Eve at Washington’s Crossing. It commemorates Washington’s troopssneaking across the Delaware blocked with ice in a blizzard to attackthe Hessians at Trenton and with that surprise attack reversing the war,giving the American troops time to organize. Then came Valley Forge,that bitter winter where Washington lost troops, with some just walking home. No shoes, no coats, no boots; they just quit. But those whoremained hung on, and the question is why. Whatever made them thinkthey could succeed? Do we now even have such a possibility? What couldwe do to pull ourselves together in sacrifice? Is there even such a riverbank that we would gather on—obviously metaphorically—where wewould band together about something for our own common good thatwould require common sacrifice? That little poem worries about that.
“Poetry Reading by the Black Sea” is a poem about Ovid, who wasexiled by the emperor Augustus to the Black Sea and Tomis, a remoteport where Latin wasn’t even spoken. In other words, here you put thegreatest poet in the empire in a place where nobody speaks his language.It wasn’t even technically exile. Exile, or exsilium, in Roman times was alegal category. If you were in exsilium you could not come within sixtymiles of Rome. You could travel anywhere in the world, but you couldnot come any closer to Rome. But there was a crueler, more specific punishment called relegatus, which was Ovid’s punishment. Ovid couldnot leave that seaport town in present-day Romania near the Black Sea,where once again barbarians, with their vigor, were attacking.
The cover of the book hints at what the book is about. You see the bigstone faces of those minor but very powerful leaders—Antiochus III, forinstance—a tradition of despots that Alexander the Greek and his generals left behind in Asia Minor. In the cracked, monumental faces big asbuildings, the whole mountainside is a monument to imperial fantasy. IfIs there even such a riverbank that we would gatheron—obviously metaphorically—where we would bandtogether about something for our own common goodthat would require common sacrifice?