Posted by: John Looker | 11 February, 2011


The  third set-piece poem in a series of poems and prose links which take Istanbul, Byzantium and Constantinople as their point of departure.


At the heart of the city built by Constantine
stairs lead steeply down to the old foundation.

There used to be no light down here. Deep
below the ground a grid of columns stood
in a hidden lake. No sound but a sudden drip,
or scratch, or lapping of water where fish had stirred.

Today with the help of lamps and their reflections
we walk, wide-eyed, whispering, on pavements set
among the ancient pillars. It’s clear: construction
evolved with parts from even earlier sites.

At last we stop, and gaze on a head of stone,
with hair that’s a nest of snakes, eyes that are crazed,
beneath a column on which the city stands,
the head cut from its body, buried, crushed.

We feel a chill, and ponder the state of mind
of those whose hands enforced this execution.

© John Stevens 2011


  1. Or indeed, how they managed the execution without looking at the face!!!

    I was reading in my paper yesterday about large scale hydro-electric plans which will drown some of these ancient sites


    • Yes, I saw that in the paper too – various sites across Turkey. Curious to draw parallels with the Romans and their engineering projects. The underground cistern in Constantinople was artificially created to provide the city’s reservoir at the end of a major aqueduct.


  2. To me, the last six lines are able to stand alone. They transport from the now to the looking now at then and the magic that moment creates.


  3. I agree with Narnie; those six lines are the ‘poem’ in the ‘prose-poem’ for me; there’s a very pleasing sense of menace there. Another very effective piece of work, taking us into a strange, hidden and rather otherwordly place. Thank you for sharing the experience!


  4. Interesting. I have to say I tend to agree. The last six lines probably would be stronger alone. The mystery is all there. The first part…well, tourists on parade…perhaps it is necessary to ‘introduce’ the end but, oh, I’m so tired of walking around, my feet hurt, when are we going to get back to the hotel?… The danger you’re playing with is that the tourist experience tends to be a superficial one. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it, just that it’s a hard sell. Take a look at Rilke’s poem ‘The Archaic Torso of Apollo’ (Stephen Mitchell’s translation is good. Obviously, if you can read the original…)


  5. Well, if three of you feel that the last six lines could stand alone, then obviously there’s a persuasive argument for me to consider. The trouble is, I was aiming for a different effect: a hint at suppressed fears in the subconscious mind and mythical demons in the collective unconscious – hence my concern to describe the ancient underground place. I guess I didn’t succeed!
    However, one consequence of your comments is a stronger resolve on my part to keep the ‘prose’ links between the key poems short and economical. So thank you all.


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