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· Alasdair Paterson’s grand poetry of Byzantine governance.

A Fortnightly Review of

On the Governing of Empires
by Alasdair Paterson.
Shearsman Books. 96pp. £8.95

By Edgar Mason.

THE BACK COVER OF Alasdair Paterson’s new collection – his first in over 20 years – shows the author, looking remarkably feline and standing in front of a restaurant called “Le Flaneur”. This is probably the worst authorial joke in On the Governing of Empires (North American readers here), and thank God for that – it leaves the rest of the book free to be as wonderful as it is.

Paterson, who won the Eric Gregory award in 1975, has not been as idle as that author photo might pretend. His years as a globe-trotting librarian have given him what is possibly one of the finest conceits of the last decade or so. On the Governing of Empires is, in fact, a very slight rephrasing of the title of an encyclopedia of 53 volumes, written by Emperor Constantine VII of Constantinople, and passed on to his grandson – who, if the letter fragment that forms one of the book’s epigrams is to be believed, destroyed much of the work. And so Mr. Paterson has undertaken to “reconstruct” – his word – the missing volumes.

Not very literally, of course – somehow, it seems unlikely that Constantine VII (905-959 AD) would have titled anything “On Bedlam.” However, that is something Mr. Paterson has done, which brings us handily around to the poetry itself, of which “On Bedlam” is a standout example. This poem is good enough on its own, creating a distinctive space in its play of words:

presenting for your edification

the dark spectacle  the merveille du jour

as we unlock the doors to

the suspected  the uncertain  the anomalous

However, the poem becomes even better on reading the background notes at the back of the book, in which Mr. Paterson explains – sometimes with delicately infuriating vagueness – the context of his poems. In the case of “On Bedlam,” this note reads:

While the public took their guided tours of the noisome precincts of the Bethlehem hospital, seriously bewigged lepidopterists were settling down to give the moth population of these islands an assortment of freak-show names.

WHILE THIS POEM SPEAKS well for Mr. Paterson’s education and somewhat whimsical eye for historical detail and coincidence – other poems take, as their nominal topics, Chinese civil service exams (“On Nomenclature”) and the unusual position of the food taster in society (“On Protocol”) – some of his finest work comes in reflecting on remnants of lost or disappearing societies. One of the earlier poems, “On Psyche,” treats of architectural remnants of the Byzantine Empire still to be found beneath Istanbul:

…under all of it
you’re into the vast
cisterns built for long siege
dim light on amber surfaces
slime and sleek Byzantine carp
pillars from unseen to unseen
and round a corner
to stop you in your tracks
head of great medusa

In the background notes, Mr. Paterson explains that “Byzantium lives,” but mentions that the imagery here may be more appropriate to a psychologically modern world (which is to say, a world that has psychologists at all). Perhaps some people are so lucky as to have Byzantine cisterns in their subconscious depths; it’s quite possible that Mr. Paterson is one of those.

This treatment of a Constantinople buried alive yet still triumphant is one of the only explicit references to the empire that gave this book its inspiration; Istanbul will never be what Constantinople was, and in ways, still is. That sense of both wonder and protectiveness  – not uncharacteristic of Byzantium, whose citizens continued to refer to themselves as Romans (Ρωμιοί or romioi) long after they had given up all other recognizable trappings of the West – permeates On the Governing of Empires. While the book is unlikely to aid young emperors in their attempts to maintain power, Mr. Paterson has created something very useful for the rest of us:  A way of viewing history as a thing cross-pollinated by itself – and an excellent treatise on the governing of our own, personal empires.

A pdf ‘sampler’ from the publisher is here.

Edgar Mason’s last review for the Fortnightly was of poetry from New England.

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