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
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.
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