These three poems were written in response to the Food for Thought exhibition, generously funded by the Roman Society and supported by the Corinium Museum. I’ve been writing poems based on British Roman history and artefacts as part of my work at the Roman Museum in Canterbury (https://canterburyromanresident.wordpress.com), so was delighted to be asked to do the same at the Corinium. There are lots of approaches to creating this kind of work, but I am personally interested in the small and everyday objects – they really do link us to our past, and tell us something of the people we come from.
Eternal Dog of the Hunting Cup
I was struck by the sense of movement the potter had captured in the dog depicted on the hunting cup. I looked into how dogs had co-existed with humans for millennia, being one of the fundamental species that helped our survival. I got to thinking about Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, and how he sees the love scene depicted on that object as immortalised. I wanted to do the same for the dog – and indeed, some of the lines in poem are directly adapted from the Keats’.
Ah happy, happy dog!
forever panting, and forever young
we can almost hear your barks of joy
the curl of your tail swinging back and forth
as the swift bounding of your legs
carries you eagerly over eternal ground.
You are not a nobleman’s hunting dog
all well-fed and well-bred muscle
sleek coat slipping through undergrowth
blood-scent in your sharp nose
keen-eyed and fleet-footed foe of deer and hare
nor are you some mongrel cur
snuffling through waste for scraps
a vagrant beast of burden
your ears and head drooping
your stomach growling more than your throat.
You are not a farmer’s black watchdog
eating with the family
as if you are one of them
standing silent guard in the household
alert for shadows moving in the night
nor are you a child’s over-indulged pet
fat from food fed from the table
lazily curling up next to your mistress
legs kicking as you dream of rabbits
fearful of other dogs not so well treated.
You are not the shepherd’s white dog
nipping at the legs of stray sheep
guardian and keeper of the flock
chasing away your wolf cousins
your lineage and history forgotten
nor are you a dog of war
half-starved and constantly beaten
made ferocious by the hands and whips of man
returned to your wild wolf origins
let slip to fight in the politics of conquest.
Caught in full flight made static by the potter
you have no name: you are every dog
man has ever loved and lived with
your barks echo back and forth down the ages
companionship resonating with the warmth of centuries
as timeless as the earth you are made from.
Prayer to Bacchus
The child’s drinking vessel is an interesting object as it’s adorned with vines and grapes – signs of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. This wouldn’t be something obvious to put on a child’s object! I wanted to imagine why this might have happened, and who would get their child such an object. I settled on a new father, who was perhaps regretting his overindulgence and wanted to make peace with the gods through a prayer.
Janus, hear my prayer
you, god of many faces and roles:
as Consevius you have created new life
blessed my marriage with a beginning
Janus, you have opened a portal in time
as my child sets out on his life’s journey –
hear my prayer.
Bacchus, see my child
you, god of the harvest and fertility
who have been kind to me already
now I ask more of you:
for though you are god of bliss and pleasure
you, god of wine, have another face –
that of bitterness and fury.
Do not let my son inherit the weakness of his father:
I am too often found sat, alone and in company
my wine cup constantly empty and full
with a serpent lying in wait coiled around my happiness
the poison ivy of cynicism creeping through my veins
my thyrsus in hand, wand turned to weapon
the raging bull of my anger ready to charge.
Bacchus, do not look on my son with this drunk darkness
but rather with smiles and red-faced delight
do not tempt my child to the ruin I have suffered
but rather to understand you as a fickle god
the pleasures of your madness and ecstasy as transient
wine as occasional and brilliant as music and dance
a fleeting beauty, not a permanent scar.
I honour you with this drinking vessel
adorned with vines and fig trees
your hopeful symbols of life and joy
given to my child so he may always remember you
I leave wine in this bowl in dedication of you
freshly-harvested corn for the eternal feast
accept my sacrifices, Bacchus.
Hear my prayer, Vesta
goddess of hearth and home
I seal my words with you
with the intensity of sacred fire:
may the future for my son
be not one of struggle and strife
but of harmony with Bacchus.
I knew I had to write a poem on the Corinium Cockerel – the artefact is truly beautiful, and its backstory is tragic and intriguing. It’s the kind of object you want to reach out to and hold with your hands, and I can imagine that being especially true for a child. As it was buried in a child’s grave, it must have been loved by them – and the child in turn loved by the family.
To see the cockerel and hear Dan’s poem, click here.
Go, cockerel: I send you away from my household
and into the next world with my child
she, who was so fond of you in life
demanding to hold and play with you
at every moment of the day
from her waking cry at first light
to her softly-breathing sleep at night.
In some ways you are alive
animated by the craft of the bronze-worker
his hands shaping the prideful curve of breast and wing
the definite fix of comb and wattle
the lively detail of eye and beak
but it was my child who – like some infant Pygmalion –
breathed life into you through her love.
And yet more than this – we all gave you spirit:
in the hollow of your back you hold memories
household stories of a mother’s love
everyday moments of a father’s affection
sounds of siblings’ teasing and laughter
the clash and clatter of an entire household
turning our villa inside out, trying to find you when lost.
The dark shade of night’s sky lightens to deep blue
after this profoundly long and severe night
and I remember that you are Mercury’s creature:
heralding the coming of the light with a cry of triumph
a message from the gods that a new day is here
that we mortals are not forgotten by the gods
hope rising as surely – and slowly – as the sun.
Speak for me now, you who may speak freely with Mercury
tell him of my child who can no longer see that light
nor feel the first touch of Sol’s warmth
put my anguish into your crowing
give voice to my grief where I can not
so that the gods may know
something of mortal suffering.
Tell Apollo that his medicine does not always work
and that Mors has eager teeth to take one so young
crow for her who can no longer cry
and charge Mercury to see her safe
in her passage to the afterlife
where I may see her again one day
holding you, cockerel, as I hold you now.
To find out more about Dan and his poetry, click here.
To hear Dan recite these poems, click here.