No 12 - Autumn 2007
On the Third Persepolitan Writing
“Major Rawlinson … is very anxiously looking for something from you
respecting the Babylonian inscriptions … You may be gratified to learn
that he says 'Dr Hincks is in the right track and I look with much interest at
anything from him'.” (Renouard, 1846)
It is strange to think of it as immersion –
given the clay tablets, fresh from the oven,
given the sowing with saltpetre of subjugated fields,
given the reckless irrigation over centuries
and the consequent seeding of the homeland with salt –
but still it is irresistible as a metaphor
of what is needed to go down into language,
vulnerable, naked, raw, without apparatus,
time and again going under to rescue it,
each time searching for what you are searching with.
The lungs, the lips, the teeth, the tongue, the brains,
waterlogged with talk, chambers flooding with grammar,
the old wineskin of the body fit to burst.
Water is everywhere, after all, between rivers,
dry land a hyphen and mud a half-way house.
When a body is washed ashore after months
(the organs ringing, skin bright-coloured as a map,
a simple life suddenly made notable and distinct,
an object of awe as once, perhaps, of worship,
spectacular, carven, teak, the eyes still azure blue)
the tail of his wet gown fistles on the study door, whispering.
“I am very sure that there is a strong feeling in some influential quarters
that I must be kept out of the field of discovery, whatever may occupy it. I
am now laid on the shelf; and I never expect to have again the means of
pursuing my discoveries.” (Edward Hincks, Killyleagh, 1856)
A story declares that wheat from a pharaoh's tomb,
restored to the moist earth, stirred itself,
reaching for the light of a laboratory lamp,
cracking its wrapping. Or a Chinese lotus seed,
one thousand three hundred years in a dry sea bed,
woke from its slumber as something monstrous,
misshapen, spotted by the centuries.
Or the canna lily that was the bead of an Inca rattle.
“Teerlink could never have imagined that two centuries after he tucked the
seeds into his wallet and set off for home, plant scientists in the UK would
go to great lengths to cajole them into germinating.” (New Scientist, 22 September 2006)
Desperate somnolence. Waxy. Myth-making. Undead.
But the man who spent so much time under sail
he had no house, let alone a garden,
slipped seeds – cinders from the Cape, oul clinker –
between the pages of his notebook like a lover.
Those engineers at Kew rinsed them over
with water seeded by molecules of smoke,
the alchemy of bush fires breaking the husks
at a workstation, a canopic jar of lights.
The tiny tubers broke into tongues:
liparia villosa, acacia, leucospermum
suddenly vivid and heartbreaking as a lock of hair.
“[Rawlinson] missed the most exciting aspect of the monument: the first
known mention of a Hebrew king, of any biblical phenomenon, in an
ancient record. It was none other than Edward Hincks (again) who
identified Jehu, son of Omri, as named and depicted bringing tribute to
In his delirium my father,
who had stopped singing, sang.
South of the border
down Mexico way …
But recalled nothing of it
afterwards, returned to himself.
But there was the evidence of the white line
wriggling on the green monitor
and aluminium tingling on the bedside table
and water lapping in the plastic beaker.
And the thin walls of Coronary Care
throbbing like pigskin when the sound went up.
“They will allow the use of it privately to some of their present employees,
so as to enable him to carry on the work – I being cast off … Rawlinson will
be in London, I suppose, forthwith. He was expected before this. And I
have no doubt that he will be allowed free access to all that the Museum
There was present an unconscionable mood,
illegible, dun-coloured, hard-core,
something ignorant and dull in store
at all times and at every turn of the road.
The curve of the coast below his house
caught bodies washed up in the tide –
fishermen swept over the side;
children plucked from the shore without fuss,
played with a while, then thrown back;
riper souls who cast their own selves in
bemused by disease or the crippling sun.
Unsavoury baptisms, florid and maverick.
“And everyone had four faces, and everyone had four wings … As for the
likeness of their faces, they had four and the face of a man and the face of a
lion, on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side;
they four also had the face of an eagle.” (Ezekiel 1: 4-12)
On Dundrum strand,
the Great Britain is still on its side,
a palace of pianos and perishable goods.
A few yards off from the famine beaches,
is an empire ploughed back into the sand,
a colossal wreck. At the coastguard watch-house,
where the great ship struck,
to this very day they are gathering coal
from the Yorkshire tunnels.
It rolls ashore like loaves of black bread.
“Hincks readily agreed with Rawlinson that the country over which Zabibe
was queen lay in the north of Arabia. But he differed completely from him
on the rarity of queens among the Arabs.” (Cathcart)
He was trying to find noises for their words, equivalents,
in bells, empty vessels, throatfuls of salt water,
his daughters' laughter, re-building each signal
in from its edges like a bird's egg.
At Portaferry, round the coast,
there is broken crockery along the shore:
cargoes of tea sets dislodged from wrecks,
white leagues of tesserae, feet deep and scintillating
and giving out a low soughing underfoot,
palate music, soundings of table talk still to come.
Tiny shards fired, polished and entirely perfect,
the whole of the shore is broken crockery.
“The tribute of Jehu (Ia-ú-a), son of Omri (Hu-um-ri); I received from him
silver, gold, a golden saplu-bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom,
golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king, (and) wooden
puruhtu.” (from the Black Obelisk)
The dresser the squaddies fell against in the Crescent
spilled Belleek vases on the cardinal red tiles,
ballerinas, ill-painted figurines from Bray,
fruit bowls and dogs with stern faces.
A white and blue and speckled store.
My mother was on her hunkers for days
amid the ringing debris, re-fashioning
grotesques with glue: humpbacked, eyeless,
two-faced goddesses with angels' wings.
Given time, you might reconstruct everything
a lifetime of habit from discarded things:
the bird-song of china, her sobbing.
“I did, though, add a sentence in the paperback edition (page 332) just to
show its context, before others are misled into thinking that Rawlinson's
many years of decipherment work depended on Hincks.”
Let me make it clear. His cult endures.
But Old Persian was already undone.
The Elamite tongue he despised so much
he left it to his crony Norris.
And 'Babylonian' or 'Assyrian'
or 'Akkadian', whatever, was mine.
And he stole it.
Already I had stumbled on
the insight of our Irish condition.
What we were for; how unfit we were
to speak for the Empire.
Better always an imperial dilettante
to fly the flag than a humble scholar:
remote, marginal, rural and Irish.
Simply by being myself, I saw –
was blinded by it; complete,
all of a piece and at once –
the whole relation between the islands.
I had uttered the very words myself,
laugh as you will:
“having had the misfortune to be born in Ireland”
and “not on the favoured side of the channel”.
Phrases the Major could no more unpick
than he could the Third Persepolitan Writing
without my conclusions. Against my will,
I am a rebel, thus, like Young Ireland,
equally risible and crushed.
“Holding the cure of souls in the parish, I cannot allow a curate to take my
place, who would give instructions to my parishioners of a different
character from what I have myself given.” (1852)
He would visit my father,
on his way from bed to bed.
to that black obelisk,
still and relentless,
scarred and disturbed, but of Heaven,
turned up by design
amid the coughing and the pain.
A weathered and weathering gaze
on the solemn wearing away
of what wears away:
the flesh. And only the sternness of it,
(like a landslide on tablets of clay)
pulls him up short.
Then would he read on the clipboard
the clamped pink sheets
and, with time and ineffable patience,
understand what they say.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The