An Imperious Poem

No, I don’t usually self-promote quite so blatantly. I’m punning as usual – or not quite punning, because the word “imperious” comes from the words for empire and emperor. An imperious voice is the kind of voice you’d expect an authoritative emperor to have.

This is a re-posting of just one poem because it’s a long one – called

EMPIRE

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

This paints a picture of a rich empire full of marvellous art. It’s at peace, it’s governed in an orderly fashion and its inhabitants seem to be quite prosperous. This isn’t a history or sociology book, of course: any rich civilisation has its poor and its power-struggles. So you could say this is not a real empire.

The empire is protected by great walls and many soldiers. Outside the walls are poorer, less fertile lands and barbarian tribes who present a threat to the empire, though if the walls hold the threat is minimal. The empire does not appear to exploit the barbarians, but it does not help or benefit them.

Something changes – apparently the weather, perhaps a failure of rains, so the lands of the empire are clogged with dust. Outside its walls the effect is much worse and people starve. The imperial authorities predict that this will lead to invasion attempts and strengthen the defences. Something in the defences doesn’t work and the empire is overthrown in a bloodbath. All its culture is destroyed.

At the end in the figure of the wandering girl who finds an old bracelet and who dances, we find the beginnings of new culture.

A central figure is the queen. I realise she should be the empress, but maybe they had queens too! She is a mysterious figure, unlike the realistic emperor. She lives in an enchanted (or hight-tech) tower where she sees everything that is happening, but with a bias towards beauty. When the empire collapses and its people die, she does not see that at all and the outdated pleasant images continue, though perhaps she is suspicious. When the wandering girl dances, the tower collapses. I don’t want to interpret this too much, but the collapse of the tower, the old beauty, marks the beginning of the new beauty.

Technically the poem is an experiment. With slight variations, each line is of eight syllables, with a stressed syllable following an unstressed one – a traditional metre good for telling a story. However, although the stanzas (or whatever you call them) are of varying length, the opening and closing lines rhyme in every case.

I’ve played with the sound of some quite long and uncommon words here – umbellifer, ornate, imperial, somnolent – which I think expresses the complex culture of the empire.

Of course the collapse of the empire could be other things – the death of an artist, the fall of a tree, a surge of unconscious urges into an ordered, rational world (suggested by “the unformed world’s in spate”).

As someone politically fairly left, instinctively sympathising with the dispossessed, I guess this is about the most favourable portrait of an empire I’ve done. I do show its fall as a tragedy, but not a tragedy without a hopeful ending, and I think the poem makes the point that the empire is collectively selfish. I think I’ve been influenced by Yeats’ idea of and portrayal of Byzantium.

This is, I think, my second longest poem and my own view is that it shows a long poem can keep up intensity.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

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2 Comments

  1. Loved how the astronomer lost sight of the stars! And your detailed explanation of the length of the poem and the use of words like umbellifer( a word I’ve never heard and a very poetic one at that)….

    Reply

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