OK, so that definitely won’t be the title of the poem. I’ve been watching a lot of The Last Kingdom recently, the Netflix (originally BBC) adaptation of the Bernard Cornwell books set in Saxon England during the Viking invasions. The show’s a little shlocky, a little silly, but also one of the most visually arresting things on television: it’s all wintry landscapes and frozen streams and hardscrabble villages with thatched rooves struggling to stand against the cold. It’s a version of the country I’ve never seen before and – as the onscreen captions shimmer between the old and the modern versions of each placename – I’m struck by the idea that everywhere must have looked something like this once, even our biggest, sleekest cities.
For a while I’ve wanted to write something about Beorma, the supposed 7th century Anglo-Saxon founder of Birmingham. The main impediment is that no one knows anything about him, though this very extensive website, from which I’ve borrowed gratefully, has had a good try at assembling a kind of grounded legend from the historical context. Probably what most interested me in any case is that sense of foundation: driving a stake into the hard ground and building something from nothing. Looking out from my absurdly epic floor-to-ceiling windows up here, I can see everything that the city has become, but as a result those origins – and how hard, how contingent and fragile they must have been – are somewhat occluded.
What I found in trying to revisit this foundational moment was the impulse to turn away from it – to focus instead of everything that grew up out of it, rather than those lean days themselves. Looking over the result, I wonder if the poem in its latter half tries to do too much – whether the form, which is somewhat gimmicky, is the best way to tell this story which, like the end of the new year’s piece I put up yesterday, is really about holding on.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, and if you want more Anglo-Saxons having a miserable time I might take another look at this later in the week. I also wondered if the turn in the middle is a bit too overloaded, leaning too hard on the simplicity of those abstract terms. There’s a discipline to the form which helps me make hard choices about what can and can’t be in here, something I always find useful, and I am weighing up some kind of resolution about FOMO in any case, not only writerly. It also looks, I realised, a bit like the old library, and some of you might get a kick out of that. I also couldn’t conclude without referencing Gregory Leadbetter’s Beorma poem in the Birmingham anthology I co-edited for VERVE 2017, This Is Not Your Final Form, and also this tweet which informs the end of the first half.