Thursday, May 26, 2016

James Najarian: The Dark Ages

For years, my mother shuttled from her garden
to the stove, from barn to sewing room to sons,
her life like an unopened work of history.
Then came the silences. Was she tired? Bored?
She hovered in her kitchen the whole day.
Skillets and glassware tumbled from her hands,
her face a cast of lead. Her garden shrank
to towering, weedy greens and wiry vines.
We did not plow it for the coming year.

Late Roman Britain had begun to turn
even before the soldiers were withdrawn.
With the seas unguarded, little was brought in.
Ale and lard replaced Rome’s wine and oil.
The towns dispersed, as townsfolk headed to
the countryside to try the earth. At first,
the city fathers decently tore down
deserted baths and temples. Villas crumbled.
Those who stayed grew barley in the ruins.

She had trouble walking, or rather starting
walking -- her feet seemed bolted to the ground,
the brain not ordering its provinces.
She spoke a rote “no, thank you”; rarely “yes.”
Her kingdom dwindled to a bed and toilet--
a quilt she planned still hanging from the wall,
bright calicoes once basted to white flannel,
seed-packets, knitting, quiet as offerings --
her life now archaeology around her.

Eventually, Rome took its army home.
With Rome went every skill. The coarse pots made
in native kilns, declined, then disappeared.
Foundries halted, and with them nails vanished.
The people foundered barefoot in the mud
as shoes could not be made--or coffins either.
The dead were thrown directly in the ground.
Silt clogged the cities’ sewers. Canterbury
dwindled to a pasture, York a marsh.

In daylight she may keen for hours, unaware.
All night she shrieks, but does not hear her sounds.
She grips a toy she’s had since she was small,
a drowsy chimpanzee whose eyelids close.
Nurses have put her in a safe low bed;
half-buried in her sheets, she is a baby
lost in a little boat. She knows my name,
but wails, and can’t say why. At times I can
make out a single word: “no, no, no, no.”

The towns and villages have emptied out.
We gather in our clans amid the dregs,
atop a hill-crest or a crumbled fort,
dwelling among the swine we kill each fall,
gorging because we cannot let them waste.
Our women scrounge for bits of bead and bronze.
They roast our gritty roots right in the fire,
or cook in cauldrons dug from ancient graves,

sepulchri: pots that once held human ashes.

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