Prester John by Robert de Born

Prester John

There were witches in the wire
there were bubbles in the blood
the god of men and donkeys
was preparing for the flood
the gates were gilt with fire
pennies trampled in the mud
by sons of strays, unbroken bays
with saddles hard as wood.

King Karling saw the wreckage
and thought long, hard and good
to contemplate the breakage
of all he’d understood
a limerick his statecraft
the fate grafted on
to the presbyterian paradise
they’d once called Prester John’s.

The sparrows spat out charred tunes,
the fishwives spared the rod
from the back that bore dubloons
for the ass of men and god
who shivered at the comedown
numb now the cellars dried
extravagant at sundown,
forensically replied

‘find me a woman, brisk and proud
encircled by a brimstone cloud
with voice volcanic, iris wide,
go up to the mountainside
go above and find me one
to save the land of Prester John.’

full five they searched the slopes as vined
as hands are veined of harpists old
crowed, cracked, complained, resigned
and god grieved, castaway and cold
and knew the grim old slipping
with honey-dripping gestures
called to his old donkey
the venture’s last investor

and said, ‘old friend, I’m sorry,
it always ends like this
the thousand times I’ve tried
Rome, London, Atlantis; THIS
always is the outcome,
no matter how begun
and we must lie here you and I
dormant in the crimson sky
until the world is different
and men of gold are spun

but I really do regret this,
my thousandth sin and one.’

He grimaced with a needle,
autochthonic, in his hand
the donkey’s hair he plucked out,
strand by coarse strand,
and threaded out a blanket
warm as any cape devised
by tailors and magicians
in times of trading winds
loyalty and betrayal
were the padding and the down
and where the ruins clasp the earth
like a head’s cramped by a crown
a shivering donkey and a sleeping god
are waiting for a child’s smile
the brave, the best, the bright, the odd
to bring false hope and thereupon
rebuild the land of Prester John.


Robert de Born is a poet and musician. His work can be found online, in print, and scrunched up and thrown in the bin. He lives in Sheffield with his wife.

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