It was 8AD when you decided I was a bad man, when the love you said you felt no longer rose from your pores to meet my steam. It was 8AD then, when they ferried me on your behalf to the tail end of our Empire’s lobster-shaped cartography. It was 8AD when I fell from your graces and you ceased to respond with an affection matching mine. Misery will befall any man who loves Augustus, and who, by loving, exasperates him. Augustus must not be loved, and he who tries to love and be loved by Augustus is a man digging his own grave. This is the prediction I brought upon myself when I entered your body, allowed your body to enter mine, and let you too close to my heart, that overeager angel flanked by pocked and weakened wings, filling with fluid rather than air.
Parambassis ranga, the ray-finned glass fish from the fresh waters of South India, live delicately, cannot live well in captivity. Between walls, glass has a tendency to shatter when touched. Glass is happiest when it is born from lightning striking sand. Glass born from a human lung in the fiery captivity of a glass-blower’s studio is fragile, because humans have a propensity to make things ever more delicate until they can barely exist on their own. The fragility of the ailing human body is blown out of proportion by the isolation shrouding it when we cease to be able to see what’s raging inside us, or gain insight from each other into our pain.
We walk through the pale, sunlit corridors as people who have seen inside themselves. Our bodies made transparent to us, open to our gaze. This is the gift our illness has bestowed, and we carry it in our pockets, lung folded over dark lung.
The waters out here are murky, the sea is black, clinging to its own night. My body is too small to stir the sludge aside. How typical that the art of love, which I thoughtlessly carved into a slab, now stands between us, Augustus. When you became Caesar, I, your poet, became a threat, too volatile, too much like mercury, unfit to clarify even the cloudiest spleen. You began to fear my devouring spirit, Augustus, and you ceased to seek your solace in me, fleeing instead into the throne room to attend to leadership duties. But even this wasn’t far enough from my reach and you decided it was time I left Rome for good.
Banishment, you said. The men beating down my door were your ambassadors. Their arms seized me, and my body was banned to a cell for three nights before it was chained to a cart and ferried to the utmost edge of the Empire on the fourth dawn. Banishment for Ovid, who betrayed. The journey away from you lasted months, and with every passing day as I woke to find the wheels still turning I knew I would never see your face again, your face, it is true, shabbier with age and yet still the only face I assign to love. Time in exile ceases to flow cleanly, makes crosses instead of lines.
Despite what my letters say, it is not Rome I miss, is is the Rome that holds your body, Augustus, the Rome that is your flesh. Within the borders of Augustus, body and heart distended across mountains, seas and planes, there is no place for Ovid, the Empire now devoted to another fire, the love of strength that seized you when you became Caesar. The only truth between us is that I can’t be far enough away. But you don’t know, Augustus, that the poet’s mind is the foundation of metaxy, and the distance between us, even your death, makes you glow more significantly inside me. Did you think, Augustus, that banishment would suffocate my passion? Have you ever been loved? If you had, you would know that exile cannot end affection’s blaze once it’s underway. Love stays in the poet, materialising over time in his corporeal patterns.
Look into the waters and see their small, translucent bodies tracing paths, all spine and on each side an enormous eye, their flesh a kind of jelly. They swim past each other in the sweet watery slick, a window to their inside world, revealing how little of their inner space is taken up by organs, how much of them is spine, enormous eyes looking through the body’s glass. What can the large eyes see of their transparent peers? Like poets, do they speculate deep into the bodies and hearts of others until something is brought to the surface that should have remained hidden? They stare through the glassy skin at the incessant beating, the bones, the sparks. How constant our bones are when compared to what we feel. When you became Augustus, sometime after you became Caesar, though your heart continued to beat its wings, it no longer did so towards me.
Here I am, Ovid in exile, and like the wretched creatures I have fleshed out in words throughout my life, I am finally learning to languish and pine, to beat the hot ground with my bones, which carry in their marrow, indelible as code, my yearning for you. All those who are not you, Augustus, are unwanted, driving deeper into me the sickness that is your absence, a sickness that has wrung the strength from my lungs.
I dream of us, Augustus, together in exile in a fresh-air sanatorium, somewhere in the Swiss Alps perhaps, breathing the air that carries whiffs of soap and Edelweiss and billy goat shit and clean wet earth, breathing and hoping to cure the disease of loving too passionately. I dream of us there emptying our lungs of city life, of dust, of the humidity brought on by crying, by sweating, by lives unfitting for our needs. I dream of us there, in rooms next door to one another, in pyjamas of silver cotton thread, pince-nez, pomade in our hair, I dream that we walk past each other and feel the tentacles of longing shoot out from our skins, hooking into the beloved flesh. Our illness is one of sensitivity; it knocks the air right out of our tender lungs and leaves us reeling for a while. Like French saints, we burn, we suffer. I dream of us on chaises longues in the greenhouse, I reading my words to your ear until my voice gives out, I dream I hear you coughing next to me at night, who knows how long our bodies will last. We hope for the things the doctors tell us to hope, hope that our sheer will can make the illness go away.
It wasn’t you who tore down my chamber door that summer night, as you used to do in the past, when your eyes still burrowed into me, saying ‘Your words entice me, poet, the way you speak the Gods is truer than what shines from the temple walls. Hold my hand and follow me into the dark, teach me the difference between a spear and a reed.’ Those were your words to me when our bodies were younger, bodies we threw at each other without much thought against my plaster walls.
Think of the way technology makes our flesh translucent, radio waves exposing on screen what is happening within. In the tuberculosis ward, we carry the image of our own bodies exposed on screen, made into smears of light by electromagnetic waves; we have the doctors give us a print of our own internal image and we carry it over our hearts, show it to one another in the dark of our embraces. This is me, we say, me on the inside, all of me, love me for what you see. I have nothing to give but this flesh, these flattened ribs, the fumes of illness you see curling there, nothing but this bulky pear of a heart, the smudged cavities of my wringing lungs – this is all there is to me. Love me for this, if nothing else.
But you, the powerful one of us, flung my body as far from yours as you could, with the same insistence as you used to pull my head into your solar plexus. Before my banishment, when your love melted from your eyes, you said my crime towards you lay in something I saw, something I ought not have seen, the way water nymph Melusina melts into the rock when Count Siegfried spies on her in the bath – is it this sort of thing I have seen, Augustus, have I surprised you in full narcissistic thrall, in a metamorphosis of the flesh, have I spied in you something that belies your words as moral ruler over Rome’s unfathomable terrain? Have I seen in you what you yourself are unwilling to see, the ways in which you fail? The poet is a bad mirror, Augustus. Whatever I saw, it forced you to make me disappear.
And yet, for all the distance, my mind can’t but bear the beauty of your cheeks, the hair that falls like pale feathers on your face, your ears, their small, inward-curling perfection. I still feel the pointing of your tender hands, their skin fragile now and yet their beauty lies in the way they used to reach for me. Nothing will remove your features from my heart, Augustus. Think of the disease burning up our bodies when our lungs gave in, a fever of love we were too frail to feel, born victims of a consumptive passion, think of us are sent high up into the mountains to rest and breathe among the echoes, to heal there from the weakness in our chests, to suck in deep as much as we can of the fresh air said to be our saving grace. Think of the way the doctors have us stand behind a screen to see our bones shine in the dark like cartoon anatomy, every laboured breath visible through that impossible radio wall. Think of the ghostly way our ribs lie flattened on top of each other like wet shreds of paper on black water. Think of how we hold each other in the darkness of not-knowing, this summer retreat likely to take an abrupt end for some of us.
Imagine us, Augustus, as transparent people, habits and organs exposed to each other, in full sight of each other’s imminent stool, our flesh translucent like that of a fish. Imagine us able to comment on the health of each other’s lungs, the sparks in our nervous systems, the position of our hearts inside our chests. We could detect illness in each other just by looking in, the way apes eat the fleas from their sweetheart’s fur. Imagine living in such bodies, always open, always visible, imagine the anxiety of never being able to distract ourselves from our own pulse, our own heartbeats, our stomachs digesting. Imagine having nowhere to flee ourselves, how could we bear to be alone with no one to hold our bodies when the darks swirls of lovesickness unfold, imagine nothing hidden, no shield between us and ourselves. All there is, open to itself. Would it make us kinder men, do you think, more capable of intimacy?
Where else such a chance to see inside ourselves, inside each other? Creatures of excessive emotion, we bemoan the opacity we are tethered to, the clay in our epidermis, we fear the bewildered loneliness of our cloudy shell. I deal with the fear by flinging these words into the inhabitants of myths, I make them dance, I mould them, I ruin their lives; you take a spear and vanish into the duties of a man of mind. The political animal feeds on its worship of you, Augustus. Love was never something you could come to rest in, only ever one more conquest, a reward with which to widen your scope; soon boredom sets in. In the body of a poet, no matter how aged and frail, love remains cradled in devotion to itself, and the poet lives in a willingness to love and continue to trace every one of its folds.
In the tuberculosis ward, I am alone. The presence of you is carried only within my mind, a ghost, a desire, which will never again manifest in the flesh. “Me voici donc seul sur la terre,” says Rousseau, wandering spirit unbound yet trapped in an exile of his own. I am alone on earth when you die on a blistering August night, befitting your name. Your hands never again run down my spine, your flesh starves of mine. All these wars, these expansive settlements, all in your name, but for what, you ailing child? Your cough never left you; once, you kissed me and couldn’t tear yourself away before your cough shot deep into my throat.
I, the poet, belong to you, and your name is indelible on mine, carved into mine as if by some brutal machine in a colony of later years, carved again and again, with every new iteration of Augustus, even decades after your death, your name deepens the grooves it makes in my flesh. My verse were written in the age of you, and there is no wiping you from them. But since that initial crashing of our hearts, all these years ago, which led me to believe that like emotive planets we were leaving craters in one another’s surface, it seems thousands of years have passed, and I, though once a poet to whom the words and stars were kind, am now speaking from so far away that my images are muddled, my words smeared with a tacky gleam. No matter.
I wonder sometimes how many copies of me you went through before I was just another in a line of lovers to the great Augustus, all those attempts at changing yourself by rubbing your skin against another’s, all these Ovids with eyes like mine, concerns like mine, all these poets in line whom you chased down in admiration, saying, ‘Poet, I’ve never met a man like you.’ Inside the grooves dug by repetition, every time you spoke these words, said them again and again to poet after poet just like me, inside those hollows in your body reverberates my longing to hear them said again. The tubercular body is too sensitive to survive in a dispassionate empire. It coughs to eject the false air, the nauseating hope. On the doctor’s screen, black plumes of lovesickness appear, folding like hands around the weakened lung. The throbbing branches are no longer quartz, they no longer fan out with the pure joy of carrying blood toward the sky; instead, they liquefy. The body melts into phlegm as pale as candle wax.
When you die, Augustus, copy after copy of you emerges through time, these new rulers carry your name, and yet not one of them is you. It is not in the name that love is contained, not in the soul, love lives in the body, there inside the spotted lungs, inside the cracking bones, and when you died you never returned, no matter the abstraction you were flattened into, no matter the legends and coins, no matter the words you once said to me, you stayed gone.
How many copies before me? As many as there will be men who are Augustus after you have died? I am not the beginning of this string, Augustus, and I am not its end. I am somewhere in the middle, a meaningless pearl torn from an anonymous oyster on a seabed of no consequence. And yet in my body your name features indelibly, a permanent fleck on my lung. My mind unfurls in its retelling of the way your nose tip traced along my sternocleidomastoid, the way your hands held on to my wrists, your face impossible to erase from the jelly of my eyes. And yet such a translucent sickness, for all the value it adds to a poet, can never be the state of choice for a head of state, you said. A head of state is made of marble, you said, and does not carry his somatic secrets folded in a pocket across the breast.
Imagine compassion, made possible not by electromagnetic waves but by the barrier of the skin simply giving way to sight. Imagine the flesh clear as glass, imagine the incessant twitching and jumping under the surface, the blood curling its way into the organs. A living X-ray, and not just the one: every body the same. We wander the streets and see deep into each other, the flurries of activity there between our ribs, along our spines, the muscles milky under the surface. We see not the sex organs, we see the fluids and cells they carry. We see the bends in each other’s bones, the red flame in the suffering flesh, the darkness in the lungs of city dwellers, and we remember how to worry about each other. Up there in the mountainous resort, it’s so easy to believe the tale of lovers agonising side by side, hoping to be each other’s salvation. It is easier to live with the contradictions up here, of loving and not, of being angelic and animal, alone and beside you still.
The reason for my exile, it is said, is that one of us was too in love with himself, with what was too much like himself. We cannot say which of us it was. The result is the same: 8AD – a distance as wide as this Empire, which requires you to be always in its middle, will allow. 8AD ended me. All I wanted was to be your middle, Augustus, to be the centre into which you curl when the world tires you out. I will never see your face again before you die, before I die, nowhere but in sleep, every night since 8AD. Before this, Augustus, we were, for a brief moment, more open to each other than the murkiness of human skin allows, we were translucent, open to each other in words, in flesh, and I could see you there in front of me, I could see you completely.