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Seven Poems



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. 

                                                                  Two eunuchs

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. 

                                                              A eunuch

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. 

                                                             Some mornings,

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

their lines: 

                      “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,

such falsity. 

                        And yet the light descended,

warming the weathered stones. 

                                                            Something within

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

of copper.” 

                      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 . . .
                                          Hölderlin, “Germania”


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. 

                                                                    Where daylight

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

and maidens. 

                           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. 

                                                                       Bodiless voices

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 – 

                                                                   schoolchildren, coming

into view with their teacher, ceasing their chatter
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.



Warsaw 1970

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

of typewriters.

                            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 —

                                                                   the passage,

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.

End Cap


“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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