p o e m s j a r e d c a r t e r
The method employed was an interesting one: a
huge silver dish was heated till it was red hot, after
which “the strongest vinegar” was poured over it.
The Patriarch was obliged to stare directly into it
for a long time, thereby utterly destroying his sight.
Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries
He was christened Justinian – the second so called,
and a man as evil as his namesake was honorable.
Behind his back they called him Rhinotmetus,
or “Cut-Nose.” True, he suffered during the revolt,
but he was not put to death.
Fourteen years later,
his exile ended and the usurpers beheaded,
those plotters who had maimed him now blinded
and exiled in turn, he sought out more victims,
and the Terror continued.
As it would be written
by Paul the Deacon, “as often as he wiped away
drops of rheum from his nostrils, almost as often
did he order another of those who had opposed him
to be slain.”
Years later, one of the survivors told
of the cruelty: “We were taken to the city in chains.
When we were led before him, he sat on a throne
of gold and emeralds. He wore a diadem of gold
encrusted with pearls, fashioned by the Empress
with her own hands. All who had come with me
from Ravenna he sentenced to immediate death.
They were dragged from the room.
removed my fetters, and bade me take refreshment
from a long table, where fresh figs, pomegranates,
and smoked ortolans were laid on great silver dishes.
The platters were beautifully wrought, fashioned
in some faraway place, one with a winged griffin,
others with a phoenix, an eagle, a peacock,
a caparisoned horse.
I had eaten nothing for days.
On his throne, the Emperor dabbed at the place
where his nose had been.
‘He welcomes Felix,
Holy Patriarch of Ravenna,’ a Chamberlain said
in perfect Latin, ‘and bids His Reverence partake
of the bounty offered here.’ I reached for grapes.
The Emperor clapped his hands.
thrust me aside, scattered the grapes, and held
the heavy platter aloft for all to see. It bore
a fantastic silver image, a creature half bird,
half dog. ‘Senmurv!’ he cried out. ‘Senmurv!’
echoed the courtiers, ‘Senmurv!’ they called,
again and again, as I was led from the chamber,
amid great laughter.”
They sewed my eyelids back
with strands of silk. The creature on the plate
was the last thing I saw in this life. When the liquid
burned away, the heathen image opened like a star
inside my head.”
Two years later, Justinian II
was beheaded by still more usurpers. Assassins
sent by the new Emperor pursued his grandson,
Tiberias, who was six years old, the last survivor
of the Heraclian line.
The Old Empress hurried him
into the Church of the Virgin at Blachernae,
claiming sanctuary, pleading with the two men.
John Strouthos, called “the Sparrow,” advanced
on the terrified child, who with one hand clung
to the altar and with the other clutched a piece
of the True Cross.
Strouthos wrenched the relic
from his grasp, reverently laid it upon the altar,
took the boy outside, stripped him of his clothes,
and “slaughtered him like a sheep.”
Felix remembered, years later, while speaking
with a chronicler from Venice, who had come
to pay his respects. “Senmurv. It is a word
that comes to me occasionally, as I sit
day after day in this shadowless room, listening
to one of the novices read aloud.
after mass, a brother will take me for a walk
through the city, and along the old fortifications,
and out into the fields.
He might guide me to a wall
of holy images – Apollinare in Classe, perhaps,
or San Vitale. The Tomb of Galla Placidia
is my favorite. I reach as high as I can, taking in
the texture, running my fingertips over the tiles.”
Early we woke, before dawn, with torches
held by men who knew the way, to be led
out through the peaks and valleys of tents
heavy with shadow.
At the river’s edge
six rowers held their tapered oars aloft.
Across that darkness, then, to the far shore,
and a road, where the dust, still drugged
with dew, no longer rose to question what
we sought in that forgotten world.
emerging from a field where nothing grew,
two battered figures loomed, as if to watch
our slow approach. No other thing was there;
far to our backs, no light had yet appeared.
The torches, moved about, revealed the ruin
of what had been a place of majesty
and power – two seated kings, worn down
by wind and sand, and accidents of time.
The northern statue had become a shrine
that somehow, in its fractured state, still kept
the power of prophecy.
Travelers had come,
for centuries now, to wait until the light
crept down its broken face, hoping to hear
some burst of sound, some inexplicable gasp
of ancient syllables, even – they say –
a kind of music. The guides began to speak
“O vast, O dread magnificence,
erected to inspire, but cast adrift,
abandoned in this empty realm, speak now
of vanity, ambition, and of pride – ”
We turned away, embarrassed by such show,
And yet the light descended,
warming the weathered stones.
began to gravitate, and with a surge
forced syllables into the unmoved air –
a curse, perhaps, for all that had transpired
to bring us to this place?
We stood amazed.
Is witnessing a power that outlasts kings?
I saw, it croaked, and then a torrent came:
I saw it happen, all – the trenches swift
with blood and gore, the standards held aloft,
the triumph through the streets, the shouts and cries,
the lifted crown!
From deep inside that head
what had come pouring out? And were those words,
or was that groaning but a screech of stone
in torque, unsettled by the sun’s assault?
What did we harken to?
“One would compare
the sound most nearly to the broken chord
of harp or lute,” a scholar wrote. “A blow,”
another said, “upon an instrument
Even now, in places where
the faithful come, beneath revolving fans,
where water, drifting across tranquil pools,
keeps whispering – at intervals, amid
the laughter, and the subtle ebb and flow
of pleasant talk – a momentary hush
comes over everything.
Far off, almost
impossible to hear, some primal power
much stronger than the wind begins to stir,
and summons more than voices from the dark.
southeast of Celle, in Lower Saxony
Down a single long passageway with many paneled doors,
doors that are closed now, that once opened into rooms painted
with Biblical scenes, rooms with windows of stained glass –
there is nothing at all now except the darkness, the light
that comes from either end of the corridor, and the fifty cabinets
made by hand, with their great hinged lids, their iron locks,
for this is the Kistengang, the passageway of chests. Fashioned
of native sycamore and white oak, they have been standing here
for half a millennium; here, where everything is made of wood
and nothing moves, all is silence. This is the Kloster Weinhausen,
established in the thirteenth century by the Cistercian Order,
where the unwed daughters of the nobility were put away for life –
the reasons now being long forgotten, unremembered, lacking
records of any sort, except for these gaunt receptacles. Whatever
name you might choose is inadequate – coffer, cupboard, casket –
since they are all that remains. The tour guide explains they held
the dowry of each young woman who was consigned to this life –
she became a bride of Christ, during the process of initiation –
while the guidebook says they contained “personal effects.”
Linen, and cloth for habits, and perhaps traces of silk. Not combs,
not jewelry. These are heavy, ponderous boxes, worked up
at the behest of some duke or landgrave. You can imagine
carpenter and apprentice, in a courtyard, hammering and sawing,
assembling the wide planks, fitting them together with mortise
and tenon. Each waits beside the door of what were simply
dormitory rooms. The printing of books had not been invented,
the New World had not been imagined. She came here for life.
All that was half a millennium ago. The chests alone endure.
They are older than da Vinci and Michelangelo, older than America.
You try to imagine something that happened to them other
than this silence, but it cannot be done – not some young gallant,
saying farewell to his beloved, knowing she is convent bound,
seeing the trunk ready for the journey, and, to lessen her sadness,
climbing inside, closing the lid, pretending he will always be there –
not some poor soldier fleeing the Protestant army, hidden away
by the nuns, crouched in one of these bleak containers – all of that
is sheer romanticism, fabrication, embroidery. None of that now.
The boards of the pine floor creak as you walk down the row.
Each of these chests is without decoration, each slightly different,
each entirely empty.
There was a time, then, out of the depths
of summer, in a year that had gone wrong
all other ways, save this: that the river
where we walked, in late afternoons, still
held to its old course, and the plane trees
by the millrace were untroubled – serene,
even, when they shadowed the evenings
we spent there, in the café, lingering
after coffee, watching the barges drift by.
Below the bridge, along the cobbled quai
where housewives knelt to pound the sheets –
on the stone wall, a stick was fastened
with iron pins, the measuring rod showing
high tides in earlier years, all the way back
to the Franco-Prussian War. Imagine
the water rising that far in 1911. Think
of what it must have been like in 1932,
poling about through the flooded streets.
And we stand here now, on a last visit,
with late sun glinting through the willows
along the island. From the houses above,
the sound of families gathered by the radio
for the evening meal. Plates, silverware,
glasses of red wine held up. We pause,
savoring this moment, this stillness
along the shore, this balance of memory –
the lights of cars crossing the bridge,
the dove-gray buildings, the blue water,
the current moving at the river’s heart –
all come together in the gleaming dusk.
The record notes . . . that “nothing could be gotten out of her
except that she repeatedly protested her innocence.”
As so it went on, until noon, when the torture and the
questioning had to be discontinued. The reason for this
was a superstition that is very old, but nowadays forgotten:
that midday, even more than midnight, was a haunted, eerie time.
Michael Kunze, Highroad to the Stake
When I went there with you that summer, we looked out
from the balcony – courtyards full of wisteria, vendors offering
bunches of narcissus and dahlias wrapped in wet newspaper,
drifting mist of fountains with children scampering through –
and yet Pompeii itself was desolate and scorched by the sun.
A goat picked its way along a crumbling wall, glancing up
with its slit eyes. The top of the city had been sheared away
by some great wind or wave, like a monkey’s head strapped
in the center of a table, and sawed open, its moist contents
spooned out by some dark power. No roofs, no ceilings,
nothing left above our heads, the gardens seared to ash,
the atria buried. We came, finally, to the Villa of Mysteries,
and had it entirely to ourselves, in the stillness of noon.
Nothing I saw there made sense – why those pictures alone
should have survived – marriage as initiation, as ritual,
as suffering. Suddenly you screamed, and stumbled back
from a shattered doorframe. A rat had darted out, you said,
scrabbling among the shards, and gone down a hole. Now,
it has been twenty years since I last held you in my arms.
Even longer since we walked through those desolate places.
Gods who are fled! And you also, present still,
But once more real . . .
Voices that I knew, that I had heard in years past, come
from far away and yet familiar: first a schoolgirl, on whom
I had a crush, who walked home with me in the violet dusk
of an April evening.
Next, my own daughter’s voice, saying
her prayer, at bedtime, to the moon. These in turn mingled
with and joined by others that were familiar to me, and yet
more intimate – cries and gasps, even a sobbing, or a kind
of crooning, that I knew once, from throats long forgotten,
faces blurred or vanished –
suddenly come into focus,
strangely tuned and interwoven, fresh and immanent,
wreathed about my ears as though for the first time,
sounding together, singing. I could hear them clearly,
and know this was not a dream.
For this is a museum
of antiquities, of scattered, broken monuments unearthed
and reconstructed, of sarcophagi cut whole from stones
and outlasted their occupants, of monumental inscriptions
stripped from vanished walls – a gathering up, a place
of the irreducible, the inarticulate.
I had been the first
of visitors on this summer morning, had walked alone
among these displays for more than an hour, listening
to my own footsteps, sensing the wisdom of those
who had built this place, who had brought these things
together, and set them up in these unrelenting chambers,
so devoid of anything soft or woven.
has no shadow, where sound moves from room to room,
searching and revealing.
Slowly it became clear to me:
they must have known, those efficient, taciturn Romans –
soldiers gripping their flat swords, provincial officials
writing out final directives, matrons in flowing gowns,
preparing to die beside their husbands, arms around
their children, letting the cup fall and roll in the dust.
Perhaps they understood – their lives had been so clear,
so carefully chiseled and fitted together – that everything
around them would be reassembled, after it had been
broken and pawed over and scattered. After it had been
completely covered up and forgotten.
It matters not
whether these artifacts that came to light were the best
of what they knew, or the least, or the most humble, only
that they have come here now, and been patiently restored –
sections of mosaic floors, portions of damaged frescoes,
coarse terra cotta lamps impressed with images of gods
All that had been clear and well defined
in their world – that could be broken but not obliterated –
was like the pattern of a wave.
The flat stone skips three
or four times, but eventually it sinks, leaving behind
concatenations fragile as dreams, and equally as lost.
In these high-ceilinged rooms there are no carpets,
no acoustical tile. The visitor’s slightest step is amplified
and carried along through the rooms.
follow, and precede, a timeless progression. Emily,
that was her name, and she took my hand once. We walked
together for a time. Sara, that was also her name, long ago,
she of the patrician family by the bay, who did not live to see
her twenty-first birthday.
Their voices rising out of stone,
the chiseled trappings of horses and handlers, processions
with flutes and cymbals, gowns and subtle drapery. The wave
I begin to understand, finally, how this music
has reached out to me, after echoing through long hallways
and corridors, and being charged by such reverberation.
I have been listening to the living –
into view with their teacher, ceasing their
for a moment in my presence, gathering in a semi-circle
while the docent tells them to notice this or that feature
of the shattered head or the limestone stela.
It is time.
It is time to leave this hall and its endless echoing, time
to go back out into the sunlight. Always these voices
have been a part of me, however submerged or lost
or slumbering. That they came to me now, in this place,
yielding the murmur of gods and goddesses, is the gift
of genius reawakened, of stone become pure evocation.
Which meant, simply, that you met someone
in an empty hallway, or behind an alley wall,
and that person handed you a typed chapter
of a forbidden book. You concealed it among
the papers in your briefcase, and carried it back
to your flat, and hid it.
Then, during the night,
while the others were sleeping, you took over
the family typewriter, and began to type out
an original and four carbon copies. The task
might take several long nights, and always
you listened for odd footsteps among those
that came and went in the corridor outside
the door, or along the passageway to the loo.
Always you paused, always you were cautious,
because there were agents who went around
late at night, hoping to detect the tap-tap-tap
While you typed, you smoked
furiously, trying to stay awake, trying not
to make too many errors. When you finished,
you delivered your copies to someone who took
the different chapters, that had been prepared
by your fellow conspirators, and assembled them
into five complete copies of the contraband book,
and passed these on to still others.
In this way
translations of Karl Popper and Mikhail Bulgakov
and Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak and Akhmatova
were given to persons who wished to read them,
persons you might never meet and never know.
Sometimes your own group got together secretly,
to smoke and drink red wine, and listen while
someone read aloud from the book all of you,
working together, had just produced —
for example, about the mysterious developments
when the Master, with his strange companions
and assistants, first appears, and takes over
the Theater, to the complete consternation
of all the authorities and respectable citizens.
“Senmerv” was first published in Poeziepamflet, and subsequently in De Contrabas, where it is translated into Dutch by Ton van t’Hof.
“Colossi of Memnon” was first published in Agenda.
Paul the Deacon’s remarks on Justinian II are quoted by John Julius Norwich on p. 338 of his Byzantium: the Early Centuries. The poem’s invented narrative of the blinding of Archbishop Felix in 709 was prompted by Norwich’s account on p. 340 and the accompanying footnote. Poem lines 58-68, describing the murder of Justinian’s grandson, condense and paraphrase Norwich’s paragraph found on pp. 344-45.
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