Thursday, 11 June 2009


Adam Thorpe's new poem is about El Haouaria (or الهوارية) from where the stones out of which Carthage was built were quarried. Its rather Walcottian in form and theme.

El Haouaria, where they hollowed out
Carthage, is now a vaulted omega of absence,
its caves, striated by slaves whose daylight bout
was a dim, powder-fashioned shaft,
who lived breathed and doubtless died sandstone,
its colossal blocks floated up the coast on rafts
to count as bits of Punic monuments
that were swept away by a Roman broom
(by order of the Senate), with salt spread
for good measure, so not even scrog could bloom.
Beneath the silence you can hear the moans.
To think this might have been us, instead ...

There's some nice play, here, with alpha and omega (the Greek for Haouaria would begin with an alpha; now that it has been emptied it is 'a vaulted omega of absence'); and with the idiom of mathematics: 'count', 'bits'. But it's fairly slackly written, the rhyme scheme adds nothing, and the last line of the first stanza (there) is very weak. The second and final stanza redeems all, though.

El Haouaria
a honeycomb of vowels we get wrong
like most visitors, preferring 'that quarry
on Cap Bon', is where it all belongs:
the temples, the arenas, the entire city.
Like Lego, it will never back into its box,
but here's the negative: each axe-chip fits
its equivalent bump, the subterranean dark locks
onto its reverse, heliotropic and built
high -- the Manhattan of its day. One moment it's there:
the next it's gone. Like us, I whisper ... it being unfair
to say this in front of the kids, who're yet to be filled.

'Here today gone tomorrow' is a pretty banal theme for a poem, or even for a tourist's observation on an archaeological site (and you know what? It's not that hard to get the lego to go back in the box, actually). But what lifts this piece is the implied fitting back together: the hinge-rhyme of 'locks', the sudden rush of vivid, somatic, connective images. The poem, in its two stanzas, is actually playing with the noncommutative nature of addition and (titular) subtraction. -2 + 2 = 0; and +2 - 2 = 0 also. And in human affairs? Well, taking away El H. is adding to Carthage. But taking away Carthage (the Roman Carthago delenda est mentioned in the first stanza) is not adding to El H. The poem stumbles over the entropy of things, except in those few magical lines where negative locks with positives.

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