Skip to content

Poems and Errors

Jennifer Clement

May 26th, 2020

It is a true honour to be here today and give the Lectio Magistralis on the 20th anniversary of Santa Maddalena.

In 2014 I came to Santa Maddalena for the first time as a resident writer and immediately loved the place created by Beatrice and so coloured by the presence of her husband Gregor Von Rezzori. But what is most special is Beatrice’s vision, or a kind of credo, which is if all else fails – because of war, loss of love, solitude, love, loss of protection – there is beauty, the beauty of landscape, great writing, art, and friendship.  


Ovid said his reason for banishment from Rome was due to “carmen et error”  (a poem and an error). These two words have walked together for over two thousand years and might seem not to speak to one another.  For me these two words lead as two ships toward two north stars. 

What was Ovid’s error? He was so discreet on this, that scholars and historians are not sure exactly. And what is an error? Is it a mistake that may be rectified? Is it different to an accident? Does it stand in the ideas of chance or fate? Was an error the unintended consequences of unwilled circumstances? Or in the words of Ovid, “desire and reason pulling in different directions.”

My interest in both poems and errors comes from Mexico where I was raised and still live. Mexico prepared me to see error as discovery, confusion and clarity. Both art and history reflected my everyday life.   The small ex-voto paintings of thanksgiving in churches, chapels and in peoples’ homes depicted all kinds of calamities and supernatural events. In the surreal paintings of Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo, Francisco Toledo and Leonora Carrington I could see a rooster make love to a woman, the moon being fed, a marble floor turning into a person and a woman sewing herself into being.  Even on the Day of the Dead skeletons could be pregnant.

The pre-Hispanic world of beauty, terror and contradiction was also a constant and very real presence.  We knew that the steps of the pyramids we climbed had been covered with rivers of blood from hearts that were taken out, still beating, from  the victims who were sacrificed to the Sun God.

In art and history, but also in everyday life, the Mexican order, or disorder, of things meant I could go to a Catholic mass in the morning and a bloody cock fight in evening; the circus that came to our street every September always had a show of a boy with two heads and we knew that if you touched the dust from butterfly wings you could go blind.

In Mexico we knew that inanimate objects could also make mistakes and be punished. One of the thirty-eight great bells, known as la Castigada (The Punished One), above Mexico City’s grand Metropolitan Cathedral, killed a novice bell ringer when the young man made the mistake of standing under the great two-ton bell. The bell was punished.  The sentence was silence. Silence forever. 

In my neighbourhood of San Angel I remember how during storms the cobblestones would be covered with small, delicate hailstones turning everything white. I’d pick up the ice balls and place them in my mouth like sweets. The neighbourhood gardener, Apolinar, said these storms ruined his gardens. He had been a bullfighter.  He’d roll up his worn out trousers and show me the round, horn-shaped wounds in his legs, which were the white and grey colour of oyster shells. “These,” he said, “are the scars from all my errors.” 

What I have described here has to do with error, but it also has to do with poetry -poetry as the search for truth and solace before the invisible and poetry as the expression of transformation. 

When I learned about Ovid and his banishment for a poem and error, and when I read his extraordinary poem Metamorphoses, which he called his “book of changes”, I already knew that a laurel tree was really a goddess and that you could look at someone and turn to stone.  I already knew that an error and a poem could make a woman change into a siren, stream, stag, rock, and constellation and even into a staircase of stone steps.


One year ago I was at Sounion in Greece, at the Temple of Poseidon, which stands on a cliff overlooking the sea.  It is here that the legendary Theseus navigated his ship toward home and made a fatal error. The hero forgot to take down the black mourning sail of his ship and fly the white, good news sail, which would have proclaimed his victory over the Minotaur.

The day was stormy and from the cliff I looked down into the black sea, into water that looked like the perilous storm seas in a William Turner painting.  And, as if I were experiencing an afterimage, I could see the doomed ship- Plutarch tells us was a thirty-oared galley -and envision Theseus’ father Aegeus throwing himself from this great height into the sea, the Aegean Sea, a sea named for this tragic mistake like the naming of a history lesson. 

The mind makes bridges of thought, so the vision made me recall the poem “On the Blue Shore of Silence by Pablo Neruda, which reflects on the sea as a body of knowledge. This is the opening stanza:

            I need the sea because it teaches me (…)
            in some magnetic way I move in
            the university of the waves.

The white marble of Poseidon’s Temple on this cliff overlooks this “university of the waves” and is covered in a latticework of graffiti, not the spray-can graffiti of our time, but graffiti that is carved into the stone or chipped away with chisels and hammers.  Among dates and names in several languages, the poet Lord Byron’s name is sculpted on the outside, square column, second from the right, and third block up.

In his epic poem Don Juan, from 1819, Byron mentions Sounion:

            Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,

            Where nothing, save the waves and I,

            May hear our mutual murmurs sweep…

Lord Byron went to Greece on a Mediterranean tour in 1809 and later he died there after self-imposed exile because he’d made a mistake.  Not only did he fall in love with his half-sister Augusta, he published the poems that exposed his taboo love and that even produced a child.  In a letter penned after his daughter’s birth, which shows the fear he must have felt at the thought of having a child of incest, Byron wrote, “Oh, but it is not an ape, and it is worth while.”

We know Lord Byron and Augusta were shunned. Peter Gunn in his biography of Augusta wrote, “ No sooner had they entered the room… than they were aware that they were the object of general attention…the men turned their back on them and moved away. He (Byron) stood silently to one side, watching the expression of disapproval on the part of people who had most recently courted him.” Soon thereafter Byron fled from England, never to return.

In Byron’s poem, where again he names the muse of unlawful, aberrant love, he speaks to the error.  Byron does not think his love is an error; the error was to publish the poem, which exposed his sister-love.  In his poem “Epistle to Augusta he writes:

            Mine were my faults,

            and mine be their reward.

My fascination with this story, led me to write a long story poem called A Salamander-Child on Lord Byron and Augusta, which begins: 

            With a face of veils and dusk,

            you lived scorned and apple-full, Augusta,

            because your brother drew the lines

            inside your hands and birthmarked you for him. 

            You were his bird, dearest of all,



            the wish-half of the wishbone.

The questions of error, accident or chance have also been core themes in my novels. In The Poison That Fascinates the main protagonist falls in love with her brother who she thinks is her cousin. This story also echoes the tragedy of Mexico’s founding myth about the god Quetzalcoatl who, made drunk by his enemies, sleeps with his sister.  When he awakes, and realizes what he’s done, he leaves the Mexican peoples and goes into exile.   Many historians believe the Mexica people’s grave mistake was that they believed Hernan Cortez, Mexico’s Spanish conqueror, was the return of this great god.  

In my novel, in order to act, the main female character is transformed by dressing in her lover’s clothes – her half-brother’s clothes.   This is inspired by Shakespeare’s game of garments:  Rosalind as Ganymede, Portia as the doctor of law, Viola as Cesario and Imogen who cross dressed as the boy Fidele.  Also the words of Lady Macbeth, “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here” are present as my character must cross dress in order to kill.  This is the moment:

First she puts on his blue linen trousers and fastens his leather belt around her waist. They hang loosely on her hips. Then she puts on his white shirt and does not bother to close up the buttons. She slips her bare feet into his shoes… and the shape of his foot under her foot. She walks where he walks (…) Inside his clothes she still feels the warmth of his body against her arms (…) Emily opens a kitchen drawer. In the drawer there is: a filleting knife, boning knife,
ham knife,
carving knife, grapefruit knife, bread knife,
cook’s knife
,oyster knife,
and a paring knife. She takes out the cook’s knife and the oyster knife. Two knives for two hands. They are not heavy.


I was in Greece on a trip for PEN International -the world’s oldest and largest international literary organisation. PEN was created from an awareness, after World War 1, that writers themselves had contributed to creating xenophobia and hatred and that a global network might help future conflicts. Of all our cases, it is the poets who are incarcerated, punished or forced into exile, who move me most. Poetry is almost the only thing that has no monetary value.  You cannot sell a poem.  Nobody wants to buy a poem. Poems are not for sale in the market by the apples and peaches; or in the auction houses by sculptures and paintings.  I confess that it gives me a strange wonder to think that a poem is so powerful and so dangerous that a poet can be locked up and sentenced to death for rhymes and couplets, for metaphors and symbols. 

PEN’s very first case was a failed attempt to save Federico Garcia Lorca who, on poetry, wrote, “The artist, and particularly the poet, is always an anarchist in the best sense of the word… (and) must heed only the call that arises within (…) from three strong voices: the voice of death, with all its foreboding, the voice of love and the voice of art.”  

When contemplating how dangerous poems have become, I recall the words of British poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, “If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have let him alone.” 

In our times, if Galileo had inked his discoveries in free verse with stanza breaks in a place like Saudi Arabia for example, he might be looking at the sky- his round, telescope-shaped sky- from a prison cell.  And, since we are in Florence and surrounded by lands covered in vineyards, it is good to remember Galileo’s description of wine, which could be a short poem, “Wine is sunlight, held together by water.”

In Saudi Arabia a poet can be sentenced to death for his or her poetry. Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh has written among other verses, ‘Earth is the hell prepared for refugees’ and was sentenced to death by beheading for promoting atheism in his poems, which were used as evidence in his trial.   (Due to public outcry his sentence has been reduced to 8 years in prison and 800 lashes.)

Ilhan Sami Comak is a Kurdish poet who has been in prison in Turkey for twenty-six years and still has five more years to go to complete his draconian sentence. He was arrested as a university student when he was only twenty-one.

One PEN story that we can never forget is the case of Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was tortured and executed on November 10, 1995. Saro-Wiwa was an award-winning writer who defended the Ogoni people whose land was being exploited and polluted by Shell Oil with the complicity of the Nigerian government.

Today in our PEN case list we have 47 poets to defend -poets who have been harassed, threatened with death, detained, imprisoned, and tortured. Everyday members of PEN think of these poets and their suffering.  We know, for poets who are incarcerated, the sun is cold and there are months between months, days between days and hours between hours.  Even in those months, days and hours of the jailed, which are not on the calendar, we are working for their freedom of expression and their freedom. Regarding this constant PEN vigil, Nedim Türfent, who is jailed in Turkey, wrote,  “…PEN is right there, akin to keeping company to caged birds…”

A poem today is even able to produce a serious international crisis.  In early 2016 German comedian Jan Böhmermann wrote a satirical poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  The Vice Minister of Turkey called the poem a “serious crime against humanity” and Erdoğan himself asked the German government to launch a probe against the writer over the poem.

Another recent case is that of Jordanian Princess Haya who left her husband Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who is Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai.   The princess fled the country and is seeking political asylum in Britain with their two children.

The princess’ husband did not threaten to kidnap her.  He did not threaten to poison her, beat her with lashings, keep her in the palace dungeon or starve or stone her to death.  He did not say beware you will fall off of your horse or beware your plane will mysteriously crash.  No.  He wrote her a poem titled “You Live, You Die,” which he published on his official Instagram page. One can only imagine the terror Princess Haya must feel.  She knows, and we know, this poem is a death sentence; an order to be carried out by someone.

Two years ago I visited Dareen Tatour, the Palestinian poet and photographer who was jailed in Israel for a few months and placed under house arrest for a poem. She gave me a white linen cloth she’d embroidered in red thread with the words, “Poetry is not a crime.” 


In Middlemarch George Eliot wrote, “…the very breath of science is a contest with mistake…”  This inevitably made me think of mistakes in science, which often become myths. A recent story is that of the Mars Climate Orbiter, which was built to study the climate, atmosphere and surface changes on Mars. The navigation team used the metric system of millimetres and meters in its calculations, while the scientists who designed and built the spacecraft used the English system of inches, feet, and pounds.  Thanks to these errors the Orbiter, worth $125 million dollars, blew up into pieces after ten months of travel to the red planet.  The thought of centimeters and inches in confusion – like playing chess against checkers – is mythical, worthy of a battle or epic poem.

One of the most famous errors of miscalculation happened to Christopher Columbus when he used Roman miles instead of nautical miles to measure the circumference of the earth.  This is why, when he landed at the Bahamas in1492, he thought he was in Asia.

The error of forensically analysing handwriting – t’s that are crossed, the pressure and slant of the strokes, the shape and size of the letters and the threads of ink – condemned Alfred Dreyfus, an innocent man. The Dreyfus Affair divided and shocked the people of France and the world over with profound consequences.

The French chemist Louis Pasteur wrote that, “Chance favours the prepared mind.”  He was referring to a mistake in timing, as he let certain cholera cultures stand idle while he went on a holiday, which ended up being longer than planned. This became the basis of the  germ theory of disease and medical microbiology as well as contributing to his extraordinary work on vaccines. Much has been written about the heuristic function of “error” in Pasteur’s work.

In my book Newton’s Sailor I have written poems about scientists and scientific discoveries.  A chapter in my novella Stormy People is about Louis Pasteur.  In Newton’s Sailor there are a series of persona poems in the voice of the chemist Marie Curie.  Curie writes letters to her dead husband, who not only had been her great love, but also a remarkable scientific collaborator.  In my poem Marie Curie speaks to the grave concern that Pierre’s death my have a terrible effect on the experiments.  These are the last two lines:

I have kept your death from the equations

in case they lose courage.

Vladimir Horowitz, the pianist, wrote about using error as an actual technique, “I must tell you I take terrible risks,” he said. “Because my playing is very clear, when I make a

mistake you hear it. If you want me to play only the notes without any specific dynamics, I will never make one mistake.  Never be afraid to dare.”

Even in the cloak and dagger worlds of spies, errors can read like literature. There is the story of an Eastern European spy who had infiltrated the United States and was under surveillance by the FBI.  He was found out and later arrested by being observed buying flowers at a flower shop.  He carried the bouquet upside down with the stems in the air and flowers facing the ground.

There is one mistake with spiritual consequences that ended up in one of the great poems of the 20th Century and has to do with the great Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton who famously said, “When things are easy, I hate it.”  

On his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1914 to 1917 on the ship Endurance, Shackleton made a fateful error of dismissing the advice of the seamen who lived at the whaling settlement on South Georgia Island.  These experienced men warned the explorer to postpone his trip because of an unusually thick pack of ice, which had formed that year. 

One cannot write about this moment without mentioning the penguins who suddenly appeared the moment Shackleton’s ship broke into pieces as it was crushed by the ice and disappeared into the water.  The explorer wrote, “A strange occurrence was the sudden appearance of eight emperor penguins from a crack 100 yards away at the moment when the pressure upon the ship was at its climax. They walked a little way towards us, halted, and after a few ordinary calls proceeded to utter weird cries that sounded like a dirge for the ship. None of us had ever before heard the emperors utter any other than the most simple calls or cries…”

Once the ship was lost, came a story of survival, human endurance and heroism. Shackleton describes the terrible last thirty-six hour march in South Georgia with two men, covering thirty-two miles of glaciers and mountains, toward a whaling station and help at long last.   This march continues to be considered one of humanity’s most extraordinary feats.  During these hours of cold, hunger and hardship, and wearing boots with screws hammered into the soles for traction, the three men felt the presence, even in the sound of steps on the crushed ice, of another man walking beside them.  During the march, the men did not tell each other of this godly visitation out of fear that they were going mad. 

Shackleton wrote on this later, “(…) during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.’ Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels ‘the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech’ in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.”

T.S. Eliot in “The Wasteland” recorded this experience. These are the lines:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
— But who is that on the other side of you?

Sir Ernest Shackleton cared deeply about poetry.  His great friend, Mrs. Hope Guthrie, wrote, ‘Poetry was his other world and he explored it as eagerly as he did the great Antarctic spaces,’ said his friend.  The explorer’s diaries, letters, and speeches are filled with poems and he used poetry to motivate his men who were often at their physical and mental limits.  Shackleton wrote that poetry for him was, “vital mental medicine.”


It’s hard, or impossible, to think of errors today without thinking of Freud who detected in our myths and stories the origin of our shared conditions.  W.H. Auden wrote a

poem titled “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” with these lines:

“…he would have us remember most of all 

to be enthusiastic over the night,     

not only for the sense of wonder it alone has to offer,

but also because it needs our love.”

In humanity’s search to understand the mind, and although others before Freud had crafted some ideas on the unconscious, it is Freud who is first to perceive unintentional errors as truth, unknown truth. Freud wrote in his An Autobiographical Study, “In the same way that psycho-analysis makes use of dream interpretation, it also profits by the study of the numerous little slips and mistakes which people make (…)—they have a meaning and can be interpreted, and that one is justified in inferring from them the presence of restrained or repressed impulses and intentions.”

I well understand the wonder Auden speaks to in evoking the “night of the unconscious” as a place of truth. And both the night and the day need our love.

We have errors in the history of literature and we also have the history of errors, which lead back to the most ancient myths: stories lead from stories, the fable rewritten or forgotten, the lesson learned, unlearned, and relearned. In this literary DNA modern examples include Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which the author himself said is a child of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, as Rulfo’s book is influenced by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

To travel both the story and the mistake can be a labyrinth. King Midas’s error, as an example, is chronicled in various contradictory ways by Pausanias, Sophocles, Herodotus, the Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia and Ovid in his Metamorphoses.  Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley together wrote a play in blank verse on the story in 1820 while they were living in Italy.  In recent times Carol Ann Duffy takes inspiration from the king who was not able to recognize true happiness and the tragedy of avarice in a poem called “Mrs. Midas.” Here is one stanza:

Separate beds. in fact, I put a chair against my door,
near petrified. He was below, turning the spare room
into the tomb of Tutankhamen. You see, we were passionate then,
in those halcyon days; unwrapping each other, rapidly,
like presents, fast food. But now I feared his honeyed embrace,
the kiss that would turn my lips to a work of art.

One of literature’s mysterious rewards is how our assessment of an error can change.  I remember in my first reading of Madame Bovary, I was impatient with her and judgemental of her frivolity and mistakes.  Decades later, when I read the book for a third time, I was filled with compassion and love for her.  I was able to comprehend her terrifying question, “Is this all there is?” because I understood how her love of books, which were exciting, made her own life seem so dull and are even seen as the root of her malady.  Here is one passage where Flaubert speaks to this:

So it was decided that Emma would be prevented from reading novels. The project did not seem an easy one. The good lady took it upon herself: on her way through Rouen, she would go in person to the proprietor of the lending library and inform him that Emma was terminating her subscription. Wouldn’t one have the right to alert the police if, despite this, the bookseller persisted in his business as purveyor of poison.

And sometimes nothing changes. Every time Romeo makes the mistake and drinks the poison we drink it too.  Molly Bloom, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, makes the error of leaving her lover’s letter visible to her husband, “…his backward eye saw her glance at the letter and tuck it under her pillow…” Throughout the novel, we all walk with Leopold Bloom, back and forth, inside and outside of his mind, through the streets of Dublin and that lifetime that occurs in twenty-four hours knowing his wife is going to meet and sleep with her lover. And we, like Bloom, ask ourselves word after word and page after page, “Can we still love her?” 

And we can never think of Theseus without feeling the ache in our hands to unfold the white sails.


A way of living where literature and life reside together and are equally important comes from my father. He was passionate about Shakespeare’s works and knew many of the well-known and not so-well known monologues by heart.  He could also recite poetry and, with a prodigious memory, worked to memorize poems so that they would become a part of him.  He was a chemical engineer, excellent mathematician and invented machines that are registered at The United States Patent and Trademark Office.  And he knew words and sustained that poetry was the place where one could find of a kind of salvation. He would have felt a kingship with the words from Poetry and Religion, a poem by the late Australian poet Les Murray, which states:

Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture

into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words (…)

My father was from New York City and moved his family to Mexico in the early 1960’s where he died at a young age.   At this point I can say I did not know my father very well, or maybe he never knew me is the greater truth, but I do know the novels, plays and poems that are his and are mine and now belong to my children too as if they were our own family stories.

As a child in those days in Mexico we used to have our clothes made by a seamstress who came to the house.  The country was still closed off from the rest of the world – this was before the North American Free Trade Agreement and it wasn’t easy to go shopping for clothes like it is today.  My mother liked to blindfold her daughters during these fittings so that the dresses once finished would be a surprise. As this usually happened in the evenings when we were home from school and my father was back from work, he would keep us company. In the darkness from the cloth covering my eyes and tied around my head, I sensed the different texture of fabrics on my skin and felt the prick of a pin at my knee from an adjustment of the hem or the warm touch of fingers marking the place for buttons down the length of cloth, which went down my back.  Most times my father would sit quietly or talk to the seamstress, but often he’d take this moment when his two daughters were both still and blind to recite poems. 

What I remember most, apart from my father’s ability to recite Shakespeare, was his obsession with Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. My father used to paraphrase the ending lines at Ivan Ilyich’s deathbed – the questioning of the life lived- as a way of saying, “ Watch out, beware, what will you be asking yourself on that last day of days?”  Or he’d recite the unforgettable line from the novella, which is, “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”  In other words: no mistakes.   That line was the centrepiece philosophy of my childhood: It dared me to jump, to run away from home, to be a writer and say yes, sometimes recklessly, to everything.

Here, remembering my father, I recall the fistfights he used to get into as if even a fight kept you from the simple, ordinary and most terrible life.  He would actually punch people in the face, get up from a table so quickly his chair would fall away and on to the floor.  There was the inevitable blood on his lip or coming out of his nose.  He’d wipe away the blood with his impeccable white linen handkerchief, which I now suddenly think he must have carried for these quick-as-lightning brawls. He beat up our French tutor’s husband, who was a well-known doctor, philanderer and very jealous husband.  Once we went fishing on a lake (I believe I must have been about eleven years old and my sister was nine) and my father made us wait on the dock for hours so he could beat up the man who, speeding irreverently by in a motor boat, had shred our fishing lines into threads floating on the water’s surface.   As it grew dark and cold on that Saturday evening, we waited for the fight.  When the motorboat drew inland my father was ready as his two daughters cowered at the end of the dock, near the shore, knowing our father’s anger filled the whole world.

The poems I wrote when I was seven, eight, nine and ten years old – I did start to to write this early – my father would have his secretary type up in a small three ring binder. I even remember writing my name within two lines in a school penmanship book and thinking, “How is this my name?  How is this me?”  And when I asked my father he answered, “You will never understand your name.”

Ovid said he was exiled from Rome because of a poem and an error and my father would have seen these two words as a way to live both toward and in passion.  My father knew Tolstoy’s acknowledgement of the terrible life, the ordinary life, would never be found in poetry and so he gave me poems along with the hope that I would make mistakes.  My father was a man who had drunken brawls but, sometime in the 1940’s, he also waltzed down the very centre of Fifth Avenue at three in the morning with his cousin.  They waltzed all the way from my grandparents’ uptown apartment to Washington Square Park – a waltz that lasted seventy-five blocks.


In December 2017 The Rome City Council voted to, “ “repair the serious wrong” suffered by Ovid due to his punishment and lifelong banishment from the capital. Rome’s deputy mayor, Luca Bergamo, said to the councillors in regard to this action, “It is about the fundamental right of artists to express themselves freely in societies in which, around the world, the freedom of artistic expression is increasingly constrained.” So, more than two thousand years after Augustus banished the poet, Ovid was pardoned and allowed to return to his homeland.

For his freedom, I wrote a poem.  Here is a fragment:

This night

when Ovid is pardoned

by the City Council and may return

from exile to Rome

there is metamorphosis (…)

And everywhere there is love

unspoken as if breathing words 

into sound might bring poems

and errors.

This night

my long marches have kept me quiet

and I am all the statues.

Under these winter stars

armless Venus dreams

of an embrace.

For his poems and errors Ovid would have been a PEN case today.  As the President of PEN International, I would have organized campaigns around his views and work and might have taken his case to the European Court of Human Rights where we have several cases at present.   PEN Centres would have held vigils for Ovid in front of Italian embassies around the world.

As a writer, I experience Ovid’s life and work as a way to be. In error I can go astray and wander and take risks toward the possibility of discovery. In poetry I find metaphor and contradiction and worlds that should exist – those places where poets and cathedral bells can be forgiven.