His Majesty’s Variable Portrait, part 2



TW: this blog-entry discusses fictional representations of murder, sexual abuse, and pedophilia.

All right.  Buckle your seatbelts.  A little background on Greer Gilman’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear (Small Beer Press, 2014).   It’s her second Ben Jonson novella, the first being Cry Murder! in a Small Voice, which won a Shirley Jackson Award for dark fantasy in 2013.  And these novellas are dark, no question.  They are also rich, and strange.  In the first, which spans the years 1603 to 1606, boy-players from the London theater-companies are being stalked by a mysterious evil ‘patron’ who commissions sadistic private performances that culminate in rape and murder.  But they have an unlikely champion: the playwright Ben Jonson takes a protective interest in the vulnerable youths he sometimes instructs in Latin.  For him the boy-players are pupils, collaborators, fellow theater-gossips, and surrogate sons.  When he learns they are being preyed on, he sets out to learn the killer’s identity and end his brutal games.  Exit, Pursued by a Bear picks up after a lapse of five years, in 1611.  It begins as Jonson, now a fairly well-established poet within the Jacobean regime, is attempting to endure a winter collaboration with the King’s Surveyor, Inigo Jones.

Ben has written a masque, Oberon, The Fairy Prince, for performance at court during the Twelfth Night theater-season.  It will be presented to King James, but it has been developed and conceptually managed by the King’s heir, Prince Henry, who stars as Oberon.  In a way the masque is Henry’s “graduation” piece, though what he is graduating to will be…unexpected.   He is seventeen, on the brink of his majority, and uniquely ambitious: so Oberon must prove the perfect vehicle for a demonstration of his personal capacities.  If it succeeds, and the Prince is pleased, favor will follow; if the masque fails, lucrative future commissions will be lost by those responsible.   Both Jonson and Inigo Jones are highly conscious of these facts.   While Jonson has provided the theatrical text, Jones is the designer and producer of the masque’s special effects.  This might seem the lesser of the two artistic roles, but these are extremely special effects — Italianate, new, show-stealing.  Henry has, figuratively, asked for the moon in asking for this masque; Jones aims to literally provide it, and thereby achieve precedence over Jonson.  The power-play seems likely to work, judging from the way rehearsals are going.

     One and two.  And with a sweep of arms, a solemn music.  Now: ascent.  The Moon herself, as Peter Quince had dreamed, upsailing through the hall turned heavens, high and disposedly.  Her light indwelt in her, cast living shadows on the wall: a greater faerie than was painted, sawn, or stitched.
     O marvellous.
     Mere awe.  And then as if the wonder were a white stone cast into a pool, [the viewers’] stillness broke into a thousand waverings and ripples of delight.
     [Inigo Jones] in his cockscomb of a velvet cap upswept a pointing finger — marginalia to the revelation.  “And look you, there is art.”
     Eclipsed, thought Ben.  The spirits come when he does call for them.  (Exit, 2)

But Jones and Jonson, preoccupied by professional rivalry and personal dislike, have little idea that the vainglorious conceit of The Masque of Oberon  — as dictated by Prince Henry — is about to get everyone into a deal of trouble with Faerie.  There’s a real Oberon you see.  And a real Titania.  And they are faerily, royally, good and pissed off by this impending mortal mock of their immortal monarchy.  At least (we can infer) they think Henry is pretty.  Nevertheless, the insult must be repaid.

In fierce anger, and opportunistic lust, Titania resolves to steal King James’s heir for her own purposes.  Her agent will be the undead poet Kit Marlowe, who is in any case restless in the fake shepherds’ paradise Oberon and Titania stuck him in after his body’s death.  In the following exchange, Titania rehearses her grievances to him, and extends the chance of a conditional, bodiless return to the mortal world:

      “…I would have that princeling in my train.”
     And in your bed as toy.  So then will Oberon, thought Kit.  There’s play in that.  And said:  “Will I fetch you this paragon?  This pearl of chastity?  And how?”
     “There is presented at this court a masque of Oberon: whom [Henry] enacts.”
     “O perilous!”
     “Absurd.”  Titania laughed, in a great froth of white blossom.  “The part is written chastely — for Diana in Apollo’s cloak.  [Oberon] as Ganymede, a beardless boy — O, ’tis the rarest mockery of him!”  Maliciously:  “He will be vexed.”  (10)

Dead Kit understands, much better than the living Jonson or Jones, the danger the English Court has invited by attempting to mimic the Faerie Court.  Unwitting, King James and Henry have made an enemy, and wheeled that enemy’s troops directly up to an unattended gate.  The play is, indeed, the thing; what’s caught will not be limited to the king’s conscience.  “I will make of [Jonson’s] Troy wall a downfall for the English realm,” says Marlowe, and sets off to abduct the Prince of Wales via the Prince’s own debut theater-production.

But how exactly to do it.  Which tools to use.  And this is where Charles, eventually-to-be Charles I, comes in.  Charles has watched, raptly, the preparations for his brother’s masque.  A younger, more awkward child, the obvious “spare” to Henry’s “heir,” he is torn between desire to please Henry — and win his love — and the desire to have beautiful things of his own.   Gilman shows us this dynamic when Charles comes to visit the set of Oberon at the end of the opening rehearsal:

     A pale and pointed boy; a puny, hirpling boy in grey-blue and vermilion silk…Charles, the younger prince, the Duke of York… [He] had caught sight of the fairy palace, and was gazing up in admiration.  He walked toward it.  He wielded his body with great care, Ben saw, as a child might a pen: a thing to be practiced. His great rosettes hid shoes of brass and leather.  Brazen-shod: like a puny Achaean. [1]
     All butter now, the Surveyor stood before his market-stall of wonders.  “A triumph, your Grace.  For a prince.”
     “I am not he.”  A silence.  “My brother Wales will ride as Oberon.”  (7)

This is a lonely child with a strong aesthetic sense, and longings toward his own designs.  A child ripe for cultivation by someone who can convince him of their special interest in him.  And here, precisely in the nick, is that someone: a someone, we should remember, who made his career in theater by writing extravagantly of the fall of kings.

Far in the night when the boy waked, Kit was standing next his bed: a stranger reading, a flicker of the dying fire in his hair.  Amber in shadow….[he] held a finger to his lips.  “They sleep.”  As he had cast them, groom and guardians.  “As you do.”
     Very still.  “What art thou?”
     “A candle at your bedside.”  Kit closed the book, his finger in his place.
     “God keep your Grace” — but he did not say which god — “I am sent to watch you, lest you wake and see bugbears.”  (17)

So — a quick note here about Gilman’s humor.  It’s NOIR.  It’s hard to imagine a worse bugbear for an eleven-year-old child than the ghost of an anarchic, amoral pedophile poet who’s been sent to kidnap that child’s older brother, and of course “bugbear” is phonetically just a step down the hall from “bugger.”  Grownup readers of Exit will be alert to the many layers of danger, and threatening verbal play, in the extended encounter between Charles and Marlowe that makes up the rest of this scene.  Charles, however, is quickly charmed.  He falls into the Scots dialect of his early childhood (“Nay, bide.  I wad talk with thee.”) and begins to discuss his hopes and thoughts with the friendly, quick-smiling stranger at his bedside.  They speak particularly of the coming masque, in which Charles will play a minor supporting role.  As Marlowe comes to understand more about Prince Charles’s complicated feelings toward Prince Henry — which veer between jealousy, anger, love, and self-lacerating admiration — he starts to see how he can use the Duke of York to knock the Prince of Wales out of Whitehall and into Titania’s lap.  And the moment he understands how to do that, the poet is surprised by a vision of the future:

     Now, even now, between his thought and speaking, Kit was thunder-cleft, possessed with prophecy: the lighting of his vision ecstasy.  A dagger to the eye.
     He saw a scaffold, high above a crowd.  Saw the axe fall, saw the blood leap from the neck. — O gods.  The downfall of a king. And then the afterstroke.  This–child?  The tyrant?…Aye, he will be, if his brother — vanishes.  Stopped.  Might be...Visions lie.  And yet he saw this still: the distant figure, kneeling in his shirt.  As in a glass, he thought.  As on a stage — and laughed.  The boy looked quickly up.  O brave!  A tragedy.  If I cannot write a play in ink, I will in blood.  (21)

DID YOU SEE WHAT GILMAN DID THERE?  The point at which the Faerie plot is set in motion, and both princes’ fate is sealed (despite all Ben Jonson can do…he tries!) is the moment the restless, underemployed Kit Marlowe realizes he can compose this particular timeline as a play of murdered kings.  And you’ll note how brilliantly, how remorselessly, Gilman reveals the utter pitilessness of her Marlowe.  She’s invested time, and drawn on deep reserves of craft, to create this vulnerable, manipulable Charles: a child exposed to the undead poet’s analytical glance in every way.  At one point during their midnight conversation Marlowe even eyes Charles speculatively, imagining — and then dismissing — the idea of bedding him:

     The boy was kneeling up now, in his plaited nightgown, and his cap.  Kit looked him up and down, but swiftly, sidelong…  A curdle of cream.  Would do for some lickspoon paiderastos, but Kit’s tooth was for more poignant meats. (19)

The boy is young, troubled, hungry for kindness.  In establishing that for himself, Marlowe has also shown it to the reader.  But he cares far, far less about it than we do.  Once Kit realizes Charles can provide matter for a Marlovian plot, the present-day prince is fodder for the future’s headsman.  As quick as that.  As quick as an axe.

So.  Just to sum up some differences between Gilman’s Exit, and Anderson’s Midsummer Tempest.  Gilman’s dark-fantasy version of the Royal Martyr excludes the post-mortem, near-contemporary propaganda of the Interregnum: the fable of Charles as a perfect knight and ruler wronged by an ungrateful populace.  Instead, with way less regard for our comfort and way more regard for our ability to navigate complex viewpoints and emotions, Gilman shows us the passionate, awkward, unmercifully-educated child who becomes the monarch his first executioner — Marlowe — first sees:  “a distant figure, kneeling in his shirt.”  If you find any of what I’ve described here impressive — and I haven’t even gotten into the highly inter-texual practice Gilman uses, or the way that Shakespeare breathes all through both the language and plot of both novellas (rather to Jonson’s irritation) — I do ! very much! recommend investing the time to read Cry, Murder! and Exit, Pursued.


[1] Charles is known to have worn corrective footgear when he first came to London, c. 1605-6.  He probably would have outgrown the need by 1611, but probably also would not have forgotten about the shoes by then: perhaps not ever.

His Majesty’s Variable Portrait: King Charles I and speculative fiction, part 1.

The titles I’m planning to discuss are:  Poul Anderson, A Midsummer Tempest (1984), Greer Gilman, Exit, Pursued by a Bear (novella, 2014), Frances Hardinge, A Skinful of Shadows (2017), Damian Dibben, Tomorrow (2018).  If this were a Proper Scholarly Article I’d dig in deeper and close the gap between the Anderson book — which I read as a teenager — and the more recent volumes of speculative fiction.  All of the books include glimpses, and divergent readings, of the Royal Martyr at different stages in his career.
     Anderson’s novel, which begins with the 1644 Battle of Marston Moor, styles itself “romantic[ally] reactionary,” (p. 317) and is sort of a het-up and accessible riff on Keith Roberts’s 1968 alt-hist PavaneMidsummer Tempest is very concerned to establish the gentleness and righteousness of the true monarch of England, who is furthermore associated with the virile gentleness and righteousness of Royalist men in general, and in particular the book’s main male character, Prince Rupert of the Rhine.  Relatedly: re-reading the book was a very weird experience.  When I originally encountered A Midsummer Tempest at c. 16 years old, I was susceptible to this sort of structuring, and I am SUPER NOT ANYMORE.  For instance, the novel’s denouement — which involves the militarily decisive return of Olde Magickal England, enabling a history-defying Royalist victory at (naturally) Mystickal Glastonbury Tor — now makes it SUPER EASY to peg the entire thing as a work of nationalistic essentialism.  Sigh.   In keeping with that essentialism:  traditionally-minded aristocratic men are extremely the way to go in this novel.  Like, they are sexy and correct, they have beautiful manners, they never fuck each other, and they win.  The way King Charles is depicted is part of this construction, but I’m gonna proceed to his ‘portrait’ via the first ‘portrait’ in the book, that of Prince Rupert, and I think you’ll see what I’m talking about:
Rupert stood six feet four in height, with breadth in an athlete’s proportion.  Bared, the prince’s black locks fell past a weather-beaten face to his shoulders.  He did not…follow the Cavalier fashion in beards but went clean-shaven.  That made him look older than he was, the sternness…clear to see. [note; I reflexively had to edit that sentence.]  Otherwise his countenance was brown eyes beneath level brows, straight high-bridged nose, full mouth, cleft chin.  A tinge of Dutch accent roughened his speech.  (10-11).

So dreamy, right?  As they say about cars:  check the details.  Full mouth!  “an athlete’s proportion.  Bared” ! Like, I have no idea if Poul Anderson ever made fun of romance novelists, but if he did, one of them should have taped this paragraph to his forehead.  Furthermore, observe what happens when the nubile 17-year-old niece of Rupert’s Parliamentarian captor arrives on the scene: not knowing of course that brooding full-mouthed Dutch-accent-man is waiting in wings.

[Mistress Jennifer]…ran across the gravel onto the lawn.  A lilac bush stood man-high, [Jesus, really?] still wet from the heavy dew which had followed the stormy weather of the past few days.  She seized its blossoms to her [HOLY CRAP WHAT EDITOR ALLOWS THIS?!   I SEE YOU, REGAN-ERA EDITOR], buried herself in purple and fragrance.
Her maidservant [OF COURSE], who had left the carriage more sedately, hurried after.  “Mistress Jennifer!” she called.  “Take care! You’ll drench your gown –” She stopped.  “Oh dear, the thing is done.”  (26-27.)

Okay, let’s jump in here.  There’s “the thing, done” that relates to fluid.  He’s definitely going to deflower her.  You heard it from the lilacs first.  Also, Rupert is so sexy and correct that women throw water over their torsos willy-nilly whenever he’s in the district, and assume their natural destiny as Wet-Bodice-Contest participants.  That’s what it’s like being an aristocratic man who knows the right way to do things.  Rupert can’t help it; he can only try to protect these poor women from themselves, up to a point.

     When Charles I arrives on the scene, he basically functions as a talisman; a magical object that reminds you (when you are the excellent Rupert) what you’re supposed to be about.  You can think of Charles, in Midsummer Tempest, as a cameo or a travel-size memory-stimulating image…in a way, Poul Anderson is very much in touch with the Royalist or opposition-culture of the Interregnum, which bolstered and meditated on its loyalties using heavily-glossed, portable and emblematic images of Charles I as a stimulus to thought.  (There’s an amazing book by Lois Potter called Secret Rites and Secret Writing: Royalist Literature 1641-1660 (Cambridge University Press, 1989) that will lay that all out for you if you’re interested.)  Anderson reproduces this strategy:
[Charles] stood like a miniature, or like a much larger man seen through the wrong end of a telescope, in front his captains and councilors.  They were grim and begrimed…Charles was no less gaunt and sunken-eyed.  But his little body kept erect; dust seemed almost an ornament upon combed hair, trim beard, lace and plum velvet of Cavalier garb; and the bandage across his brow might well have been a crown.  (292)

This “miniature…erect” (or correct, or straight) monarch is the household god of Rupert’s six-foot-four erect and virile correctness.  That’s Charles’s role in this book.  As I’ve said, this kind of imagery and characterization is very much in keeping with seventeenth-century pro-monarchical Interregnum propaganda: both the written material, and the iconography. In other words, Anderson’s take is not tremendously imaginative in fact, which is…surprising, in a book whose back-cover copy reads “this is not…any [world] that you know.” I guess one takeaway is that defeated seventeenth-century Royalists were bloody terrific at PR, and their product continues to sell to interested parties.  A less conservative author than Anderson would be interested in troubling everything about the circuit that runs between Rupert and his emblematic King, locking power and all acceptable moral influence into the patriarchy, and excluding useless people like women, who are probably too busy showering in their work-clothes to bother with governance anyway.  How could they refrain under the circumstances?

Next:  the 2014 Gilman novella Exit, Pursued by a Bear.  I sort of wanted to save it for last, because it is far and away the best speculative treatment of Charles I I’ve ever read.   But I suppose let’s be orderly and take things by publication-year.  I should state that Greer is a friend, and I was a late-stage ms. reader for Exit, which is set during the winter season at King James I’s court in 1611 and 1613 (and everywhere, and nowhere:  “Bohemia,” the stars.)  Heaven knows I’m not the only one to admire it.  You can read the scholar and publisher Kate MacDonald’s thoughts on this work, and Greer’s earlier Jonsonian magical murder-noir novella Cry Murder! in a Small Voice here.



Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account (2014)

Historical fiction that’s written in the first person has some framing-challenges.

“Because I have written this narrative long after the events I recount took place,” says Lalami’s narrator, Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, “I have had to rely entirely on my memory.”  (2)  Questions multiply immediately.   When and how was this account written?  What is the mechanism that has delivered it to us?  Chance survival and re-copying, perhaps, as al-Zamori hints in his prologue to the Account proper:

If, by a stroke of luck, this account should find its way to a suitable secretary…then perhaps, someday, if that is to be the will of God, my countrymen will hear about my wondrous adventures.  (5)

The premise that emerges from holding The Moor’s Account in your hands, then, is that you’re dealing with a modern printed edition of a scribally copied holograph manuscript. Because al-Zamori was Moroccan by birth, the original Account might have been written in Arabic: though, by the time he became an author, al-Zamori was also fluent in Spanish, and more than one indigenous language from southeast North America, and probably Portuguese too.  At any rate, there’s a zero percent chance the original manuscript was written in English!  So in point of fact The Moor’s Account is a printed translation of a scribally copied etc., which starts to get a bit dizzying when you pull back and look at it that way.  But…dizzying is okay.  I’m all for dizzying, done right, because colonial history is that confusing and multilayered and difficult: especially when you try to look at it in new ways, which Lalami is determined to get us to do.  The transmission-history and survival of The Moor’s Account have been carefully thought out by both its nominal and its actual author, and its existence as part of the material imaginary is 100% not impossible.  I mean, good grief, we’re currently using synchrotron x-rays to read erased texts of Galen.

In sum, we can think our way through the question “how did this book arrive in our hands?”  The next question is, why was it written?  Al-Zamori soon makes it clear that his narrative is intended to correct the official Spanish account of the disastrous 1527 Narváez expedition. Many things may be accomplished by such a correction; among them his own public re-instatement as a free man, after years spent as a slave.

Lalami has retro-engineered the known history of the Narváez expedition to show the world and the people left out of the Spanish imperial record.  She has done this subtly, totally, without fanfare, and also without remorse.  In her capable hands the received survivors’ story of three Spaniards and one black Muslim slave, tested by the wilderness and variably-minded indigenous tribes of south-western North America, becomes instead the tale of a once-free individual beginning to recognize himself as an autonomous actor again.  Indeed, over the course of the book al-Zamori accomplishes this to such a degree — eventually with the affectionate and impatient assistance of his Avavare wife Oyomasot — that when his resurgent sense of human dignity is threatened by the Narváez survivors’ re-entry to Spanish colonial society, he is able to imagine and act his way out of bondage for good.

The story of Mustafa al-Zamori’s fall into slavery, and the reconfiguration of his identity as “the Moor, Estebanico” — living property of Andres Dorantes, a would-be conquistador — is beautifully done.  Steering away from a sensationalized account, Lalami allows us instead slow entry to the waking horror of al-Zamori’s human predicament, and his realization of the larger evils enslavement has involved him in.  As a slave, he cannot protest Dorantes’ decision to join the Narváez endeavor; he must go, and stand witness to what follows.  More than that, he must support it and enable it, in all ways literally.  Here is the moment when Dorantes signs his name to the ship’s muster, bound for “La Florida”:

Everything is in order?  Señor Dorantes asked as he received an ink-dipped plume.  Without waiting for the notary’s answer, he turned toward me, his eyes not seeing me, his blond eyebrows knotted in concentration.  Wordlessly, I offered him my back and he, laying the page against it, signed his name.  There, he said.  This is signed.  Now we are ready.  Estebanico, ring the bell.  (149)

Al-Zamori has become an instrument, unseen.  The work of the book is to bring him back, alive, into his own view: and ours.

As the ill-starred expedition arrives on the Floridian coast and then heads for the interior, searching for gold, Lalami expertly depicts the damage of what is not said, the damage of what is not done, as part and parcel of the more visible harms committed by the colonizing force.  For example: lured on by the promise of riches in a city called “Apalache,” the Spanish arrive to find only a small native settlement.  Thwarted, furious, and starting to sense their own vulnerability, some of the soldiers decide to soothe their feelings by raping the Indian women they have taken prisoner at Apalache.  We never learn if the attack on the women is formally authorized, but Lalami shows us Andres Dorantes’s essential indifference to any such question: and, of course, to the fate of the women themselves.

They are not my men, Señor Dorantes said.

How can you tell?  Whose men are they?

The governor’s men.

Instinctively, we all looked toward the dwelling Señor Narváez had taken for himself.  The fire inside was lit, the smoke rising out of it in a straight line.  The page appeared in the doorway, and then disappeared back inside.  Nothing else moved.

But how can you tell they are the governor’s men and not yours?  Diego asked.

Estebanico, my master said.  Close the door.

I let go of the deerskin and returned to my seat.  I covered my ears with my hands, but it was useless — I could still hear the women’s screams.  (94)

Forced by his enslaved condition to “close the door” on the suffering Indian women, al-Zamori is not insulated from their pain as his master, Dorantes, is.  Again and again, over the course of the novel, Lalami shows us that the worst sins of colonizing powers are equally distributed between the categories of omission and commission.  Cutting off discourse, and witness, are types of violence too; and here we see them operating in intimate relationship with sexual violence.

It is a relief, then, to be able to relate that a.) those particular rapists do eventually get theirs, and b.) al-Zamori is freed of some of his own personal constraints by the increasingly desperate state of the Spanish force. Under-provisioned, subject to guerilla attacks from furious native tribes and, finally, suffering the new diseases of a new continent, the Narváez expedition bleeds credibility and men all along the western coast of Florida.  At length, in desperation, its leaders decide to take to the sea by raft: hoping to hasten their rendezvous with the Spanish ships that have been held in reserve.  The expedition splits into five parties, each from then on bound to its own raft and its own separate fortune.

Though grim, these conditions enable al-Zamori’s slow recuperation of himself as a man of worth, through the equalizing conditions of placelessness and hard universal labor that descend upon the entire Spanish force.  And, as master-slave relations with Dorantes shift into something resembling an alliance of necessity, al-Zamori is increasingly able to articulate the other man’s need for his company and aid.  He begins to mark occasions where his services and insights are asked for — he stops allowing himself to be an invisible instrument.  During one particularly hopeless evening, when their party has discovered the remnants of a wrecked Spanish raft and no evidence of survivors, Dorantes turns to “Estebanico” for a diversion.  The Spaniard is surprised and discomfited at the turn his “harmless fun” takes.

…Estebanico, [Dorantes] said.  Can you tell fortunes?

Fortunes?  I said.  Me?

Your people are known to be great fortune-tellers.

…Give me your hand, I said.  He offered me his left palm.  Red calluses dotted the line from his index to his little finger and a new scar crossed his wrist, likely the result of his work…on the raft some days earlier.  You have a secret, I said.  Something you have hidden from everyone.

Everyone has secrets, Dorantes replied.

But this, I said, this is something else entirely.  Let me see…

…[He] yanked his hand away. …What do you know?  Dorantes said.  You are just a Moor.

A Moor whose prophecy you seek, said I.  (190)

Is this the first time al-Zamori gets the last word, in an exchange with Dorantes?  It will not be the last.  In the novel’s conclusion, however, symbols and actions will take the place of words.  By then our narrator, with his wife’s assistance, has stopped talking with slaveholders.

Listen, Oyomasot said.  She put her hand on my face and kept it there until I opened my eyes.  Listen, my love.  The more you ask him [for your freedom], the more he will want to hold on to you.  What you want is not something that can be asked for, it can only be taken. (295)


I haven’t said much specifically about Lalami’s writing.  It’s terrific.  The words that come to mind are “steely,” “subtle,” and “ferociously humanitarian.”  If I wanted to indulge in the exorcism of a personal ghost…OK, I WILL DO IT…look, for me, The Moor’s Account underlines how many ways Geraldine Brooks went wrong in her 2011 novel Caleb’s Crossing, which also takes up the subject of colonial encounters with indigenous people, but ventriloquizes everything through the voice of a conflicted white woman *facepalm* and, in the end, comes across as the purest form of extensively researched authorial history-tourism.  There is absofuckinglutely none of that in The Moor’s Account.  Not a jot, not a tittle, not so much as a demi-scruple: al-Zamori is, in all of the ways rendered possible by literature, his own man.  Lalami has to wrestle with some of the canonical challenges of the genre, of course.  There’s the “where did this book come from?” problem, discussed earlier, and she also includes some over-specific detail on material history etc. in the very beginning  of The Moor’s Account — the “work has been done on domestic crafts” problem.  But once the novel opens up into full flow, such markers of concern about the nature of its construction disappear and you are simply…in it. Learning.  Watching.  Reconsidering everything, from the beginning.




Elizabeth Woodville, v. 1

Today, the first semi-extended work day since the snow hit us with a bang on Tuesday, I’m gathering books for a review due in May, and starting revisions on a poem about Elizabeth Woodville.  Woodville was Queen Consort (not Queen Regnant!) of England for almost twenty years.  At one time the young widow of a Lancastrian knight, in 1465 she became the spouse of Edward IV — thus kicking off/becoming involved in a series of severe and ultimately murderous disagreements between Edward and his adviser, military supplier and political impresario, the Earl of Warwick.  There wasn’t much of a honeymoon period, one suspects.

All of which is to say: the lady had to pilot a highly contested and very prominent political identity during some of the gnarliest years of the Wars of the Roses.  She had a lot of work cut out for her in other departments too.  Over the course of  fifteen years, Elizabeth bore Edward IV ten — count ’em, ten — children; including the Princes in the Tower of tragic memory, and the next Queen Consort of England, Elizabeth of York.  Her daughter’s husband, the insurgent Tudor Henry VII, allowed Elizabeth Woodville to retire to Bermondsey Abbey — in Southwark —  in 1487 and she died there in 1492.  Her funeral was, by her own request, not lavish.

You’ll find her in literature, in Shakespeare’s c. 1592 Richard III, where her role is that of one among many suffering and mourning women. In the Shakespeare play, Elizabeth Woodville is characterized specifically as a “careful” (i.e., care-burdened and also care-taking) mother (II.ii.96), and this is a role she accepts and cannot escape, though we are confronted by the perennial mystery of her release of the young Duke of York into Richard III’s lethal hands.  It’s a lacuna in the play, and in history: unknowable.  In Thomas Heywood’s Edward IV parts I and II, (late 1590’s) Elizabeth Woodville is shown loyally making common cause with her husband’s famous mistress, Jane Shore, in order to express something along the lines of emotional faithfulness to Edward, sans fin.  I can’t help but wonder if there’s something in that performance, and the way Heywood construed it, which reflects a set of beliefs that were structurally required of the governed by limited tyrannies like the one in charge of sixteenth century England.  But my thoughts on the subject aren’t terribly developed.

In any case, E. Woodville is a woman with a complicated, pumice-rubbed and murkily annotated biography, and she’s really interesting.  I decided, quite cheerfully, to try to write about her for a forthcoming collection of children’s poems about kings and queens, then found the material REALLY DIFFICULT (Wars of the Roses, duh!) and not that easy to present for a young audience.  I tried two versions.  The editors said about one poem “this is pitched for an older crowd,” and about the other “if you can revise this to be age-appropriate, we would like to include it.”  So I’m plugging on with that, and we’ll see.  The rejected poem I rather like but can’t imagine in my wildest dreams finding an appropriate professional venue for. (Elevator pitch goes something like this: Dear editor, are you sure you don’t want a blasphemous feminist children’s-jingle about a fifteenth-century queen?)   So here it is!


Elizabeth Woodville


The last queen was outrageous,

she frightened them.

I am simply gorgeous,

and elegant.


I am sheerly gorgeous

and know my place:

one remarried consort

for a martial prince.


One remarried consort

with a frugal court,

subject to vicissitude

and civil war.


Still they will remember me

as perilous:

ten children I gave the king!



Ten children I gave the king

to armor him

In my childbed I have lain

summer and spring.


In my childbed I have lain

winter and fall

while his armies take the field

wagering all.


While his armies take the field

I gamble, too

with my body and my blood

making anew.


My husband is a valiant man

crowned with suns

Nothing he has done will last

save this alone:


Nothing he has done will last

save only this,

one wise daughter named



(copyright, of course, C. Rockwood 2018.)


*Quick update, 4/26.  They are going to take the other Elizabeth Woodville poem, which is exciting news!  My takeaway on this one: I am jealous of writers who can quickly assess how to write for a specific audience.  Like, “oh, this book is for eight-to-twelve-year-olds, so maybe we won’t dwell on a.) childbirth and b.) infidelity.”  I have to blunder around a lot before basic protocols like that click into place.  But I am very pleased to have managed an Elizabeth Woodville/Jane Shore poem for a children’s anthology.  Controversial Plantagenet Queens and Mistresses: Present!  and, hopefully, humanized.








Jo Ann Beard, “The Fourth State of Matter”

I won’t say ‘you should read this,’ because really: read what you want.  Fay ce que you, vous or tu, my dear, voudras…or voudrez.  These days we’re all exhausted by the news, and working hard to decide what we should do about the news, and sometimes the answer to that is ‘you should read whatever makes you happy,’ when you can.

I will say: this 1996 New Yorker essay by Jo Ann Beard about her close brush with the 1991 University of Iowa shooting is both an agonizing read and almost supernaturally…no, scientifically, good.  Scientifically, meaning, if you’ve ever gotten drunk with a physicist, you know that many of them are 24/7 drunk on what they’ve learned — and how much they still have to learn — about the merciless and beautiful structures and laws that intersect at all hours of the day and night with the unplotted degree of their own lives’ arc, and the life of the world at large.

If you want to feel something of what it is to live, and suffer, that way, then read this essay.  Or read it later when you feel steadier.  Or don’t.  I’m not going to lie, it completely upended my day.


New poems

We’ve had, as every family with young children has, a busy holiday season followed by full-on Virus Season.  At least, this year, the two didn’t intersect!  Here and there, in between strep and colds and snow and the toddler’s sensitive lungs, I’ve tried to keep writing, at least a little.

Poetry ramped up, for me, starting in about 2014.  I wrote poems in grad school twenty (!) years ago, and was lucky enough to participate in a terrific Graduate Poets’ Colloquium organized by my friend Isaac Cates.  But I wasn’t trying to publish, on account of a congenital case of stubborn outsider-ism which, in my case, was probably about 86% self-doubt.

Also, I thought I Knew What I Was Doing, which was early-modern studies, and Not Poetry.  Except, it was.  I mean, you’re doing…everything you’re doing.  You do everything you do.  I thought I wasn’t really There-There, at the Graduate Poets’ Colloquium, but guess what: I was.  And acquired some ridiculously lovely friends in consequence…how terrific is that?  This was definitely a case of “go for the people, stay for the people and the poems.”

So, I suppose, what I want to say is, you know how it’s hard to stop beating yourself up for everything you aren’t getting done?  Sometimes you literally just haven’t noticed you’re doing the work yet.

Anyway.  Not that we’re talking about A Ton of Important Poetry here.  I’m trying to sift things out slowly: and keep going, slowly.

Here are two poems that came out recently.  They involved very different types of work and decision-making, and needed to be pitched to different publications.  PT, Post-Trump, a lot of topical online poetry sites have sprung up, and I’ve learned how I, at least, write for them: have a point, make it in demotic and hopefully memorable language, get in and get out fast.  This poem, “Safe Havens,”  published over at Poets Reading the News, was one of those.  There’s not a lot of music in it but there’s at least one yell.  (If you want to see two other examples, they’re here at the Rise Up Review; and here, at What Rough Beast.)

The other poem, up today, took much longer to write and to place.  “A Prayer for Charlotte, in February”  occupied most of my available writing-time for at least a month and was three pages long at one point, alternating formal rhymed stanzas and free verse.  In the end, I had to throw out everything rhymed…yowch.  I read a lot for it — The Annotated Charlotte’s Web, and the Letters of E.B. White, and a selection (fairly randomly assembled) of poems to or about saints, as for instance this strange and lovely chapbook, “Therese,” by Claire Cronin.  Throughout, I begged friends to read my drafts — and some went ‘hmmm,’ and some went ‘mmmm,’ and I could tell it wasn’t really working until, begad, I ripped the spine of the thing out and said ‘okay, the spine is the poem.’  Then I had a weird little skeletal object stuck all over…like a still-decorated needle-fallen fir tree…with my fears about today, and the future, and this enormously stressful time we’re living through, plus my hope that we could still manage to hope, with assistance from Saint Charlotte.

Then it got rejected, a bunch.  But not always.  It’s happened a couple of times now that I ‘finish’ a poem  (drafting, submitting, getting rejected, re-editing, repeat) and then it sits in limbo for a good long while until I suddenly think, “you know who might like this?  [X] publication.”  Psaltery & Lyre was exactly the place to take a chance on a poem like “Charlotte,” which hovers between belief and doubt, humor and supplication.  I am lucky to have found the journal, and its editors.

So, in some ways, the writing is only the beginning of the process.

I am really glad this one is up.




UKL, thank you

Not many of us are going to have as few regrets as Ursula K. Le Guin did.  I bet, anyway.  The best and brightest of the field are laying their sheaves of wheat and extraterrestrial fruit at her feet, this week — and will continue to do so in one way and another, for as long as people write good fiction.  I just feel sad.

Of course I read the big fiction titles.  Of course they were foundational to my belief in the inspiriting power of fantasy literature — a belief that’s become near-mainstream in recent years, largely thanks to champions and exemplars like Le Guin.  As to nonfiction, I’ve had books of her essays on writing, and on fantasy literature, lying around for years.  It just always seemed like there would be more time to read them.  And there’s still time, but not coterminous time, not time within her remarkable biography.

So here are just a few terrific things from her short 2009 book of essays, Cheek by Jowl, which I crawled into bed with on Tuesday night after the news came down.  Firstly — did you know?  I didn’t, or had lost track — she never stopped being a Tolkien fan.  Herewith, from her 2004 talk “Assumptions about Fantasy”:

“[C]areless reading of carefully written fantasy will not only miss nuance, it will miss the whole nature and quality of the work.

This has happened over and over to The Lord of the Rings — it has been carelessly read, through the dark glass of assumption and prejudice, and so misread as a simplistic morality tale…Even…the film version…fatally reduce[s] the moral complexity and originality of the book, the mystery at its heart.”  (Cheek by Jowl, hereinafter CJ, 6)

Two things about this make me happy — first, the sheer fierceness of Le Guin’s assertion that people needed, above all, to not be sloppy in their assumptions about the genre.  She would go to the mat for good fantasy every time: she would make you tap out, then hand you a reading-list and say “this time, Pay.  Attention.”   Second, selfishly, it relaxes me to see one of the greats being nice about the work of another great.  Le Guin liked Tolkien’s books.  There are hard things out there, things one has to make one’s mind up about and have opinions on, but also sometimes writers just appreciate each other and it’s delicious to see this in action.

Here’s another, related, terrific thing.  She’s very funny on Recently Enlightened Reviewers of Fantasy.  Take her essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” (a title referring back yet again to Tolkien.)  In it, she discusses her initial reaction to glowing reviews of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  “I felt ignoble envy,” Le Guin confesses, frankly.  “But I soon felt a growing and less ignoble astonishment.  Reviewers and critics were talking about Rowling’s book as if it were a unique, unprecedented phenomenon.”  (CJ 26)


The argument, nay, the polemic that follows is both hilarious and correct, and if you’ve read this far oh God please read the entire quotation below:

“…to the reviewers, I want to say, O critic, if you should come upon a fantasy; and it should awaken an atrophied sense of wonder in you, calling with siren voice to your dear little Inner Child, and you should desire to praise its incomparable originality, it would be well to have read in the literature of fantasy, so that you can make some comparisons and bring some critical intelligence to bear.  Otherwise you’re going to look like a Patent Office employee rushing out into the streets of Washington crying, ‘A discovery, amazing, unheard of!  A miraculous invention, which is a circular disc, pierced with an axle, upon which vehicles may roll with incredible ease across the earth!'”  (CJ 30)


I’m comforted, honestly, to think that in my own small way I share this sense of passionate NOPE.  When people write off-the-cuff ‘you’ll never guess what I just discovered!’ reviews of genre literature, my ‘inner bears’ (phrase trademark Greer Gilman: read this book, by the way) get ready to charge and swat.  That’s why I work hard on reviews, and try to read quite a lot for them.  It’s a noble and ancient profession, fantasy-writing, and there’s a tremendous conversation going on within it, all the time.  If you’re going to critique it in detail, there are languages you should probably speak first.  Le Guin knew them all: and created many.  She was irreplaceable.  May she be read for as long as we exist, as a species.  May she never go out of print.