We set out early, riding through the day
on the broad summer roads of Logres,
yet further out from Camelot
the paths grew narrower, & woodland nearer.
Approaching the borders of the other land,
one of us – or sometimes more – would start,
glimpsing some dream-creature among dim trees,
very close now; no more familiar wolf & boar,
but faun or centaur would appear for a moment,
then flick away into the undergrowth, leaving us
uneasily wondering whether to doubt
or to speak. It was difficult here to see birds,
and they seemed changed, and knowing.
We came with falling night
to the place where three ways meet,
the Road against Reason,
the Road without Mercy,
the Road without a Name.
And the third way brought us here,
to the Waste City;
demons that obeyed the enchanter Virgilius,
giants, or worse, must have built the nodding walls,
the vaulted palace and huge towers
whose ruin is our silent home;
we cannot read its inscriptions
or decipher its mosaics;
the images of Emperor & City are distorted
as by a witch’s mirror or pack of cards;
we find no living soul here
but ourselves, who cannot leave.
by Sally Purcell
from Collected Poems
Copyright © Hilary Purcell 2002
Sally Purcell is an unusual poet and it is not easy to choose a single representative poem by her. She published four main collections of poetry and prepared the last of them just before her final illness at the age of 54. This poem, like so many of hers, draws on folklore and mediaeval sources. Her poems have a dramatic tension, are fluid in rhythm and diction, and alive with a sense of the numinous. Anvil published her Collected Poems, edited by Peter Jay and with an introduction by Marina Warner, in 2002.
Sally Purcell was born in Bromsgrove, Worcs in 1944. She studied French and Provençal at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and continued to live and work in Oxford (as typist, barmaid, researcher and, above all, writer) until her death in 1998.
Anvil Press Poetry was founded in 1968 and publishes English-language poetry and poetry in translation, both classic and modern.