Amo Amas Amat

Who do you love? Who do you love,
when the man you married goes off

for months on end, quelling rebellions
at the frontiers, or playing hot-shot senator in Rome;

his flashy villa on the Palatine Hill, home 
to another woman, I hear,

one who has borne him offspring.
My days are spent roaming this house,

its vast mosaic walls full of the scenes on Olympus, 
for my husband loves melodrama.

They say his mistress is an actress, 
a flaxen-Fräulein type, from Germania Superior.

Oh, everyone envied me, Illa Bella Negreeta! 
born in the back of a shop on Gracechurch Street,

who got hitched to a Roman nobleman, 
whose parents sailed out of Khartoum on a barge,

no burnished throne, no poop of beaten gold, 
but packed with vomiting brats

and cows releasing warm turds
on to their bare feet. Thus perfumed,

they made it to Londinium on a donkey, 
with only a thin purse and a fat dream.

Here in the drizzle of this wild west town 
Dad wandered the streets looking for work,

but there was no room at the inn,
so he set up shop on the kerb

and sold sweet cakes which Mum made. 
(He's told me this story a mille times.)

Now he owns several shops, selling everything 
from vino to shoes, veggies to tools,

and he employs all sorts to work in them, 
a Syrian, Tunisian, Jew, Persian,

hopefuls just off the olive barge from Gaul, 
in fact anyone who'll work for pebbles.

When Felix came after me, Dad was in ecstasy, 
father-in-law to Lucius Aurelius Felix, no less.

I was spotted at the baths of Cheapside, 
just budding, and my fate was sealed

by a man thrice my age and thrice my girth, 
all at sweet eleven--even then Dad

thought I was getting past it.
Then I was sent off to a snooty Roman bitch

called Clarissa for decorum classes, 
learnt how to talk, eat and fart,

how to get my amo amas amat right, and ditch 
my second-generation plebby creole.

Zuleika accepta est.
Zuleika delicata est.
Zuleika bloody goody-two shoes est.

But I dreamt of creating mosaics,
of remaking my town with bright stones and glass.

But no! Numquam! It's not allowed. 
Sure, Felix brings me presents, when he deigns

to come west. I've had Chinese silk, a marble 
figurine from Turkey, gold earrings

shaped like dolphins, and I have the deepest
fondness for my husband, of course,

sort of, though he spills over me like dough
and I'm tempted to call Cook mid coitus

to come trim his sides so that he fits me.
Then it's puff and Ciao, baby!

Solitudoh, solitudee, solitudargh!

From The Emporer's Babe by Bernardine Evaristo, published by Viking Penguin, April 2002. Copyright © 2001 by Bernardine Evaristo. Used by permission of the published. All rights reserved.