The Death of Seneca

Such a gesture of indifference is the shrug -
or rather indifference with a hint of disdain,
and when the earth itself shrugs and picks
pips from its teeth, nothing is different.

All night the tremors came, rattling windows 
shaking walls, cleaving stones and rolling
them down hillsides. Fondly we believed that
because we loved this place and these gardens...

Now we are beyond shrugging. Unlike Seneca 
who, when the emperor came rattling, ordered 
his grieving servants to draw him a warm bath, 
bring him sharp blades, bring him pomegranates.

James Norcliffe has published six collections of poetry, most recently Villon in Millerton (Auckland University Press, 2007). A new collection Shadow Play is currently a finalist in the Proverse International Writing Prize. He has also written a number of fantasy novels for children including The Loblolly Boy, which won the junior fiction award at the NZ Post Children's Book Awards in 2010, its sequel, The Loblolly and the Sorcerer (2011), and a new novel, The Enchanted Flute (2012). James Norcliffe lives in Church Bay, Lyttelton Harbour, and teaches in the Foundation Studies Division of Lincoln University.

Norcliffe comments: ‘“The Death of Seneca” was prompted by a scene in Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea. The opera, which we'd borrowed on DVD from the Christchurch Public Library, tells the story of the emperor Nero's love affair with Poppea and of his banishment of his wife Octavia in order to replace her with his mistress. Seneca, after becoming involved on the wrong side (this is apparently not historically true), was instructed by Nero to commit suicide and, stoic as he was, the philosopher complied, cutting his wrists in his bath. This put me in mind of our responses down here in Christchurch to our succession of devastating earthquakes and how so many of us have been pushed beyond stoicism. The pomegranates, sharp and exotic, seemed a nice touch, but are my own embroidery.’

Poem source details >



New Zealand Book Council author page
James Norcliffe’s website