Wednesday, March 30, 2011

448 Could you seal your heart? (Poems of Exile)

 A taste of the romantic side of the philosopher Seneca/pseudo-Seneca.  Do not be fooled by his cynical disguise.

448-449 Could you seal your heart? 

Could you seal your heart, living with her captive sweet youth?
Could you live and love and know?
Could you keep your heart free from the tender torch,
Watching love die and her consumed?

You could defeat your heart with undiluted wine:
If remorse strikes, repress it, drive out the dark clouds.
If night-love seizes you, dare not to succumb
Unless –          your prudent heart is safely numbed

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hands and Faces

I read this morning of the first planned hand and face transplants in Britain, which made me think:  aside from painters’ self-portraits and the self-obsessed mirror-gazers, which body part is closest to our sense of our body’s identity?  I recognise my hands, see them at work, hear them on the piano and feel their sensations more, I think, than any awareness of my face.  Perhaps I am revealing myself as a habitual mirror-avoider, but it feels to me – not thought out with both hands as it were – that wearing someone else’s visage would be less confronting than seeing someone else’s hand holding my pen stroking the page.

Perhaps the face is less an issue, not only because I try not to look at it any more than I need to, but also because I feel I often wear masks, imaginatively at least, for my different roles in life.  I suspect that I see different faces than others do (I don’t think I am unique in this) with the layers of shared history and emotion casting shadows that only I can see.  In turn I expect the face the world sees on my head has many guises and little or nothing to do with the one I inadvertently catch in the glass.

I once wrote about the honesty of feet and the personal infused in a well-worn shoe.  I remember a pair of mittens I lived with for years.  They were leather, lined in sheep’s wool, fashioned as somewhat elegant ski-mitts.  There were three straps of extra leather across the palms for wear and grip, and a double covering of the thumb pad.

I remember gazing at them once palms up – I was probably sitting on a train – and noting the exhaustion and filth of the right hand glove and the relative pristine state of the left hand one.  The right hand was glossy from friction and the polishing of handrails.  When I took them off, they would lie slightly curled up like etiolated boxing gloves, the forefinger marks prominent in the hand pocket, the thumbs tucked in, for warmth.

Over the decades my hands have changed:  there are one or two tiny scars from kitchen knives;  the fingers are not quite straight anymore and the middle finger of my right hand has a permanent groove from holding a pen;  there is a divot in my left hand from my wedding ring.  Age and infirmity have left my hands slightly swollen and sometimes sore.  The skin is much the same as it has always been as my aversion to the sun has – so far – protected me from brown spots or white spots, and being a ‘holy’ non-smoker, there are no yellow stains.

These are my hands, unmistakably.  The idea of wearing someone else’s is shocking.

I am the fortunate one.  When one is the recipient, the one lying on the hospital bed, injured, ill or dying, the whole issue would become an extravagant luxury, turned upside down.  Not having a working hand or a face to protect one’s nerves and muscles, to express joy and fear, vanity, familiarity, sentimentality become grossly irrelevant.  Just get me fixed, get me out of here, let me go back to being a person not a patient, becomes the refrain.   A stranger’s hand would be a blessing undreamt of.

The exchange of body parts – whether living donations of kidneys or exquisite gifts from those with no further practical use or essential life-giving fluids such as blood, plasma or immunoglobulin – is beyond giving.  There should be a new word for this type of donation that reflects the renewed life in its veins.

Monday, March 28, 2011

La Giaconda

Caught amongst the fridge-magnets, the fraudsters and academics,
the backdrop to countless snaps: me in Paris, alongside that tower and the dancing legs, 
we have obliterated your enigma with our kitsch and theories, x-rays and refurbishments
We have forgotten your mask, your flesh and constraint,
we see only the opportunities for gaucheries and profit
Duchamp was right, once someone thought you had a hot ass, lady love

picture courtesy of

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Barbie Cycle 8

Plastic Love

Let the public vote!  no mind beats in the vacant chest of that malleable coy mistress
how can we call it
projected onto those guardians of our childish hearths 
the Lares and Penates of the Pink World?

Love does not bend unless it’s plastic: 
worth unknown but price precise, with discount, tax and shipping

Barbie’s not Time’s fool:  her fuchsia lips and cheeks
blanche only to fashion’s dictate
and alter to match the marketing brief
 – even to the edge of taste and decorum

Ken dallied with the Toys
while Barbie surfed the dating game
now he’s asking us to choose for her  

what hope do our full-sized selves have if elections determine love?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Time Zone (en)Treaty

You are all asleep while I am awake,
caught between two humming hemispheres in a slip of time:
before the day starts in the west and after close of business in the east.
I am always calculating the clock where you are,
longing for daylight savings or despairing as the gap gets wider:
I never knew that no-man’s-land was truly no-time-land too.


Friday, March 25, 2011


the denial of difference
never worn one
never could 

in a shroud
we are


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hippopotamus Redux

Yesterday I wrote about Mr and Mrs Hero and their adventures in Africa – and I think that all my bitterness and cynicism and sense of betrayal shone through.  It was very much a me, me! perspective.  I failed to consider or convey their point of view:  the enormous upheaval the posting must have caused to their physical lives and their emotional ones.

Ten years later or maybe fifteen, they were still ‘dining out on it’ and clinging to their escapades as self-defining tropes.  Newly retired from the game, any new thrills would have to be manufactured by themselves.  What I failed to appreciate was their sense of loss, of missed challenges and opportunities.
At the time I did not recognise the competition for exoticism points, hardship honours, or medals for bravery.  I was too appalled by what I was facing myself, and crushed that I was getting no discernible sympathy or applause, to think clearly.

I remain an innocent.  I want to trust and believe rather than scoff and dismiss hyperbole and self-aggrandisement.  It was not that the stories weren’t true of course; places and names had been changed to enhance the protagonists. 

I must learn to be more charitable.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Hippopotamus on the Rug – Tales from Exile

They loved to tell stories of their time in Africa, as if they saw themselves as late 20th century adventurers, faced with the edge of civilisation, shortages and dangers, but always making do with what a century earlier would definitely have been a stiff upper lip and missionary zeal.  The only conversions they were interested in during that last decade were ones involving their bank accounts, tax status, inheritance-tax-proof gifts and retirement provisions.

Three years or four years, the details of fixed points vague, yet the challenge, the effort, the accomplishments, what he said to her and how they were always cast in a favourable glow, clear and precise.  They didn’t claim to be heroic, only clues, of course.

There were stories of dinner parties augmented with reconstituted-in-champagne dried fruit from the cereal; camp politics and the head girl condescension of the old hands patronising the overwhelmed newcomers.

He built the camp and the plant – you would think single-handedly.  A captain of men.  Organising defences when the helicopters were called in.  Always fair-minded and interested in the natives.

They spoke of walks on the beach, keeping an eye out for snakes, crocodiles and other carnivores.  There was nothing we could mention they hadn’t experienced first, better and harder.  Any comment met with ‘Remember Nigeria’ and an exchanged rolling of the eyes.

Watching, I first thought the look was about sympathy for each other, for the challenges and privations, and a gentle superiority that we could never know life as they did; such privileged experience was banned to us.  I didn’t realise it was deeper and more complex than that.  We tried to introduce them to friends who’d had similar experiences but they demurred, unavailable.

There was a murder in the camp, unexplained but most likely domestic, connected to infidelity – also rife and the moral order of the island – blamed on external forces, savages, never solved.  They nodded about that in unison.

It was such fun! they told us.  When the ship came in with supplies, when the wives left with the children for the summer, when there was a crisis in the construction programme.  All conquered, nothing skimped.

How we admired their resilience and fortitude:  such wisdom and expertise to be gained from their old hands.

When we visited them at home, there were souvenirs of their exotic life:  black wooden carvings, spears, fabrics and baskets.  There was a stuffed leather hippopotamus, the size of a large dog, lounging in the conservatory.  Oh yes, we had such trouble bringing him back.

We nearly marvelled and shuddered and gasped in appreciation.  We listened to the stories with growing politeness and unease.  It was not only the one-sided heroics that were off-putting, but a sense of cruelty that was not far below the surface, a smugness of triumph and something else amiss.

Years later a casual comment from a colleague who knew them in darkest Africa suggested their story was incomplete, shorter, less dramatic and primeval.  The wife only visited twice, the husband possibly participated in the camp rituals with too much enthusiasm:  not quite keys in the bowl.

I have a picture of the ferocious jungle coming down to a swirling shore, with hippos bathing, cars on the beach, quicksand and witch doctors, and a container-load of lies.

Monday, March 21, 2011

My last tassel

My last tassel

That was my tail, the grey and the brown
Curves and waves and swings
I loved the feel of it on my rump,
Swings and curves and waves
It shooed flies and flicked
Waves and curves and swings
Fit for a king’s crest, a herald, a judge’s crown
Now curled and waved and swung

The Barbie Cycle 7


Time    stands still
                        for style icons.   Take
                                    turning 50 this year
Back in the day                       Ken
            lush blond locks

                        My guess
Ken works out
            He is wise                    strong
melt factor
he slips away

Gone are the days
he doesn’t want to look like a loser

Ken is gay                   a handbag                    draws a blank

Is that why Barbie dropped him?
            because Ken started    relaxing            his prostate
her pink                       the pink           the pink            the pink

Ken has developed a taste

Found poem, after an article in The Age, January 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011

415 Deceitful Hope (Poems of Exile)

The following poem is part of my Poems of Exile, loosely translated from the Latin of Seneca (or if you prefer pseudo-Seneca).  There is a long explanation about the origins of the project in my post Exile II.

The original poem was probably written sometime during the first century, and thus reflects many concerns of that day - the life of a gladiator, a soldier, the difficulties of farming and fishing and the risk of famine.  It offers a miserable view of life in general, but also has some surprising topical notes, given the events in North Africa this week.

Deceitful Hope  does not offer optimism for the future in an overt way, but given Seneca's words have endured for nearly two thousand years, I suspect there must be something to hope for.  

415    Deceitful Hope  (Spes fallax)

Deceitful Hope, sweetly evil Hope, in truth most wicked,
Hope, the relief of miseries, who allows the Fates to drag us
to unsuspected ends.  She makes us slaves to Fortune’s whim:
dutiful Hope stands with evil to the utmost.
Hope forbids you to accept death’s restful embrace.
she ignores defeat, all Hope values is tomorrow;
while cheating, she begs for a loan against the future.

Hope alone never perishes, she comes and returns
stronger, her evil is often most charming;
and whomever she ensnares, they are trapped all the same.
She is an inconstant lover, wildly moody at times,
and thinks it nothing to be bold and lame.
The gods wink at her promises:  nothing is fixed
and she begs misfortune to be light.

In this fashion, the summoned, shipwrecked man
swims through fate’s stormy seas:
he may see a raft before sinking
by Hope’s trickery, the captive endures severe chains
and thinks he will prevail on the path of life;
at the stake, with limbs torn asunder
he hopes and by fixing to Hope, clings to his torment.
Hope commands us to hold up our heads, even tied to a stake
with lights flashing before our eyes.

The gladiator hopes in the shifting arena life,
that when the sword goes down his throat, he is murdered.
He hopes, captured by force, to be released by death.
Hope rescues the prisoner by melting bronze walls,
and Hope dwells alongside him in the pit.
Hope leads wars and the soldier’s secret wish to live;
It is Hope that orders the living shore of Libya be penetrated;
and O! by the gods, who is there but fair Hope
to see the ruin of Carthage! – all but a third was destroyed.
Swearing great hope, the exiled risk across the globe,
and dream of riches and revenge. 

Of all, only Cato did not cling to hopeful words,
and the lies of the goddess Jove did not deceive him.
What does Hope not dare?  Priam lives to mourn Hector;
Protesilaus’ wife had Hope.
Orpheus hoped to snatch his love out of the underworld,
and by singing hoped to distract the dogs.
With Hope his leader, Daedulus succumbed to mid-air breezes
and his new wonder frightened the birds.
Passiphae hoped to placate the Minotaur by scolding.

What won’t men be fooled to hope for?
He hopes the curved plough will break the furrows,
he hopes the winds will carry his sail.
Hope teaches to chase fish with hooks, birds with snares;
then Hope is followed by tyranny:  heavy rakes and poor fields,
and she prepares a cheating account.

Hope always flatters, always spreading dishonesty;
she seizes the religion of the populace.
Hope never forsakes an illness deserted by doctors;
once a wish has been granted by Hope, it is never put aside.
Hope leads an unknown man to seek political life and
Her greed raises men to arms.
Hope says ‘endure! they would not touch your person:
fickle chance changes fortunes rapidly.’
Fortune plays with chance all over the world:
Hope always remains, never releases us, always returns renewed.

(Cato – Roman senator who took his own life rather than surrender, Priam – king of Troy, Hector – his son, Protesilaus – destined to be the first Greek killed at Troy, Daedalus – Athenian craftsman and inventor, Passiphae – mother of the Minotaur)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Willingness or Otherwise ...

My friend Seneca says a slave is not a slave, cannot be forced to see himself as a slave, if he does things willingly, with pleasure and care.  One is only a slave -- from boot boy to Emperor -- if one does things unwillingly, begrudgingly, because one 'has to'.

Freedom is a state of mind.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

For Carmel

your sober black suit is dignified, beautiful discrete
your creamy face is smooth, slightly swollen as if the tears have blown you up
your darkened hair, beautiful and alive, overwhelms your face
your wounded eyes are lost as if, even now, you can’t comprehend the enormity of your pain

I want to touch you and hold you
I’m afraid if I put my arms around you I’d feel the empty places where he was

you don’t seem bitter, never said why me?
as if he was a gift you could not deny
of unravelling sorrow

you said it will always be the first thing you think of in the morning
the last thing you think of when you go to sleep
his birth-death will slide between
you and the joy of any future birth
of his birthday and your birthday
(giving birth to your grief have you given birth to yourself?)
you won’t mark Christmas or New Year
or your daughter’s birthday
without him like a fume in your heart

you said the grief would rob your days and nights forever
and cheat your body of its joys

old-fashioned calamity has struck you like a knife
these are griefs our mothers knew and their’s
now we have been taught only to expect perfection, our illusion of control

you are stronger than you know
you are stronger than you know you have become
I have not felt your acid in my eyes
I know its sting will rinse      water grinding sand
until the memory is small enough to hold in your hand

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Snow Falls

Snow falls on Japan

Spring heralds cherry blossom
in the temples they record the lost

bells toll

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Weed or Centrepiece?

Saintpaulia, the favourite of ladies’ indoor gardens
contained, sheltered and unsullied
cooking on the windowsill behind hermetically sealed double-glazing
always dressed in the colours of widowhood – white, purple, delicate pink

fussed-over, nurtured and adored
(never wet the furry leaves,
no over-watering,
fed weekly on Sundays,
taken for an airing in Spring)

pots and lives wrapped in co-ordinating tissue paper
with matching ribbons
ordered, staid and scentless

Oh for a rogue to thrust his green shoot amongst this decorum!


Monday, March 14, 2011

Things I didn’t know I loved (after Nazim Hikmet)

I didn’t know I loved the heat
I always thought I was a cold weather girl
snow and ice and wind
but now I’ve grown soft, too much warmth, can’t live without it 
too many years in the tropics, in the desert, in Mediterranean climates 
now I’m always cold if the mercury dips below 30 celsius,
I wear scarves and jumpers and pull the covers over my head at night

I didn’t know I loved to sleep
I was never action-girl, not sports mad, not hyperactive,
but now I find the best way to spend the afternoon is on the swing,
eyes closed, rocking the world

I didn’t know that time would speed up
and I would love the morning light
I didn’t know the day would be half over, too late, why bother?
if I got up at 9 o’clock

I didn’t know how much I love my own company,
how irritated I can be by a doorbell or the phone,
how much I like the silence of birds
and water bubbling
and cats stalking through the grass

I didn’t know I loved life quite so much that I really wouldn’t want to leave

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Lone Pine

The Jack Pine, after Tom Thomson

The tortured “Lone Pine” is one of the most famous images in Canadian landscape paintings by the Group of Seven.  A single tree in a stark landscape appears in paintings by AY Jackson (The North Shore), Lawren Harris (North Shore, Lake Superior), Franklin Carmichael (Cranberry Lake), JEH MacDonald (Lake O’Hara) and Emily Carr (Tree in Autumn), but the most famous twisted trees appear in paintings by Tom Thomson, particularly his The Jack Pine and The West Wind.  

There was a time when prints of these images hung in Canadian houses proudly, akin to McCubbin, Streeton, and Roberts images of the Australian bush.  It is astonishing how one vision can dominate a culture’s sense of identity.  In Australia the land speaks – or sings, in Canada it is the lakes which hold the secrets.

In the foreground of The West Wind are those heaving slabs of granite of the Canadian Shield.  In the summer they heat up like anvils and their smooth planes make tables and seats for picnickers and fishermen.  They are tilted and broken, exciting to clamber over:  home to rattlesnakes and toads and skunks.  They are like a pack of stone playing cards tipped along the shoreline.  Some of the crevices between slabs are over 20 metres deep, and the sun never penetrates them – perhaps there is still snow deep inside in summer.  They are pink and glitter, but the sheltered sides are patterned with lichen and moss.  Thick black corded veins run over the rock face, and like arteries a further net of whitish quartz inter-weaves the black.

When it is wet, water streams down the granite faces in sheets and collects in troughs and hollows.  These are young rocks that don’t show weathering:  sharply defined, fractured, hard, no blurring about the edges, with a few deep grooves where the last glaciers have passed by.

In Tom Thomson’s painting those slices of the heart of Canada are painted dark purple, brown and green.  It has been raining and the sky still carries the weight of a rain squall in its clouds.  The wind is whipping the clouds along, the waves are scampering to keep up with the flying sky, and the water reflects the colour of the shore, menacing in the rain.

The image is dominated by the Lone Pine, so much part of Canadian heritage that it has become a cliché.  The pine tree is stripped of branches on the windward side and gives with its leeward flutter of kites.  Thomson has captured the sawing of the tree in the wind, and the bunching of needles, as if they have been blown down the limbs.  The limbs are so many dirty mops flying.  The pine is tethered to that Canadian Shield firmly, toes locked into fissures and clinging to the rough soil, for the gusts of wind look set to uproot it and fling it into the foaming lake.

Storms on the Great Lakes come up suddenly taking the inexperienced unawares.  Even the myriad lakes in the northern heartland stir up and rage against the sky and the confines of their granite battlements.  Legend tells that Thomson was crossing one of the smaller lakes in Algonquin Park, alone in an open canoe when he disappeared.  Mystery surrounds his body – some say it was an Indian buried in his place and that Thomson’s has never been found – or that it slipped away amongst the submerged wedges of rock.  At the time there were theories of suicide, Indian spirits, or the more fanciful, an Algonquin monster – sister to Nessie.

The answer to his mysterious death lies in his paintings, for each one offers a crevice’s view into the northern lakes, and reveals their passion and will.  If you look behind the pine branches you can see his paddle drifting, hear the sound of a wooden canoe grating roughly on the unfeeling shore, and sense the slabs of granite heave under your unsteady feet.  Like a sailor or a jockey, you develop canoe sense so that those first steps on land fling you about as you compensate for the movement that doesn’t occur.

The West Wind, after Tom Thomson
Like all wet places, there is a stale smell of dying fish and drying seaweed near to shore, but in the wind you can only smell rain.  Maybe Thomson wasn’t drowned but landed on an unaccustomed island, and in the failing light stepped into the shadow of a rock slab, and slid down, slipping underground.  The granite heaves in near vertical planes – there would be no footprints, nothing to find.

After his disappearance his canoe was found floating on its side, scraped badly on the bottom.  His paddle was found several days later.  Did he strike a submerged rock, smash his head and  unconscious, fall from the canoe?  I like to think he went to join that edge that is the magic in his paintings:  where the stirring lakes and the broken land inter-lock in threatening beauty.

These sketches do not do the original paintings justice, but many images are available online.

Do you think every nation has a visual identity, captured by painters at a momentous time in the country's life?  Do you think landscape and psyche are inextricably linked?   Do the spirits sing in your homeland?

Also linked to Magpie Tales here

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Barbie Cycle 6

After all that seriousness, I think it is time for some more irreverence.

The Barbie Cycle began about - ooh - twenty years ago and has groan (sic) with me, or perhaps aged is the better verb.

This poem was inspired by a news article that a charity was auctioning a specially commissioned Barbie, which sold for something in the range of $300,000 - I can only hope it was for a good cause.  It is less acerbic than most of the Barbie poems and probably makes most sense when read with the others.

New Jewels for Barbie

your most expensive look
your newest incarnation
Argyll pink diamonds in a collar of glitter 
darling you’re wearing well
at 51, with youth fading past
we all know the answer is bling! 
Stefano’s black frock
a face lift                     and diet 

are you getting any yet?


Sadly, I don't seem to be able to load any photos today, so imagine if you will, a black frock, a blonde dame, and bling!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ode to Garlic

I am a newcomer to the cyber sea so hope I am doing this properly.  I wrote this poem in response to a prompt at Magpie Tales.  I am trying to follow the instructions.  Please forgive me and advise me if I have the technicalities wrong.  Not much we can do about the poet at this stage ...

Ode to Garlic

most revered, and despised
angel vegetable
sheathed in pink satin
dripping with taste or lust
peel me
slice me
crush me
devour my
 succulent roar

not for you?
what kind of a mouth are you?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

427 If you could love me (Poems of Exile)

This poem is from my collection The Poems of Exile, inspired by Seneca, or pseudo-Seneca.  An explanation of their genesis is posted in The Madness of Exile.  Poem 427 is one of the most corrupt in the original collection, which has given me plenty of leeway to interpolate. 

After the grim and unappealing 'Horrid Corsica' I want to show a different side to the imaginary poet.

If you could love me…

my sweet love, if you could love me like this:
alone to bed (Hesperus would see this)
alone (Lucifer would see this) to arise
no passage of time would cease our borrowed love
and in return you would always be loved

if only you would deny that you surrender, so often, to others
if only you would surrender, more often, to me

and your betraying snare, squeezing my soul, my heart, my pride

I want to give you my nights complete:
            you are unavailable
            you condemn the wasted night
and my empty bed is hostage to your cruel fear

once, you promised me, for life:  no more
            one senseless quarrel leaves me alone:
            when I was down with the ‘political illness’
            you flirted with your entire body
and then you denied our love

surely, you gave a thousand kisses to senators
            they say you were generous

you ensnared me so slowly:
            briefly, you were my dear woman
            eternally dear, in truth

your love affairs defeat me so quickly:
            jealousy stretches the night to endless torture

            I am always awake

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Madness of Exile (Exile II)

This is a rather long post, introducing a poem.  Skip to the bottom if the whys and wherefores are of no interest.

What to do with enforced retirement, a life distributed amongst several far-flung continents, what I like to think of as an active mind, and what I must admit to as social reluctance?  How to pass time in a fruitful (the work-ethic background) fashion that is not counting the shadows crossing the tiles?

I immersed myself in a study of the poet, dramatist, philosopher and statesman, Lucius Annaeus Seneca.  I think the stoicism appealed to me.  The man was maligned by near-contemporary historians such as Tacitus and Suetonius, partly in response to political expediency, I am sure; and further damned by the later Greek historian, Deo Cassius.  At the same time he was acknowledged as a Stoic teacher, and an exemplary of the ‘noble death’.  How could such disparate views be reconciled?  How could the man who wrote On The Shortness of Life be guilty of condemning Agrippina, his former patron, to death, and then assisting in a cover-up of the murder?  

We have an enormous amount of written material ascribed to Seneca, transmitted it is true, through various voices and cultures, and thus suspect to tampering.  We have some dozen philosophical essays, the moral epistles to Lucilus, a scientific treatise, nine tragedies of unremitting horror and the Apocolocyntosis, a satirical play on the pumpkinfication of the emperor Claudius.  For a person who doesn’t ‘do’ living people very successfully, I felt I could know more about this man, through his writing, than I could about many of my contemporaries.  I thought, perhaps if I could write my way into his head, I would be able to understand both the violent and the meditative parts of his persona.

I read scraps of biography – there is really not much known about his early life – and discovered he had been exiled to Corsica: another poet who committed an ‘error’.  Happily, Seneca was recalled before he succumbed to the horrid life of an exile.  I also discovered a body of work attributed to Seneca, or ‘pseudo-Seneca’, a collection of poems and epigrams allegedly written while he was exiled.  I was struggling to understand my own position and feelings and hoped that once again, by getting into Seneca’s head I might find some answers.

When I began this undertaking, pseudo-Seneca was not popular amongst scholars.  In fact he (or they?) was so unpopular I couldn’t find a copy of the poems, not in English or indeed in Latin.  Remember I had no access to a University library or journal collections, and very limited access to bookshops.  Even on the internet, especially on the internet, I struggled to find the poems.  I trawled websites of second-hand books, and the early days of Project Guttenberg, not quite sure what I was looking for.  Then triumph!  I found a copy of Christopher J Reagan’s Concordance.   Innocent that I was, I had hoped I was buying the original text and a commentary, perhaps a translation, I didn’t realise I was buying a collection of numbered lines, arranged alphabetically. 

In great excitement I ordered the book and waited the endless weeks for it to be delivered.  To make sure I really wanted it, the parcel spent a few weeks sojourn in the central post office of Jakarta, one of the few places I have never lived, before eventually arriving.  When I opened the book, I discovered single lines with a line and poem reference number at the end.  Being under-employed and under-stimulated and possibly quite mad, as well as stubborn, I set about re-constructing the 75-odd poems, line by line.

It took me months, but was oddly satisfying.  I kept a separate page for each poem and gradually added lines as I worked my way from  quam procul  a  te/aspicis heu cineres, Roma, iacere tuos! (413.3)  through to   Xerxes  magnus adest.  totus comitatur euntem/orbis  (239.1).

I came to know the Latin lines intimately, line by word by line.  I didn’t know what they meant, yet, but I began to recognise lines I’d already assigned (each line was repeated alphabetically, eg Xerxes magnus adest would appear three times, once under X, once under m, and once under a).  The four-line epigrams were quickly dealt with, while the monster poem Spes fallax, spes dulce malum, spes summa malorum, went on for 65 lines, and nearly defeated me.

Eventually I finished compiling and rebuilding and I had the completed text, with lacunae and corruptions.  I was almost disappointed when the task was over.

For my next trick, I set about translating them, with my clumsy school-girl Latin and my dictionaries.  Months later I finished what I called The Poems of Exile.  Some were more poetic and certain than others, while some were very scratchy indeed.  I go back to my raw text from time to time and try to turn my work into poetry, but many stanzas remain that do not make sense and are far from finished pieces.

Towards the end of my translation project – some 18 months after I had conceived the daft idea – I discovered that some kindly scholars in France had put both the Latin text and their French translations online.

My school-girl French is much better than my Latin ever was, yet comparing the odd Victorian translation I had stumbled upon, and the no doubt excellent, informed and scholarly French translation, I discovered something else:  I preferred my own imperfect, confused and clumsy efforts.  I began to see what an art translation really is, and how it is subject to the culture and mores of its day.  I realised that translation is quite a politically specific act, and the translator can colour the piece while still being ‘accurate’ to each word, to support quite different meanings.  We project our world view, our prejudices and our priorities onto the text.

Even the Latin I worked with was subject to the vagaries of transmission, to time, taste, censorship and all the dangers of physical corruption.  Some poems have missing lines, lacunae and disputed words.  Some versions join lines together into single poems that elsewhere appear as separate pieces or at least stanzas.

Any links between my Poems of Exile and the historical Seneca are ephemeral, imaginary and possibly indulgent.  Perhaps I am showing enormous cheek and hubris to refer to Seneca at all in connection with this work.

Let us agree instead that there is a fictional character, somewhere in my imagination, who has inspired these poems.

I hope to present some of these Poems of Exile on these pages from time to time, but being exile, I will begin with a grim reminder of our shared lot:

237    barbara praeruptus inclusa est Corsica saxis

Savage, rugged and isolated, the rude boulder of Corsica
is a place utterly forsaken and devastated.
No autumn fruit, nor summer crops are granted,
and old winter deprives the olive tree's gifts.
Spring showers bring no joyful growth
when only rank weeds emerge.
No bread, no fresh water, not remotest love:
only these two are here: the banned and banishment!