The poems

When I made the decision that Lucius’ sister Albinia would be a poet, I did not anticipate this being particularly significant. But when I then entered the “Poem-a-Day” challenge in February 2018 with my Writer’s Group, suddenly Albinia became a source of inspiration. I began by translating some of my favourite pieces of Latin and Greek poetry, and those translations can be read here.

As I got more confident and decided to enter the competition my group was holding, I started to write original poems, though still writing as Albinia: some of these have made it into the novels, some have not.

  1. Writing

When you write upon papyrus
first you need to smooth the surface.
Get your pumice stone, and draw it
against the grain of the plant fibres.

And then –
slow
down…
long sweeps over the
criss-cross
of lines.
Feel a gentle snag,
then glide on…………….
Blow gently, to remove the grey dust.

Then wipe with cloth – linen, not wool.
Stroke the surface with featherlight fingertips,
checking for rough edges. But remember
don’t polish the surface too much!
It wears through: hold it up to the light
And see the vague shape of the window.
The plant leaves fossil patterns
in the weave of layer upon layer.

Think carefully.
Once you scratch that first word
The clean cream sheet is no more.
Make sure that what you write
is worth the papyrus’ loss.

2. A poet, living in Rome

Mine is one of the little hills.
I look down a gentle slope and the words
spill out of me and down the hill,
running to get to the Sacred Way
and parade themselves.
Lines slink around my feet
and trip me, vanishing when I look down.
I follow them, chasing, calling,
and pass the little house of Cinna.
My neighbour is a lawyer, precise,
And lives to make everything tidy.
The doorway is clean, recently swept and washed,
Even sprinkled with dried rosemary.
Cinna has prepared his house as neatly
As he parses his rolling clausulae.
The Temple of Tellus looms on the other side,
and I dash through its shadow. “You can’t avoid me,”
says the Temple, “for I am Mother Earth.”
I whisper a prayer in iambic tetrameters
And hurry on, trying to catch up with the paragraphs
now happily gambolling at the foot of the hill.
I round them up and speak firmly to them
And they fall into dutiful crocodile lines.
As I walk at their head, I sort them out,
Swapping places for some, making others
Stand up more smartly or walk a little
Slower. A turn around the Forum –
And my lines are neat and pinned,
Each wriggling word brushed.
My poem is done. I head for home.

3. To my brother, away at war

I have not seen you now for two years.
The news is grim. In unsure winter, you
have gone across the grey, forbidding sea
to Africa to fight. You don’t know why.
There are no causes now, just sides to pick.
Choose one and don’t ask what it is all for.
Nobody knows any more. But Caesar calls
And you must follow, into the dark of war.
You go for us, I think, for family,
And maybe for the hope of normal things.
A life of dull days, of ordinary friends,
A tired wife, bored children, sniping slaves.
Beautifully unexciting. So
I toast your uneasy courage, your need to do,
And pray that the life we dream can come to be,
even after Caesar’s uncivil war.

4. Cicero

The court is full of noise today:
entertainment central.
A luscious case: a hero, a villain,
a cause. Ripe material.

A nobody stands up to speak,
from Arpinum (from where?)
And then a voice of sudden gold
cuts neatly through the air.

And fireworks in words: sparks fly
and whirl, and shape and scribe.
And captive listeners twist in fiery
skeins of diatribe.

Subtle rhythms end each phrase in
knife-sharp lineament.
The curves of thought are hammered into
tracks of argument.

And after the show, a man is free.
The lawyer wins his case.
His name is made, career begun,
At last he’s found his place.

Manipulation of my thought,
Direction for my heart.
Marcus Tullius Cicero,
A master of his art.

5. Claudia
This poem is inspired by a very old tomb inscription, found in Rome. It is probably from the second century BCE

asta ac pellege, hospes!
Stop and read this through, stranger.
I haven’t much to say, really.
This is my epitaph, so here I am.
And there you go, walking past,
Your eyes flicking over me, one more tomb
In the line stretching along the road.
My life doesn’t look like much, I know,
An orgy of house-keeping and wool
but I loved my husband and my children,
And I broke my heart over the boy
Buried here beside me.
It says I made conversation graciously.
That’s not quite true. I swore a lot.
And I haven’t a clue what this means,
“Her manner was appropriate”.
The sculptor came up with that one.
But it’s nice to see myself like this –
a woman in an epitaph, perfect in death.

Winter poems, 2020

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