“Troy is no more, and Ilium was a town!”
(The Aeneis, Book II)
I. The Emperor
Dust and distraction. Dust and distraction.
One hand scratched an aching leg, its tangleOf sinew, the other clutched a mirror to his face –
It laughed before him like a toothless mouth.
It was an artist’s cancelled sketch, the charcoal
Smearing his features, gone at the jaw, crumpled
Beneath the eyes, into a terror of arrested
Striving. His days were spent trying to laugh
Things off, to put his arm around news of disasters
And whisper it into a corner. He knew the sweat-bath
Of the pore, stinging like salt in a wound.
Lounged in the sunlight like hangers-on, slipping
Through doors with a grin. The times gave birth
To plausible men, their talk the inveigling
Of a golden coin, their faces those of foxes.
The palace sang with sibilant music of garments
On marble as they hurried to a conference with grasping
Hands. Power had put a crease in his forehead –
After the meetings and deputations, after
The backstairs struggles, the steely eye and firm
Decisions, he was left to himself in a room,
Staring at the winking lamp of night, surrounded
By dead men’s eyes. There were piles of despatches
On the table and an empire sleeping on expectations:
It was like fighting the tentacles of a black cloud.
The palace with its golden walls, its courtyards
And quiet corners of stone, settled upon
Itself a little more each day beneath
A sky like cracked Euboean marble. Rome
Like a stone on an old tin lid slipped slowly
Into stagnant water. There was salt on his lips
From the restless sea, and safety only in the swivelling
Eye of the lizard.
He had thought of his birthplace,
But was already groping for what blood and brains
Could finger but no longer understand –
It was years since he had seen the dusty grapes
And gritty corn taken by cart down the sky-warm
Lanes, soaking up sun like syrup in a sponge;
And earth, old blackface, flexing its cheeks
Beneath a breeze like water trickling... Now
His life was a careful phrase, shifting decisions
From one pocket to another, with an eye
Down corridors. He knew that he could cry out
In the night with the one desperate note of travail,
But be ignored like an ancient ghost, thinly
Flapping its dishonoured way amongst the dust
In corners. There would be no cheers if the Emperor’s
Barge were to slip along the coast, past
Small ports in the blue of the day: applause
Had crackled out across the water, but that
Was long ago, a different time...
Here with dirt under my nails, powerless
To stop the pains in my leg, the frontiers stretched
Like rope. There are hands in pockets, eyes on chances,
Everyone is hungry and sated at once.
My finest generals win their battles but only
For themselves; my civil servants stand in small groups
Which I can never get close to; and the people clamour
For corn and more public holidays. Everyone
Cleaves to the axle whilst the wheel’s rim
Batters on rock. Those few who dare me to consider
Reports are in danger from my temper and factional
Whims. I cut them off and wander round
With tears in my eyes, holding a wolf by the ears.”
Peachlight of the sun swept through the room; it appeased
The petulant mind. There were so many things
To do, so many, they seemed so distant. Somewhere
The wind was in the grass, the rustle of leaves
Was like hurrying feet.
“I have tried to shape policy,
To mould thought into edicts, hoping to put
A handclasp on the hearts of men, to push
Aside squabbles over the price of bread,
And turn their eyes to the sun. From the blood-shot
Dawn in the east to the evening foam of the British
Sea is a dispensation as muddled as men
But fertile as a cornfield, walled from the stony
Plains without. Men ignore the horizons,
And forget that the empire is a rich clasp
On the cloak of the world. There are hands, leather-hard
With needle-tooled envy, waiting to snatch it
For themselves. The health of states does not depend
On money on the table, but on the pulse in your heart
When you take a handful of soil and look along
The valley which glows like a woman’s cheek. A land
And its people are one, owners of a great prize
To be denied the shifting encampments.”
But why in moments
When his blood should be steady, his hand extended
Without trace of a tremor, did it sing
In his ears – “What need had I to play the long pipes?”
The manifold trickster Chance, muddling the affairs
Of states, had thrust him to the fore, his cheeks gone hollow
Like hands held to his face aghast. He sat there
Pulling threads in his cloak, telling himself stories
About tomorrow’s business, refusing to admit
There was a ship in the harbour ready for escape.
If only the signs or the Gods would be more explicit!
What if a stone was always and only a stone?
And death was always and only death – his death?
How propitious was that for a gesture? Examining
His gums he felt indescribably gone.
Something wandered through his mind like a head-pain –
‘I found Rome built of brick and I left it
Built of marble’ – “Whose words were those?
And what of me, a seedy landlord, shrivelled
In his clothes, grinning in a back-room?”
Outside, the empire crumbled like a dead logIn the sun. Only the cricket sang continuously.
III. The Artist
All day the moments settled as tangibleAs dust. Books and classical music lay
About the study whilst the artist sat out
On the lawn with headphones and an extension lead.
His dozing mind beamed on the world; letters
Lay unanswered in the grass. The tired afternoon
Sun sagged towards dusk – old gold,
Faded bronze, the tawny time of silence
And defeat, when a man might start awake to find
Death groping among his bones.
He had received
An invitation to join all the right people
At a grand celebration to be held in the museum.
He stood at the buffet with the slight uneasinessWhich a man in a crowd without a ticket feels.
About the noisy room sherry in glasses
Held at the chest was like weights finely placed
In the scales of image. Voices, echo of voices,
Beneath the dome filled it with importance.
They waited for the showing of certain things, recently
Taken from a tomb in Greece. Last night he had dreamt –
Silence of darkness, stillness of time; a stool
Collapsed in a mushroom of dust, settling like a cloth
On a windless day. Hades abducted Persephone,
Leaving the outraged sky and shivering grass
To shine unseen in the intimate darkness.
Agamemnon lay beneath his death-mask,
Becoming rock encrusted with gold. His dust
Bowed in reverence to the bones from which
It had fallen. Acetylene of the assassin’s knife –
Light sliced into the tomb. Time
Fell into gear in the bustling, shifty activity.
Voices grunted and dirt-stained hands fingered
The treasure before lifting it away. Newsmen
Gathered outside to wave microphones at the dark.
The Director announced himself satisfied – the remains
Would be studied by a chosen few. The living
Would wave their fingers in the guts of the dead. He had woken
And thought: “O world-eyed Agamemnon!
I had rather an earthquake ground you to shards than that
A National Institute should display your bones.”
And here he was, preparing to applaud the sanitised
Plunder, to lave it with a voice refreshed
By white wine. (What are those vacuous shufflers
Led by a muffled figure to the crossroads?
They are going into the dark.) The voices bubbled
And he thought to himself –
“What of those early days
In the studded Aegean? Islands simmering like meat
In broth; the cave beneath the cliffs where emerald
Water teased the milky depths, and the Gods
Slept wrapped in its twangy echoes. Sunlight
At dawn stretched into sky like Archimedes’
Lever, its beauty expanding your lungs as if
A God had breathed in your nostrils. The sky, laced
In that breath, tied you to itself with skeins of silk,
Such was the glory of the glory of life. I remember
I fingered an earthenware pot, its useful and modest
Surfaces, and my mind was empty of thought
And full of being; I could have created hugely
And it would have been no more than the work of the world.
I have known nothing like it in thirty years since.
Now there is a misty barrier between myself
And the past; I can see it through the corner of my eye.
My words on the page are shallow. I sit at my desk
Through the working day and the world passes me by.
I write a letter to The Times and its publication
Is a flatness marked by silence. The perpetual flash
Of blood on the frontier and my queasy suspicion
That the centre has gone, collapsed like shopping in a bag,
Are a trouble, but to whom should I talk?
What string should I pull? I have never thought of myself
As a statesman; it is all I can do to fling out instructions
To my agent. But I think that for us
The only proper museum is a sun-soaked hillside
Where the plough turns up the past every day,
Returning it to the soil in the generous wave
Of the ploughshare.
Puzzling and unruly columns of dust
Wander the plains of the east; traveller’s tales
Are derided. Collapse of empires and national woe
Occur only between pages of a book.
And how much blood will it take to wash the stone
Of preparedness clean? But what does it signify
When oblivious in a steamy office men
Are squabbling over paperwork or mindlessly
Snapping their fingers?
Our lives fall from us, we return
To the dust and our woes and happiness go with us.
What do the bones say in the deepest strata?
They are picked clean of motives like sticks. But written
On the wind is a silent phrase, prodding the unawares
Traveller – the mounds and broken earth on which
He stands are altars of the bones’ attempts
To parley with the silence. For over the wall,
Over the frontier, beyond the bad lands, the shifting
Hordes, is a magnificent simplicity of light,
To know which their lives were made rituals,
Their deaths a voyaging into silence around.
Back in the suburbs which await me, through the long
Parole of days, by day or by night, there is a mumbled
Sigh which may only be traffic on arterial
Roads. As an indication that all is well
The weekly washing has been hung out to dry.
Death will come as a great stirrer of all this.
In my garden the long grasses are wanly so-soing
Their heads. I think I shall not sleep tonight.”
====================© circa 1978 (Unfinished). Revised October 2012