Over the last year, we have been explaining our interests in research to Dan Simpson. He is a poet (and brilliant person too). Take a look at his website : www.dansimpsonpoet.co.uk.
He spent time as a poet in residence at Canterbury Roman Museum and walked from London to Canterbury with some of the PhD students of the University of Kent – all on this webpage with films of the objects that inspired the poems: https://canterburyromanresident.wordpress.com/
Here are some of the poems:
1. Lares Viales
Janus, hear my prayer
as I once again open my front door
creating a portal
from the safety of my dwelling
to the cruelty of the world.
Gods of the roads protect me:
I turn my back on my comforts
my security and loves
watch over my body
as it makes this journey.
I take well-worn roads and familiar paths
out and away from my home
I will climb hills and cross rivers
traverse miles of this earth
journey into unknown places.
The way may be dangerous: save me from harm.
The way may be long: grant me strength to go on.
The way may be hard: toughen my feet.
The way may be unclear: give me clarity of sight.
The way may be lonely: provide me with purpose.
I offer you life-giving corn harvested by my hand
votives dedicated in your name
this wine poured on my home’s threshold
a vow to always honour you:
accept my prayer.
May I return unharmed and enriched
back to my home
to honour the gods
hear me! Lares
hear me! Vesta.
2. A Soldier’s Death
Death is half an inch and untold years away
a strip of metal coming between now
but in the end, it could not protect him
or her – this woman
buried inside a soldier’s helmet.
Perhaps, when war came
as war inevitably does
she threw the helmet at him
an anger born of worry and sorrow.
Perhaps she was the one who polished it
on the morning he left
murmuring a prayer of protection
the impact of words striking on metal.
Perhaps she removed it from his head
to kiss him properly as he returned
Perhaps she playfully put the helmet
on the head of her child
laughing at how it slipped down over his eyes
hoping he’d not grow into it.
Perhaps it was put away
and forgotten about
not needed – until it was
This helmet, made to save life
adapted to contain death
buried deep but still protecting
the memory of one who loved a soldier
and knew the lesson well:
death is unknown years and half an inch away.
3. Obscene Gestures
“Oi! Come back here!”
But with barely a backwards glance
speeding down the road
as if he’s off to the most urgent thing
to ever happen in the Empire.
I bend my thumb between index and middle fingers
curl them to make a fist
with a little tip poking out
and shake it at the man’s back
as he speeds away from me.
A crude approximation of a man’s parts
for a crude approximation of a man
a useless gesture
but it makes me feel better
Who was that youngster?
who would run down a citizen
an old soldier, no less
judging from the torc he wears
veteran of our wars
what is this world coming to?
Wherever he’s going can’t be that important:
this isn’t Rome, after all
but that kind of behaviour wouldn’t be justified
even in Rome
and the streets are far busier than here.
I help the old man up:
he dusts himself off
and with a small smile
continues on his way.
We must get from here
but this water runs between us
Bring me that wood
and I will show you a wonder
a way to bend the world
to our will.
We are masters of this domain
no river will stop us
Nature’s forcefully flung weapons
no match for our ingenuity.
Build me a bridge.
Build me a bridge
and I will show you an empire
an idea realised
in support pole and path.
Two places connected
The world changed
by idea and application
brute force and discipline
helmets and spear tips gleaming in the sun.
The glory of Rome.
III – Power and Propaganda
The glory of Rome
hangs from the bridge
a banner rustling in the breeze
proclaiming all is well.
The statue of the Emperor
gazes at you
as you approach
his smile says: I am your lord.
Thoughts of rebellion
die in front of this display of power
confronted by superior force
they are useless.
Throw them away.
IV – River Offerings
Throw them away
having said your prayer
watch where they lands in the water
hope for a good sign.
The river has it now
your humble offerings cast away
the votive to your god
it’s sacred course set.
We may bridge this territory
but it’s a consecrated place
as is the whole world
respect the gods who watch over you.
Pray they won’t abandon you.
V – Battles
Pray they won’t abandon you
those you call your brothers
in arms, in battle
as you face your enemy.
On the other bank
readying his weapons
preparing the charge.
Hope it doesn’t come down to this:
the tactic of last resort
a desperate measure
but the commander’s cry goes up:
Tear down this bridge.
5. Roman Fast Food
Hungry, are you?
In a hurry?
No worries: I’ll be with you in just a moment.
Alright: what’ll it be?
Not a huge choice, I’m afraid
but that only means you get your food quicker
I won’t distract you
but whilst you’re deciding
do you see that man over there –
I hear he’s having an affair –
I know! –
with the tanner’s wife of all people!
Now listen, I’m not one to gossip, but
you hear all sorts of things here
I won’t repeat them to you
my customers’ privacy is
Everyone passes through my door
We all need to eat!
but some people do go on a bit
more chat than chew.
Besides, it’s hard to follow conversation
when you work as hard as I do:
pouring the wine here
piling up fish there
clearing plates from him
bagging up oysters for her
it’s all go
all the time:
they don’t call this thermopolium
“the fastest food in town”
for nothing you know:
we’ll see you well fed
and on your way
Have you decided what to eat yet?
Alright, I’ll be back in a minute –
6. David Walsh’s Mosaic poem
Hours pass as if only seconds I barely notice the sweat across my brow Locked so intently in my task I do not see Orpheus I see myself, the colours and shapes like a mirror I do not feel the weight of the tools They are my hands, my finger tips This is my epitaph to the world A piece of myself that will remain When the rest of me has long since departed The art will linger on to inspire Like the words of Cicero The theatre of the Flavians The Wall of Hadrian My name will be forever be written in the tessera … and I’m sure no-one will notice the mistake.
7. Prayer to Bacchus
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.
The Roman army advances conquering lands from Northern Britain to Asia bringing civilisation to the barbarians. Quintus advances scraping words on freshly-made tiles left out to dry writing Vulgar Latin: “Attius is a fool”.
9. Dea Nutrix
She watches over me solid stone, gentle-faced steel behind her mild expression
resolution in her eyes. The all-Mother figure cradling civilisation in her arms these twin children of Rome feeding and growing up fast. She’s already seen it all: innocent infancy to scrappy childhood teenage rebellion to emerging adulthood civilised maturity and glorious years elder statesmen and women the inevitable decline and fall.
Though she may be damaged –
her head broken off
body weathered by time –
her protection is as eternal
as the idea she nurtures:
10. Corinium Cockerel
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.
Oh Fortuna! Be good to me tonight
make my dice land the right way up
and the wrong way for my enemies
show me your beautiful many-sided face
so I can honour each in turn.
We’re only here through luck
so you might as well continue to play the odds
chance has brought you this far my friends
tonight I throw bones
because someday that’s all we’ll be
so make use of the body whilst we have it
drink, eat, gamble – all three ideally.
Live! play that game we’re all playing.
But listen: you can’t rely on the gods
especially one as fickle as Fortuna
so I’ll take precautions for myself
these dice, my friends
are not ordinary dice
no cheap bone for me
solid, beautiful ivory
who wouldn’t want to play with them?
Let me tell you a secret:
you wouldn’t want to play against them
I mean, sure, they look legitimate
but they’ll throw high every time
now they’re odds I like.
So let’s play.
“I belong to a good man”
the inscription on the spoon says
the words following the curve down
touching the base
before making their way back up.
Grasp the handle and steady yourself:
do not let those old fears get the measure of you
for I have been to the depths –
they are not nearly as shallow as this spoon
but seemingly bottomless
and the way down is not like this soft slope
but sudden and steep
and the way back is not a gentle incline
but a sheer face.
“I belong to a good man”
and it belongs to you
and though this spoon is silver
I must not sell it for coin
and trade those for my weakness.
“I belong to a good man”
and a good man is what you must be
so heap your powder high
fill the depth of the spoon
and the space in your soul
with honest work.
How strange for a man
to be weighed by a spoon.
13. Quick to Save, Quick to Help
It is said that time is the devourer of things
but whoever said that had not seen British rain
which seems to do the job just as well
so when Prefect Gaius told me about Mithras
one yet-again-wet, miserable-as-Luctus camp night
I was ready to listen to anything to distract me
from my damp tunic – and damper boots.
An intriguing god, this Mithras
and one I’d heard spoken about by the other lads.
Something about it spoke to my heart
which I had thought hardened to such things
so I find myself here
underground and alone.
The darkness is doubled as the blindfold is tightened
and this unfamiliar place becomes completely unknown to me
those quickly-glimpsed alter carvings hidden in the low-light
after-images: a bull figure with coiled snakes
flickering against my eyelids
half-formed impressions of half-understood icons.
No matter – no need to understand at this moment
more pressing matters, like these fleshy slimy cords
bound around my wrists
the chicken gut shackles I’ve been told about
and I almost choke – from the sensation and smell
but control myself in time
thank you, Marcus, for the warning about those!
I shuffle forward, sandals scraping against the floor
until it is indicated that I should stop.
So I stop.
No further, for I do not want to touch the tip of the sword
the father is undoubtedly pointing at me
today I enact death – I do not wish to become it.
I smell incense, perfumed smoke drifting around me
and my eyes water, nose tickled
but I must not sneeze
or I will disturb the still air
and the ritual happening around me.
The masked assembly I saw before blindfolded
begins to make sound
a cacophony of animal noises – raven and goat
horse and eagle – and the distinct clucking of a chicken
undoubtedly Marcus, who said he’d do something unorthodox.
With the roar of a lion, the father begins the catechism
and I respond with the words I’ve learned
language flowing through me like water from a rock
sudden and unexpected
miraculous yet right.
The silence falls thick, impenetrable
and I can almost hear the roiling of incense
feel the smoky tendrils pull at my arms
wrap themselves around my body
so now I fall to the floor as if struck
as instructed, yes, but also from the unbearable weight
the silence of expectation on my shoulders.
My blindfold slips and I see rays of light
streaming through the alter
making the dark understandable
the mysteries somewhat clearer
though I am left with questions:
Do I become the bull struck down by Mithras?
By rising from the ground, am I suddenly rock-born?
Or something else, hidden from my knowledge?
the sudden chill of the stone brings me to my senses
and I remember: today I join my brothers-in-arms
we have been united in battle
and now by handshake.
Gaius says that Mithras is quick to save
and quick to help
but salvation only comes to those who help themselves, I think
so if joining puts me in the Prefect’s good books
and hastens my promotion…
well – there’s a helpful thing too.
The Being Human Festival in 2016 resulted in a series of events in Canterbury (see here) as well as a series of poems from participants. Here are a couple of Dan’s favourites:
The Being Human Festival gave me the opportunity to return to Canterbury Roman Museum, the site of one of my favourite poetry projects. Back in 2014, I walked the Roman road from London to Canterbury to take up residency at the Museum, discovering and writing about Kent and British Roman history along the way.
Working again with the University of Kent and Canterbury Museums, we kicked off a weekend full of Being Human activities at Canterbury Archaeological Trust, with Annie and Stewart presenting fascinating finds from around the city to a room full of absorbed Kings’ School students. Saturday was spent at the Roman Museum itself, taking people on a poetic tour of some of my favourite artefacts. And on Sunday, people returned to The Beaney to write poems themselves! Here are a couple of my favourite pieces that came out of those sessions.
The Blue Container – Helen Parkhurst
My position is safe.
I wouldn’t say I’m adored.
But for what I am,
and from where I came,
I am adored.
Blue. A simple blue vase.
A container. A flagon. A treasure.
I sit high on my shelf,
Safe from the maid,
For the Lady’s hands only.
He thinks all this is his.
And it was he who bought me home.
Alas. My oil within,
the room all around,
It is She who rules the home.
He is Important, Regal and strong!
The place from where I came,
So secretive, yet honourable.
My contents are priceless,
Only bestowed on the worthy.
The richness these fellows do not see.
The richness of patience and fun.
I see the children play,
I see the maid laugh.
A Richness not contained.