A Bestiary: Notes on Empire
My father almost lost an eye to a garden gnome. He tells
this story like it’s funny because it’s not. His father
whacked him like a ball toward the wicket but cricket is
a rich man’s game. No, it was a rugby manoeuvre. That
was a familiar sport: elbows, knees, and shoulders, pretty in piles.
The rugby boys came home with new ears. It wasn’t violence,
it was horseplay, it was love. My father loved his father like
he loved his city, like he loved his country. He was at the marches
decades before “The Witch Is Dead” rocketed up the charts.
Thatcher and her cronies knew nothing of the labor,
of the hands holding clods of mud, lungs aspirating asbestos
in the bellies of ships. That’s how my father’s grandfather
died, coughing out asbestos. He’d guttered through it
for years with the rats and their fleas. Died like a plague victim.
The British way, one illness supplants the other. Rule, Britannia!
Rule the waves! For all the dying, the empire’s still
a breathing thing. Auden wrote: “Time watches from the shadow /
And coughs when you would kiss.” In Wales, Britannia is both the shadow
and the cough. My father knew it as a child, heard the rise and fall
of the beast’s chest. Lludd plied dragons with mead and buried them
in the mountains. Funny to imagine them, clothed in sod, drunk and
sleepy. Cartoon bubbles rising from their mouths. In some later tale
King Vortigern digs the dragons up. One kills the other. Isn’t that
always the story? We die in order to live. My father says this,
or implies it. He almost lost an eye to a garden gnome, and he tells
this story like it’s funny. These days my father can’t see anyhow, something
shook his brain up and now his eyes keep looking the wrong way. I want
to look the wrong way. When my father tells me empire lives in
ass cheeks tattooed by newsprint, I don’t want to think about it.
When he tells me it lives in a drowning years in the making, I say,
it sounds like a Siegfried Sassoon poem I’d rather not re-read.
I say, where’s the dragon in times like these? He says,
he died the day they wrote him down or put him on a flag.
Bethan Tyler is a British poet and former radio DJ. Her poems have previously been featured in publications including The Chattahoochee Review, Fjords Review, and Redivider. These days, Bethan lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and a cat named Suzie (after Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”).