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Ben Morgan: a poem

Golden Camel and Innocence

The Roman emperor Valentinian (3 July 321 – 17 November 375) is often considered the last great western Emperor; after his death the empire entered a long period of decline. He was renowned for his savagery and mercurial temper. Wherever he went, he had two bears brought with him in an iron cage. One was called Micca Aurea (Golden Camel) and one Innocence. These pets were his favourite tools for carrying out his many capital sentences.

In the last year of his life he visited the once-great fortress town of Carnuntum, now in ruins, where he received a deputation from a subject people begging for forgiveness for a recent uprising.

Now Carnuntum's is just another dead

provincial amphitheatre:

green-stained fruit pit

rotting on the roadside,

buttery colonnades melting into grass.

It's just outside the town

where he need not go again –

one tiny mercy.

It has become a noplace, cracked and empty,

but then this territory always felt empty,

a level meadow

neutral as a treaty.

He prefers it higher up, among the mountains,

where trees unfold like the tormented filigrees

of wax in candelabras after dinner,

the valleys' jagged theatre of eagles.

He should not cherish it, he knows,

their cruelty;

but his heart has grown around it

like a fruit around a stone.

It came to him in childhood:

a dream of a house in flames,

boars and foxes screaming down a mountain,

the empire wearing fire like a dress.

Cruel dreams mean a cruel spirit, said his nurse,

her disapproval ash

beneath fear's tallow.

Then there were the animals –

the snake he alchemised inside the fireplace,

until it was black and white

as an enemy insignia.

The cat he threw from a window

to see if the rumours were true.

(They were not.)

The rats in the bowl.

The fearful ocelot.

As he waits on the plain,

fingers of wind in his remaining hair

he reflects on it: on fear.

Is anything older?

The mountains?

No, mountains are fear –

precarious certainty piled upon itself

as if trying to summon its own eternity.

The gods? They feared the Titans.

And the Titans? Their vast bodies were all armour.

Fear is the mother of the world.

He should write it down:

Valentinian's theorem.

A smile spreading across his face

against the wind's exhortations to despair,

he has walked ahead.

The men are catching up,

co-celebrants in the cult he has just founded.

Behind him, they settle,

like metal geese on water.

For a moment or two, utter stillness.

Then the scrape of the cage and the purr

of his fat, delicate cats.

Ben Morgan is a poet and academic based in Oxford, UK. His first poetry pamphlet, Medea in Corinth: Poems, Prayers, Letters, and a Curse, was published by Poetry Salzburg in 2018. It retold the famous myth through poetic letters, spells, prayers, sonnets and songs, as well as theatrical interludes. He has also published poems in Oxford Poetry and in The Sunday Tribune and The High Window. He has taught Shakespeare studies and early modern literature at a number of colleges in Oxford and is completing a monograph on Shakespeare and human rights for Princeton University Press.


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