Imperial Riddles

Alan Halsey


Shoot the head off that ostrich

and bring it here to Hercules.

Look hard at it, senator, the joke

is it’s yours. And the cripples

I’m about to send in the arena

one’s the Nemean lion one’s Hydra

and last but not least the Chimaera.



I gave you Iraq

and you never stop whingeing

how I upset the neighbours.

And the costs. The goddamn costs.

And zilch return. But you’re right

it wasn’t mission accomplished.

I’d still go for Iran if death let me.



You can take my word for who I am

or believe the Galileans. If I look

like a discarded footstool

a guzzler of gold or the scarecrow you saw

in the Iranian museum then take

it like the rest of their articles of faith

I had my comeuppance.



The test of a cabbage is

if sliced in two

it makes perfect halves

and the whorls inside are

more orderly than brains

or at least that murderer’s

I tried it on first.



Why can’t the filthy Galileans

keep their hands off Homer?

They have their Luke and Mark.

I turned the eunuchs out too

and saved Gaza. But here in Iraq

what news

Apollo’s temple’s in cinders.


[I: Commodus; II: Severus; III: Valerian; IV: Diocletian; V: Julian]





Findings of the
Lizopard Commission






Comminuted fractures: you are here.

No rivers could ever have drifted

devils’ fingers embedded in mastic

wreckage of lives turned to stone.




I didn’t like it. The long term health effects

we seek in vain for anything analogous

resembling impossible voracious fishes

image not available in the first stratum.




Dentition on which human eyes never rested

what ungodly avidity of this small world

the exuberant provision of saurian extremity

description missing: you are here.




We read in a repulsive language

dispensations of kindness precisely adapted

its debris put to blush okay

oysters spiked with viagra description missing.




Inconsiderate ignorance etc

the long term health effects of

nothingness noted for variety of parts

the mean and vindictive measures of New Labour etc.




Last image a salamander found in Massachusetts

skin midnight blue with a dozen bright suns

Dear Paul I’m sending it to you in Belmarsh

it’s the one I reckon’s a critter of best omen.





Skips & Charms
against Recession




white persimmon


without permission




‘on our which modernity depends’

and if whether yours or mine it merits

any more than a word defends

or any other language inherits




After falling asleep reading Defoe:


He said, he wou’d send a Man

with ev’ry Poursuivance of Squeeze and Snout;

and, where we now doubted,

we wou’d find ourselves doubled.




This says what I think it

or does it mean that nature aborts

‘an errant operational culture’?

If you listen carefully

you’ll hear the cadence of codenames

erupt in such a caustic acoustic

you’ll wish you

could forget you’d been warned.




A shifter such as ‘Britain’

in Spicer’s Holy Grail;

in Morganwg’s Triads;

in a speech by a Scottish PM.




Intention – Retrospect – Judgment –

‘yesterday when urgent desire

threatened to eclipse them’.

The author’s other works include

Newts & Nymphs: Essays on a Private Pond.

He is said to have said

‘There’s a receipt for everything

and everything in its receipt’

is the 21st century’s true motto.




One whom One whom One

a Slight yoyo


The language

landscape of parenthesis watching

(a version of Pastoral)

(a shifter such as ‘Britain’

when Demetrius

by order of the emperor

as Plutarch tells us

made the voyage

thunder & lightning

the locals said a daemon

of great power was departing)




Apostrophes make no apology.

Despite the initial resemblance

between the Anglican Church

and Agatha Christie

fate can be denied.

Shelley’s bubbles burst

on Watts’ ever-rolling stream

and Heraclitus weeps.

There’s still dormant respect

in a morbid aspect.

The author’s other works include

Morticians & their Mortification:

The Imaginary Conversations

of Lucian, Landor & Beddoes.




‘she is Rimbaud’

‘a bit less and the rest or a similar’

‘That journey was a thousand years ago’.

What would we say

if someone went to Poundstretcher

looking for the key to the Modernist code?

And if he found it? Should we send him

or her to a convent or convention?




Re logoclasody

Dear Gregory

the Logos is certainly

an ordering principle.

Your message

came with the message










Never did a nerve

have such an ending

as in the quest for the Sangraal

where as so often in the wordland

inaction is the key.

Some days Parson Hawker

couldn’t tell a copse

from a corpse

even though

considered as timber

woods are if not misprinted

deeply verbatim.





restless spectre



made of


until it was


by a heart quake








Ho! for the Sangraal! –

Sir Galahad drives on.

At Recycling

‘Leave it there, pal’

quoth Sir Tristram.




It wasn’t as things turned out

a beetle in his matchbox

but his indisputable real world

which on the day of publication

changed beyond recognition.

And it wasn’t what he once

mistakenly called ‘feathered water’.

Nor were all the guilty

innocent in any common sense

if there is one. These lines

confuse three people but weren’t

they all confused from the start?

The reader is advised not to try

to name them. Dear reader, relax.




[Insert a portrait of the poet

in pastoral pinstripe. Remember

that a forthcoming article remarks

he is ‘nearing sixty’. Are those

laughter lines heroic couplets?

How many times has he

stepped in the same river?

Write his obit and say

in less than 500 words

why he thought that way.]




I looked over yonder

& what did I see

but what I’d been told

all the white knights

in the island of Britain


searching bad debt

for a quid pro quo






silent corrections.

The distance

I thought

it doesn’t




The author’s other works

are too numerous and scarce

to be listed here

but he sometimes remarked that

hum when erased leaves an

as well as bling and bled

not to mention ility and iliation.

He also often wondered what

R had done

to be heaped with rocks

refuse rubbish ravage ruins

& Resurrection.




it’s not as if meaning means

the imaginary something

something like ‘menagerie’

a hinge of exchange or henge

that hangs in the air and the air

as if obliged hangs itself





Note. Poundstretcher: a UK discount chainstore. Heeley: an area of Sheffield, South Yorkshire; Lancelot Works, a former steel factory, is its outstanding landmark.





Mercurialis the Younger:
Fragments translated from the
‘Fortunatus’ Codex
with an Exegesis





only Prato would ask why

Serenus the first babbler

of the abracadabra

was so soon to die



the texts Miracola’s been fed –

just so – better eaten than read –



Eclectus learnt Egyptian in his sleep –

now when he meets his daemons in the mirror

he can’t understand bad Greek –



[                                     ] anticipates –

[                                     ] antiquates –



stinks of Black Sea herbs – chants

from a Thessalian hymnbook –

spends all day at the gym

watching that wrestler with the moustache –

cheeks the colour of pistachio –

the same Sibylla I [                         ]



‘the One which inclines towards the One

is the One without before or after’ –

Posthumus’ new treatise

comes free with a bottle of Avernus water –



you want moly? that’s Fabius’ game –

hellebore by any other name –



backwinter at the mudbaths –

Aelius is cured –

of everything except

endless chatter about mudbaths –



now her wrestler’s an ordinary ghost

Sibylla asleep or awake

mutters and moans ‘Apollo!’



interpreter of dreams? –

Faustina? – a novice –

but Philo pays her a visit –

and pays her invoice –



here lies [illegible]

who once craved to be known

then hoped to forget

what he was known for





I. In his Res Reconditae Serenus Sammonicus, physician to Gordian II, makes the first known reference to the abracadabra, describing how it should be written as an amulet against disease. M appears to suggest that it was either well known or self-evident that Serenus’ publication of the charm provided the motive for his murder in 212 ad.

II. Miracola features in several M poems as an eclectic cult-follower. Perhaps one or more of these cults practised logophagy although M may only be ridiculing Miracola’s enthusiasm for creative writing workshops and literary festivals.

III. Whether Eclectus indulged in catoptromancy or narcissism is unclear. Perhaps both. M appears to doubt that the daemonic language is Egyptian but ‘bad Greek’ does not anticipate Dee’s discovery that the angels’ lingua franca mixes Greek and Welsh. Nor does the use of hypnos in line 1 imply hypnosis.

IV. The most corrupt fragment in this codex. Does it suggest that knowledge of the future would give the present the status of the distant past? M was rarely so philosophic and would have been no admirer of the Four Quartets.

V. The last words have been knifed from the MS. Would anybody censor a phrase such as ‘once loved’? An obscenity seems the likelier provocation. The ‘Black Sea herbs’ and ‘Thessalian hymnbook’ imply that Sibylla hoped to win her wrestler by spells. Perhaps these also required ‘pistachio’ make-up but there is an ambiguity: the complexion is possibly the wrestler’s.

VI. A fragment so obscure it must speak for itself. There are references in the Annales Anticyrae to Posthumus’ Lectures on Plotinus but no text survives.

VII. The identification of moly with helleborus niger has also been made by modern writers such as Triller on account of its black root and ‘milky white’ flower. It is not generally accepted. Fabius appears elsewhere in M’s poems as a con man. We can assume he was more successful in business than our poet although if he too had literary pretensions the couplet may be subtler than it seems.

VIII. The vernal equinox was the prescribed time to visit healing springs. The fragment refers to the cure of the sophist Aelius Aristides, recounted in the second Sacred Oration. In M’s view bad weather was (nearly) enough.

IX. A tentative reading. The doubt in any interpretation is that we do not know whether the wrestler was known as ‘Apollo’ in his lifetime. A fragment in the Tarentum Codex, ‘pleasured by a spook’, possibly belongs here.

X. The apparent formality of the transaction supports a literal rather than a metaphorical reading. Oneirocritics could be found in any marketplace in Anticyra.

XI. The original name in the MS was apparently erased by the same hand which inscribed ‘Mercurialis’ in the margin, as if this is another of M’s mocking self-epitaphs. The bias of M’s fragments suggests that any of his enemies (or friends, by a difficult distinction) might be the subject. To read M as a confessional poet strangely misses the target.