When we think of a “space,” what comes to mind is unlikely to be a poem. But poems are linguistic spaces par excellence whose form and style mark them off from the space of everyday speech. This paper treats a corpus of Latin poems that mobilize the spatial element of poetic language to explore the intersection of spatial, verbal and sexual transgression. The Carmina Priapea is a collection of anonymous polymetrics that fixate upon a single unsettling scenario: the ithyphallic god Priapus lording over his garden and threatening would-be thieves with anal rape. The thematic premise of these poems thus combines an act of spatial violation (invading Priapus’ garden) with an act of sexual violation (invading the thief’s body). This thematic scenario is then restaged at the level of discourse: these poems are verbal gardens the reader is invited to explore. Of course, this exploratory reading is also an invasion that, within the Priapic scenario, has an inevitable outcome: rape. The reader enters these orchards knowing full well that the trespass will result in their own verbal violation. The reader is thus positioned as a sexual deviant, a cinaedus who luxuriates in an experience more commonly considered a humiliating assault.
My primary purpose in this paper is to explore the nexus of verbal pleasure/ punishment and sexual transgression that governs the space of these poems, conducting an analysis of these poems at a phenomenological level. The past two or so decades have witnessed a flurry of scholarly activity that has greatly aided our understanding of this confounding corpus. This work includes commentaries, translations and textual discussions (Goldberg, Hooper, Jackson & Murgia, Parker) as well as a monograph on Priapus as a literary character (O Connor) and several studies of the Priapea in relation to mainstream Latin texts (Uden, Hallett, Habash). Amid this wealth of material, Richlin has done the most to illuminate priapic poetry by positioning it within the broader contexts of Roman sexual humor.
My paper seeks to add something to this developing conversation by approaching the Priapea in phenomenological terms. Drawing on the growing body of scholarship on ancient sexuality (Davidson, Hallet & Skinner, Halperin 1990 & 2002, Williams, etc.) as well as theoretical studies of poetic phenomenology (Stewart, Ngai) my paper investigates the interplay between language, sensation and transgression within this corpus. I argue that the Priapea enact a variety of somatic effects that allow readers to luxuriate in contradictory experiences: transgressor and transgressed, “normal” and deviant, seeker of poetic pleasure and reveler in poetic pain.
With the 15-minute time limit firmly in mind, I address these large-scale issues through a close analysis of a few select poems. For instance, I explore the experiential effect of an obscene pun in poem 7 which consists of a single elegiac couplet. I discuss the phenomenological implications of transgressive intertextual borrowing in poem 2, a hendecasyllabic poem that coyly inverts familiar Catullan slogans. The sum of these highly detailed readings is a novel take on the Priapea that also adds to our knowledge about the ways poetic spaces toy with familiar Roman categories of sexual deviance and spatial transgression. If poetry is, as Susan Stewart suggests, “an archive of lost sensual experiences” (332), the Priapea might allow us to recover how a Roman actually felt as he transgressed the lurid spaces of these alluring poems.