Saturday, March 30, 2013

Nicola Shulman / Graven with Diamonds

Graven with Diamonds
by Nicola Shulman

In the Prologue of Graven With Diamonds, Nicola Shulman writes,“... the present book is not intended as a life of Thomas Wyatt but as a life of his lyric poetry... This is a book about the uses of Wyatt’s love poetry: why he wrote.” It’s a fascinating journey & I learnt a lot about the way poetry was written & read at the Court of Henry VIII.

Wyatt is best known for a handful of lyrics said to be about Anne Boleyn. Wyatt’s relationship with Anne has overshadowed the rest of his life & his reputation as a poet. There’s no clear indication of whether they had an affair or not but there were stories that Wyatt tried to warn Henry that Anne wasn’t as chaste as he may have thought she was. Shulman explains that poetry was used as a kind of initiation rite at Court. If you were one of the inner circle, you could understand the allusions to people & current events or scandals. Wyatt’s poetry is obscure partly because he had to be careful how he wrote, especially in later years as Henry grew more paranoid & suspicious of treason. The allusions are now lost in the mists of time & we can’t know if the interpretations scholars have come up with are anywhere near the truth. 

... a verse on a folded sheet could be shared, copied, borrowed, circulated, passed from pocket to pocket for a day or two, declaimed with meaningful looks, or quietly muttered into someone’s ear with a knowing pull at their sleeve. Stanzas might be excised, lines taken alone, or pronouns adapted to fit to make a point – but ultimately, meaning derived from inside knowledge.

Several poems, however, do seem to relate to the period of Anne Boleyn’s ascendency & her fall. The famous sonnet, Whoso list to hunt, is based on a sonnet by Petrarch, but Wyatt’s “translation” has changed the meaning of the original poem. Plutarch’s poem is about a poet following a deer (representing Christ) in a forest until the poet falls into the river & the deer vanishes. In Wyatt’s version, the deer (Anne Boleyn) is the property of Caesar, the King, who has staked his claim with a jewelled necklace,

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere for Caesar’s I am
And wild for to hold though I seem tame.

Shulman places this poem in the late 1520s when Henry’s courtship of Anne was at its height. By 1536, Henry & Anne had been married three years. She had failed to give Henry a son. Her only living child was a daughter, Elizabeth. Henry was restless, wondering just how legal his marriage was & looking towards Jane Seymour as his next potential wife & mother of his heir. The plot that brought Anne down is well-known. Wyatt was imprisoned in the Tower along with Anne & the other men accused of being her lovers. Wyatt, who many have since thought had really been Anne’s lover, was not tried &, through the influence of his father & Thomas Cromwell, he was released. Another famous poem is thought to recall the sights he witnessed while he was imprisoned in the Tower.It's thought that he saw the convicted men & maybe Anne herself, as they were led to their executions.

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did then depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert
Of truth, circa Regna tonat (it thunders around thrones)

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory or might,
That yet, circa Regna tonat.

After Wyatt’s release from the Tower, he became a diplomat in Cromwell’s service. This could also mean being a spy & a possible assassin. His private life had not been happy. His marriage to Elizabeth Cobham had ended in separation. His relationship with Anne Boleyn, whatever it may have been, ended when the King became involved. His later relationship with Elizabeth Darrell seems to have been happier although his diplomatic travels meant they spent little time together. Wyatt’s facility with languages & his courtly manners made him a good candidate for a diplomatic career.

In the late 1530s, Henry was trying to prevent an alliance between the Emperor Charles whose empire spread from Spain to the Netherlands & Francis I of France, fearing that they would invade England if they could put aside their misgivings about each other long enough to decide to make war on him. Wyatt was sent to Charles’s court to try to dissuade the Emperor from an alliance with Francis. One of Henry’s subjects, Cardinal Reginald Pole, was an energetic promoter of a Franco-Spanish alliance. Pole was a member of the White Rose families, Yorkists who had a claim to the English throne (I read about the Pole family last year in Desmond Seward's book, The Last White Rose). They had stayed true to Catholicism & the Pope after Henry’s schism with the Pope & Cardinal Pole was a great promoter of anything that could lead to Henry’s downfall & bring England back to Rome.

It soon became obvious that one of Wyatt’s tasks as a diplomat was to arrange Pole’s assassination. He was unsuccessful & it eventually became necessary for him to leave Spain when Charles grew tired of his plotting & threatened him with the Inquisition. Diplomatic immunity wouldn’t be enough to save a Protestant Englishman if he lost Charles’s protection & favour. On his return to England, Wyatt became caught up in the factional fighting between Cromwell & his enemies. Shulman also thinks that Wyatt’s arrest was one of a series of arrests of diplomats who had failed to carry out Henry’s designs – in Wyatt’s case, Pole’s assassination.

He was again imprisoned in the Tower but again he was released, this time on the intervention of Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Although Wyatt had never been a part of the Howard faction at Court (he was a Protestant & allied to Cromwell) Shulman believes that the Duke of Norfolk’s poet son, the Earl of Surrey, who admired & looked up to Wyatt as the greatest poet of the age, may have petitioned the new Queen to ask for his release. Wyatt was pardoned & returned to his estate at Allington. The conditions of his pardon were quite extraordinary. The King made him take back his wife, Elizabeth, who he had left because of her adultery, years before. He was forced to repudiate his mistress, Elizabeth Darrell, & their baby son - yet another misery to plague his unhappy life. He was back in favour at Court but his health had begun to fail &, on a journey to Falmouth to entertain some Spanish dignitaries, he fell ill & died of complications from a fever. He was only 39.

Nicola Shulman has done a wonderful job in this book of explaining Wyatt’s poetry & the way it was written. The obscurity of the references & allusions was necessary at the time but they led to critics disparaging his work as conventional & bland. His relationship with Anne Boleyn has obsessed historians & romancers to the exclusion of everything else & only in recent years has his work been reassessed. Graven With Diamonds is an absorbing account of Wyatt’s life & the dangerous times he lived in.


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I'm an avid reader who loves middlebrow fiction, 19th century novels, WWI & WWII literature, Golden Age mysteries & history. Other interests include listening to classical music, drinking tea, baking cakes, planning my rose garden & enjoying the antics of my cats, Lucky & Phoebe. Contact me at lynabby16AThotmailDOTcom

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The secret life of Emily Dickinson / Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor / Review

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor review – the secret life of Emily Dickinson

A fictional account of the lives of the poet Emily Dickinson and a family maid explores friendship and freedom

Jane Housham
Friday 9 October 2015 17.00 BST

he ‘“Miss Emily” of the title is the 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson. Into a meticulous re-creation of the Dickinson family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, Irish novelist Nuala O’Connor introduces a fictional maid-of-all-work, Ada Concannon, fresh off the boat from Dublin. In alternating first-person accounts by her two protagonists, O’Connor explores Dickinson’s strong capacity for friendship in spite of her impulse to withdraw from the company of others. Her defining openness to the world allows her (compels her, even) to ignore the conventions of class and to see in lowly Ada someone worth knowing. Living under the same roof, the two women find common ground in a love of baking – and Ada’s use of language, untutored but rich in Irish idiom, is a pleasure and stimulus to the poet’s ear. Lyndall Gordon’s 2010 book on Dickinson suggested that her reclusive lifestyle and even her insistence on wearing white dresses might be explained by a medical diagnosis, but here they are interpreted as an effort to free her imagination within self-imposed restrictions. Both women suffer a loss of freedom (Ada’s particularly harrowing) and, through their friendship, find a kind of escape as well.


Jennifer Egan / Black Box

Illustration by Brendan Monroe.

Black Box
by Jennifer Egan

People rarely look the way you expect them
to, even when you’ve seen pictures.
The first thirty seconds in a person’s
presence are the most important.
If you’re having trouble perceiving and
projecting, focus on projecting.
Necessary ingredients for a successful
projection: giggles; bare legs; shyness.
The goal is to be both irresistible and
When you succeed, a certain sharpness
will go out of his eyes.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Martin Espada / How to Read Ezra Pound


Martin Espada, “How to Read Ezra Pound”

At the poets’ panel,
after an hour of poets
debating Ezra Pound,
Abe the Lincoln veteran,
the Spanish Civil War,
raised his hand and said:
If I knew
that a fascist
was a great poet,
I’d shoot him
The Trouble Ball is the new collection from Martín Espada. The Academy of American Poets has published an excerpt of the title poem, and W.W. Norton has put “Blasphemy” online. Blog This Rock posted “Isabel’s Corrido,” and I’ve also found video taken last year of Espada’s first public reading of that poem.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Jericho Brown / Hustle



by Jericho Brown
They lie like stones and dare not shift. Even asleep, everyone hears in prison.
Dwayne Betts deserves more than this dry ink for his teenage years in prison.

In the film we keep watching, Nina takes Darius to a steppers ball.
Lovers hustle, slide, dip as if one of them has no brother in prison.

I dine with humans who think any book full of black characters is about race.
A book full of white characters examines insanity near—but never in—prison.

His whole family made a barricade of their bodies at the door to room 403.
He died without the man he wanted. What use is love at home or in prison?

We saw police pull sharks out of the water just to watch them not breathe.
A brother meets members of his family as he passes the mirrors in prison.

Sundays, I washed and dried her clothes after he threw them into the yard.
In the novel I love, Brownfield kills his wife, only gets seven years in prison.

I don’t want to point my own sinful finger, so let’s use your clean one instead.
Some bright citizen reading this never considered a son’s short hair in prison.

In our house lived three men with one name, and all three fought or ran.
I left Nelson Demery III for Jericho Brown, a name I earned in prison.
Jericho Brown won the American Book Award for his first book, Please.
He also received the Whiting Writers’ Award and a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard University. His poems have appeared in the American Poetry Reviewjubilat, and A Public Space.
Believer, June 2012

Monday, March 18, 2013

Christina Rossetti / Commonplace

by Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti is one of my favourite poets. She was a member of a talented family. Her brother, Dante Gabriel, was a founding member of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young Victorian artists who wanted to revolutionise the staid world of the Royal Academy. Christina was a model for Gabriel in several paintings but I prefer the beautiful chalk drawings he did of her like the one above.

Her most famous poem, Goblin Market, is an extraordinary poem about sisterhood, love & temptation. She also wrote very movingly of love & loss, especially in the Monna Innominata sonnets. Christina also wrote children’s stories & fables with a religious theme as well as a few other pieces of short fiction.Commonplace is one of these, & Hesperus Press has reprinted it in a beautiful edition with yet another of their stunning cover designs. Commonplace is the story of the three Charlmont sisters, Catherine, Lucy & Jane. They’ve lived in Brompton-on-Sea all their lives. Their father went missing in a boating accident when Catherine was 12 & Jane not yet born. Their mother died in childbirth after making Catherine promise that one of the girls would always be at home to welcome back their father when he returns. Of course, he never does return & by the time Jane is 18, the three sisters are entrenched in their comfortable, middle-class existence in Brompton-on-Sea.

Catherine, in her early 30s, has been a mother to Jane & Lucy & feels the responsibility of her position. Lucy is a gentle soul who has loved & lost & is almost resigned to spinsterhood. Jane is dependant financially on her sisters (her father made no provision for her in his will because he didn’t know his wife was pregnant when he died), spoilt, wilful & determined to marry comfortably to escape her dependency. She hasn’t a romantic or sensitive bone in her body. In these three women, Christina Rossetti explores the options for middle-class women in Victorian England. There are some very funny scenes, especially when Jane decides to marry a pompous name-dropper, much older than herself. This man, Mr Durham, has a daughter, Stella, who has married Alan Hartley, the object of Lucy’s unrequited love. Lucy surprises herself by becoming very fond of Stella & finally seeing through Alan’s shallow charms. All is not lost for her though as an old suitor reappears on the scene.

Rossetti packs a lot into just 60pp. Many other Victorian writers would have found enough plot here for a three volume novel.Commonplace is a slight story, a bit of a curiosity from an author better known for her poetry, but I found it an interesting exploration of the constraints on middle-class women of the time.


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I'm an avid reader who loves middlebrow fiction, 19th century novels, WWI & WWII literature, Golden Age mysteries & history. Other interests include listening to classical music, drinking tea, baking cakes, planning my rose garden & enjoying the antics of my cats, Lucky & Phoebe. Contact me at lynabby16AThotmailDOTcom

Friday, March 15, 2013

Daniel Coudriet / Three Poems

Three Poems
by Daniel Coudriet


All of the children held in a blue sweater,
who is it knitting them together with tiny thumbs.

The tiny hoods they must wear as they blanket
the corn exploding in its refusal to warm,
the tiles of the sidewalk as uncorrected teeth
in a kettle.
                   The light switches painted
red with fingernail polish. The slats of wood
they've used to cover the windows.

Somewhere in a room, the well-dressed
are talking & naming a country after a girl.

Somewhere without a name the ice is falling
as it melts & all of the people in the streets
have never seen snow—its exhalation—


Garment bag that I am being stuffed with fur.
Trash bag that I cover myself with against rain.
Air that cannot get inside me, fur already inside me.

The lungs make sedated pets. See them resting,
the girls' laps like tired kittens
or like scalps. See them hugging the fur
to their faces. The kitten I named

the sound of sausages sizzling in a pan.
How it streaks the house, the walls, the furniture
as it greases by. How it scalds my hands
even as I reach for it. It cannot hurt the girls,

faces blank and pale and night. Their breathing
is what makes the fur breathe. Their scent
is what wanders us into the yard next door,

the garage with no door and its barking dogs.
The location of night and the rattling of sticks
against the walls, scratching of paws
and the sizes we imagine for those dogs
behind stone walls. Girl fingers rubbing stone.

In another life the stones left by ploughs.
These stones that are bruises.
These stones are heads for dolls.


      The roof off, letting its bright red hair down as if a sudden fire, as if a nightgown erupting into flames. Nightgowns discarded all over town, noisily leaving puddles of bricks from the foundation. The young boys being seen in their pajamas. The tree until, in a shudder, a legion of green moths. And many tried to help the boy. There was the stout man who was convinced he'd spend all day out there with trashbags to keep things flowing. The tree was really part of his capillary system, full of blood and a bicycle pump, trying. There was the plain little girl whose family donut shop satisfied its sales at the base of the tree to keep him company. She'd bring her dolls and set up a tea party. She imagined that they'd get married. The apartment of the local beauty and her collection of exotic nightgowns grew long and tangled. The firemen didn't have ladders long enough and they used the longer ladders to climb the one renowned for her kindness to firemen. And the boy ate his clothes, his hair, cutting it, then braiding it into various hats hideously long, and he'd break them off, his fingernails grew into utensils, eventually, and broken fingernails. 

Conjunctions:45, Secret Lives of Children

Quick Question by John Ashbery / Review

The New York Public Library, NY, 2012 

Photo by Triunfo Arciniegas

Quick Question by John Ashbery – review

An entertaining and supple collection of comic poems about urban New York scenes
Charles Bainbridge
Friday 15 March 2013 17.30 GMT

ith its exhilarating changes in register, its elusive journeys, ambitious vocabulary and, more than anything else, its intoxicating sense of fun, there's a renewed vigour to this latest offering from one of America's most accomplished poets. Here we have 63 entertaining, often comic, poems that relish the open play of language, the bravado of a tongue-in-cheek dancing on the edge ("we wove closer to the abyss, a maze of sunflowers. The dauphin said to take our time").

Quick Question is dedicated to the painter Jane Freilicher, a testament to Ashbery's long-standing friendship with her stretching back to a close-knit group of artists and poets in early 50s New York. It was out of this coterie that a new sensibility arrived in American poetry, an enticing mixture of the comic and flamboyant. Ashbery has said that at Harvard in the late 40s he first realised that "nothing was too silly to bother with", that fun and high camp were worthy poetic goals. Sixty four years later, he's delivering perfectly pitched spins on this heady combination – "She was startling in her new headdress./ Oodles of trolls performed the funeral litany."
The new book, at times, offers glimpses into his early enthusiasm for the ornate, rarefied worlds of the English novelist Ronald Firbank – "The caveats, God help 'em, were by this time so deep/ in denial the servants never saw them again,/ or realised they were missing." And the outrageous is never far away – "He came like the Johnstown flood./ It was worth waiting for."
But Ashbery's poems are remarkably flexible and supple, evoking a much wider range of tones and possibilities. "Silent Auction" moves from camp to something more ominous, especially through its reworking of "Twas the night before Christmas" – "Wow, kitty, that sure/ looked real, you've got to admit, and I in my wrapper// and Mama in her cap put out stories about the new/ mood that slurped above the horizon." Playing with quotations, stock phrases and nursery rhymes is a device he employs throughout – "Everywhere that Mary went/ dynasties collapsed amid gnashing of teeth."

Pieces such as "Card of Thanks" display Ashbery's very different penchant for mystery and melodrama, a nod towards his recent translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations with its venomous declarative sweep – "O it seemed subtle, whatever was hissing/ like a vulture over the town. You're going to feel well,/ giants of rhetoric, devastating in the now."
But there are also more direct and moving poems here. "This Economy" is an outstanding piece of writing. It begins with a playful moment of empathy – "In all my years as a pedestrian/ serving juice to guests, it never occurred to me/ thoughtfully to imagine how a radish feels." Yet this quickly transforms into a lyric quietly addressing the problem of seeing into others' lives. New figures hover on the periphery as the poem portrays a miniature history of the US – "how we elaborated/ ourselves staggering across tracts". It then takes up a repeated phrase, echoing the technique of listing people and situations that Whitman employed to suggest the vastness and epic sense of the States: "Somewhere in America there is a naked person.// Somewhere in America adoring legions blush/ in the sunset …"
The language here moves from the intimate to the cinematic, before Ashbery delivers an image in which the poem itself becomes a commodity and steps into the landscape – "Somewhere in America someone is trying to figure out/ how to pay for this." It's very much a lyric of the moment, tentatively exploring how nations perceive themselves and each other as financial structures, and the countless small-scale decisions that make up such systems. The poem continues, carried forward by the impulse to open further doors, to let in more light – "Somewhere/ in America the lonely enchanted eye each other/ on a bus."
This gift for constantly shifting register and scale sustains the collection as a whole. Everything remains invigoratingly at sea – "whatever stops playing is the enemy of the incomplete". The final poems of Quick Question play games, however, not only with the inevitable completion of the book, but also raise the issue of Ashbery's entire career. He is now 85 and has been steadily publishing since Turandot and Other Poems in 1953. The penultimate lyric "Postlude and Prequel" (the title perfectly embodies Ashbery's desire to keep things open, to have his cake and eat it) is about a long-standing friendship, like Ashbery's with Freilicher – "with long awaited words from back when we were/ friends and still are, of course".
It is a poem brimming with everyday life, the ordinary details of urban New York – the availability of tickets for an event, heavy traffic, the benches of Central Park. But it is also a work about fragility, about being under threat, surrounded by hints of finality and loss – "Perturbing elements/ listen in the wings, which are coming apart at the seams."
Yet, in the end, the collection is dominated by surprise and energy; the wonderful opening of "A Voice from the Fireplace" ("Like a windup denture in a joke store/ fate approaches"); the delighted onrush of "Bacon Grabbers" and "Saps at Sea"; the rich textures of "Suburban Burma" that deliver a typically wayward invitation difficult to resist – "Don't try this at home. On second thought, come in,/ your tumbling face ungladden. And see what happens."





Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Beth Boland / Priest


by Beth Boland
The priest is here to exorcise
The devil from my sordid soul
Whom I must have ingested whole
So ardent is his enterprise.
I kneel, beset by phantom fears
And try too hard to be contrite,
Confession is the holy rite,
Seven the number of my years.
I mouth the litany of sin
I have corralled for the event
And swear that of it I repent
To the partitioned mannequin.
And while, as always at this time,
He stages an important pause
I study the dividing gauze
(Which in itself must be a crime)
And see the man who puts the host
Upon my salivating tongue
Move beads of Rosary along
Like a beheaded monarch’s ghost.
Speech is resumed and like a bell
My penance he intones for me;
This week it would appear to be
Hail Marys which can stave off Hell.
The altar rail supports my chin
As I incant the sombre prayer
And feel myself too small to bear
The burden of supposèd sin.
For in the box I must aspire
To sins that I can hardly say
Believing this the only way
To fend off the infernal fire.
And so I speak of lies unlied
Of damage I have never dealt
Of envy I have never felt
And precepts I have not defied,
Of thefts I have as yet to make
Of slander I have never sown
Of insults I have never thrown
Of vows I have as yet to break.
As spotless as an angel’s wing
My soul sleeps softly in my breast
While its transgressions are confessed
To one intently listening.
And yet, for one devoid of stain
Gigantic is my cross of guilt
And though beneath its weight I wilt
Its presence I cannot explain.
And then I summon to my mind
The universal sin of Eve
Whose imprimatur she did leave
Upon the soul of humankind.
And though my christening was meant
To clean the woman’s crime away
I postulate that to this day
Its potency is not yet spent.
For is not woman held to blame
For evils only men invent?
And for them, must she not repent
And bear the corresponding shame?
A week ago I was confirmed
And though it was my special day
I do not hesitate to say
That something deep inside me squirmed
Because I do not wish to wed
A man who has been crucified
Nor do I want to be the bride
Of someone risen from the dead.
But they have stratagems and plans
To model me into a nun
My womanhood has not begun
And they are publishing the banns!
That man inside the box, that priest,
A eunuch of himself has made
And I can’t help but be afraid
Of one who lives yet is deceased.
No light reposes in his eyes
No spark that he might call upon
His love for living is long-gone
His smile his tragedy belies.
Sequestered man, bedecked in black
Who has beheld the afterlife
And taken it to be his wife
Aware there is no going back.
He has no here, he has no now
But only long-lost yesterdays,
How barbarously God repays
His votary’s unbroken vow!
Poor man, whose years are almost spent
Well may you sermonize and preach
And your parishioners beseech
Their profligacy to repent.
If ever life was thrown away
Then yours must be the paradigm
Who’s squandered his apportioned time
Anticipating Judgement Day.
I cross myself with chubby hand
And now the puzzlement begins
For I have been absolved of sins
Which I don’t even understand.
But genuflecting at the rail
I feel myself so very clean
So imperturbably serene
A feeling which does not prevail,
For I recall my mother, Eve
And feel iniquity suffuse
My body like a bleeding bruise
And dirty as I came, I leave.
Oh priest!  A curse upon your head!
And for yourself I bid you pray
For he is in the Devil’s pay
Who nurtures little girls with dread.
December 2003

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Paul Auster / Provence: Equinox

by Paul Auster

Night-light: the bone and the breath
transparent. This journey
of proffered sky
we inhabit–a mountain
in the air that crumbles.
You alone
sleep down to the bottom
of this place,
stillborn earth, as though you could dream
far enough
to tell me of the dense, mud-reckoned seed
that burns in us,
and calm the slow, vernal agony
that labors
through the long uprooting
of stars.