The Secret Pages: For the patriarchy

Let us speak of the seraglio,
a lion-patterned realm of golden taps,
of brightly-knotted carpets, gilded rice,
of sherbet, sweet infusions, tinctured smoke.
The daughters of Caucasian kinglets,
remitted in return for mountain peace,
or, better, for support in valleyed wars;
the sea-snatched maids of Venice;
the living harvest of the Balkans,
garnered first fruits of the Blackbird’s Field;
the concubines, in courtyard cluster,
bicker and preen, their eggs unfertilised
unless selected for the royal cock.
All warded by a gleaning of the bloodied waves
who pleased the sultan with her voice and face,
and sank her merchant’s daughter’s modesty
to conquer him with tongue and breasts
and tight engagements deep between her thighs.
She vaulted her son past the other-mothered –
coin passed handless in candled corridors,
slighted eunuchs soothed and promises betrayed –
until he took his passing father’s place
and locked his beaten brothers in their cells.
She oversees the bed where she was served,
selecting for the master of the Nile
the girls that match his taste and fit her will,
aware that as she governs his desire
one bedmate she approves will topple her.

He retires – audiences done, petitions heard –
to a turquoise-tiled kiosk in Topkapi.
The pivot of the world takes his gilded couch,
holds up his head until the pillow docks.
The eunuchs drape the silken counterpane
from chin to pearled slippers, then withdraw.
The burbling fountains cool the sleeping air,
and seagulls spin indifferent to his lawns.

They have let him sleep too long. The sky is dark,
the moon and stars consort above the clouds.
The embassy from England’s due tonight.
What’s that? A boot on gravel, harness scrape?
Dark shapes approach, his eunuchs come at last.
They duck to his side, grab and tip the couch,
scuff him, stuff his mouth with his own silks,
carpet roll him, nostrils crushed by dusty knots.
This is some nephew’s plot: where were the signs?
He braces for the killing kicks, but they don’t come.
He’s shouldered over lawns, towards the sea.
He laughs. They’ll only top the janissaried walls
when their bodies are impaled at dawn.
Yet he’s bent, buckled, hauled high,
plumbed an appalling depth and caught,
tossed again and dropped onto a timber floor
that tips and turns like no floor ever did.

Hours on, he’s uncocooned, spun sprawling
to the dawn, far down the Dardanelles;
the shore beyond the strongest swimmer’s reach.
Soldiers circle him: ragged swaggerers
out of Venice, Zara, Spalato, Ragusa.
He stands, back to the rail, poised for violence.
By signs they have him strip his silks and gems,
leaving him in linen pantaloons,
a shirt and waistcoat, kerchief and a belt.
They offer him bread, broth and cold chicken,
even allow him a knife for eating.

The second day dawns with a grey-white rock,
a giant-flung island, unknown but familiar.
They leave him, wordless, on a stony beach.
A pebbled path up the scarp brings fields,
a white-washed house among its sheds and barns,
a plot of ground that is more surely his
than all the leagues from Damascus to Beograd.
He takes a hoe from what must be his shed
and turns to terraced fields. A woman works
the vegetable rows: his place is next to hers.
At noon they shelter underneath the corner fig,
take bread and oil, a little cheese, a cup of wine,
and doze while lizards dart for flies.
On her request he kills a chicken, dresses it,
while she culls leeks, courgettes, tomatoes, herbs,
sets all into a pot and makes a yeastless dough.
Not having skill at cooking he works on
until as evening comes she calls him home.
There, side-by-side, their backs against
the day-warmed wall, they watch the stars pursue
the failing sun, rehearse the day and eat.
And when the eye’s obscured each takes
the other to their bed.

He fears to sleep.


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