In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

Travels of the Last Emperor


I wrote “Travels of the Last Emperor” at different times over a period of around twenty years. It is made up of five poems of varying length. This spring 2014, a friend filmed me reading them in Mallorca, in an old monastery on top of a hill. You  can access the film here on You-tube. To make it as visible as we can, we have also put it at the top right of this site’s home page.  There it will stay put, as this post heads downwards. The film lasts for about half an hour. I feel it more or less speaks for me and I take real pleasure in it. I hope that people will give it their time.

You can find the written text by clicking here on the title :  Travels of the Last Emperor.

What is the poem about ? It centres on an historical figure, the last Emperor of Byzantium, who died defending the walls of Constantinople, when at last it fell half way through the fifteenth century. Constantinople was founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine and replaced Rome as the Empire’s capital. From this more eastern centre of gravity, Byzantine gradually replaced Roman and Greek replaced Latin, but for centuries through the Middle Ages, an essential Roman inheritance and foundation and continuity remained beside the Bosporus. The last Emperor’s death brought the Roman/ Byzantine story finally to an end, while making possible the great Islamic city of Istanbul.

But I suggest that the main point of the poem is not in its historical details. Its significance belongs in the present. Like the walls of Constantinople, that great medieval city, capital and archive of a way of life become slowly insufficient, our own walls no longer hold good. Our children are not safe here. We endanger them by staying as we are and living the way we do. We must seek a new City, a new way of being, which will nurture the Earth and offer hope to our children.

Therefore, the last Emperor, fox between fences, is also a kind of pilgrim, a King Lear disinherited and in search.

Is Barak Obama another last emperor, horrendously beset, seeking new shapes among the ruins, routes to a future  ?

Or maybe the image of the emperor bereft of his city applies to each one of us. For it is the fact that, in this era, all of us were born to a world that no longer exists. In my own lifetime, the world has changed many times over. The walls keep falling. The emperor keeps wandering.