Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Ghost of Sulmona

Madison I
Madison K. BEA booth

“Well, this is quite a booth,” I said when strolling the floor of the vast Book Expo of America Exhibit 2015 in May. “The colors are vivid and jump right out at you—pink and black. And the artwork is well done, so deftly thematized to your book.” All this I said when I first met Madison Kaplan, the namesake and, qua character, heroine of the book series that her talented mother, Nina, writes and illustrates. “She does all her own artwork,” Madison volunteered proudly. It was refreshing and frankly a bit surprising to see a young woman of twenty-three so proud of a parent.

I soon met Nina herself, the warm and friendly author of the popular Young Adult fictional work entitled Madison K. As Nina described it to me, the series tries to speak in a new and fresh way to girls becoming young women, encouraging them to think twice before making just any moral choice, before believing just any trendy way of thinking. I confess that I have not read much of this series whose target audience is obviously a demographic quite a bit different from myself. Kaplan complements her book series with a rich and various website (BLC; that speaks to young women about their appearance, focusing on something I am fairly unfamiliar with, makeup; but I shall return to that below. For the moment, suffice it to say that after my admittedly cursory perusal of one of the books in the series, I am honestly impressed. This series is doing something different than most YA fiction, and I am inclined to start my blog by warmly acknowledging that uniqueness; after all, Elaine Jakes taught me to embrace things that are perhaps a bit different and to be a bit wary of those ideas that are not.

Adriatic Coast
Adriatic Coast

Yet as the title of this blog implies, this is a ghost story that ostensibly is about a haunting of Sulmona, an Italian town, a small one, located on the edge of the Majella National Park near the Adriatic shore, forming a triangle with two nearby coastal cities, Pescara and Lanciana. It is far enough from them and from Rome that there is no chance that the ghost of Sulmona could wander in either direction. It stays confined to the arboreal park and only occasionally wanders into Sulmona’s center, always at night. And when it does, it makes a beeline for the main square where there is displayed prominently a fine statue of the town’s most famous poet, the long-dead Ovidius Naso, whose very shade, it is said, is this ghost.

Piazza in Sulmona Italy
Piazza in Sulmona with Bronze Statue of Ovid. Photo by Boblyp.

That ghost is as playful as Ovid was a poet. Ovid, you may know, was so playful, so bawdy, that he was banished by the emperor Augustus; to give a historical context, this is the very emperor who was reigning when Christ was born. So, Ovid and Christ were contemporaries, Christ the younger, as Ovid was born in 43 BC. Yet why Ovid’s shade, if it is Ovid’s, haunts Sulmona is a mystery. There is a rumor that it has to do with women.

Now it is not what you might be thinking; yes, if you recall your history, Ovid was known as a bit of a dandy not only because of his poetry but also owing to the unsubstantiated claim that he was spending far too much time of a romantic nature with Julia, the emperor’s daughter. While it may not be (and need not be true) that Ovid was carrying on with Julia, it is certainly true he had the gumption to write at least to two tomes of poetry explicitly for women and that he wrote much more than that about women. The facts are these: the third book of his Art of Love (Ars Amatoria) was addressed to women, to help them create rendezvous with men; his Love’s Remedies (Remedia Amoris) was for both women and men, so it does not count. He also wrote the Heroides, letters in the first person penned by famous heroines to their often less famous lovers—and Ovid donned the female voice to accomplish this; I say nothing, in passing, about my role in the composition of The Curious Autobiography.

Yet clearly Ovid’s boldest venture, his “I’m-treading-on-territory-that-should-perhaps-better-fall-to-the-too-little-known-Roman-poetess-Sulpicia” work that could have been perceived as sexist, was the less than catchily entitled Medicamina Faciei Feminae (On Makeup). This work never was among those great books, those Harvard classics that most people talk about when quipping dilettantishly about antiquity. This lesser known work is a book about makeup, much like Nina Kaplan’s lovely website.

The difference, however, between that website which appeals to young women who are just now learning to apply makeup correctly and to make good choices about that (and about life) and Ovid’s work is simply this: Nina Kaplan is a woman and thus can speak from experience. She knows her makeup and she knows what it feels like to be a young woman figuring out womanhood and this particular aspect of it—though admittedly makeup is not for everyone, of course. Elaine Jakes, for one, rarely wore it. Ovid’s transgression into the world of makeup was, from a netherworldly perspective, a much greater offense than the poet’s possible dating of Augustus’ daughter, or his recherché and erotic elegies, the content of which ostensibly bothered the emperor. So, while Augustus exiled Ovid to Tomis in his lifetime, it is said that in his after-lifetime, the shades of Roman women, like those who hounded Orpheus to death, called down an irrational curse on Ovid’s soul, a curse that compelled his shade to have no rest and ever to wander the (admittedly lovely) Majella forest, whence he cannot return to Rome but at least finds himself on Italian soil.

Parrozzo Cake
Parrozzo Cake

When he does come into town, pieces of Parrozzo (a soft cake characterized by a rich chocolate coating and almonds) left out for the ghost at the foot of Ovid’s statue in the town’s square by caring contemporary Italian women always is taken up, it seems, by the ghost, but never quite eaten. Rather, it finds itself strewn out in a line going back into the woods like a Sondheimian trail of breadcrumbs, as, of course, a ghost can’t really eat or drink, as it is made of spiritual matter.

I did not tell Nina Kaplan this story, as I did not want to frighten her or anyone at the Madison K. booth. In any case, I felt it did not befit so busy or august an event as the BEA. But I did warn her that Madison K. just might show up in a blog about a ghost. Is there a moral to this story in a blog that purports to affirm that life is worth living and books are worth reading? Well, of course there is, for the continuum, if an imperfect one, between Ovid, Madison K., and “BLC” remains unbroken, in a sense, and the warning to a man with too little knowledge of makeup, such as myself, not to interfere stands, lest he wind up in the doghouse or, in the case of Ovid’s ghost, experience something worse. And, more importantly than all of this, of course, is the notion that the past is ever with us, a repository of stories, within the context of which we are writing our own, which form a strand in yet a grander narrative, the Author of which will, perhaps, eventually be the topic of another blog.

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