Nothing Sacred by Linda Weste. Australian Scholarly Publishing 2015.
I was primed to read this book because I had recently finished reading Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. I also spent six months in Rome in 2013 on my own poetic journey.
The structure of this book is shaped by the history of the Roman Claudian family during the late Republican period. It follows the story of the siblings Clodius Pulcher and his sister Clodia Metelli.
Beginning with the funeral procession of their mother along the Via Appia, these two wild siblings begin their downhill journey; Clodia is forever pushing boundaries set for women of her class. She goes out alone. This allows the author to conjure up the atmosphere of Rome and how it would have felt walking as a woman alone.
Rome is a violent place, not only in the street but in the political fora too. Cicero is a major player in the politics of Rome. The first such political rumbling was the Catiline Conspiracy. There are wonderful poems here in which the reader gets a clear idea of how Cicero sounded.
‘You will learn why the traitor
Cat-i-line . . .
should go into voluntary ex-ile:
For conspi-ring to revolt.’
The use to which these hyphens are put helps the reader negotiate this multivocal book and immediately recognise Cicero’s speech patterns. But the book is more than that. It includes letters and dialogue, oratory, fantasies and an extraordinary depiction of the times.
It is also a universal story in some ways and the political rivalry not too far from what we see on our televisions, except that in Rome you were more likely to be killed or at best exiled by your opponents.
Cicero is not a happy man, indeed he feels cursed and unlucky and asks:
‘Is there such a thing as inner crookedness?’
He is left-handed and that is regarded as a bad omen.
Cicero is not the only one to be sharply drawn. At a party, Catullus muses when greeted by Lucius Valerius Flaccus:
‘Ah Catullus!’ altogether too familiar,
A fleck of pastry on his puffy bottom lip
Flutters with each burst of breath.
Clodia soon puts Catullus in his place, wondering if he can live up to expectations. The narrative arc of this verse novel is towards more and more danger for its protagonists. Watching, through poetry, the social order fall apart is a fascinating process.
Cicero goes into exile, Crassus is violently murdered, Clodius is killed and then given a state funeral, buildings are burnt to the ground, Milo is put on trial, and only Clodia lives through it all.
She is a survivor and says of herself:
I’ve no disguises.
A woman in my position cannot remain unknown
Strangers hold no title:
But because you set eyes on me
And called me names
You’re compelled to think of me:
Rich, beautiful and imperishable.
I rise before you.
Nothing Sacred is a powerful work of poetry. It helps to have some knowledge or interest in Rome, but the book includes notes and a list of characters for those of us who need reminders. Linda Weste has written a work that draws the reader into the maelstrom that was Rome. It is a less dignified place than we usually encounter in histories and the characters are real, almost contemporary in their impulses and inclinations.
– Susan Hawthorne
Susan Hawthorne is the author of Lupa and Lamb (2014) written while on a Literature Residency in Rome in 2013. Her other poetry books include Cow (2011), Earth’s Breath (2009) and a verse novel, Limen (2013). She has been published widely in literary magazines around the world and several of her non-fiction books have been translated into Spanish, German, French and Arabic.
Nothing Sacred is available from the Australian Scholarly Publishing website here: http://www.scholarly.info/book/443/