TEXT review


Roman novel in verse

review by Paul Skrebels

 


Linda Weste
Nothing Sacred
Arcadia, Imprint of Australian Scholarly Publishing
North Melbourne, Victoria 2015
ISBN9781925333220
Pb 182pp AUD24.95

 

The historical fault line between the collapse of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Imperium during the first century BC has long fascinated writers. It was well documented by classical contemporaries, was a source of inspiration for Shakespeare with Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, and still finds expression in a range of works such as Tom Holland’s recent historical study Rubicon and the HBO television mini-series Rome. Into this tradition comes Linda Weste’s Nothing Sacred, a ‘novel in verse’ comprising 86 short poems with endnotes and other supportive material.

The poems cover a period of some twenty-five years from the ascendance of Pompey the Great to the assassinations of Caesar and Cicero and the final death throes of the Republic. Each poem is a self-contained vignette which nevertheless contributes to a coherent inner narrative of the lives of various characters involved in a range of circumstances, events and relationships. Linda Weste’s work reveals a deep internalising of its subject matter; Nothing Sacred embraces the particularity and, to us, frequent bizarre otherness of the world of Republican Rome, and re-presents it as a living thing. The poems strategically employ deft flicks of ‘Romanness’ – not least in their use of the Latin language itself – to evoke a precise context for the foibles, experiences and anxieties of identifiably real characters: the decadent Clodii, the social-climbing Caelius, the intellectual Cicero, fellow-poet Catullus, and even great Caesar himself.

Weste demonstrates her maturity as a poet in the skill with which she handles her craft to convey insights into the ways different people operate within very specific social, political and cultural contexts. Nothing Sacred is neither presentist – as with so many current television shows where the settings are historical but the characters are obviously modern in their sensibilities – nor is it simply historicist, where the antiquity and otherness are preserved under glass, as it were. The net result is that our engagement with that world and these characters is neither wholly rational nor purely emotional. It is an aesthetic response; one in which we appreciate the quality of the telling – the artefact itself – no matter how harrowing the subject matter or the moral position of its ostensible narrator. We ‘feel’ the work as we come to understand it.

An effective example of this can be found in the poem ‘Gargantuan’ (75-77). In Rubicon, Tom Holland discusses Cicero’s musings on the effect on the populace of Pompey’s games, which saw the slaughter of countless wild animals in the name of entertainment. In particular there was an overwhelmingly negative reaction by the spectators to the deaths of twenty elephants, which for Cicero became a gauge of the change in the Roman political climate. Weste’s poetic version places us not only in the midst of the arena, dramatising the incident in all its horror and pathos, but pays due tribute to the nobility of the animals themselves. Out of a ghastly topic she has created a beautiful poem, and ‘Gargantuan’ is by no means the only instance where she manages to achieve this.

Nothing Sacred is therefore no mere versification of previous accounts of this key period in the history of Rome (and indeed of western civilisation itself). Instead, it offers us a fresh way of knowing that world through the very medium of poetry; and as with all worthwhile poetry, it both encourages and rewards repeated and closer reading to enhance that knowledge. This is a remarkable first novel, revealing a degree of virtuosity which suggests it won’t be Linda Weste’s last.

 

Note: This review was arranged by TEXT editors without the participation of the TEXT Reviews Editor in the process

 

 

Paul Skrebels has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Adelaide and lectured for 21 years at the University of South Australia. He was a foundation member and co-creator of the University’s Writing program, and helped found its Narratives of War research group. He has had a lifelong interest in history, particularly military history, and since 2011 has been editor of Sabretache, the journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia.

 

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TEXT
Vol 19 No 2 October 2015
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste
text@textjournal.com.au