NON SUM QUALIS ERAM BONAE SUB REGNO CYNARAE (by Ernest Dowson)

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon my heart I felt her warn heart beat,
Night-long within my arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

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TUTANKHAMUN by Nick Drake (Review)

In my post on Nick Drake’s Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead, I said that, with the possible exception of Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End, it was the best murder mystery set in ancient times that I had ever read. And certainly the second best novel set in ancient Egypt: the best, of course, being Mika Waltari’s The Egyptian – which I will do a post on some time soon for anyone out there who may not have come across it.

By “set in ancient times” I suppose I mean BC, so I am not making invidious comparisons with all the private dicks, male and female,  who prowl the mean streets of Rome (I like Claudia – of I, Claudia quite as much as I like Falco). Rahotep’s mean streets are those of Thebes, and Tutankhamun is set entirely in this almost mythical city, apart from one very brief excursus by Royal Barge down-river to Memphis.

Since the adventure recorded in Nefertiti, about fifteen years have have passed. I am guessing, as it is not explicitly stated. (On the back cover of Nefertiti, it gives the date as 1800 BC, which is either a misprint or yet another example of mindlessness in an editorial office. On the back of Tutankhamun, it says 1324 BC.) Akhenaten’s two children, Ankhesenamun (one of his daughters by his Queen, Nefertiti) and Tutankhamun (his only son, by a mystery woman named Kiya who subsequently disappeared) sit on the throne of their ancestors. However, the real ruler of Egypt is the priest Ay, who has been Regent since the death of Akhenaten.

Now Ankhesenamun summons Rahotep to the Malkata Palace and informs him that she and Tutankhamun plan to seize the reins of power from the ageing Ay during the course of a ceremony which will take place at the great Temple of Amun during the next few days.

Ay will, of course, not like this, and will oppose it with all his might.

But is it Ay who is leaving foul objects in the royal quarters, designed not only to intimidate Ankhesenamun but to terrify the sickly and timid Tutankhamun? Or is it Horemheb, the great general, who with the army behind him has the means to make himself Pharaoh?  It will be Rahotep’s task to answer that question.

‘Why me?’ asks the horrified Rahotep, whose wife and children will be at risk should he upset either Ay or Horemheb.

‘My mother told me that if I was ever in real danger, I should call for you.’ Ankhesenamun tells him. ‘ She promised me you would come.’ 

Rahotep has little choice.

And his interest is caught when he realises that the person responsible for terrorising Tutankhamun may well be one with the perpetrator of some of the most horrific murders I have ever come across, be it in ancient Rome, medieval Paris or Victorian London. You will not forget the grisly details in a hurry. But nor, I promise you, will you put this book down, bored, and turn to another.

I also wrote in my review of the first book in this series, “Nick Drake’s Nefertiti is the most convincing recreation I know of the queen whose beauty shines down through the millennia. She is Nefertiti to me now.” He has done it again with Ankhesenamun and Tutankhamun. These two characters are Ankhesenamun and Tutankhamun to me now.

Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun

WHEN I AM DEAD, MY DEAREST (by Christina Rossetti)

Christina Rossetti, as depicted by her brother, the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

NEFERTITI by Nick Drake (Review)

This is by any standards a perfect example of the classic detective story: a tough, cynical investigator straight off the mean streets of Thebes, a setting – Akhetaten, Egypt, 1800 BC – that is almost mythical in its connotations, and a villain and heroine who make their counterparts in most other books seem insipid by comparison and hardly worth bothering with at all.

Akhetaten is the city of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who attempted to reform the complex Egyptian religious system and introduce monotheism by imposing on all the worship of one god, the Aten, symbolised by the sun. Akhetaten, the new capital, was built out in the desert, far away far away from the other great cities of Egypt: and this was its weakness. It became something of a retreat from reality, and Akhenaten, his mind entirely on his religion, gradually lost control of what was, at the time, the greatest kingdom (and greatest empire) in the world.

Then Nefertiti, the Queen, disappears, and it is Rahotep’s job to find her – or her dead body and the name of her murderer. He has only ten days before a great festival at which she must be present; if he fails, Akhenaten tells him, he will die a horrible death, and his wife and children back in Thebes will die with him. But he is a stranger in Akhetaten: where can he start and who can he trust?

Nick Drake’s Nefertiti is the most convincing recreation I know of the queen whose beauty shines down through the millennia. She is Nefertiti to me now.

And the villain? Read it and see. There are some evil men involved and the author keeps the reader guessing, so I must too.

The best mystery set in ancient Egypt since Agatha Christie’s Death Comes As The End.

GRANDMOTHER’S FOOTSTEPS (by Elizabeth Bartlett)

Grandmothers don’t wear red boots,
Tom says. Red boots and long
black skirts are what I wear,
spooning out stinking cat food,
tenderly painting brown into my hair,
swallowing vodka in the baby’s orange juice
while they are not there.

The baby is being jolted along
some minor road in Provence,
and doesn’t care if I wear
red boots or dye my hair.
Like his father before him,
my son is contemplating being unfaithful,
even though the baby will soon be seeing
blue shutters and vine leaves,
and his wife will start weaning
him from the breast at last,
and not a moment too soon.

Their mother is young and witty,
with her one hand clapping
and her creased blue workman’s blouse
and her striped cullottes.
As she goes through the farm house
she tells Tom not to say bugger just
because I do and curses me under her breath,
shifting the baby on her hip,
poised between weaning and the next pregnancy
pouting her bee-sting lips.

I take a train to the city,
abandoning the house, the cats.
I wear my red boots and share
baby juice and vodka from my thermos flask
with you. We are an absurd and ageing pair,
flirting on the District Line,
with only enough money for the fare.

The holiday is almost over,
the baby spits out his seived spinach
and screams his way through the nights;
I make up the cot, the beds, move a
jug of dead flowers, polish up my boots.

I DIED FOR BEAUTY (by Emily Dickinson)

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
‘For beauty,’ I replied.
‘And I for truth, – the two are one;
We brethren are,’ he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

This beautiful poem aways reminds me of Keats’ lines

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

TWO WOMEN DANCING by Elizabeth Bartlett (Book Review)

As promised in my post of 27 Dec, here is a slightly fuller look at Elizabeth Bartlett’s Two Women Dancing.

I consider it one of the best books of poetry published in the last fifty years, yet on the first page, in the second poem, we read:

People need contemporary poetry like a hole in the head.

That depends on the poet. They certainly need these poems. We’ll come back to that later though, because the next poem is one of my favourites.
“My Five Gentlemen”

Prostitutes have clients, wives have husbands,
Poets, you will understand, have editors …

She describes the five editors whose hands she has been in, finishing up with:

Five is dead, of course. His failing health
Was a comfort to me, though not to him,
Naturally. His death removed one more market
For battered goods, and proved a welcome release.

Rest in peace, I thought (for I always think kindly
Of the gentlemen who direct me to the pages
I am to sit in). I can only hope to be recycled
And end up more useful than I would appear to be.

She frequently reminds me of Dorothy Nimmo or Sylvia Platt. Consider for example “Guitars as Women”, and “With My Body”:

With your hand, like that, he said …

and “There Is a Desert Here”:

Come, little creatures, walk on me,
Come, little worms, slide on me,
For no man ever will again.
I watched beetles and ladybirds
Long before you gathered birch twigs
To beat me in a field – in fun, of course,
And I will watch them again,
And grow old ungracefully, barefoot
And sluttish in my ways.

And she is always so human. Read “Ian, Dead of Polio” and “Farewell, Gibson Square“. Unforgettable pictures of people she has known and will never forget. Nor now shall we. “Farewell, Gibson Square”, for instance, is dedicated to Dr Susan Heath who, if this poem is anything to go by, you would probably fall in love with but certainly wouldn’t want anywhere near you if you were ill. She eventually left, and now, Elizabeth tells us:

Professional boredom has settled in
Again, and patients go home whole.

Or “Government Health Warning”, or “A Plea for Mercy”:

For all the poor little sods who shoot themselves off
in boarding schools and dormitories, jerking into sleep,
and all the prissy girls who ride their horses bareback
or wet their knickers and seats at noisy pop concerts …

Or “A Straw Mat”:

I am guilty, she said to me. I didn’t know what to say.
We are all guilty, I said, of something, if it’s only living
when turf rests heavy on all the people cut off in their prime,
or buying this old cardigan from Oxfam instead of doing
something real. She said, Like what? I didn’t know.
I saw my tears fall on the leper’s foot. What a nonsense.
Africa is thirsty for blood and yet more blood, and we
wander round the Oxfam shop …

With poems like this around, why would anybody not be reading, not be needing, contemporary poetry?

And “Consumers”, another of my very favourites – but you need to read the whole thing. (In fact, you need to read the whole book.)

Ask me if I ever liked
small talk, chit-chat,
the smell of a new car,
the fat freezers lingering
like overweight virgins
in shadowy garages.
I have to say no.

Ask me if I ever liked
the long silence, full
of thoughtful emptiness,
the bruised smell
of geranium leaves,
the thin edges of poverty
like sides to middle sheets,
thin and anorexic.
I have to say yes.

Standing in Trafalgar Square
I was pleased the skin-heads
ate our iron rations.
Shouting into the dark
I felt at home, the candles
in jam jars, the small group
of word-spinners
sheltering from rain,
not ashes.

Ask me if I ever think
the nuclear winter
will be like a giant freezer
full of damaged goodies.
Lord, Lord, I have to say yes.
After the feast of flesh
and red gravy,
there will be ice cream
for afters, and then,
we shall wish we’d said no.
Lord, Lord, I tried to say no.

Do people need poems like this? I have to say yes.

Elizabeth Bartlett