P O E M S   by   Binu Karunakaran


Piper nigrum


It has nothing

in it

black and crinkled

neither fruit or berry

grown on weak vines

that twine lofty

trees, bear grape-like

bunches emerald

when raw rubies

when ripe

dried in the sun

we buy them by weight

as if they were gold

or silver

what does it have

apart from a certain

pungency like

the roots

of zingiberi?

Why send ships

across the murderous

seas? A sestertius

is one by hundredth

of gold aureus




to Barbarica & Barygaza,

Nelcynda & Muziris

tell your men to be

wary of merchants

who sprinkle lead

add weight to old moist

ware. In Rome

a pound of long

pepper sells

at fifteen denarii,


at seven,

black four.


its good

for your


and my





White Pepyr


White men came

for the fruyte of a tree

with leuys lyke leuys of Juniperus

that growyth on the south side

of hyll mounts of Caucasus in the

stronge hete of the sun


the wodes

they thought were guarded

by many serpentes, chased

away by vyolence of fyre,

once the fruyte turn rype,

by men of that countree


for them the greyne

of pepyr was white by kynde

made blacke by men

of colour who

grew them










The white square sails

of black yavana ships

have vanished beyond

the rim with the tide

but the girl with anklets

of foam is pacing the

shore her eyes scurrying

after the burrowing sand

crabs, locks of pale orange

hair blown by the wind.




The vine that ringed the wild jack tree

has wilted. The spotted koel with red

eyes has lost her song waiting for

tender drupes to spot. It's another

rainless year in the hills and his mother

out foraging lesser yam has come back

with empty hands blaming smoke from

a forest fire for the redness in her eyes.


tonight, she'll sing

If someone asks her.



(From Muchiri, a sequence that explores the lost city of Muziris, ancient port in Kerala which had spice trade relations with the rest of the world for several centuries)

*Piper Nigrum is a fictionalized monologue/missive to Emperor Vespasian by Pliny The Elder, which draws material from Natural History that relates to the huge trade imbalance between Rome and India.

“And by the lowest reckoning India, China and that peninsula (Arabia) take from our empire 100 million sestertii each year. That is the sum which our luxuries and our own women cost us. For what fraction of these imports, I ask, gets to the gods or to the lower world?”


Natural History, Gaius Plinius Secundus

*Pepyr is a found poem from early European accounts of pepper gathering from the translation of Bartholomeus Anglicus, a 13th century scholar and Franciscan friar, by John Trevisa, a 14th century writer and translator. Early botanical descriptions of pepper were based on writings of Dioscorides, author of Materia Medica.


*Neythal and Kurinji mimic Sangam era poems to recall the specific geographies and the pepper trade.



Copyright © 2018       Binu Karunakaran       Published 31st Dec, 2018.







Binu Karunakaran is a poet and translator based in Kochi where he works as a journalist. He is a recipient of the 2012 Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship for writing.