Poem introduction

An invading force. A local army mustered to defend. A battle. An overwhelming loss. And, later, a poem. A poem that, somewhere in the intervening thousand or so years, loses its beginning and its end, but, nonetheless, becomes the history it tries to tell. An unreliable poem from a poet not permitted onto the field, who has no immunity, no bardic badge; no dodging of projectiles as he muses on the best way to note down a soldier’s dying breaths. A poet picking morsels from the aftermath, the sad survivors; analysing second-hand accounts, for personal embellishments, for misrememberings, for shy omissions. The poet’s aim: not to present for posterity the known and indisputably dreary facts, but to cast the real events in an unreal mould, and in so doing hope perhaps for accidental truth.

from 'At Maldon'

As a disturbed ant nest is still

a moment following the stick’s deep thrust,
so the town hall as the meeting ends,

once the hammer is brought down,

once sentence has been passed,

is slow to stir.
                      Yet soon

the people vibrate from their seats,
to pour through every orifice,

to spread in an unbroken wave out onto the streets.
 
And three men in particular,

pumped up by the emergent moot,

descend the town hall steps in synchrony;

their tripled shoe-tap striking stone,

granted space aplenty by the common-folk

that smoothly flow around them.
 
Aelfwine

            and Offa
                        and Leofsunu.
 
Local heroes in the making.

Fine upstanding citizens.

Stood now in the emptying road,
beneath the clearing clouds of early day.
 
Time enough for a nip, a tonic

to boost prognosticated fortitudes.
Their brief invasion of the bar;
occupying strong positions
at the window-seat.
 
                        Aelfwine

examining faces, each and every passer-by:
the quickness or else the ease of their step,

how they fumble with their front-door keys,

the force with which they shut themselves inside.
 
‘ That won’t be me.

I will not dig myself a hidey-hole. ’
 
— as he lifts a thimble of port to his lips;
his chosen weapon,

his unsheathed knife,

blessed with two quick kisses,
pommel and point;
 
‘ I’ll prove my noble line,

make papa proud, take pleasure

in the moral prospect of my death. ’
 
— as he wends his path through warriors,
stooped low to spy a likely mark;

till he sticks an unsuspecting seaman,
burrows the slender blade into their side,
slid between the ribs to prick the heart;
 
‘ Even as the dead pile up around me... ’
 
 — as the dead pile up around him;
 
‘ ...I’ll not flee the field,

will not seek solace in my comfy home,

not at my daughter’s wailing, nor my wife’s;

no matter how hard she beats the cooking pot. ’
 
— as he downs the sick-sweet syrup,
rises to ready his gear, is gone.
 
And then there are two.  
 
                        And Offa,
to Aelfwine’s example, salutes
with full-filled wine-glass raised;

then puts his eye to the cup’s thin curve,
looks through its lens and sees red;
 
‘ Though we all know how words are limiting,
that strength is only lent through deeds

not by limp-wristed pats upon the back;

each foe cut down to prompt two further kills. ’
 
— his long ash-spear to lead his charge,

to gather Danemen, skewered on its shaft,
who flop down lifeless as the pole retracts,
the wood made slippery with foreign blood;
 
‘ And even should our good lord fall... ’
 
— as Byrhtnoth falls;
 
‘ ...should his life be pricked and emptied out... ’
 
— as the curtains of the fight are drawn aside
to reveal the earl, spot-lit, bewildered,
circled by a chorus-line of Danes;
                                    and who,

seeing how their song cannot be quelled,
buckles to their steady prompting,
sinks his heavy shell upon the grass;
his breath to seep into the soil.
 
‘ ...there’ll be no tears,
no trembled lips,

our ranks will grow as tight
as twisted rope;
such death to be the flame
that seals the ends. ’
 
As a girl not wishing to stain her party frock —

As a swan that glides serene from mud-choked reeds —
     likewise the earl’s horse,      unmistaken,
     trots its silver trappings from the field.
 
    ‘ For if the wrong thread is pulled
so the rope unravels.
    With the key-stone knocked out

so the construct collapses. ’

 
So the battle-line is broken.
So the shield-defence is shattered.  
And like a bun of consecrated bread
the army tears in two.
 
    ‘ And should I ever meet the man that baulks...
      And should he swear he never had a choice... ’
 
And Offa issues from the ale-house,
winces to the bright white morning light,
blindly sets his foot upon the road.
 
And then there is one:
 
                                    Leofsunu,

who pours his second cup of thick black tea;
 
‘ No. No, be well assured

I’d not falter, nor would I flinch. ’
 
— whispered as he warms his hands;
the blood to pink his fingers,

make them quick;
 
‘ To die out on the field is better
than to limp back lordless

with my tail between my toes. ’
 
— as he levers a leaf from between his teeth,
flicks a gobbet of flesh from his wrist;
 
‘ To throw my weight on enemy iron,

its penetrative hardness, its tincture, its tang,
would be my comfort, my homecoming. ’
 
— as he skips and twirls into the fray

a spear extending from each hand,

a grey whirr of blades like a blender on full;
so his foes are chopped and spun aside,
flung from the merry-go-round.
 
‘ Yes. Yes, that would be homely.
And no one could brand me as idle
if counted as one of the dead. ’
 
— as he pushes in his chair,

scatters the tip they left for him to leave;
small roundish wafers of metal

falling like seed upon stone.
 
And then there are none,
 
                                    except Dunnere:
stalwart owner of this drab establishment,
who shuts up shop now they’re gone;

 
‘ And what if I should see my loyal patrons polished off? ’
 
— as he stacks stools on the counter,
lets the blinds down, locks the doors;
 
‘ And what if they should see me shy?
having served so stoutly all these years. ’
 
— as he slips into a slinky leather two-piece;
laces long-heeled boots about his calves;
 
‘ To see their faces sag expressionless,
will I be sorrowful?

will fury buoy me up? ’

 
— as he lifts his granddaddy’s sword from its red-velvet case.
    Its warmth of heavy metal.

    His unaccustomed grip.
Away from which the war-scarred edges dip.
 
‘ What youngsters did you open in your day? ’
 
A tatty cloth with which he dusts away
its pitted powdering of rust,
 
 ‘ Can I be sure such weaponry still works? ’
 
and tucks it underneath his overcoat,
stepping from his pantry door

into the midst of gathered battle-crew.

‘At Maldon’ (extract) from At Maldon (CB Editions, 2013), © J O Morgan 2013, used by permission of the author and the publisher

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