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Janet Sutherland - New Poems

Janet Sutherland

In Alexnitza

(Captain Spencer’s account)

A drummer is sent forth
to announce new laws
or to call the people to arms.
He also announces, rat-a-tat-tat,
the exact hour of nightfall.

Then gaudily painted
transparent paper lanterns
folded so they fit in a pocket
are brought out and lit
there being no streetlamps.

To walk without a lantern
is a punishable offence.
They float in all directions
small obedient glow-worms
in the vastness of the night.

Excerpt from The Messenger House Sequence

Makardia, Saturday 16th May 1846
Bathed. Went after breakfast a delightful walk along a beautiful path up the bank of the river. Stupendous crags appearing at every break in the dense foliage 500 or 600 feet from the brink of the river whose waters laved its base – saw several snakes some 1 yd ½ long, all venomous here. Black spotted with blue. Fawn and black, black and white. (George Davies Journal)


The first’s a squared off shepherds crook with a rounded hook, uncarved, utilitarian.The shepherds used their sticks as hooks[i]. A muscled wolf dives over thetop of the second, a symbol of status for a kmet, a knez and an obarknez[ii], with a goose between its splayed front paws, snarling, snarling. His tail flies down the shaft; groves under groves, where other wolves, a bridled horse and helmeted rider, an eagle grasping a dove in its talons, trees, leaves and flowers all live extraordinary lives in the untamed forest.The third is a feminine clenched fist in a very dark wood. The old, the infirm, the heart of its rage hardened in darkness.The fourth is tightly covered from head to foot in a snakeskin because a stick that touches a snake that has caught a bird carries magical powers and the knowledge of wild language is never given by the bird but always by the serpent. Scales on the curved handle are softened and worn. Regular faint markings pattern this staff which seems to be always on the brink of a wild translation.


At the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade
is a small display of walking sticks
above which is written a note in English
which explains they’d be staked
to a man’s grove, a misunderstanding it turns out,
as it should say grave[iii] not grove.
But in the meantime, we’ve already
decorated the place with vines,
an orchard, goats and an outdoor table
where the man’s family are having supper;
fish, bread, wine and a good plum brandy.
In the background the walking stick
casts a thin shadow staked to its grove, 
rooted in evening light, implacable, ready.



for the beautiful path
for the breath of wind in the branches
for the dense foliage
for the coiled and uncoiled
for the curled word
for the laving of water
for the laying out of time
for the knowing of a wild language

[i] Belgrade Ethnographic Museum note to the display of walking sticks: From the shepherd’s hooks to walking sticks and those staked to a man’s grove, there is a recognised need for the sticks to become one of the symbols of personal, societal, ethnic or confessional identity through their shape function and ornamentation. The shepherds used their sticks as hooks in order to pull sheep closer for milking or administering medicine. The old and the infirm used sticks for walking; sticks were a symbol of status for a kmet, a knez and an obarknez. They were ornamented with carvings of crosses, eagles or wolves, Serbian coat of arms, and some were coated with snakeskin.  In this way the owner of the stick was protected from both real and outworldly forces, while the others were introduced to the social status of the person carrying the stick.
[ii]Kmet (farmer), Knez (prince), obor-knez (elected or appointed officer).
[iii] A favourite stick would be staked to a man’s grave, then engraved on his headstone

copyright © Janet Sutherland, 2020

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