NaPoWriMo Quarantine Edition – Exercise 29

Today’s exercise is in response to a fascinating poet who was born on this day in 1863, and died on this day exactly seventy years later, in 1933 – the Greek poet,  Constantine Cavafy.

The poem I know best of his is one that feels worryingly appropriate in the nouveau-apocalyptic  world we currently find ourselves in. Read the poem, think about it for a few minute, and then scroll down to the exercise.

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What’s the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
He’s even got a scroll to give him,
loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

– Constantine Cavafy
trans. Edmund Keeley

Your task for today is to write your own poem about the coming of the barbarians, and what it means. How you interpret “barbarians” is entirely up to you – political, cultural, scientific, spiritual, musical, sporting …

As always, details are important. We need to see and feel whatever your “civilisation” is, and how the coming barbarians threaten it. You don’t have to reach for the same sort of twist at the end that Cavafy uses (those of you who know your Poetic Turns should recognise an Ironic here), but try to do more than just give us a Me Good – Them Bad! poem.

Good luck!

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