In the week before the dictator was elected, people heatedly debated
whether Friday the 13th was a lucky or unlucky date.
The day before the dictator’s election,
over three hundred starlings were found dead in a country lane.
On the day of the election of the dictator,
the rain was pouring down on the streets, but hope continued to chatter in the air.
The first day of the dictatorship,
a storm on the other side of the world
dumped tens of thousands of fat innkeeper worms
on a beach: a pale pink tsunami
of a species also known as penis fish
for its striking resemblance
with semi-tumescent limb
of a uni-testicular Caucasian adult male.
An hour before the discovery of their corpses, the starlings
had been seen in the whisper. Autopsy revealed
they died of trauma and internal bleeding,
compatible with hard flying on the road.
Naomi Foyle’s 10th book, Matters, responds to a series of political, local and global disasters. The title poem finds its bearings in the UK around the time the Conservatives, led by Boris Johnson, won the 2019 general election.
Whether it was triskaidekaphobia or Friday the 13th’s association with goddess worship that influenced the choice of date for the election doesn’t seem to be recorded, but the assertion in the opening verse helpfully sets the context. immediate and the target of the poem. At the same time, it sets up readers’ expectations of a story with magical and realistic overtones.
The omens pile up as the first four verses move through an electioneering timeline, repeating the doubly chilling phrase, “the election of the dictator.” The world of the poem, and the world it says is ours, is subject to the irrational and the improbable. Nature is shown to foreshadow unnatural times in which even democratic elections can produce monsters.
The poem’s two main “natural” occurrences, while compelling in their role as omens, are based on real events. On December 11, 2019, hundreds of starlings were found dead on a lane on the Isle of Anglesey. As the poem says, the cause of death during the inquest was found to be trauma. The birds had made their disastrous frantic descent in an attempt to avoid either bad weather or a raptor, the toxicologists concluded. Such explanations are little more convincing than the impending election of a dictator.
Another real, but not unique incident, the “pale pink tsunami” of large innkeeper worms is explained and illustrated in a report from California. As a harbinger of male dictatorship and democratic impotence, these unfortunate creatures, unsurprisingly nicknamed penis fish, are a gift. They indeed resemble “the semi-tumescent limb/of a single-testicular Caucasian adult male”. Older English readers may remember the slanderous World War II song about the genitals of Hitler and his associates. The now terminally flaccid penisfish seem to ridicule the kind of “strongman” political leadership currently popular around the world. One might have expected that human societies would have outgrown the primitive but immensely dangerous cult to this day. An individual’s pursuit of power to the point of tyranny may or may not mask his sexual insufficiency; what matters is that its realization is a massively crippling wound to the body politic.
Foyle savors the image over four verses, then demonstrates the effects of tyranny by bringing back the starlings and emphasizing the metaphorical dimension already suggested – see “Hope still chattered in the air” at line six. She tells us that an hour before plunging to death, the starlings “had been seen murmuring”. Although murmuration is an ornithological term, it matters decision-making awareness in birds. It is as if a human community had called a meeting and decided to end their lives in a collective protest. Just as the “hard road” and “internal bleeding” kills the starlings, the hard road of life under dictatorship destroys the beautiful structures of the society upon which it is imposed.
The tyrant’s punishment has a long poetic history. In the 20th century, its nature and its effects are summed up and given the force of legend by WH Auden in Epitaph on a Tyrant. As part of this tradition, Importents rises, through its folk-narrative style, beyond the framework of the frozen contexts of the “small islands”. It takes place in the winter of 2019 but strangely resonates with the current dark year and its “zeitgeist”.