The Lewis Chessmen
British Museum; Scandinavian, c. 1150
These people have known nothing beside warfare –
eyes strained against ambush, fists clamped fast
on spear or sword. Even the bishops, giving the world
their two benedictional fingers, plainly belong
to the Church Militant. They proclaim
God’s judgement on the foe, the obdurate Others.
The king’s gifts to his thanes are mailshirt and spear,
helmet and hard-edged sword. A handful champ their shields:
berserkers, frantic to surrender
to the wonderful extravagance of rage.
Most, though, face out doom
with dour mouths, driven purely by a formal pattern
they cannot move beyond. ‘Better a man should die
than live a life of blame.’ The sombre queens
will offer their ale-horns only to heroes.
I was a child when I saw them first.
The shock of that mass glare still works in me.
And the instant after, staring, eyeball to eyeball, sensing
their stubborn resistance, their grief;
saluting, below all reason, unlooked-for, the presence of kin.
Published in As Girls Could Boast. New poetry by women,
ed. Christina Dunhill (London, The Oscars Press, 1994)
© Gillian Spraggs, 1994, 2006
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last modified 24 November, 2006