V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





Sunrise. I wake with firesmoke
in my hair, ash drifting through the trees
and down to the water’s edge. Milites Gregarii
stand watch over us from higher up the slope.
Other than their hushed conversations, the voices
of men who are not about to die, a dog
barking in the distance, the occasional
snorting of the cavalry’s horses, or the coughing
prisoners sleeping in the mud beside me,
all is quiet. I lay my head back, thinking—

I have seen the camel-leopard
and the one-horned beast in Rome. I’ve fought
the Britons at Medway, crossing the river
to slaughter the horses for their chariots.
Not so easy a thing to do, killing a horse.

I’ve woken many nights to dark hair
on my chest, my lover’s ear
attuned to the voices I keep inside.
A son I haven’t seen in years,
that sharp mind of his, that wildness
of blood. Drank wine from the goatskin.
Watched the sun boil into the sea.

And for what? Today
oars will pull through the lake’s
bloodied skin, driven by whips and the heat
of the drum. 19,000 of us fighting
at the Emperor’s command, his decision—
to choose from among the living
those who form the ranks of the dead.

II.  Ave Imperator! Morituri Te Salutant!

Claudius responded to the gladiators on their warships, saying—Or not, as the case may be. They unanimously took him up on this and refused to fight, insisting that his words amounted to a pardon. Claudius grew so angry that he was on the point of sending troops to massacre them all, or burning them in their ships; however, he changed his mind, jumped from his throne and, hobbling ridiculously down to the lakeside, threatened and coaxed the gladiators into battle.
                                                       —Suetonius  (b. AD 69)

One death, or another. Always
the appearance of choice.

The man beside me has never heard
of the Rhodians, or of their battle
with the Sicilians many years before,
but the fuel of history echoes in his blood,
in the shaking of his hands, the slow rocking
of his head as he mumbles the words
broken on his lips—Pulvis et umbra sumus,
he says, as horns and drums
lift the crowd to its feet, cheering.

The sun repeats itself in the water
beside our ship—riding the crests
pushed out from the bow, slipping
in the valleys between waves,
as if a fire deep within the waters
refuses the world it is given, defies it,
rising from the murk to burn
in the cold and choppy blue.

III.  Corvus

From the shoreline, the boy sits
on his father’s shoulders, cheering the flags
of ships on the water, the bright fires
arcing over them, drums of the triremes
beating faster and faster until the ships
crash into one another, the rowers
crushed by their own oars, timbers
splintered with a sound that lifts
a deafening roar from the audience
around him. And his father says
Remember this, boy. Remember it all.

Men sinking in water. Sails
erupting in fire. A man’s head
lifted on a spear.  

IV.  In the Surgeon’s Tent

Forceps. Scalpels. Curettes.
Bone levers. Drills. Hooks. These instruments
boil in pots over the fire as a doctor
wipes the wound on my forearm
with an acetum-soaked rag,
telling an orderly to take out the dead
while I stare sideways at those around me—
the wounded from a vast empire
who bleed beside me, as midwives
tend to pregnant women further down the tent.

Nineteen infants will be born here today,
in the same tent where my left arm
hangs by tendons and muscle, the bones
shattered and broken into pieces.
It will take four men to hold me down
as they amputate my arm, my left hand
set free, twitching.
And just before I black out from shock,
cupped palms lift an infant by a cord
tied to the pain and winded breathing
of its mother—an infant soaked in blood,
made of it, its eyes sealed in gore—
I see another foetus that didn’t make it,
the impacted skull opened with a probe,
cranial bones pulled out in fractured
pieces, with wet fingers mostly,
metal foreceps as a last resort.

These things you will see, child.
These things you will see.

V.  Lago di Fucino

Who among us here would believe me
if I said that one day, not so long from now,
cattle will graze in the ruins of the Forum,
lime-burners rendering the granite
for what profit it might bring,
the smoke of their fires a last signature
of the Empire’s dissolution? 

Who could believe such a thing?
That the Emperor could be silenced,
the Roman legions extinguished
in bone and rubble. That the lake
could one day be drained
until it no longer existed at all.
It’s impossible, we’d say.
Who could forget something
as entertaining as this?

© by Brian Turner


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