Horace’s Odes have been through the proverbial mill. Scholars, poets and schoolboys have all had their pop, translating and reinventing and bowdlerizing, from Pope to Byron to Rudyard Kipling’s illatinate ‘Beetle;, whose translation of the ‘Regulus ode’ proved the last and quite possibly most testing ordeal of that Roman hero. Two thousand years down the line and counting, the forty nine poems in Maureen Almond’s ‘Chasing the Ivy’, all but two of them parallels or responses to poems in Odes I, offer up a Horace still very much green and kicking, and for once being given a few good kicks in return. In proud Horatian tradition this is very firmly the poetry of the individual. It matters for a reading of these poems that they are written by a ‘down-to-earth’, gritty female from Teesside’ (her description), and the poetics, the politics, and the poetic politics are of Almond’s time and place, not Horace’s. Her canon is inhabited by ‘;those certain, sexy women, ‘ Your Shapcotts and your Duffys and your Olds’; for her double-edged demon, fatale monstrum, she transposes Cleopatra with Maggie Thatcher.
Ode to 22 November, 1990
(after Horace Ode 1.37 Nunc est bibendum)
At last we breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Now let’s sit back and watch the fun and games.
Time to stock committee rooms with claret:
till lately just one glass was out of reach,
the birch-keen crazy woman saw to that.
Power-mad, she tanked-up on the Falklands
then with her rotten cronies took our capital,
and poll-taxed poor pensioners and poets.
Now she’s brought to heel: (though having once
survived like Cleopatra and her ships),
rejected by her own, a sober thought,
she sees the proper battle on her hands.
While in the wings the hawkish Michael waits
to peck this honourable monster carcass clean.
But the Carlton Club’s most honorary member
stares her crushed society in the face.
She chose her poison, took it like a man
enjoyed defeat and didn’t do a U-turn.
The media didn’t march the Iron Lady
before us as a rusty washed-up has-been.
Among her most marked ongoing anxieties Almond refers frequently to the modern British poetry scene, its covert infighting and its ‘poet dog-eat-dogs’, the dreaded lure of ‘poncey southern culture’ and the virtues of New Writing North. It’s perhaps the details that are most telling; if anyone thought Horace’s choice of tipple had no real significance, they should try the semiotics of Almond’s pint of Newcastle Brown. Almond is, of course, a woman, and Horace was never the archetypal proto-feminist. How to deal with the procession of one-night-stands? Almond’s solution is to give Glycera, Chloe, Lydia and the gang voices of their own. And they sure aren’t shy; ‘I’m no more interested in the long term / than you are, pet,’ says Glycere, ‘…Don’t you recognise a “come-on” when you see it?’ ‘You were wrong,’ says Lydia, rejected for her wrinkles, ‘I’ve not aged, I’ve matured. / I’m rounded, fuller-bodied with a fruity whiff.’ No space for pity here, and it’s worth noting that it’s the ladies who get thew last word in this volume. Almond’s voice comes as a stimulating addition and kickback to the Horatian afterlife, and the man from the banks of the Aufidus would no doubt chuckle to hear the resounding echo of the Ultima Britanna and her ‘speechless Tees’. (Elizabeth Mitchell)