NEVER IN THE FEMININE
NEVER IN THE FEMININE
I sing of arms and the man. The man’s soft hands, his eyes, the inky black of his beard. I sing of the man as I struggle to parse Virgil’s Aeneid in my high school Latin class. The whole of the poem is instruction in obedience: how to read; how to speak; how to transmute the unknown into the known. I submit. I obey. I acquiesce to the rules of language and chant again the things I desire: his clutching hands, his dark eyes, the rough curl of his beard. The way he looks at me.
We are deciphering a code. We are chanting: amo, amas, amat. We are translating an incantation. I love, I recite. You love, you love with all you have. He loves. Does he love? I am 17 and the man I love is the English teacher, teaching in the classroom next door. Amamus, amatis, amant. In translating, we mangle the phrases, we mute the rage. I touch his arm, his shoulder, his neck. He pushes me up against the wall. What is love?
The first part of the poem is the invocation of the muse. A calling forth. The second part tells of the anger of Juno. Can there be such rage? Desire proceeds from the encounter in dactylic hexameter. It sings a song of exile, of cruelty, of fate. With him, I look for the rhythm. A measure, a slipping between worlds, from here to there, a sliding.
In Latin, verbs must be conjugated. To desire: it must be conjugated. Voice, mood, tense. Number. Person. I long for him most at night, alone. I am a person, silent. Where is he? There are four conjugations. Driven, I search for him by day. Here is an example of the first conjugation: desidero, desiderare, desideravi, desiderandum, “to desire, to yearn.” I wait for him in the room. I sit straight in the chair.
Desire only exists through a structure, an assemblage. I love like a language, I am born into this gaping yearning, I am spoken into being. But I feel it most in my body. When he looks at me. When he looks at me from a distance.
There are three persons (first, second, and third), two numbers (singular and plural, me and we), and three times (past, present, future, but, there will be no future with him). He kissed me in the past, more than once, plural, always quickly, furtive, always in a hurry, and there is an active voice and a passive voice. I don’t remember his voice now. Was it soft or hard? I remember his face in profile. He wore glasses. He walked with his head down. He held his books close to his chest. He was not noted for his virtue but I wanted to please him. Was he cruel?
Verbs also have a mood. I gradually moved toward the imperative with him, toward exhortation. In English, the imperative is formed using the bare infinitive form of the verb, as in “Touch me!” The imperative is negated using don’t, as in “Don’t touch me!”
Nouns, pronouns, and adjectives must be declined. In class, the Latin students decline together, in unison. With him, alone, there is no desire to decline. The words’ endings alter to show grammatical case. What is the opposite of decline? The ending, I learn later, will show nothing. The connection simply severed. A gap. No words. A set of declined forms of the same word pattern is called a declension. Declension. Clenching. Unclenching. The body knows this language. What I feel arise, though, must be translated through a system of codes. Sentences will structure the desire. Words will calm it. Desire is a production.
I languish in the caesura: a break in sense.
Latin, we learn, is also a fusional language. Its words include an objective semantic foundation, but meaning is inflected by markers. Each marker must be learned, memorized. When it’s over, I will want to mark him. The fusion produces compact sentence elements. I want to cut him. Inflected forms are free or bound. I feel bound. Words that are never subject to inflection are said to be invariant; for example, the English verb “must” is an invariant. Must.
There are five declensions, and at least two other lovers, both of them girls in the senior class, which are numbered and grouped by ending and grammatical gender. Ego furor. Words referring to females are feminine and words referring to males are masculine. The words adapt to their gender. I am not adapting to my gender. I am grieved. We continue to stomp on the words. We drag them across the field. One long syllable followed by two short. A pounding. A wail.
This is the declension of the English pronoun I, which is inflected for case and number: I, me, my, mine, myself. I prefer the possessive determiner, even though it is a subclass, and always subject to agreement: My. The plural: Our. But there is no plural. He is not mine and there is no agreement.
Latin does not have articles and so does not generally differentiate between, for example, “a girl” and “the girl”: puella amat means both “a girl loves” and “the girl loves.” But I do differentiate. I am the one who loves. Not her. Not them. I love. I distinguish. I note, I list, I transcribe, translate, transform. The girl: Puella.
Homo relinquit means both “a man leaves” and “the man leaves.” He disappeared. Pronouns, I think, are important, but they’re often contained in the subject.
An example of a Latin noun declension is given below, using the singular forms of the word homo (man), which belongs to Latin’s third declension.
homo (nominative) “[the] man” [as a subject] (e.g., homo ibi stat: the man is standing there, he’s standing there looking at me, and I feel his gaze like a touch. Now he is standing outside the classroom looking in, homo ibi stat, I recite, and we recite in class together, and the room is very warm).
hominem (accusative) “[the] man” [as a direct object] (e.g., ad hominem: toward the man, in the sense of a plea directed personally, I beg him silently, in the accusative, please please please in the dark).
hominis (genitive) “of [the] man” [as a possessor] (e.g., et cor hominis est: the soul of the man, the skin of the man, the arms of the man. I sing as a possessor, I yearn as a possessor: tell me muse, how I came to be offended).
hominī (dative) “to [the] man” [as an indirect object] (e.g., homini donum dedi: I gave my heart to the man, but he is an indirect object now, refusing my gift).
homine (ablative) “[the] man” [in various uses not covered by the above] (e.g., sum desperatius homine: I am more desperate than the man, lost in words not covered by the above. If I could, I would hurl the man about endlessly by land and sea).
There are two further noun cases in Latin, the locative and the vocative. The locative case is rare in classic Latin, and it is mostly absorbed in the ablative case. But for my purposes, I would use the vocative case: A person or thing is being addressed. Which is to say that I am addressing him. I would ask, Can there be such anger? I would say, I will drive you to face many trials. I will force you to endure danger. I would sing of arms and the weapons I could use to assuage my anger: A knife. A rock. A fork. A stick. There is no need to love. Meter, stress, clash.
Though widely used, and I feel I have been used, mangled, undone in this machine to cause suffering, the vocative case differs in form from the nominative only in the masculine singular of the second declension (that is, never in the plural, and never in the feminine).
That is, in the masculine singular. Never in the plural. And never in the feminine.
Holly Willis teaches in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. As a writer, her work includes scholarly essays, arts journalism and experimental nonfiction. She has written two books about avant-garde film, video and new media, for example, and essays and profiles for publications as varied as Film Comment and Variety. Her most recent experimental pieces include "Signs," published in the Beautiful Things section of River Teeth, and “The Disorder of Things,” which was published in carte blanche.