcus Tullius Cicero.
From Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 2, 1984.

Flora Baum to Marcus Tullius Cicero greetings.

I admit that my language is barbarous,
Though I’m no slave. Half Celt, half German,
I live farther than Gaul, farther than Britain, far over Ocean,
     in a land of myth,
A land Homeric, Ulixean,
Quixotic, if you know what I mean.
I want you to know how much you mean to me.

First let me apologize expressly
For my Latin style. Surely once, before your time,
The Romans seemed barbarian to the Greeks.
If now Americans (that’s our name) seem savage and uncouth
To you Romans, think that other men will seem
Barbarous to them unless—until—
Barbarity has ceased to be or ceased
To be felt or to be named. We abound at least in names.

I’m writing for your birthday, which I know is tomorrow,
When I think you’ll be 2089.
Oh, all of a sudden, that computation
Distances you from this whitish day
As snowflakes studiously descend, collect
Cuneate in the wedges of slender trees
And decipherable as hieroglyphs of braille
On that fire escape’s slender, slanting rail.

I don’t want you to seem so far away.
Can’t you be close again? I’ve been reading over
Your letters from the end of 50 B.C.,
Remembering and reflecting as I read
How after an absence of more than a year and a half
You were planning in the middle of December
To reach Rome on your birthday, staying over
At Pompey’s Alban place the night before.
But later in December, when you found
That in 49 Compitalia would be observed
On January 2, not wishing to inconvenience
Pompey’s household, you thoughtfully changed your plans
And reached Rome on the fourth. Everyone
Went out to meet you on the road. Nothing
Could have given you greater honor. But, as you said, you fell
Into the very flame of civil discord or rather war.

You urged peace. What if they had listened?
What if they had listened? What if spring,
Fresh with reconciliation, not wintry war,
Had been breathed by Pompey; Caesar; Cato;
Mark Antony; Quintus Cassius; Curio; Caelius;
Messalla; Gabinius; Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus;
Tiberius Claudius Nero, your daughter’s suitor
(Whom Livia married since Tullia chose Dolabella,
As you will recall, but do you know that the son
Of Livia and Tiberius Claudius Nero
Became the second emperor?); Dolabella,
Your son-in-law; Pompey’s father-in-law,
Metellus Scipio; Lentulus Crus, the consul;
Lentulus Spinther; Domitius Ahenobarbus;
The Marcelli; Bibulus; Brutus; Gaius Cassius;
Appius Claudius Pulcher? Who were the twenty-two
That voted no on December 1, 50,
When three hundred seventy senators voted yes,
That both Caesar and Pompey should disarm?
What if they now had listened to counsels of peace?

What if? No Rubicon? No Pharsalus?
No veni vidi vici? No Actium?
What if? No Antony and Cleopatra?
No Maecenas? No Aeneid? No Roman Odes?
No Tristia? No Letters from the Black Sea?
Neither any July nor any August?
No leap year? No December 31?
No palace and no prince? No emperor?
Never a Christian offered to the lions?
No Nero? No Domitian? No Constantine?
Never, never your severed head and hands
Bolted to the rostrum from which you had thundered?

I haven’t been able to say what I wanted to say,
But what if I want you to get this letter tomorrow?
I’d better pull on my boots and try to catch
The next collection. Undoubtedly you can guess
How everywhere the mail is slowing down.

The 4th day before the Nones of January, there being no consuls.

(6) To Marcus Tullius Cicero.
From Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 10, 1984.

Flora Baum to Marcus Tullius Cicero greetings.

I should be writing to Caesar tonight.
I’m writing, however, to you.
What ancient historians said about
The general’s hesitation
Cannot compare with what could be said
Of ours. It is quiet tonight,
In quietly whitening dark, as snow
Forecast all day, feared
All day, felt all day, effects
All night its inexorable descent.
It has been quiet except for my voice
On the phone for hours. Should I?
Should I not? Should I? Would I? Will I?

On this evening in 49 B.C.
Caesar attended a banquet in Ravenna,
Then left quietly, climbed into a mulecart,
And rode off through the darkness. When his lights
Went out and mules and muleteers lost their way,
He walked by narrowest footpaths to the river,
Where he met his men. Then, says Suetonius, he hesitated.
Then, says Plutarch, he kept changing his mind.
Then, says Lucan (the poet), fresh from the Alps
He trembled before a vision of Rome. Then,
Say all, he crossed. The stream, which creeps through summer,
Surged with melting Alps, the poet says.

What was the crossing of a little river
To him, first of Romans to bridge the Rhine?
To one who rowed onto unknown Ocean?

Lucan, Plutarch, Suetonius: after your time.
But maybe Asinius Pollio was their source,
And maybe you heard the things that he reported.
Caesar himself, you’ll recall, in his book on the war
Never mentions the Rubicon at all.

Is this a Roman general, you asked
In a letter of that January, 49,
Or is it a Hannibal? What had you said
In that speech of June, 56? Caesar
Has freed Rome from the terror of Gaul. The Alps,
Italy’s ramparts—let them collapse. Between
These heights and Ocean nothing will be feared
By Italy if Caesar is allowed
Only a summer or two to finish the job.
By 50 he finished. Winter was coming. What then?

What is that story of the Alpine village where Caesar
Preferred being first to being second in Rome?
What did you say you learned on your way back to Rome
From your first provincial assignment? Roman ears
Are poor but Roman eyes are very good.
If one leaves, the Romans will never hear of the good
Accomplished. Never leave. Stay and be seen.

To be a slave in Rome or to be free
(In the mountains, there you are free,
By great rivers, there you are free,
By resounding oceans, there you are free),
To be a citizen in Switzerland,
To be a burgher by the flowing Rhine,
To be a native across the ocean,
To be a citizen beside the Mississippi
Ice-stilled or, near the dam, steaming
Like Phlegethon, eagle-starred like Delphi,
There, where a railroad bridge first crossed,
Entrance, center. The center is Rome.
Here are all your works in the best editions.
Freedom is all one needs. Here are his, too.

Did he, the unhesitating, hesitate?
He, the man of celerity, stop?
It is we, you and I, who ask all night, Should I?
Should I not? Should I? Shall I? Will I?

Hearing Sirens, does one delay?

Did you mean what you said about the Sirens
Or were you recording Antiochus’ conviction
That Ulysses wouldn’t stop for a song?
Knowledge, you said, that was their promise.

I have heard the Sirens, then silence, then Sirens again.
I think I broke from the ropes, jumped from the ship,
Beat my way across the water, heard, forgot.
I forget. Did I hear for twice nine years or pass
On a snowy night and stick in the ice far
From locust-sweet enchantment? I remember,

Sometimes the Sirens say, Sing,
Sometimes the Sirens say, Listen.

Sometimes the Sirens say, Stay,
Sometimes the Sirens say, Go.

Sometimes they seem all tune,
Sometimes they seem all information.

The book opens. We know, we know,
They cry. Delight and know.

The pages shimmer. To know, to know,
I cry. Alight—but, no,

The wind rises, the pages blow
Into ice and silencing snow.

There are two Sirens. One sings,
Rome. The other sings, Freedom.

There are two Sirens. One says,
It is here. One says, It is there.

There are two Sirens. One sings,
Beauty. The other sings, Knowledge.

They sing, they say,

You know nothing. Look into your mind.
What do you find? What have you to offer?

We offer company in giving.
Our coffer fills as it empties.
Soft, softer, sing with us on the shore,

Loud, louder, with us speak
To all who come to sit at our feet

Looking into our eyes, asking
More, asking, What 
Do you see, asking, asking, Look at me,

With me, look, below the dam,
Above the Mississippi, eagles.

They say, they sing,

You know too much. Not in ignorance,
Not in witlessness, will you respond.

Hither! Wither on the shore.
Haste! Waste among the flowers.
Here! Hear the unwearying wingbeats of words

Worth your wearying wait, your watch
Day and night, your dwindling, not

Like Narcissian dwindling, fixed
On self, but a fading as you gaze
On ultimate flowering, summits of aquiline flight,

The flower orange and blue of sunrise,
The blue flight aureate after sunset.

So they speak and so they spoke,
Unless they were silent.
So they spoke and so they speak.
What shall I answer?
Answer, my Cicero, what shall I answer?

The 4th day before the Ides of January.

(7) To Gaius Julius Caesar.
From Cambridge, Massachusetts, February 3, 1984.

Flora Baum to Gaius Julius Caesar greetings.

To one not carried away by words
(Republic, liberty, ideal)
This is the way things are:

Sparrows, strong-toned, persistent, insistent in the trees,
Sunlight, weak-toned, vacillating, vapid on the bricks,
Weak trees by strong bricks,

Streams to cross everywhere,
Running strong from weakening snow
Not Alpine but new-town Cantabrigian

As the old-swamp ground of Cambridge reverts to swamp
And under a wind of March in a January light
The sunbeams of the witchhazel, almost ready to stream

From their small winter’s caves
Like a little daymusic just for strings
From hollow of wood, from cave of brain,

From bud of mind, seem ready to sally forth
Boldly like you, bright reckless sun,
But may withdraw, Pompeian, flexible, enigmatic,

With a near smile. If Pompey’s cheeks
Are puffy, yours drawn in,
That matters little. I see him running.

Our candidates are already running.
We, too, have politics, rhetoric, threats of war—
War, unlike yours (just, dignified, and clement),

Untriumphant, triumphless, hurtling us back,
After the flame, beyond the uncivilized ash,
To our huge winter’s caves.

The 3rd day before the Nones of February.

(8) To Joseph Orcome.
From Cambridge, Massachusetts, February (?), 1984 (?).


Dear Joe,

What happened today?
The sun came out.
What happened today?

Something moved above the snow.
Something breathed above the ice.

Witchhazel hinted of golden spring
To a marble winter.

The witchhazel’s reverie of sweet spring
Scented crystal winter.

Last night I knew I could think the thought with happiness:
He is lying now with Suzanne as they fall asleep.

He and Suzanne abide together in happiness:
I seemed purified as I lay there half asleep.

His sneakers standing on the floor: I lost no happiness.
His blue jeans folded on the chair: I fell asleep.

Suzanne Beausoleil: How could you not
Have loved her,

Her soft green eyes, her gleaming thick
Black hair

Hanging to her waist, her smile—her mind—
Of sun?

I would not pluck—
I would not touch—
A bough, a petal.


(Not sent.)

(9) To Marcus Tullius Cicero.
From Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 5, 1984.

Flora to Cicero greetings.

March has come, that lion,
Roaring, rising, whitening,
Full of fight.

Alps, solemn, siren,
Oceans, martial, myelin,
Years, thundrous thousands, lie

Between us, roll or rise
Between us. Vale atque vale, my
Cicero, good-by.

The 3rd day before the Nones of March.

(10) To Marcus Tullius Cicero.
From Rome, December 17, 50 B.C.

Flora to Cicero greetings.

I remember seeing crocuses
In their fresh pale purple patches
And hearing the red song, fresh but far from pale,
Of the exultant cardinal high
In the ruddying silver maple. Then it snowed.

Then Tullia came running into the guest bedroom,
Calling, Wake up! Wake up! My father will be back
For his birthday! His letter has just arrived.
I’m glad that you’ll be back,
Even though times are bad.

If Caesar runs for consul he’ll be elected.
Can’t he return? How I hope you can do
Something. You must have heard that Caesar always
Writes praising you. Pompey knows you’ve always
Been Pompey’s friend.

A letter has come from Varro in Spain.
He says he has ties to Caesar and Pompey both,
Although he’s Pompey’s legate, of course. Some
Of the books he needs have not yet arrived from Rome.
Still, he says, the mixed life is the highest,

Not the active or, what I’d expect,
The leisured contemplative scholarly. He keeps working
On his "Ancient History," especially on the part
That treats the calendar. How I wish he could do
Something if he’s a friend to both Pompey and Caesar.

Tullia seems very well. I’m certainly happy
To have this chance of talking and reading with her.
Terentia seems well, too. And Dolabella.
I’m looking forward to seeing you very soon—
No later than the 3rd day before the Nones.

The 14th day before the Kalends of January, Rome.

(11) To Joseph Orcome.
From Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 7, 1984.


Dear Joe,

Thank you for your card.
I’m sorry I’ve been a poor correspondent.
The ancients are becoming so real to me
I seem to be writing them letters,
I find myself in Rome,
I seem to be waiting for answers.
I hope your work is going well, too.
Do let me know when your book comes out.
Remember me to Suzanne.


(Postmarked March 8, 1984.)

Copyright © 1993 by Julia Budenz. 
To be published by Pig Iron Press in "Classical Antiquity: 
        The Contemporary Odyssey."
A section of Book Three, "Rome," of "The Gardens of Flora Baum."


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