Guest poem submitted by Zubaer Mahboob:
(Poem #1056) Waiting for the Barbarians
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum? The barbarians are due here today. Why isn't anything happening in the senate? Why do the senators sit there without legislating? Because the barbarians are coming today. What laws can the senators make now? Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating. Why did our emperor get up so early, and why is he sitting at the city's main gate on his throne, in state, wearing the crown? Because the barbarians are coming today and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader. He has even prepared a scroll to give him, replete with titles, with imposing names. Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas? Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts, and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds? Why are they carrying elegant canes beautifully worked in silver and gold? Because the barbarians are coming today and things like that dazzle the barbarians. Why don't our distinguished orators come forward as usual to make their speeches, say what they have to say? Because the barbarians are coming today and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking. Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion? (How serious people's faces have become.) Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, everyone going home so lost in thought? Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come. And some who have just returned from the border say there are no barbarians any longer. And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution.
Translated by Edmund Keeley. An empire awaits its end, its ruling class awash in all the trappings of opulence but rudderless without a guiding moral compass, and dissipating under the weight of boredom and finery. Cavafy's poem tells hauntingly of the ultimate hollowness of tyranny - an apt theme for our times. The novelist JM Coetzee adopted the title of this poem for his 1982 novel "Waiting for the Barbarians", a scantily-veiled denunciation of the apartheid regime. If you enjoy the mythical landscape of this poem, you might also enjoy the vivid imaginary empire created in that book. Zubaer. [Minstrels Links] Constantine Cavafy: Poem #217, Ithaka Poem #296, Footsteps Poem #522, In Harbor