Thursday, December 26, 2013

Domatilla and Priscilla

 the hop-on hop-off bus takes us

to the galleria femminile
Agnese’s catacomb ancestors

honey-combed earth
each cavity resting place for a body
wrapped in cloth

after a year we bring gifts
come with oil lamps
break bread

see the tiny alcove there
we sing their spirits
to eternal heaven

see how she stands
arms reaching skyward
rejoicing in speech

this god is a bird
alighting on the head
floating away

The hop-on hop-off bus is a great way to get around Rome before you know your way around properly, or if walking is difficult for one reason or another (including tiredness, sore hips, sore feet). It can save you hours in looking for the places you want to see. So my two characters, Diana and Agnese, make the most of it.

The Priscilla catacomb is well worth a visit and it recently made the papers because there is a storm about the fact that the top picture here might represent a woman preaching. She is standing in the traditional position for that.

Some also believe that the second image shows seven women breaking bread. I have a large reproduction of this, so I could see it properly, and it could easily be seven women and there are apparently seven virgins who fit the bill. I name them in another poem and they are: Saturnia
Hilarina Dominanda Rogatina Serotina Paulina Donata.

It also struck me as interesting that god, in these catacombs, is depicted as a bird. Given the incredibly long history of the bird representing numerous goddesses, here is the christian traditionce again repositioning itself and rebadging old images. The gods with wings are relatively late.

Agnese, by the way, was a martyr and she is almost always shown in company with lambs. Diana is one of the many goddesses who gets around with a pack of wolves by her side. The two are more than good friends.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sicilia: inquisition in Palermo

death rides a skeletal horse
corpses trampled
a woman’s silent scream
arrow in her throat

in the museum of the inquisition
inmates draw
the moon dog devil
the faithful kneel
naked in penitence

whispers of sin
hell of sleep
endless pain
help us oh lord

someone here knows
the Nicean creed
writes on the wall
with anxious hope

I've been thinking a lot about the horrors that so many people have endured, including the terrible experiences that women have suffered because they are so frequently violated and tortured in ways that are specific to our sex. Rape is such a standard way of punishing women that it took until the 1990s for it to be recognised as a war crime. 

The painting that inspired this poem also horrified me. It is such a terrifying image of how one might die and how a multitude of people did die. After seeing this painting in the National Museum in Palermo, I then visited the Museum of the Inquisition. Europe has a horrendous history and yet the inquisition images gave me some hope. That even in the midst of this horror and what must have been inhumane prison conditions there was this outpouring of art and poetry. There were a lot of angels on these walls too but unfortunately those photos are very faint.

Monday, December 2, 2013

hop-on hop-off

I have spent many hours trying to think about the structure of the book I am writing. Getting the structure right, finding a shape, a form, a narrative thread is one of the exciting parts of writing a book.

Structures can also change, so this could be temporary or have a permanent role. It’s too soon to know. Among the characters who have appeared in the text are two: Diana who runs with the hounds, her friends are wolves and wild animals; she is Artemis and possibly a wolf goddess. She has teamed up with Agnese, a Christian martyr, friend of sheep, perhaps even an ancient sheep goddess, maybe a descendant of Medea. These two have come to Rome for a massive party (I might tell you more about that later.) But they have arrived early and so they are travelling around Rome, in love with life and one another.

They live both in the ancient past but also in the contemporary world. On this day they are trying to do some sightseeing in Rome. They visit the temple of Venus in Torre de Argentina and then discover the buses are all stopped, so they head off on foot. They need to find an open-air hop-on hop-off bus.

Diana wants to see all the wolves of Rome, Agnese is endlessly enthusiastic about the sheep.

hop on hop off

from the temple of Venus where we made ancient vows
our witnesses wolverine and ovine
we head across the city but all the buses are stopped

there’s a demonstration against the excesses of the pharmaceutical industry
they have patented yet another formula of an old potion
claiming originality against the herbalists’ memories

we pass Pantheon and parliament where a rock band sings its protest against
thousands of years of corruption from the excesses of Nero Caligula and Domitian
to Mussolini’s megalomania and Berlusconi’s bunga bunga dissipations

we press on to the architectural wedding cake with its winged women and wolves
but we are stopped yet again banners across streets buses emptied of passengers
at last we can catch the bus to Labia visiting at Agnese’s insistence Costanza

Photos on this page (top to bottom):
Wolf, Colosseum.
Flying women at dawn, Piazza Venezia
Wolf head, Piazza Venezia
Flying woman on wolf head, Piazza Venezia
Mosaic sheep at Costanza
Statue of Saint Agnese in the Pantheon
Saint Agnese's sheep, next to her in Pantheon

Monday, November 11, 2013


Yesterday I was reading a short booklet that accompanies a CD of ancient Roman music. I came across the word iynx. I was puzzled by this word and so began my day’s search. The original Iynx was a nymph who made magic love potions. She passed one of these potions on to Zeus who then fell in love with Io (what an old story that one is). Instead of Zeus being punished for his infidelity, Iynx was turned by a furious Hera into a bird: the wryneck for which iynx is the Greek word. (I wrote a poem about Io in my book, Cow.)

I then found out that the original invention was attributed to Aphrodite who attached a wryneck to a small wheel. 

Aphrodite gave this to Jason which enabled him to seduce Medea. Now Medea is no fool when it comes to magical tricks and potion, so this has to have been a powerful invention by Aphrodite.

When the wryneck is attached to the wheel, and it flaps its wings, the wheel begins to spin. The resulting sound is a breathy noise as the wheel winds up, unwinds and rewinds.

So we have the musical instruments, a strange love trick that involves attaching a bird in a rather horrible way to a loop of string. Then there’s the word itself which Steve Moore thinks is related to the word jinx.

I now had a linguistic thread to follow. Steve Moore says that ‘iynx’ would be pronounced like ‘yunx’ and from this comes ‘jinx’. This ‘yunx’ reminded me of the Sanskrit root word √yug. It’s the same root in fact as yoke and yoga. It is also the word used for marriage. It’s not a big leap to connect the yoking of the bird with the yoking of Medea in marriage.

There it was, the perfect jinx for Medea. Attach the bird to the spinning wheel in marriage. The ultimate jinx of a woman’s life in a heavily patriarchal society.

Medea, of course, took her revenge. But that’s another story for later.


that poor iynx was tortured
yoked to a four-spoked wheel
caught in eternal flight
her wings in mad rush of breath

a lure for Medea
by unscrupulous Jason
she catches her breath on the bird’s wings
is caught yoked in marriage

a Jason jinx
the original fall
they fell one after the other
Tiamat Medea Eve

Synaulia: La Musica dell’Antica Roma: Volume 1: Strumenti a fiato. Amiata Records.

Moore, Steve. The Magic of Jinxing.