Janet Sutherland

Poems

2. On Speaking with the Natives

Tower of Skulls at Niš, Serbia

 

Mr Gutch and I spent days with the Archbishop

drinking spirits of wine and aniseed and cold water.

We could not refuse the dinners, twenty-six dishes,

the apricots and cherries, the cucumbers-

 

beaded and chilled and sprinkled with salt.

The fields make bitter black bread here.

The people stare. One night we walked from the Palace

to the Tower of the Skulls and met Stevan Sinđelić.

 

It's easy to climb the Tower of the Skulls,

we are only visitors, after all, and our bellies are full.

But the flesh of his head had been shipped to the Sultan,

and he clattered like a stork from his bone white tree.

 

I've stolen the skull of Stevan Sinđelić

though his teachings must come third hand to me-

to the dragoman in Serbian, to Mr Gutch in Italian,

and from he to me in English, so I may understand.

 

We trot towards Dover under the star-light-

the passion is on him, pitching and tossing,

and tied to my saddle. But all he can tell me,  

comes down in the end to blood, a battle, and dying.

 

 

 

 

 

3. My Red Morocco Jack Boots

 

There are seven stations between Belgrade and Alexnitza

where changing horses takes an hour. At Pashapolanca

we had bread and slivovitz then lay on hard board

and slept very soundly. In white caps and German blouses,

 

Turkish trousers, with twelve yards of stuff, and jack boots

(mine were red morocco) our cavalcade moved off.

At night the path was very striking, summer lightning

pierced the dense foliage. I am not a Romantic

 

but here and there we came suddenly upon

encampments of caravans from Stambul and glimpsed

the wild forms of shadow men around a blazing fire.

At one such place I left my companions

 

these travel notes being all I took. They blundered

onwards to their next hotel, a consul dinner

in a dirty town, while I dismounted gesturing

and asking, in English, for the local wine.

 

These days I while away my time in idle pleasures

for the men are very sociable and well disposed.

I found a good specimen of a Serbian woman,

alone in the woods on her way to market,

 

her hair dyed black and twisted to one side;  

she wore, like the Greeks, a tight under vest,

a purple velvet jacket, embroidered in gold and silver,

a treble row of ducats around her neck

 

and a silk petticoat which slipped through my fingers

like the river Morava . A practical woman,

she saw what I wanted, and opened her legs

by the side of the mountain, saying nothing.

 

(These poems are based on the travelogue diary of George Sydney Davies (1822 -1895) Solicitor Registrar of the County Court and Clark to the Justices Commissioners of Taxes (Davies & Son) Crickhowell, my great, great grandfather who travelled with Mr Gutch to Serbia in 1846.)

 

Reproduced from Bone Monkey, published by Shearsman, 2014.