Thursday, 30 May 2013

Poems on aspects the Morrigan (Pagan Triple Goddess) by Dr Giles Watson

Gallery 17 (European Prehistory)
Cabinet: Resisting Rome
Item 5: Bronze Raven's Head- Shaped Spout, First Century B.C. Hod Hill, Dorset.


There's a way of ripping Roman flesh
that only ravens can do.  You take
a whole field-full, slaughtered
as a legion, and begin to fillet
the flesh, tweezering it between
blackened bills.  You gobble down
the cosmopolitan influence, disdaining
to choke on the fishbone-snags of
politics.  Politics isn't worth
a raven's feather out here, where
whole carcasses can be flensed
by wind alone.  Brawn goes down

the craw so easily, greased by the
subcutaneous lard of civilized men.

Poem by Giles Watson, 2013.  Inspired by a bronze raven's head spout from Hod Hill, Dorset, c. 100 B.C., created by the culture which resisted Roman occupation, and now on display in the Ashmolean Museum. The Morrigan is a ferocious Irish pre-Christian war-goddess whose sovereignty is attested in mediaeval manuscripts, but who was clearly sovereign to the Celts in the Roman era and earlier.


If you saw me in my frenzy, my black hair
streaming behind me like a flock of rooks,
you would ram your own spear through your
entrails, rather than face me.  I can turn
friends fierce against each other: the merest
misunderstanding will set them filleting
and garotting, until the whole field
is a harvest of the twitching dead, furrows
channelling a full-on irrigation of steaming
blood.  The soil is fruitful these days:
there has been such a ploughing-in of men,
and crops grow out of livers and of brains.

One man to rot, one man to grow, one
for the mouse, and the rest - for the crow.

Poem by Giles Watson, 2013.  Nemain, an aspect of the Morrigan, is a fairy spirit who appears in times of war, bringing frenzy and havoc on the combatants.  She is capable of setting friendly armies against each other, and it is said that she can kill a hundred men with one battle cry.  The last two lines are derived from an old proverb about sowing grain.


I've got a steady grip on the bole of the beech tree:
you've not seen woman's muscles until you've seen mine.
One shake, and the mast starts falling, a bountiful crop
of men's heads.  Don't cross me at a red moon: my face
will sprout black feathers, my eyes harden into ebony
beads, and out of my arms the quills will thrust,
ready to batter whole armies into submission.  You can't
buy time from Macha: it has croaked out. Be afraid.

There is a groaning in the roots: whole generations
of luckless infantry, waiting to troop, by xylem
and phloem, up the trunk towards fruition, sucked
towards the branches, coalescing into kernels, turning
nut-hard, ready for cracking.  There's a squall
of raven calls above the husks and splintered skulls.

Poem by Giles Watson, 2013.  Macha is usually regarded as an aspect of the triple-goddess known as the Morrigan, an instigator of battle who often appeared in the form of a raven.  In her incarnation as the daughter of Ernmas, the Yellow Book of Lecan claims, she shakes out "the mast of Macha": a euphemism for the heads of slaugtered soldiers.  Beech mast would normally be shaken out by swineherds, because it provided valuable sustenance for pigs in autumn and winter.  Rarely, it might be argued, has Macha been worshipped more faithfully than by our modern politicians - even though they do so unconsciously.

The Garden of the Badb

Men's eyes hang on stalks of stubble,
swinging from their optic nerves,
pendulous as foxgloves.  There are
blood spots and other interpunctions
bold as orchids.  Heads, cleaved in
by horses' hooves, mould outwards
like mushrooms.  You can pick out
the rare flowers of ring-fingers
severed by swords, and spattered
gall-bladders like bitter herbs.

Men do these things spontaneously:
sow them once, and they excel
at self-seeding.  I can croak, preen,
swoop heedless through my blooming


Poem by Giles Watson, 2013.  The Badb, an aspect of the Morrigan, takes the form of a hooded crow.  She often plays a banshee-like role, calling to foretell important deaths, and she relishes warfare.  The battlefield is known as "the garden of the Badb".

Wednesday, 29 May 2013


PART ONE  ~  Bicci di Lorenzo ~ St Nicholas of Bari Banishing a Storm
~  Early Italian Art Gallery 42

St Nicholas of Bari banishing the Storm

I’ve got the silver- finned blues
I’ve been painted by a muse
They’ve labelled me as pagan
I might as well be Satan
For every time I sing sublimely
I get accused

Of stirring up a storm
When all I want to do is warn

When I see waves a-lashing
Masts come down a-crashing

I could make a sailor cosy
Take him to my shell abode-y
Down, deep under the sea
But how can I lose
My silver-finned blues..?


Here comes Father Nicholas
Saviour of the day
He is kind and generous
He wants me out the way…?

If… I offer him oysters
In the cloisters
Sing to the wind
After we’ve... ‘sinned’

Pray for his soul

St Nick, St Nick, St Nicholas, St Nicholas
Grant this fish
This human fish
A wish
Splish! Splish!

For, how am I to form a bond..?
One sprinkle from your starry wand….

What! No?
He says go!

Well that’s not very generous
St Nicholas

Help me!

I am gone
I must swim on… on… on….

And I feel

Bicci di Lorenzo
We are no longer friends so
I think I’ll find a different ship
I’m on my way, I’ve had a tip

I must say ‘bye-bye’
No tear in my eye

But that’s why
I’ve got the silver-flnned blues

Parcel -Gilt Silver Ship  ~  Michael Wellby Collection (Item 14)

Here I am with Wellby
Do you think he’ll want to sell me?
Are you hiring
A siren?

I won’t let slip
I’ll hide on the side of the ship

Cruise along a table in an elegant castle
In my silver, salver of a silver-gilt parcel
And stopping close to the cream
A prince, I beam
His eyes, they gleam

©Diana Moore

Poetry and pictures at the museum ~  notes from Diana Moore

Diana says:  I love this painting, the magical quality; the dark and the light; the Saint arriving in a blaze of stars to save the mariners;  the mermaid craning her neck upwards and swimming  out of the picture… I decided to write about it from the mermaid’s point of view as she is almost incidental in the painting… (some people don’t notice she is there) and to experiment .. give her a voice… and I found my poem turning into a lyric (in line with the fictional singing mermaids) which, I feel, suited the take I had of a ‘misunderstood mermaid’.  My second performance worked well with the introductory lines sung in blues style – and the farewell to Bicci in tango style...  A large swell of people gathered in the gallery and I really appreciated the applause…!

I also appreciated the help I received from the Ashmolean research team:

Dr Catherine Wheeler, Senior Assistant Keeper, Department of Western Art
  for answering my questions on the Bicci di Lorenzo painting, and
Professor Timothy Wilson for his help with the parcel-gilt silver ship in the Michael Wellby collection.

For information:

The Bicci di Lorenzo painting: St Nicholas of Bari Banishing a Storm was object of the month back in 2001.  Here is a link to the painting with further information

And a note I received from Professor Timothy Wilson

 The silver-gilt ship is a late example of a type of object that was much loved on Medieval tables as a centrepiece and conversation piece, known as a nef. Some larger examples (there is one in the British Museum) have guns that fire and clockwork parts.

This one is only the most token representation of a sea-going sailing ship, but of course European sailing ships were increasingly dominating the world’s sea routes at the time the nef was made.

The charming sea-equines embossed and chased on the sides are a sort of sea-creature associated with Neptune and other sea deities of the ancient world; they ultimately derive from classical sculpture but were much taken up by Renaissance artists in many media. It is of course here conceived as in the water round the ship rather than as part of the ship itself.

The inventorying of the Wellby collection is at an early stage and I fear that is all the information, beyond what is on the label, I can give you.

Best wishes
Professor Timothy Wilson
Barrie and Deedee Wigmore Keeper of Western Art

Monday, 27 May 2013

Netsuke by Gabby Tyrell

Netsuke (Manju) taken from image Tales in the Round on museum website

Poem 1
Carved by father’s hands over time
The man who dressed in a hurry - late for his meeting ran
through the village.

Hair slapdash with no care
Robes like open sails
Swirled around Sweetcake
destination unsure.

A smile crept across father’s face
With tools called Sou Sou and Mou.
He caught this moment in Netsuke.
This story is between you and me.
A secret laid bare Sweetcake
aptly named Loved his Netsuke
Each crumb and wrap of material
Belied his fate.

Fined 200 Yuan for once again being late.

Gabby Tyrrell

Poem 2
The tax collector
Carved by hands in ancient times in ivory
Or wood
the man who dressed in a hurry
late for the ceremony ran past me.
Robes unfurled like open sails
his hair slapdash.

Father in a time long gone watched and smiled
Carved this scene as Netsuke
-  this story between you and me.
The tax collector Sweetcake
Was fined 200 Yuan for his love of Netsuke
made him late once too often.

Now his wife makes him shop.
He always walking, put on a diet of veg and rice,
head bowed in front of his wife.

Gabby Tyrrell

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Gallery readings and readers for June 15th

12.30-13.50      14.40-16.00

Poet                  Name of poem              Object                         Gallery

S.Durie              All the World’s a Stage       Mask of Tragedy                  Greek gallery

Gabby Tyrell            Netsuke (Manju)                    Netsuke                                      ?

Nick Owen                Emperor                          Rubens  sketch                    Dutch gallery

Jenifer McGowan    Morning at the Maru-Aten Temple                                  Egyptian Gallery

Andrew Smardon

Vahni Capildeo

Diana Moore

Paulette Mae

Giles Watson

My apologies for not being able to provide details of poem names or galleries at this point. 

The weblog will be updated as the information flows in.


Tall Zeus, forgive the mean aspect of this standard and static depiction your admirers should find problematic: squared-off toenails, small ears, some parts one shan’t mention – for you hold the lightning bolt – but you don’t; even that is gone from this bronze copy.
All-seeing Zeus, overlook how we come close: your frown, your sinews, your ankles resemble the elderly athlete the museum claims this figure might be. You love mortality.
Dear Zeus. Our clouded heads forgot: the copy, and the copier, sportsman, model, statue, maker, are your originals. Through you we move. Through us, you move.
Lord of lightning, spinal fire that sexes the brain, nuclear waste: a great many feathers puncture my breast from within; as I rip, ridding myself of them, finding I cannot free myself, they vault outwards. Like everything, I am in your grasp and also flying.

It strikes me you are sometimes kind.

Vahni Capildeo

read at the May readings

All the World’s a Stage

All the world’s a stage

She cannot believe they still behave
like lunatics and savages
are there no mothers   sisters   daughters
does revenge have to be played to the end

There is no sound
her tongue has been torn from its roots –

perhaps her baby’s head
has not been dashed against the door post
her son not been run through
her mother raped   her husband decapitated

His cry is elephantine  
he keeps his mask to the end –
eyes downcast as if powerless

feels things should not be so   but
the play will run till the last curtain –

in the world there is laughter   joy
amusement   tragedy – as before

Love was not what it seemed
gentleness is misunderstood –
the play continues

Sarianne Durie

Monday, 13 May 2013

The Radley Earrings, by Katherine Shirley

 They left me in my resting place
With all the things they thought I'd need
They chose my clothes, and painted face
Picked out my best accessories

But these were not my favourite pair
Though gold they glitter on today
The curling edges chafed my ear
I'd sooner wear my mother's veil

Alas, my sister kept the best
And none did notice all the while
They layed me down to final rest
Imagining I'd wear a smile

With weapons that were home to me
My bow and arrows, ever fine
A solid pot to slake my thirst
They dressed me well to pass through time

So here I sit, what's left to view
Your image of my life, long lost
With understanding, almost true
Of style through objects built to last

This poem has been written about the Radley Earrings which form part of the collection of British Archaeology finds at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

AN1944.122a-b  British Collection, European Pre-history gallery on the ground floor

"Putting poets in museums," by Vahni Capildeo. Link to PN review.

We are starting to make an impact in the wider world of poetry. I hope the start of Vahni's article inspires you to subscribe to PN review to read the rest.
May's readings in the galleries were both popular and successful. We started at 12.30 with over thirty people and it built from there. A number of us felt it was the best session yet. 
The decision to repeat the Xu Bing poems outside the exhibition was justified in a doubled audience. It was Giles' first chance to read his poem, which is blogged here earlier.
A theme of death resurrection, and the connection between the human and the divine came through strongly on Saturday.
There were nine poets reading, a record.
I apologize on behalf of the museum for mistakes in the written programme. 
There have been admin problems this week.
I am never-the-less confused how Katherine Shirley, our first poet visitor from London, had her name changed to Katherine Stanley. I hope she comes back. 
See her poem next up on the blog.

Putting Poets in MuseumsVahni Capildeo
Inside the museum, a man stands next to a glass case. The usual museum atmosphere of anaerobically respiring darkness experiences a breakage. Light flashes as the man, who is a poet, turns his head. He gestures. More heads turn. The spill of gold coins, arranged inside the case, suddenly appears both hidden and found; like itself, like surprise, like profusion. A poem is spoken.

I feel uncomfortable; not because objects need no words, or words live without objects. Perhaps because museums can have a shushing effect on people; couples cling, families cluster, individuals file. Perhaps it seems like effrontery to say anything in return, or as a departure, because we are told what we are looking at by the catalogue, audio guide, tour guide, and we are also told off by a room invigilator if we come up too close to look. Perhaps it is that the poet, Paul Surman, is speaking about the hands which handled those bits of metal, and his words are making our own fingers feel chill or anarchic, craving contact, hyperaware of our prohibitive ability to connect; with every personal reaction to an object, every private imagination sparked by a word, we are alone in a series of enriching infidelities to the differently alone people with whom we share overseen space.

Outside the museum, the troubling surge in Victoriana continues. People who insist that they are real women latch themselves into corsets and scratch at the streets they fear at night. 

To read the whole article you will need to subscribe to PN review

You can subscribe on this link:


“I am the question that cannot be answered.
I am the lover that cannot be lost.
Still small are the gifts of my servant the soldier.
Time is my offspring.
Pray what is my name?

My name it is death
Cannot you see?
All life must end in me.”     Extracted from The Incredible String Band’s song.

Song, invoking the Kite Goddess    by Nick Owen

Hark, hark, I hear you calling me.
Come, Come, come to me.
Hark, Hark, I hear you calling me.
Come, come, come.

Together we’ll fly on the mountains above
Come, come, come to me
And together we’ll guard all the valleys below.

Won’t you come,
Come to me.


Dig down to the depths where death dwells
Dig for deeper dreams
Where my dead darling dances
As she never danced before

Silently stalking the banks of silver streams
Returning earthly things
To heaven

I seek your eye of Horus
I seek protective wings
Wrap me into darkness
Take me down to dreams

Thirty years and more
Half a lifetime
I have sought you out
Since first I began to identify the dead.

Here you are again
You swoop
And swoop again

Talons stretch forward
Bringing golden grief
Tail spread
Forked this way, that

Wings spread wider than wide
Feathers red and white and black
Dark tips twitching in the breeze

A twist
A shimmy
A landing on the prey
Death comes
Life goes away

Sixty years and more since
I was torn
From your house of life
And death
Pulling me through

Oh, Guardian of the dead
Protector of the grieving ones
Who live
A merely mortal life
Or wriggling

Take me to eternity
Make me one with Osiris

Beyond this world of strife
In everlasting life

© Nick Owen

A tad about the Goddess
Nephthys was known as the goddess of mourning. She was also one of the nine gods. She was the goddess of night, rivers, sleep, nature and mourning. When Nephthys became the goddess of mourning she also became a friend and protecter of the dead. Nephthys was important in Ancient Egyptian culture because Egyptians considered the afterlife to be very important. She always stood at the head of the coffin that would take the dead to the underworld with outspread wings. Nephthys explained the nether world for the Ancient Egyptians by protecting and caring for the dead. When people died their ''Ba'' would be tested by 40 gods. Many of the gods met up with Nephthys. This is a small list of gods and goddesses.

She manifests as a kite!


SAYING YES TO ZEUS by Vahni Capildeo

Tall Zeus, forgive the mean aspect of this standard and static depiction your admirers should find problematic: squared-off toenails, small ears, some parts one shan’t mention – for you hold the lightning bolt – but you don’t; even that is gone from this bronze copy.
All-seeing Zeus, overlook how we come close: your frown, your sinews, your ankles resemble the elderly athlete the museum claims this figure might be. You love mortality.
Dear Zeus. Our clouded heads forgot: the copy, and the copier, sportsman, model, statue, maker, are your originals. Through you we move. Through us, you move.
Lord of lightning, spinal fire that sexes the brain, nuclear waste: a great many feathers puncture my breast from within; as I rip, ridding myself of them, finding I cannot free myself, they vault outwards. Like everything, I am in your grasp and also flying.
It strikes me you are sometimes kind.

Friday, 3 May 2013

While over in Cambridge.....

They do things on a grander scale in Cambridge, it seems.

They have poetry in museums across the City. It is my dream that we do the same. But we shall need to achieve some more support and funding before we can achieve that, I believe.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Gallery readings for May 11th 2013

Poet                             Poem                                                    Object                                                    Place

Jennifer McGowan         Papa Tells me Pearl Divers Don’t Drown                    Martin von Landshut picture                            
                                                                                                                                      outside Dutch still Life room

Diana Moore         1)  Bicci di Lorenzo (1373 - 1452) Saint Nicholas of Bari banishing a                           
                                                                                                                         storm                                Room 35

                                   2) The ship in the Michael Wellby Collection:  Item 14 Parcel Gilt Ship      model German, Room 35 

Paulette Mae                   sunburn    'Faded Glory: Turkish Ceremonial Dress'      [EA 1960.105]                                    

Nick Owen                   Nephthys                    Nephthys’ images on coffins                   Egyptian Gallery (various 

Andrew Smardon           Aestel                       The Alfred Jewel                                                Room 41               

Katherine Shirley      The Radley Earrings  The Radley Earrings  AN1944.122a-b  British Collection

Giles Watson         Climbing Olympus                  Atrium sculptures                                         Atrium staircase

Vahni Capildeo        To be announced

Special reading      

         Poems on XU Bing  3.30 p.m.  ONLY                          at the exit to the exhibition

Nick Owen, Jennifer McGowan, Sarianne Durie, Giles Watson

The exhibition needs careful attention, and has not been well attended.

This repeat performance will allow people who do not want to pay to visit the exhibition, or who saw it earlier, to hear our poems on a very interesting theme before the exhibition ends.