I assume there must be a body of literary theory out there about titles, especially of short, ambiguous pieces and poems; the way they promise to be a key to interpretation, and certainly shape the reader’s expectations and influence her reading – but as a result clearly also have the potential to manipulate, deceive, draw her into position above the trap-door and so forth. This is certainly an issue when it comes to the (admittedly very small) number of extant literary pieces that mention Thucydides in their title and then deal with something that appears to be completely unrelated. Peter Handke’s ‘Noch einmal für Thukydides’ (1997), for example, which I’ve written about elsewhere, describes a series of trivial events on a March morning: a yellow leaf on the wall suddenly reveals itself as a butterfly and flies off, the snow begins to melt, and a crocus flowers; on the basis of the title, and Handke’s known interests, I’ve argued that this piece is engaging with different ideas of ‘realism’ as a style, closely associated with Thucydides – but maybe the whole point is that this is the absolute opposite of the things that Thucydides thought were important, battles and speeches rather than butterflies and the everyday. Maybe the title is simply intended as a provocation, or a joke. And one of these days I must have another go at working out what on earth The Mountain Goats‘ ‘Thucydides II.58’ has to do with anything, let alone Thucydides 2.58 (“Bed face at noon/ Strip naked, we can’t get free/ And doubling over in the street/ dozens just like me/ Spreading like a rumor/ spreading like a rumor.”)*
This edition of Poetry Corner offers another example: Sherod Santos’ ‘A Woman Named Thucydides’ (2010), which I found on the internet through a simple search for “Thucydides + poem”.
A Woman Named Thucydides
Having slept in a turnout in the backseat
of her car, she awoke before dawn, shivering,
hungover, unsure of where she was.
To her surprise, the sodium lights on the billboard
she had parked beside were no longer on.
Wind gusts, the smell of rain, the raw, unbroken
landscape like a field of ice. If this had been a movie,
someone would’ve been sitting up front,
someone who held her fate in his hands.
Though she couldn’t see them, she could hear
birds passing overhead. Why do they even bother
to cross so vast and empty a space?
At the moment, none of the usual explanations
made sense. Her head ached, her feet were cold,
she couldn’t find the words. And the man up front,
what did he think? What would he do?
Must something still happen before the end?
As I think I’ve mentioned before, I don’t read enough poetry even to know whether Santos’ is a name I ought to know; the Bristol library contains a copy of his 2005 translation of Greek lyric, but none of his own poems, so I’m limited to the biographical information available on the internet (which reveals that one of his favourite books is Peter Handke’s The Left-Handed Woman), and to an online review of the collection from which this poem comes, The Intricated Soul (W.W. Norton, 2010): “The new poems, perhaps written in concert with his recent translation of Greek lyric poetry, draw on the god Pan, Aeneas, and Thucydides to deal with mourning, genocide, and uncertainty.”
Well, mourning and uncertainty – and, if not genocide, then at least wholesale massacres – are unimpeachably Thucydidean themes; the idea of Thucydides as a woman suggests to me on the one hand the same questing intelligence, searching out the truth of things however unpalatable, but on the other hand perhaps a different order of priorities or set of questions, a different sensibility in the face of horror and human stupidity. There is a persistent sense in the reception of Thucydides of him as an unmistakably masculine writer, someone marked by action as well as contemplation – even if his History, as Arnold Toynbee argued, is the product of his failure in the field of action, or at least his exile from it – a kind of castration, if you will, so that he then felt compelled to re-assert his manhood through a style of the utmost coldness and austerity, and a refusal to give in to feeling. But this woman is only named Thucydides, not the real thing: a joke, an ironic juxtaposition, a paternal legacy with which she must struggle to come to terms..? Perhaps the poem will tell us. Perhaps not.
Reading on the assumption that there must be hidden references to Thucydides, it’s easy enough to suggest a few connections. The central character – unnamed in the poem itself, but we can reasonably take a name from the title, while remaining unsure about who’s doing the naming – likewise finds herself exiled from her normal existence, sleeping on the back seat of her car rather than at home, having driven away drunk from somewhere, missing her usual sense of self; she responds by asking questions, trying to make sense of the fragments that present themselves in the hope of building a coherent picture. She’s enough of a realist to know that this is not a movie, even if there’s always a temptation to imagine an underlying plot; she knows that no one is pulling the strings, nothing is fated or driven by a wider purpose. The usual explanations don’t make sense – because most people don’t bother to enquire properly, but accept the first thing they’re told. Is there any rhyme or reason in the world? If there was a controlling force in the front seat, what would he be thinking? We can’t know, but since he doesn’t exist that doesn’t matter. Despite physical discomfort, confusion and a subtle existential dread, she itemises visible phenomena, seeking to grasp what can be known, and keeps asking questions.
I can’t really help reading this way; an initial sense of bafflement at the apparent absence of anything remotely Thucydidean, followed by a determination to find him everywhere – while also being aware of the very strong possibility that this is merely projection. How might this be read by someone to whom ‘Thucydides’ is at best no more than a strange name, not even ‘a historian’ – or known only from the few aspirational quotes that are now ceaselessly recycled on Twitter? What happens to the poem if the lead character is associated just with the sentiment that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must – a statement which can easily be read in gendered terms – or that the secret to happiness is freedom and the secret to freedom is courage, or that self-control is the chief element in self-respect? Well, she isn’t obviously brave, though she does seem to be free of at least some ties, willingly or not; self-respect may be in slightly short supply – waking up alone on the back seat of a car with a hangover is rarely a good look – but there seems to be plenty of self-control.
The future is dark and unknowable – but also open. The past seems hazy, and at a guess not wholly pleasant, and it isn’t entirely clear where she is or how she got here; but there is no panic, just acceptance of the situation and a drive to make some sort of sense of it. She’s trying to get a grip on the events of her own life, not those of the nation or of the world; maybe that’s a contrast with her namesake, but maybe that was the real aim of his own questioning too. The one big difference: he could find the words, she hasn’t (yet?).
* One problem with this enterprise is that it really isn’t my sort of music, so I find it hard to do the sustained listening necessary for proper analysis.