Getting Rid of Ovid

Beneath III (detail) by Colin Robson
Beneath III (detail) by Colin Robson

I saw him last night. I could smell almonds and spices and something rank that pulsed the air. I looked up and he was there.

Cock raised, spit-white flying in a perfect arc so high it kissed the moon, he emerged from the pool like a Titan. Flesh and muscle shuddering, each giant foot sending the earth quaking, the moon’s cold light shrouding the colossus in a strange, primal blue. He shook his head, and the spray turned into a mighty shower of hailstones that swept the sky. Lowering clouds suddenly appeared and shed their load onto the land beneath.

I stood, spell-stopped, as the giant became a blaze of colours dissolving seamlessly into shapes of many humans trapped by some invisible force, madly trying to flee, and the more they fought the more their bonds tightened. One woman, rooted to the spot, looked for her toes, and screamed as her feet, her legs, her breasts and shoulders turned to wood. A massive scorpion reared up his tail. From it poured black poison that spelt out perque omnia saecula fama, vivam across the heavens: Through all the ages shall I live in fame. [private]

The Titan resumed his human shape and from his mouth emerged demented, savage women, floating towards me, their heads alive with black writhing snakes, their shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth. I tried to flee, but the earth rose up and turned to stone around my legs. My hands were stripping rotting flesh off dead sheep that came alive, squealing in pain. Their flesh metamorphosed into monstrous embryos wrapped in birth skins, choking on black blood. The little kicking limbs burst through the leprous crusts and I saw my hand steeped in overgorged, livid dyes. Sulphurous fumes blinded me as a mighty crack and a pain too great for words told me my arm had been ripped from my shoulder. I heard a laugh that issued from some hell resounding deep inside my head. I think I howled at the loss of my writing hand before I lost consciousness.


“You’re going to commune with a centuries-old ghost, take him by his poet’s balls and castrate him?”

“Something like that.”

“You’re mad,” he says, throwing the covers aside, his arm stretching above my face to reach for the cup.

Why does his armpit sweat smell of blossom buds and mine of rank weeds? His breath, heavenly air of grace, brushes my cheek and every part about me quivers. I watch his ruby lips – two succulent cherries – close over the rim.

Stop. This little catalogue of barren metaphors must go. Fuck it, every beloved has ruby lips. He gives me the cup, settles his hands behind his head and looks at me.

“He’s not your Father, Will.”

I’m always surprised at how Hal hits the mark. The heartless shield hides a feeling heart.  But then he knows what it is to staunch a secret sore. Perhaps that’s what we share. Child’s pain unpurged.

“I’ll come with you if you like. You’ll need my strong chest to cry on when you discover Ovid’s not actually around these days to get his sweets sliced off.”

“No. If you’re with me with your exquisitely nuanced Italian tongue I’ll be brain-sopped in wine and watching it lick every open-arse in Rome.”

He slides his hand under the pillow, a flicker of steel, and the point of the dagger is poised at my throat. I am curiously aroused. I twist his wrist, our eyes strung in carnal strings. The knife is at his thigh. The blade drops.

And we were wrestling in a frenzied clasping of pleasure and pain, fisting each other’s throats and waked half dead with fucking.


Re-birth. Re-surrection. Re-suscitation. Re-fucking-naissance. I have written these four words thirty nine times. I have scrawled them, neatly scribed them, flourished then, ferociously scratched them. Dead words on a page that cannot themselves be brought to life.

The nibs, snapped to shards, sit before me, the little pricks. Whoever heard of digging up old bones and grafting on flesh, pumping in blood and turning ancient dust into a breathing body?

How to make past and present coalesce is my impossible quest.

Re-incarnation. Re-vivication. Re-. Re-. Re-. The words blazon the fatal defect of the endeavour, its certain failure to allow origins. I dip my pen in black ink and a poisonous riot of dyes screams onto the page. Dies onto the page. Strainèd touches of rhetoric, promiscuously bestowed on all, the whores.

I must resurrect the bastard and get rid of him. This is absurd. He’s a ghost. His bones are not haunting me. It is the words. That proud full sail of his great verse entraps and paralyses me in its embrace. I am his Hermaphroditus, he the seductive, enervating other, ever threatening to overwhelm, enfeeble and emasculate my fertile powers of invention. Is nothing fucking new?


First, I have to get Hal’s poem done.


He leapt out of bed like a young gazelle. Stop it. He just climbed over me and got out of bed.  I look at his beautiful frame, Nature’s perfection, bathed in a shaft of mote-filled sunlight and know not what I can write. Describe Adonis and the counterfeit is poorly imitated after him. If I compare his cheek to a red rose that only makes the veins too grossly dyed. Isn’t it more that Nature’s beauty steals from him?

            Why should false painting imitate his cheek,

            And steal dead seeing of his living hue?

Hal’s been in love with poetry for most of his nineteen years. I try to forget this.     He’s sniffing through my pages. “‘Fertile chastity’? Fruitful virgins next! So what’s all this shit about art’s sterility?”

I wish I’d never started telling him about his fucking poem.

“‘To The Right Honourable Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton and Baron of Titchfield.’ It’s a start.”

“‘I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your Lordship…’ We’ll never know until you start bloody writing it.”

“‘If the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I will be sorry it had so noble a godfather’… de-da,de-da, ‘Your Honour’s in all duty, William Shakespeare.’ My fawning spaniel now, are we!”

He snorts. “Is the rest of it going to be this turgid and banal?” I tap my temple and put on my Stuff-You-I’m-The-Poet face. “They are my Notes.” He puts on his sonorous player’s voice.

“‘Fecundity metamorphosed into sterile artifice.  Nothing new can be born pure because that which is has been before. Rhetoric disembodies the body. How must a poet be chaste?’  Fuck me, Will, why don’t you just write the thing? No coition? No fucking! You’re going to have Adonis reject her?”

He’s screaming disdain now. “‘Ceaseless tumescence stopped by a metaphor’? ‘Seminal purity’! I thought it was going to be just a ticklish tup in the undergrowth like all the other Venus and Adonises. Not a constipated treatise on ARSE Poetica.”

I love this. His greasy mouth’s more foul than mine.

“Ticklish it will be I promise.”

“‘Rose-cheek’d Adonis’?”

He looks at me with that look which always makes me want to thrust his smile down his throat.

“As in Ovid’s Corinna?”

The sly moue of derision plays on his lips. The wondrous beauty of his face is transformed in the instant to graceless ordinariness.

“I thought you said this poem was going to be astoundingly original? Why not just burn all his books?”


I am a child, under the mocking eyes of that sack-sodden butcher growling up vomit as he finds me in bed, crouched beneath my little midnight tent, the last stub of wax scalding down my fingers, whispering, louder and louder, body, brain, bursting with the hot terror of the words as I read.

The sun-god’s horses run wild. Panic strikes him.  Phaëthon’s knees tremble with sudden fear, and over his eyes came darkness through excess of light. The earth explodes in flames.  The dark boiled, the scorched clouds smoke into his eyes.

The words on the page catch fire, burning me up with flames of tears till I think my heart will be blazed into a handful of dust. I’m crying out to the boy: “But you only wanted to find out how to know yourself!”

Jove aims his thunderbolt at the boy, takes aim and…

My little heart is swollen into my mouth.

“Don’t let that cruel flame fly!”

…and hurls the spiked flash into the young boy. The chariot explodes and Phaëthon is hurled from the car and from life. His body set on fire, he falls, with a long trail through the air, as sometimes a star from the clear heavens, although it does not fall, still seems to fall.

And my Father’s standing over me, telling me to stop “rubbing off on that cesspit of lies” as he grabs the book and holds it above the candle’s dying flame. “No!”

I’m to rise at four. And I’ll be scraping fetid flesh off the hides of once-breathing sheep, retching from the stench, one word bleating, bleating, bleating inside my head like a savage hammer. Revenge.

And I wonder now, will it be my fate never to know myself?

When I tell Hal this story he goes quiet. We hardly have to voice our thoughts on the subject of fathers.


“‘So this is how poetry gets written. Take a conceit from Ovid, a figure from Spenser, a hyperbole from Lyly and Sidney, and the poem has begun.’”

The lovely face comes back. Now he’s gripped once again by the ink from my brain.

His excitement excites me, and my joy flies back to me. Now he understands what I’m doing.

“‘Turn a blushing cheek into a crimson shame, tumescent female pudenda and pubic hair into round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough…’”

He’s striding in circles about the room, declaiming my words like a skilled player.

“Jesus, Will, what are you doing?”

I’m gulping back wine when I vowed to stay off it all week. I think I’m even growing wings. Re-quickened, unafraid, my heart grows wide and remembers when it stopped as my pen outran the page and produced perfection.

“‘Say, as everyone else does, that the face is more white and red than doves and roses are, and there are your first two stanzas. But…’”

“…once you start, Hal, you find you cannot stop.”

We are dancing around the bed, beating time to the rhythm of the words, one hand on each other’s shoulder, the other hand clutching our wine. Mine is red, his is white. We are spinning and twirling, spilling doves and roses from our cups and see them mingled into blushes on the bed.

“Play with an extended metaphor to make lips red sealing-wax and a thousand kisses the price of a human heart…”

Hal stops at this last line. “Jesus, Will.” And there’s a tear in his eye. He looks at me with perhaps love. Then shrugs off the moment and goes back to the pages.

“‘Flesh can be a dove, a lily, white sheets, alabaster or snow. What it cannot be in written poetry is…’”

I leap up, punching the air. “…Flesh!”

When we wake, the sun too bright for open eyes, brain clotted with last night’s wine, Hal sobers me up.

“So what’s a word poet to do without his doves and roses, his ruby portals, his heavenly balm and round rising hillocks? Call sweat, sweat?  Call flesh, flesh?  Call blood, blood?”

Fuck him, he’s right. Why not just give up? Why not just dribble out imitations of Ovid, paint bodies with tired tropes and soiled conceits like everyone else does?

“So what’s this poem going to say?” Hal my rhetoric master is back to mock me.    “The Goddess of Love has fingers, arms, legs, feet, a face, eyes, two breasts, and a cunt. Perhaps you should have her picking her nose.”

Why am I writing this fucking poem for him anyway? But whatever else it will be, it is my quest to birth a miracle.


What’s this? A tiny pulsing form nestles in my hand and takes shape, a little embryo laughing and kicking in its womb. But what’s this other form, muscling its way in? A second burden. A massive boar, its huge fangs digging deep gashes into my little seeded life. That Latin bastard’s here again. I look down at my sweet darling. It lies, polluted, dead, in its stinking casing.

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse that made a tomb of this womb?

            If there be nothing new, but that which is

            Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,

            Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss

            The second burden of a former child?

So. That’s it. Another abortive birth. The old story. Conceive a child and nourish its growth.  See it ripen, then watch it bud and be blasted in a breathing while.

Fuck off, Ovid. I’ve had enough of you for one day.

That’s when I decided to go and find him. I know. Dead for one thousand four hundred years. Fool. It’s hardly on a scale of escaping the slavery of my Father’s putrid workshop and travelling that mere one hundred miles to spend my days personating the postures of a strutting player. Instead of stretching leather, I stretch my hamstring and turn the world into a scaffoldage for tongue and thigh.

* * *

And so I am here in the land of the ancients, in the land of my beloved. Who I also hate. I am giddy: expectation whirls me round. The land is beautiful. I want to hold the light as it moves towards me, capture its quiet power. The very air seems renewed. I sit and write, sit and write. I’ve even, dear God, stuck some poems on trees, hoping he may find them.


He came to the pool again tonight. I think the old cock finds it amusing to watch me peck at my words and stab them.  All around I feel him. The shape-changer of language and bodies and poetry’s shadows.  Here is where his teeming brain took flight, the fecund source of his squabbling petty gods, cruel arbiters of life and death. And of their hapless victims, all playthings of the gods. Yes, you knew too well how they mock us for their sport.

Here is where you created that ceaselessly changing dizzying universe, comic now, tragic next. Your brave and madly arrogant (Oh so brave!) taking on your mighty predecessor. How you must have loved undercutting Virgil’s epic style, turning divine gods and goddesses into undignified captives of their desires.

There is Myrrha, trapped as the tree’s tentacles wrap around her sobbing body. The poor girl who prayed to be free of life and death, because she could not be in a world where she had deceived her father into fucking her. You turned her into a tree, and her beautiful boy Adonis issued from it. And there he is. His blood shed from the boar-fang’s wound, transformed by Venus, in her grief, into an anemone.

I look up and see the couch of clouds where Love and War writhed in ecstasy, hear the laughter of their audience, their fellow divines, delighting to see their coitus interrupted. My poet loved to put on a play.


I smelt him first. Sheep shit, blood and entrails high above the herbs and almonds. My heart was knocking in my chest so hard my toes were shaking. There he lay, naked, legs splayed – picking his nose. Ovidius Naso, old Big-Nose for smelling out the odiferous flowers of fancy, the jerks of invention. I noticed that his cock, at rest, was small. Very small. God in heaven, what am I thinking? Cocks and pens and picking noses. This is it. I’m here. He’s there, ten feet from me. He heaves up his huge hill of flesh, rattling up phlegm.  I watch the foul, turd-coloured gobbet spasm to the ground.

Shit in heaven. What am I doing? How did I ever think I could…. Could what? The sun has boiled my brain.  A pen scratching on parchment. Scars charactered on skin. Words cut into flayed flesh. That is what we do. Is it not lamentable that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment – to scribble insubstantial words on? My Father did not trouble to answer such a lily-livered question. Just told me to stir the shit in the pot to get the skins well soft. “And make sure you don’t let the pole touch them!” Blood and bits of flesh float in a whirlpool of death.


“How did you do it?” I stood there, bold and brave. No good beating about the olive bush.

He smacked a fly flat on his arm before he looked at me.



His eyebrow rises. ‘How do you think?’

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.”

“And why do you want to know?”

He slips a hand under his buttocks and pulls out one of my poems. I’m thinking I bet he’s farted on it.

“Because I want to get rid of you.”

“I did as you are doing now.” He gestures for me to sit beside him. To tell his tale.

“‘I sing of arms and the man,’ Virgil said. And I said, ‘Well, I sing of lust and the gods, mate. Unruly cocks and divine huffs. Hospitable cunts and inglorious deities and petty spites and gruesome rapes, and how power is wielded to crush and maim and murder innocent mortals.’”

Could he have hated Virgil this much? He glanced at me quickly, and I realised I had voiced the question.

“Hate. No. Without him I might not have taken an axe to his damned unities and created a new form.”

He leaned forward and spoke with earnestness.

“Take me, take him, take the best, tell the story differently.  Sing it anew.”

“I know that. It’s how.”

“I can’t help you if you don’t tell me anything.”

“I want bodies to sing my song.”


An almost full moon cast a strange blue light on the land. The colossus was snoring. He had filled my head with such thoughts I could not easily fathom. But the one that kept my brain in a whirl were that dreams tell of true events. And I said Yes because I know that truth in playmaking lies in its ability to deceive. Fiction lies in order to explore truths. Words can breed violent acts and love.

And that’s when I realised what Ovid had done with Virgil and all the poets and playwrights that came before him. He did not hold a mirror up to Nature. What he did was to create a wholly new fictive world – of mutability and change.

Ah! But the bodies that change weren’t breathing, were they Ovid?


The snoring has stopped. He stirs.

“Shall we go?” he says.

I look puzzled.

“If you’re going to chop my balls off, I imagine you’d want to do it in high drama out-storming the roarers and tossing them into the briny depths.”


His naked form emerges from the sea. Grown to a mighty boar, I rear up behind him. I hesitate. Is this patricide? I aim for that bolt dangling between his legs, but he’s quick. He twists my writing hand till it creaks and I scream as the curved blade takes to the sky. I turn, he’s gone. I dive beneath the waves to find him, forgetting to breathe hard first. He’s a strong swimmer, but I catch his foot and thrust it upwards through the surface and he’s upended, spluttering beneath the salty whips, fighting to find his breath.

But still he lives. We break through to the air, clasping each other like angry lovers. I summon beyond-human strength and thrust him down into raging waters, and limp to the shore.

Time is waiting for me. He offers me the iron sickle Cronus wielded to cut off his father’s testicles. I take it. My beloved poet’s face disappears again and again beneath the waves, but I find him straight away.

But something weakens me.

Will I be able to write without him?

I dive down between the legs that have held me up like crutches, and in one fell slice, the deed is done.

Red and white mingle into boiling pink foam. No, not red. Not white. Real Blood. Real flesh.

I emerge from the sea, triumphant, tossing the testicles behind me.

But I am weeping.

I look back, and there is Venus rising from the pink froth. She raises her beautiful arm and paints words across the sky. Not in his language now. In mine:

            Through all the ages shall I live in fame.


It must have been close to midnight. The words on my pages metamorphosed into human forms moving, speaking, breathing. Not trapped on the page, silent like an Ovid poem. So this is why I had to come here. Bodies, real flesh and blood. Lines scratched on skin become bodies.  Summon the world into presence. Here. Now.  If gone, gone.


Hal’s sleeping. He told me he likes the poem. But he still doesn’t understand why I had to go to Italy to write what he calls a frisky little piece. He did appreciate the way I turned Venus into a whore with words and Adonis into me – the poet struggling to remain chaste.

Don’t know what he’ll make of this one.

            Who is that says most which can say more

            Than this rich praise – that you alone are you.

If he doesn’t like it, fuck him. [/private]

Pauline Kiernan

About Pauline Kiernan

Pauline is a Shakespeare scholar, literary critic, awarded-winning playwright and screenwriter. She’s held lectureships and fellowships at Oxford and Reading Universities, is the author of Shakespeare’s Theory of Drama, Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe and Screenwriting They Can’t Resist. She gives talks on Shakespeare and creative writing in the UK and US. She’s currently working on a major project about Shakespeare and a novel. Her best-selling Filthy Shakespeare, an Observer Book of the Year, is recently republished in an e-book edition.

Pauline is a Shakespeare scholar, literary critic, awarded-winning playwright and screenwriter. She’s held lectureships and fellowships at Oxford and Reading Universities, is the author of Shakespeare’s Theory of Drama, Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe and Screenwriting They Can’t Resist. She gives talks on Shakespeare and creative writing in the UK and US. She’s currently working on a major project about Shakespeare and a novel. Her best-selling Filthy Shakespeare, an Observer Book of the Year, is recently republished in an e-book edition.

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