This month on PastSong I’m pleased to feature a guest poem and blog by Professor Emeritus Terry O’Connor, University of York. Terry is well-known within the archaeological community and has published more papers and taught more students over his career than anyone would dare to count. Since retiring in 2015, he has become a stalwart member of Ilkley Poetry Stanza, and spends a lot of time on his allotment. He blogs at osteoconnor.wordpress.com, and has published two poetry collections (The Consolation of Bluebells; Out To Grass).
Sleep With Me Sleep with me. Share the silence through cold grave-bedded centuries as our sandy bones disseminate. New to this land, we made our mark, raised the roof-ridge, the ale-loud hall, laid our loved ones in the welcoming earth. Whisper them now, our heroes’ tales, the sea-sailed ways, the foemen falling, the great ones, Hrothgar, Hengest. In the sweat of my years I was slain, my strong times, snorting, stamping, set in my grave, bestowed to the land. You who rode me, cared for me, died with me. Now sleep with me. Share eternity at my hooves’ foot.
About The Poem
Quite a few years ago, I was involved with an excavation project at the Lakenheath air force base in Suffolk. Most of the archaeology consisted of early medieval burials, 5th and 6th century graves that included a couple containing a human skeleton with that of a horse. Preservation of the bones was not good. A sandy subsoil meant that bones had decayed to the point that many were barely distinguishable from the grave fill. None the less, the joint burial of a man and a horse set me thinking. Whose grave was it? I don’t mean who was the person buried here, but was it that person’s grave or the horse’s? After all, who occupied most of the space? The conventional archaeological narrative has it that the human would have been someone notable in his contemporary community and that the horse was an indicator of his prestige. But what if it were the horse that was of high status and the accompanying man was a groom, a servant of the animal?
In assembling the poem, I wanted to reflect something of Anglo-Saxon verse form. I do not have the knowledge or talent to do so fully and accurately, and settled for a thudding use of alliteration and lines compiled of two phrases. I’m not sure if it really works, but it does give the poem a certain flavour, maybe just a hint of a guttural, rhythmic voice in a smoky grub-hut.