Cameo vase for an emperor, whose glassblower first
enlarged a hot glass bubble of pearl white, then trapped
a second glass bubble of cobalt night inside a first
until both cooled and wedded. This milky white
was carved carefully away to reveal breath thin
pale shadows stretched over blue skin. Precious vase,
buried for a thousand years, lost longer than owned
when it was newly made for a rich Campanian villa,
although maybe loved and handled as intensely then
as now. Such perfect beauty infuriates those
whose souls are blighted but delights all others.
Perhaps it carried holy water from a sacred spring
where Muses lived. Perhaps it treasured unguents
or stored potions to renew a fading love. Outside,
a young hero ambles for adventure, blade ready,
questing for a woman's hand, eager to replace
an older hero's pet dragon nesting in her soft lap
with his own untamed one. Or, looking back,
an old hero remembers youth and how he found
without seeking what now eludes him. Cupid darts
above, strung bow in hand, a quiver full of mystery,
and he will trade passion for a gambling debt
or just as easily flit like a bird between trees
with no remedy for life other than its brevity.
Ghost ship swirling through a land of mist,
king's cenotaph of a rich ship burial
both barbarian and Christian interlaced
with troves of a lavish kingdom's wealth,
enough to purchase a fortress in his next life
with its huge hearth echoing of amber mead
behind massive oak timbered palisades,
wood which this boat will amply provide
when it has entered its final harbour.
There may be no kingly body in a grave
but this armour of an emperor ruled a ship
in patterns forged from Roman templates,
mixed with Anglo-Saxon tracery in beasts
and magic knots of such complex chain weave
it cannot be followed from braided end to end
like a manuscript border of monastic craft
blood red ink and gold from dragon scales
as full of pagan life as sacred image woven.
Garnets ornament filigree, gems of mosaic glass
inlay great buckles of old East Anglian make,
bright escutcheons and glad cloisonne fibulae
astonish firelit ambers from forgotten camps
where everyone's beard caught on fire
and everywhere on board gold-studded weapons
guard this buried ship with swords and hoards
muscled away from dead enemies as in dragon caves
piled high with Frankish coin and Byzantine plate.
Roars of war long subsided and harsh clangings
of axes against iron has sunk into fen clay
after this ship sailed off into its Suffolk mist
to bardic harps and hymns of warrior bands
blind to us but sails filled with winds singing
from everywhere this high king had battled,
now buried, now bursting from an earthy wave,
its sharp prow aimed straight like a strong spear
at those lodestone gates of the next world.
Pastel lavender is more subtle than vivid green
as a colour sunshine creates on rainy days
when light is screened through silk clouds
rather than turning tropical streams to steam.
Lapidary curves and bends make this stone flow
on its own, the same way it poured through fissures
in glacial snow, chiseled cold by gods
who fashioned leaves and fruit in its likeness.
Who would not relinquish silly shining heavy gold
to touch instead that light carved jade button which
is a last lock to postpone a love embrace
under which warm curves of a white breast heave.
Less a paperweight than a meditative vacation,
however small, this carved jade mountain
is a philosopher's repose when he is too close to court
and he craves escape to his tiny green pavilion of shade.
Much more rare than looming dark boulders
pounded by surf on any white foamed beach,
imperial jade looks like a surprisingly large butterfly
about to land on a peony whose stem will bend
from weight of its desire to drink sunlight
and whose flight is more capricious than a kite
high in breezes over a glaze-roofed city
when all children looking up laugh dizzily.
Mechanical in mayhem with tight phalanxes of archers,
honed spearmen of collective mind, Assyrians
spread an empire faster than hungry locusts to a harvest,
wooing you to war while sunlight burnishes their armor.
Beforehand they will plainly tell you of your pain's store,
more a maiming catalogue of horror than a battle taunt.
If you make their siege redundant by surrender
they will only make your children slaves,
but if you shut your foolish gates and bluster,
afterward they drag reluctant captives away
by bronze hooks in their swollen tongues
and your painful answer will not matter then.
Assyrian art boasts at depiction of hard weaponry
whose efficiency at death was its greatest virtue.
Who refined war to engines of perfection like theirs?
What artists chiseled such hard likeness of battle
where decapitation looked like fit reward
for faithful taxes with a kiss of sword?
Booty can sustain this empire only so long
before you must replenish it by conquest,
a grim addiction to economy of seizure,
why wait for your quartermaster's ledger
to tell you it is time to sharpen pikes
or string your sinewed bows with human gut?
Look at Lachish with its looming towers,
this juggernaut of judgment ushers every citizen
to an identical apocalypse: even futile fiery torches
defenders hurl are met by calmly ladled water
spooned from armored wagons, whose tracked wheels
roll on to crush both walls and all your courage easily.
CHRIST HEAD, HINTON ST MARY
A new imperium is signified
by this divine caesar, tesserated
rather than minted. This Chi-rho
underwrites a roundel likeness
of a transitional Christ, still Roman,
very icon of conquest and all that is
spoiled in his triumph through hellgates
downside of Dis as in Londinium.
These are not haloed antlers
growing from his head like a Celt's helm
nor are they a just a pomegranate border
to an utterable sacred monogram
of his anointment muttered on earth
as it is in heaven, by divines tendering
first liturgies in tiles as in fur stoles
and eucharists of barbarous stale ales.
Rather if this is an earliest icon
of a new god in an old world,
is Britain a terminus of things Roman
or evangelion of things to come?
EGYPTIAN BLACK CAT GODDESS
You remember every cat in Egypt
stretched out on ruined lintels at Bubastis,
their gold eyes unblinking in sun,
languid, immobile, but waiting to guide you
with tails pointing like hieroglyphs
to Bastet's temple in tawny sands.
With your cats you waited until dark
for a moon which hunts like a falcon
and outraces any desert shadow
unwilling to yield to its luminous eye.
Only you could make all cats dance
in a circle around your veiled figure.
No doubt they recognized you too,
since you share their feline nature
and their cool hypnotic love
and are normally just as aloof, until
a cow's creamy milk makes you purr
like a sistrum in Hathor's hands.