|The Empress Theodora in mosaic at the|
church of San Vitale, Ravenna
Apart from a misspent youth winning New Statesman competitions in the 1980s and 90s I have never won a literary prize in my life so this is a great pleasure.
The version of the poem, "Annotations of Byzantium", printed on the Roehampton website has some typos so the full version is presented below.
It will be published later in Poem magazine.
Annotations of Byzantium
I am woman and you call me names:
circus dancer, whore, magician…Empress.
Beneath my chamber, secret tunnels run
where men are shut to waste or die;
where night dissolves in day like powders
losing presence in a lethal glass.
They wander in the dark, go mad, lose sight;
I tether them like cattle to a manger
where they feed, a rope around their neck,
who thought they could resist my power.
This I do for Antonina, consort of Belisarius,
the man who cowers while she slakes her lust
with Theodosius the Thracian boy;
I am woman; I know need and strength.
Beneath the dome of Wisdom,
coming from shadows, we greet the patriarch.
Look at our work, great canopy of stone,
mathematics of magnificence.
Later, the salt sea whips my cheeks;
the wind streaks madly from the Dardanelles,
nature and art in passionate contention
where I award, between them both, the prize.
He is in the marshes, hunting crane,
watching the violent beat of wings,
patient to cripple the great, beautiful bird
that rises in the mellow light of dawn.
They shall say that Theodora rose
‘from humble origin’, lap-dancer
in the royal eye, to take the purple;
add in ‘whore’, for it’s desire
that frightens them, the narrowed eye,
the jewelled goblet raised and aimed,
a rustle in the chamber’s passage
where a curtain billows, candle flame
trembles excitedly at what it sees;
lips sealed by willing servitude.
The principal source of this poem is the The Secret History by Procopius (translated as a Penguin Classic, by G.A. Williamson, 1966). Written around 550 A.D. it is a remarkably candid account of the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife Empress Theodora who is the narrative voice in the poem. The most famous of the Byzantine emperors, Justinian assumed power in 518 and married Theodora in 523. She died in 547 and Justinian in 565. Justinian is seen as a great law-giver and the period of his reign saw the construction of the great basilica of Agia Sophia (‘Holy Wisdom’) completed in 537 but Procopius tells a story of vicious corruption and tyranny, greed and lust. behind the scenes. He also recounts the story of the general Belisarius whose secretary Procopius had been and of his wife Antonina who appears as corrupt as Theodora herself.