Those of us living beyond an easy commute to the capital can sometimes feel like Romans banished to the outer wastes of the Empire – a simile appropriate enough in the present case. Attending launches of poetry publications becomes a major logistical exercise, involving the parking of dogs and finding a bed for the night.
Lockdown brought the benefit of launches via Zoom, which enabled me to discover the poetry of Evan Jones on the occasion of the launch of Later Emperors by Carcanet. Jones explained in the course of his reading that the book arises from his reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The world his book creates, in its four distinct sections, is reminiscient of Alice Oswald’s Memorial, in that it shines brief spotlights on a variety of historical figures who are otherwise little heard of. But in the place of Oswald’s heavily-imaged writing we have quiet understatement. And in the place of a continuous piece of writing we have brief stand-alone poems.
Towards the end of the book, Jones writes, in the voice of Plutarch:
I have always lived in the past, an insult
I once thought, where I sought the benefit
of going over what others would ignore...
Jones wears his learning lightly: the Plutarch poem, called Plutarch to his Wife is intertextual in that it arises from an actual letter written by Plutarch to his wife following the death of their daughter. You can find the text of the original, translated, via Google. But whereas the original is a staid admonition to be stoical in grief, Jones’ poem riffs on Plutarch’s situation travelling on official duties with his amanuensis, Petrus.
The people here are nice, what is more
they seem to recognise in me someone
who will welcome the hours stolen away
through their efforts, because I am trying,
trying to see through this.
Plutarch becomes a living, breathing figure. As do the others spoken of. In the first section, 23 brief poems cover 23 named people. The verse is simple, with few adjectives, giving a limpid effect, but nonetheless conveying the almost casual brutality of the age. Take Carus, Struck by Lightning AD 283:
Aged, feeble Carus during
the furious night called for his mother,
droned, reeled, balked, barked
at the tent poles and servants.
Feverish now, when young he was a tent
pole, a severe and simple man,
as Gibbon wrote, a soldier,
satisfied with stale bacon
and stone-hard peas. He passed.
We set the imperial pavilion
on fire, suggested it was lightning,
an act of god. Wrong,
I know, though not exactly wrong.
In the second and third sections of the book, Jones writes about Michael Psellos and Anna Komnene. Psellos was an eleventh century monk who became political adviser (in modern jargon, a SPAD) to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos. Komnene was an eleventh/twelfth century Byzantine princess, renowned for her scholarship. Both sections are stylistically distinctive – in the Psellos part the poems follow a form which, Jones explained at the launch, was Byzantine in origin, with long lines split by a caesura, rather like Anglo-Saxon verse; while the Komnene poems are seven lines long, the fourth line split. Take On Being Understood:
But what was my art? I practised in childhood the measure
of the stars, hell-bent as they were on misleading the lot
of our lives. Like this: in the sign of Taurus, a bronze statue
of the Emperor Constantine
fell from its plinth, the wind
southwesterly. I knew what to do, then as now. Coming
back to earth, I raised my hand and lowered it sharply
as if first tearing through a spider's web, then through air.
These are quiet poems that manage, with remarkable and deceptive simplicity, to get under the skin. I am delighted that lockdown made me acquainted with them.
Later Emperors by Evan Jones is published by Carcanet