I usually find I can’t sustain a long poem unless I’m on holiday alone, able to get away from unusual distractions, even though there will be other things to think about. That’s what happened here on a holiday. I’d felt I had a poem in me about the collapse of a glorious and cultured empire for some time.
The empire’s heavy with scented blooms
A thousand scents, a thousand shapes
Umbellifer and ornate lily
The darkest iris, palest rose
The old Recorder of the Flowers
Each month in leather and brass bound book
Records the new varieties
The rich museums have many rooms.
The empire sings a thousand songs
Each city sang a different tune
Last year, each temple has its own.
The imperial gardens’ vibrant birds
Cannot outsing ten thousand choirs
The Emperor hears each song that flowers
Remembers one his mother sang:
Though blurred with power and wine, he longs.
The book of all the empire’s guards,
The armies, fortresses and fleets,
Defeats the sourest minister
Who’d number them and set their place
The sun on ranks of helmets shines
And blinds the eyes of tired bards.
The queen is in her carven tower
With silver and ebony interwoven
With jumping deer and dolphins’ play
With measured mark of rose and clover
And all the screens that ring her bower
Show everything that grows and dies,
The struggle of a sandy farm,
A somnolent priest’s ingenious lies,
Regiments changing hour by hour.
A restless baby cries as though
It never cried before, the cock
That rules a servant’s smallholding
Triumphant marks the dawn’s return.
The bells sound out from tower to tower
Seas in the dawn may seem to burn
To those without the power to know.
The clocks grind slow, sand on the wind
Has clogged them, the astronomer
Has lost the stars in clouds of dust
The birds sing less, the attentive guards
Along the watchtowers of the walls
In sandstorms see the ghosts of men
In dust devils the shaking heads
Of trampling horses of the dead
And nothing when the blur has thinned.
The famished horsemen, lifeless shacks,
The starving women, rag-held bones,
The baglike carcases of goats
The drying up of ancient wells
In the uncounted and unflowered lands
Reported by the empire’s spies
And clients set moving old replies
The walls grow thicker, more patrols
Search for the early warning cracks.
The warning sirens came too late
The mechanisms were at fault.
The gates did not shut as they should
In just one section of the line.
The desperate barbarians swarm
Through corridors rising rivers of blood.
And through the crumbling walls of thought
The tangling of all intricate forms
Of gold and music crushed, a roar
Rises: the unformed world’s in spate.
The gardens are all overgrown
The bells are silent; silent cage
Abandoned where the bird once sang
Is crushed with buckle, bugle, crown
And all that rose up high is down.
The children play with sceptre and skull
A rose ascends the temple wall
The smallholding is burnt, and burnt
The servant of the emperor’s will
This wonderful lady’s smile is fixed
Her sparkling brooch is grown dull.
The queen still sits in living tower
The images of deer and dance
Still play on all the watchful screens
Comforting the wondering queen
With aching song and shimmering flower,
But nothing outside the tower survives
That she would dare to recognise
And nothing is seen but dust and death
By all its hundred thousand eyes.
The wandering girl has found a thing
Untwisted, goes around her wrist
And polished, sparkles in the light;
The wandering girl begins to dance
And as the tower crumbles down
The wandering girl begins to sing.
The “barbarians” are ruthless destroyers, but are seen to be desperate for a good reason and to be manipulated by the empire. At the end, something is reborn. What is the queen in her enchanted tower and why does the rebirth destroy her?