One of the off-shoots from the Residency at the Roman Museum in Canterbury was a commission by the Corinium Museum in Cirencester. I wrote this piece about a famous and beautiful artefact – the Cirencester Cockerel. Lloyd Bosworth, the Technician at the School of European Culture and Languages department at the University of Kent, has scanned the object and set my poem over the top of an animation. Check it out below!
My work at Canterbury Roman Museum is coming to a close, and I’m busy finishing up the poems I’ve written over the course of the project. I’ll be turning them into a downloadable audio tour of the museum, and hopefully a short pamphlet too.
In the meantime, I’ve been working with the Corinium Museum in Cirencester, who commissioned me to write in response to their ‘Food for Thought’ exhibition – including one about this fine cockerel found in Cirencester! Check out the new poems here.
Here are a couple more poems from participants who came to the Museum Drop-In writing session I ran in January. I’ve had some lovely feedback about the session, so I’m arranging for another one to happen soon! Someone said: “I had some preconceptions on what poetry has to be before I came to the workshop. However, I found the whole process inspiring and a fascinating way to engage with the artefacts of the museum.”
I shared David Walsh’s fantastic mosiac-maker poem a while ago, so today we have pieces from Kate Fox and Stephen Young. First up, Kate’s prayer to Pomona for her garden, and then Stephen’s short piece on a Roman genius. Enjoy!
To open this invocation
I pray to you Janus,
revered Roman god of beginnings,
for this year in the garden.
Would it please plenteous Pomona,
goddess of gardens and orchards,
to watch over my own tiny crop?
Let my fuchsias have a future,
let my roses bloom in May.
Keep lettuce, chard and tomatoes
safe from ravenous gastropods.
Keep my herbs redolently fragrant
as back in Roman times.
Rosemary, sage, lavender, marjoram,
perfuming my garden with a heady haze.
So I pray to you Pomona,
for a year of sun and rain.
Let my hanging baskets bloom and cascade over,
let my violas and pansies play.
In return Pomona,
I bring you the fruit of my labour,
for your favour.
My crop I share with you
and all the garden creatures.
Let the resident birds and squirrels,
passing butterflies and busy bees,
bask in the summer time abundance.
So I dedicate this prayer to you Vesta,
goddess of the home and hearth.
May my green fingers continue
and my suburban garden be your shrine.
Genius protector of the home,
company to those alone.
hold to the chest, hold fast,
small figure for the hand to grasp.
oxidized by time,
once in a Roman family shrine.
Genius, protector who’s always there,
so I can hand over my daily care.
Yesterday I was invited to perform at a Museum of London Archeology (MOLA) event at Bloomberg to celebrate the discovery of the Temple of Mithras in London in 1954. I was kindly asked along by Clare Coyne, who is running the oral history project dedicated to finding and talking to people who experienced the unearthing of the site 60 years ago. There are some fascinating stories and photos, so do have a look on the MOLA site!
You may recall that I spent the first part of my Roman Road walk with David Walsh, who is just completing his Mithraism-focussed PhD (check out his blog here!). I wanted to write a poem about Mithraism, and came up with this – which I performed at the event yesterday to lots of the people who saw the newly-excavated Temple for the first time. Huge honour! Enjoy the poem – audio and text below!
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 altar
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.
I ran a writing drop-in session at Canterbury Roman Museum last Wednesday, where people were free to join me in creating some Roman artefact-inspired poems. David Walsh (who joined me on the very first leg of my walk from London to Canterbury back in September) dropped in, and wrote up his experience here. He links this creative exercise to ‘cognitive archeology‘ and says that:
Suddenly, the tools of the mosaic layer (my pick) weren’t just objects behind a glass screen – I had a whole idea of where this guy had come from, why he was in that occupation, and how he felt about the art he was creating. Some academics might be cynical of such an approach, but when you spend a lot of time looking at sites and finds, it’s easy to forget these were real people. […] it is a fun, interesting way of experiencing the past. What I really loved is how some of the others present, who were not archaeologists or poets, embraced this idea and went away with a new interest in both the arts and ancient world.
Here’s a poem David wrote, inspired by a mosaic tool and ending with an excellent punchline:
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.
David’s also been helping me get my facts right in a poem about Mithraism, which I will be reading at MOLA’s event to celebrate the oral history project about the discovery of the Temple of Mithras in London. Can’t wait!
After my walk from London to Canterbury, I will be properly in-residence at Canterbury Roman Museum on Wednesday 21 January! I’ll be writing new poems inspired by the walk and artefacts all day at the Museum between 10am and 4pm – and you can join me!
Drop in any time to explore the artefacts and perhaps even write a poem. No need to book – just bring a pen and some enthusiasm!
Hope to see you there!
A quick update about what next for my residency at Canterbury Roman Museum. Now that I’ve walked to the Museum, it’s time be actually be in residence in the building itself!
On Wednesday 21 January I’ll be spending the day in the museum, writing new poems. It’ll be a drop-in session, so if anyone fancies doing a bit of writing then they will be welcome to join me! This new material will go into the development of a poetic walk around Canterbury and the Museum, exploring artefacts and history through poems.
I’ll be running that walk live, and also recording an audio version for people to download and follow themselves. I’m also hoping to turn the poems into a booklet that can be sold in the Museum shop. In the meantime, I’ll post bits and bobs up on this website.
Look out for more details as and when things happen!