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Remembering Ovid.

By ALAN WALL.

MARTINUS, AN EDUCATED slave who does my copying
Asked me last night: Why not switch from scroll to codex?
Catacomb-crawlers did. They last much longer
In the hands of minds assassinated by their squalor.

Always listen to slaves: they have nothing to lose.
Manumitted they leave not a lentil to their offspring
Rightful or not. Free of the paradox of our prosperity
Staring into a god’s eye only to sniff with incredulity.

My lucubrations here of late considered
How mountainsides revisited vastations of divinity
Those failed ziggurats aim heavenward
Only to corpse like steel abortions from Cape Kennedy.

I spent some time on mountains
Domiciles of witches gales sterility
Even the law of Caesar has no purchase there.
Might as well call out to savage Yahweh.

Empire expands its global smithies armories bazaars
To places where the wine’s as dirty as the weather;
Men who decorate their flesh in undercoats of woad
Women tattooing mighty breasts with dragontails.

Caesar’s breath becomes a clock
To synchronise the aberrations of the planets
A single cough announces dawn
One mighty snore vanquishes a banquet.

Ovid’s long gone, breathing the salt wind of the blackest sea
Exiled to his outpost where the priests
All recommend a sacramentum of barbarity.
Write (if you must) with old coals on the dungeon walls.

They say the finest seer’s a blind one.
Caesar dies into a god, still giggling
While that old sun patrols heaven
Looking for some corner free of myth to lay his head.

Cuttlefish emit sepia, murking the waters
Thus do our inks encloud the maker’s chronicle.
Caesar’s whim cancels weather over Tiber
Neither cloud nor sun dare contradict him.

Ancient virtue now appears antique
Like Spartans stripping naked before battle.
‘Once upon a time’ will get you nowhere.
Our sassy children roll over and yawn.

What you read here will be palimpsest next season
Subtext scraped away beneath its superscription.
None of my words will end up in the lectionary.
Ovid’s are there already – and where did he end up?

Martinus: sober and zealous in his work.
The scriptorium is crammed with whoring drunkards.
We stick to basics. Strictly literal. No scribal misdemeanours.
No rubricator needed here to flare my majuscules.

Last night, in bed with Martinus’s sister
I pressed my hand against her tiny breast and pondered.
Law preserves itself in temples cities sacred valleys
Between soft sheets of parchment the stylus stabs to enter.

As you can see, we switched from scroll to codex.


LandC150aAlan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, and now a second collection, this time of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, is now available. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

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