Date: 25-May-2010

I, Erica G Dawson , hereby submit this original work as part of the requirements for the degree of: Doctor of Philosophy in English & Comparative Literature It is entitled: Cottontail

Student Signature: Erica G Dawson

This work and its defense approved by: Committee Chair: Donald Bogen, PhD Donald Bogen, PhD

6/6/2010 851 Cottontail

A dissertation submitted to the

Graduate School of the University of Cincinnati

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

in the Department of English and Comparative Literatures of the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences

May 2010


Erica Gloria Dawson

B.A., The Johns Hopkins University, 2001 M.F.A., The Ohio State University, 2006

Committee Chair: Dr. Don Bogen Abstract:

Cottontail presents a collection of poems informed by Early Modern British Literature and American since 1900, focusing on their definitions of self-fashioning discourse and authorship while highlighting respective important themes and popular poetics, revealing the ways in which the Early Modern period is a foundation for today’s poetry. The Early Modern poets, in their attempts to define the Self vs. Other (attempts mediated by changing perceptions of public and private space as mid-17th century bourgeois society increasingly places the body within the confines of cozy, candle-lit chambers), initialize the search for a more complex understanding of experience dependent on subjectivity and predicated on interactions with others. These poets expressed these shifting perceptions within the poetic restrictiveness of traditional forms; these forms, however, prove generative as each author becomes a kind of idolatrous iconoclast: preserving the traditions of the past while generating new traditions of their own. The modern voices of Cottontail display a contemporary author’s writing of the self, utilizing theories of a Neoplatonic World Soul, popular with Early Modern poets, where the intellectual realm is very much linked to the material realm. The poems also employ Foucault’s theory of an author whose writing does not obliterate the self but rather builds it. The voices of Cottontail create a compilation of a marginalized self (a poet, black and female), reliant on the careful manipulation of language in a specific, transformative, and present historical moment in our country’s narrative.


iv Acknowledgments

I want to thank the editors of the following journals where these poems (some under different titles and in different versions) first appeared:

“Five Minutes from the River,” “Tar Baby,” Raintown Review, Spring 2010

“Go ‘Head Girl, Go ‘Head Get Down,” “Repossessed,” “Stasimon,” Avatar Review, Spring 2010

“A Monkey and a Man,” The Nervous Breakdown, January 2010

“Freakshow,” The Country Dog Review, Spring 2009

“One Fish Two Fish,” Verse Daily, Spring 2009

“Mojo like a Mofo,” Verse Daily, Spring 2009

“I’ve Got Anima-Soul and I’m Superbad,” “Mean Ol’ Wind Died Down,” “Mojo like a Mofo,” The Harvard Review, Winter 2009

“One Fish Two Fish,” Raintown Review, Winter 2009

“For Astrophil,” Alehouse Review, No. 3, Fall 2008

“Intermission,” The Warwick Review, Fall 2008

“As It Were,” Sewanee Theological Review, Vol. 51: 4, Fall 2008

“Little Black Boy Heads,” Iron Horse Literary Review, Spring 2008

I want to extend enormous thanks to the University of Cincinnati, Professors Jon Kamholtz, John Drury, and especially Don Bogen; and, the Albert C. Yates Foundation and Charles Phelps Taft Research Center.

Thank you to Dr. Evans, Dr. Webel, Dr. Leonard and Dr. Brady for saving me.

To the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Greg Williamson, and the inimitable Caki Wilkinson, Juliana Gray, Isabel Galbraith, thank you.

Finally, with all my heart, I give eternal gratitude and love to Mandy, Frank, Dad, and Mom.

v Table of Contents

I. Repossessed 4 Rock Me, Mama 6 Go ‘Head Girl, Go ‘Head Get Down 7 I Got Anima-Soul and I’m Superbad 7 Front Matter 9 Stasimon 10 A Monkey and a Man 11 Night of the Lepus (It Should Be a Bald Eagle-Like National Treasure) 15 Iguanas Fall from Trees 17 Aerial 18

II. MoJo like a MoFo 21 Little Black Boy Heads 22 Freakshow 23 Tar Baby 25 Mid-Matter Mother Nature 27 One Fish, Two Fish 28 Mother Knowledge 29 Spanking the Arils from a Pomegranate 30 She’s Got It. Yeah Baby, She’s Got It. 31 A Poem That’s Not a or Set in the South 32

III. Intermission 34 Night of the Lepus (It’s Ok If You Don’t Want a Remake) 35 U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi, you… 37 For Astrophil 44 For Aphra Behn as I in 45 For Tamburlaine 46 New NASA Missions Rendezvous with Moon I. Pre-launch 47 II. Contact 48 III. A hit? 49 IV. A hit 50 V. Houston… 51 VI. …we have a problem 52 VII. Re-entry 53


Back Matter 55

vi Night of the Lepus (Fin) 58 Five Minutes from the River 60 As It Were Right Now 61 Probably Not 62 Or Rather 63 Perhaps 64 And Yet 65 Nevertheless 67 Another View 68 Be That As It May 70

Critical Essay:

The Fictive Who: Abjection, Authorship, and the Assertion of Selfhood in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella 71


For Smokey


n g(x) = fn x n=1 The sequence grows obsessive. One, one, two, three, five.... Infinity will prove expressive. Bred en bawn in a brier-patch! The never die. after Leonardo Fibonacci and Joel Chandler Harris

The stark lucidity of a future recollection. Vladimir

2 I.

Before mine eyes in opposition John

3 Repossessed

It is the blackout of 2008.

News radio gives it a title so It is the blackout of 2008.

Falling like white girl hair while hurricane Strength winds inflate without the leaden rain, I’m up, then down. Late Ike, from Texas, low, Among the Mason stalks, lurks, and goes Aloft to pitch the tarped-pool deck of 4th and Plum. A tree obstructs the crest of Eden

(My avenue), not snapped in half—a great Quarter, instead, steadfast; and, in the street’s Three-fourths, its fragments figure into mulch. In park, I charge my phone. Two children bowl A tire that stops at nothing but a plate Of metal. Pick-up games run ragged. I Can’t hear the Nikes’ rubbers crush and sop Up jimmies, broken glass, the CORRYVILLE Sign scrambled, O gone as the L and L Hang loose. They, hinging, roll like windmills when I joke, alone, today is Armageddon.

The newsman, on the radio, says, don’t Touch unfamiliar cables. He’s a fool. I want to see a spark and watch its tail So my eyes shape it into happening: Moths twinkle, bugs someone should basket for The new museum’s God Made Creation Fest. It’s on all summer long. The dj starts. Fik-it, fik-it—Fire: Adam and Eve, The sea and all that’s in the firmament Could use a star that isn’t painted on The mural (Stay in School) that borders Taft At Highland. I try to stay up on water.

A wonder there’s no curfew set; we all Know what could happen when a group of black, Swift-moving cumuli cuts up the moon: Infinite, white stitches thread a needled sky. The stuffing oozes at its seams. It seems It’s warmer than September could be, storms, Humidity, hail heading for the yellow lines,

4 The EPA’s harsh, generated light. Big moon. Black moon. The car is on my breath. It’s 1 a.m.: night’s ended middle. News: Duke Energy has called on crews from North Carolina…Red Cross has shelters stocked.

It is the outage of 2008.

It is, for sure, an expletive construction.

It isn’t safe to be a girl outside But if this evening escalates to less, I may just purge my uvula. The air, Stagnant then sinking, smokes with charcoal grills; And, all it needs is salt, a wave to topple Big Boy’s Frisch and Staggerlee’s liquor, the kitsch…. True fact: a hurricane sans rain can’t make A flood. The hypothetical, the blue Midnight just like a person who’s a man In silhouette, black pleonasm—here, big Black moon can’t melt the butter. What to keep

And what to pitch, the water soiled, town out Of power? Police tape surrounds the Eden stump. Across the street, a gold-base floor lamp, clothes, And TV with wood lie on the grass. Some things’ Descriptions serve as benedictions, worse For words. The dj’s chants wear soft as swaddle. He spins the record raw, its hand-scratched throat Sput-sputtering. I swear to God the moon Goes blue all over Voulez-vous coucher. When Patti reaches for the hey, he begs Us all for More. Ungh. Yeah. And another one.

Tomorrow’s earlier. A Pinscher’s brown. Another one. A basketball returns To no good hands. Ike sneaks away as if Embarrassed. There is no eviction note Tacked on the door. It’s not a ghost town. It’s The present absence of a nightmare’s clown. How sly the evening and the morning are; How sly the relatively up and down.

It is the evening and the morning. Now The evening and the morning are the first.

5 Rock me, Mama

I-65 has stalled. The spokes Of Old Crow’s “Wagon Wheel” have spun The road enough. The singer tokes And hopes to God he’ll see his one True baby tonight. The saga, sign— The fatal bus crash in the ‘80s— I’m not far from the Buckeye line. And there’s a milk truck and Mercedes As Parks from “Barstow” wants his bottle, His twenties pissed—and me. I’ve missed Another rest stop and the coddle Of my own bed. My driving wrist Cramps tight. Pulled over at the Stop ‘N’ Go, I wrestle charring leaves From the fog lights. Sizzling wings and, pop! A high watt beetle dies. In eaves Of, grave-like, ant sand castle dirt I almost want to cross my chest.

I wander through the mart and “Hurt” In stereo, trying my best To make it look as if I don’t Look obvious. I pretend I’m light. I’m there in People’s blurb, YOU WON’T SEE THESE PIX EVERYWHERE, the bright Flash off a starlet’s dress, a wink Of black sequins until I dash Like ashes (“…to a burning…”), , What’s with white boys and Johnny Cash? And afterimages. No. No One sees essentially this see- Me-see-me-not, like lotuses grow, Perhaps, in blue grass: jujube, Hot, served with eggs, by noon forgotten?

Pretend I’m like the lotus: Mama- And-baby soft, -white cotton; I’m blooming everywhere to bomb a Flat landscape, cover corn, and herd, And house, each family dreaming me With a lullaby of every word On the cd spun since Tennessee.

6 Go ‘Head Girl, Go ‘Head Get Down

after Christoph Willibald ’s “Dance of the Furies”

She’s all Vivaldian ferocity, An end and, then, an end. Her head-strung strings Must be exhausted (There’s no timpani, Only Tisiphone, 3/3, in rings Of dancing octaves.) though she’ll go again, Ten times at that. She’ll open up and tow Me right along, a strong beginning then Concluding ends beginning, chords, and O It’s not —someone else. If Tell Can have his overture, the Sugarplum A song, Travolta stay alive, then swell A score for me; but shh, please make it hum

Because the rhythms stop inside a chant As breath and echoes sound a whispered rant.

7 I Got Anima-Soul and I’m Superbad

A votive or a chromolithograph— I buy her in a deck of cards. A gaff,

An Anima Sola “for half”, X chromosome And yard sale holy card, my faithful gnome,

“She” anima and still Jung’s animus In spades and diamonds. In a shuffle’s fuss,

She’s homo and hmnus, one and all Dolled up in Technicolor. Raised to fall,

She’s pent-up, Purgatory’s pentacle. She’s like an aphorism, tentacle,

A sol in man, solus, and animate Anaphora. Shuffle her back, she’ll sit

In animism’s pyre, puffed and high. My Queen of Hearts seduces me with I

Am a salon (disdainful exhibition) When I yell “Gin” or call. Her composition,

An I (willing spirit but flesh, so weak), Is blurry irises, her face to speak

Of, poor. Though not ekphrastic, some machine, La soma, she’s still there, tricked in between

Hallucination and euphoria. I savor her, in all her glory a

Prize-perfect animal in human pain— A conjugation red with nature’s stain.

8 Front Matter

a dialectic dialogue

Face One (Ain’t shit!) meets Face…(Fuck you.). Face Two: Who’s who? Face One: It’s me. Me you. You who? Who’s there? (That’s three?) One rods the other out, Two true In silhouette. Then, One (Two? Check.), Braced, balanced, slaps Two’s open face

So hard he bucks and hits the deck— One fanning blush, a sluggish race Of blood returning; one sore palm. Two: Steady…—palpitations caved To (Other, then the other) calm, Master and masterly enslaved.

9 Stasimon

Horace says this song of the chorus should not be interrupted and should not sing anything between acts that won’t advance the notion of the tragic plot.

A Houston man has Che Guevara’s hair Inside a sandwich bag—a chargé d’affaires, The Korda bob asunder, bob in lieu Of man for auction; and the hair goes to… Wall-mounted shelves, perhaps a breakfront. We Do not suggest you get a bob. And be Advised, no operatives are tailing you. They need no evidence to holler, Clue! You have no heat. Shut up. Here’s certitude: There is no market for your hair. Conclude The chase; surround yourself with photos of A kitten; fantasize two turtledoves. Each evening dream of dolls that bear your high- Step arch and muse more that edify Your ass in Prince’s Minneapolis And red corvettes. Dream sui generis. Throw out the rabbit’s . Stand tall. Flip past The small black print and empty space, the last Ecclesiastes’ page, and see where green Hibiscus leaves’ profusely brilliantine- Dried petals, from your funeral, will stand For all the pretty China roses and The presents you will not receive. Know oft- Consulted narrators are restless. Soft, And rarely used, think anything can break. Count 1993 as one mistake; But, please, do not attempt to sell your hair. The world does not belong to you, though there. See spot. Now run. You won’t be missed. Just tuck Your hair behind your ear and show some schmuck Your tail. Find love. Don’t think of movements, whole Like motley flying of an oriole. Remember how we started on a roll. Ask God to bless each dear departed soul.

10 A Monkey and a Man

Muss es sein? Es muss sein. Ludwig Van


What is immortal? they’d say? The “they” that know?

Perhaps it’s bone And bone the voice Of a skeleton,

The ghost of Then In Now’s machine? Bone is the heart

That beats on clean And strong. It stores A cameo

Of what it gave Us in each pore. His keys have links

To bone; my keys Are plastic. Tiny Characters drum

Out voiceless mounds Of letters, under- Score. With little reach,

The cursor’s up Erasing more With every bounce.

11 II.

His ear is a portal, A passageway For notes to flow

Out, in. The lone Middle C’s voice Moons slow at one.

It weeps again. It slips between E and A as art

Mimics his spleen As Ludwig pours A lively doe-

Re-me, a wave Of portal gore As each key sinks.

He hammers keys. He plays at night. His hands go numb.

He empties sounds Like coming thunder- Storms that won’t reach

Him. He looks up. The roof begs, More. Ludwig. Pronounce.

12 III.

Beethoven counts The beans before He brews a cup

Of joe—in each, Sixty. And under His nails, the grounds

Mock dirt and some Disperse on bright, Clean, ivory keys.

The blue cup clinks, Rattling the floor. He composes grave,

Adagio, Rondo. He scores Pathétique then

He counts from start To end, pristine Tin ringings, ten

Encores, hears Son In Vater’s voice And hoards his own:

The Rondo is slow. Milk tastes of whey. The finches chortle.

13 IV.

Nothing amounts To opus or Song here. My cup

Holds Bic pens, each Chewed up. A wonder: The clock, it hounds

Like eyes, a dumb “O” mouth, no bright White teeth, no wheeze.

It never thinks, I make it more, Make life, hit SAVE,

Freeze my tableau Of metaphors, Pros’ speak. O pen,

Alas, thou art Now lost. Room clean Of noise, dark den,

I leave, get done, Tattooed, the voice: His notes on bone.

Back home I throw I round: Die. Dei. I play immortal.

14 Night of the Lepus (It Should Be a Bald Eagle-Like National Treasure)

In 1972, a about giant, man-eating rabbits is released in the U.S. It remains obscure.

Clear August night? No single fuck. But it’s A night so picturesque it should be day Here at the Westview drive-in. Watch the rabbits Go wild. Watch gear up to play Gerry with no Hitchcock and, thus, begin Post-Psycho slumping (Wikipedia).

There’s more: cult hit, says Wikipedia. DeForest Kelley plays brave Clark and it’s A wonder Bones won’t dare to rant, begin His trek to “Damn it, Jim,” damn, dirty day And night in all those turtlenecks. This play Plays in the present: Tarantino? Rabbits.

The Matrix, Stone’s Born Killers? Rabbits. Rabbits Are tricks, fickle like Wikipedia. Let’s toss aside each new auteur and play Along with the original. PLAY. It’s An unproved serum. It’s a day. It’s one hot summer. Rabbits breed, begin

Blood thirst, ransack. But who to blame? Begin Big chaos. You have never seen these rabbits. They’re huge, carnivorous and loud. The day Clouds dark with “slaughter” (Wikipedia). The sky’s blacked out. The town’s in shambles, its Determined citizens sprinting like play-

Ground kids at recess while the bass drum-play Of rabbit feet creates a quake. Begin Bad luck. The wishful daughter thinks that it’s Heroic (hamartia) to save rabbits. If she could just have Wikipedia, She’d know the consequences, rue the day

One takes the role of savior, rue the day Of all the Lepus—overrun-and-play With fire Lepus. Wikipedia Defines savior as song and game. Begin

15 An insurrection. Rise against the rabbits Who crush the toy-sized town and know that it’s

Damn frightening, this endless day. Begin To dress the Hershey wounds. Rabbits! Press PLAY. Again. Revamp, like Wikipedia.

16 Iguanas Fall from Trees

Outside The Green Parrot where Jimmy Buffet reigns Although his Margaritaville is blocks Up on Duval. Key West: Cold winter deigns To show its face; and, when it does, it docks

Its arms not just at port near Carnival But in the breasts of each dressed mannequin, Tee-shirt’s lewd phrases fattened. Sidewalk Yule Tide drops garlands like dirty damassin.

One, one, two, three, five—the eleventh plague: Iguanas’ chilled blood circulation stops. Ashen and comatose, like death, with vague Incisors-out smiles, eight plummet, props

Like Hemingway House six-toed cats. They land Their lost footing. They freeze to warm. One crawls To safer carriage. Winter, spread your hand, Buffet us down, mid-fall, our funerals

Preempted. Palm tree fronds in sacrifice, And Sunday sideways, fan each paragon Of wrong with alms, and pity paradise. Yet still steel drummers play and know, Play on.

17 Aerial

abroad near dawn and dusk and often on dark days

Although sedated, although I can’t reach At all, I sit and try to count them each, The crumpling southern California hills. The San Andreas fault is not in view, But, from this vantage, all its buckled land And ranges mimic mounds, scars, grafted skins That don’t quite fit. Nearing L.A. the ground Looks pacified. And going home, en route To CVG and Cincinnati, home, Lit cul-de-sacs in Boone County provide No pity: sprigs of splitting neurons—axons, Dendrites like Earth’s own mutilated skull, Half-scalped, drilled through, and all the fragments darned Together.

We’re beginning our descent. The aerial’s below, pneumatic, gross. The ’s where? Behind? Up front? Please don’t Create a line while…in the galley? Rules, Directions?

Although we fly level, I Can’t help a non-heroic fancy, Brer Rabbit like Berkowitz’ dog inside My ear with temptations, with play a trick, Pull on the lever, push the door, inflate Life Vests, scream Oxygen! and let the street- Clothed guard arrest me, take my drink, put up My tray.

Attendants, we’ve been cleared to land. Pneumatic firings always figure grand.

My mind mends all earlier images: The broken phrases, strangers’ lips to noses, White HOLLYWOOD to KY LOTTERY, Jackpot 5 mil, and, subtitled words Too quick to read: Please Play Responsibly.

Remember, it is just a game for thrills.

My games are not designed to teach. I know

18 Darkness delights me with its dirge-like show.



Other heights in other lives, God willing. Robert Browning

20 MoJo like a MoFo

And all at once my heart took flight. My Fair Lady

Now come on Dover, move your bloomin’ ass. How marvelous the ladies’ necks don’t break Beneath their weighty Preakness hats; a speck Of sweat. Darling, your hankie? At the pass

The Audrey heads turn right just as the lap Relapses and the bear’s on Dover’s back. Circling a wet morass itself, the track Coughs mud. They’re kicking now! The jockeys snap

The whips across the flanks. Penultimate In the trifecta, Dover, go. Down front, The heads adroitly grow to one high stunt Chapeau with quill, petal, and a parapet-

Like brim. Dear Ladies , do we hear The hooves’ pursuit? They tumble, low, Like final breaths of another Pimlico. A friar bird dismembered by a deer?

More the ignis fatuus of this neighborhood: Bad circumstance with ceremony, pomp In PAWN!, brown bag, $5 Scotch, and stomp- Jackhammer rhythms? In it, Dover would

Be Pegasus and jet the Mobil sign. Our Revlon lips would form its O, and noble Equestrians would be, with all their global Births, just small jockeys standing on the pine-

Laced Anne Arundel lawns. The shadows loom A step behind where, closing in, the seconds, As hints of trace assume their place, are seconds. The sod, mud, pass, and all the finishes bloom.

21 Little Black Boy Heads

Up at the top there lies a cowlick I Just got to wrap my finger in, but can’t; Their cuck-a-bucks clipped down to the root; can’t pry One strand loose with a pick. Though I could plant A kiss, perfect, on their round scalps’ short threads Like splinters on my lips, I’d rather fill A field with a thousand little black boy heads, Ascend a white oak high and stare until Their shorn cowlicks appear to swirl. No hair Would move, then one by one, the heads would tease With growing spirals, hypnotize like air- Embodied branches braced for lift-off. Please, You stubborn noggins, take your hats off. Some Day when I have my own, I’ll palm his skull And he will nap against my nipple. Thumb In his soft spots, I’ll sing of how I cull Him from the black field bound beneath a sky, Bright blue, and sun so yellow the whole span Splays green. His always-girl, I’ll sing him, Fly, Boy, fly your still; Field Boy, be never-man.

22 Freakshow

Today, the sun and underside Of your eyelid looks like the state fair’s fun-

House mirror. Ultraviolet cooks The lid bright red so what was dull

And black last night and snug in bed Plays a violent strike of flashes: kite-

Tail veins, blood blue, a rusted-trike- Brick by the nose; deep red. Now you

Keep staring and you’ll just get froze, Missy, your chin up high to land

The heat, to seer, so your lid’s skin May show you iris, pupil, mirror.

Mind changed, look up and eye Big Brother, close, then op—a cup

Of lemon ice, melting, is Math’s own rose. Circles: the Whack-a-Mole’s precise

Escapes, the Whipperwhirl, the yak, Hogs, Walk-the-Plank, white clown, Mom’s slip

And madras dress? All red. Tell Frank You’ve got magic eyes. Then from a mess

Of buttons offered as a prize For shooting bottles off a trough,


The Lady with Umbilical Cord And Baby Man stand by the plum-

Pie booth. Now open wide. You can, Your eyes still shut. Reveal the scope

Of Llama’s chin and Thinman’s gut, Three mares horned unicorns and twin,


Buxom and tall “Ms. Fortunes” (Soon, They say). Let Goatboy laugh like a walrus.

Now try and see him pink. Now coat Him blue. The mutability—

Body as shell, a twig as newt. Whoa, you can’t stand. You hear a yell,

She may be small but see a brand Of little girl who saw it all

(’s so proud), who died, turned pearl, Has oyster lips to sell the crowd

Goatboy! who claps his jaws. The tips Of his boy-beard blow when he naps.

Remember, e then i in weird, How sunspots split. Go long and spike

Them down. Play dumb. Eschew your wit. Then guess your weight. Let cloudlets come,

One size fits all, as cloudlets bait Their hooks as cloudlets as pall-

Bearers while toy shotguns pop loud As crackerjack. The passive, coy

Crowd moves too active, back to back— Too many winners on a stack

Of winning pumpkins. So, squash; spin Yourself up to the top. Fist-pump.

You’ve earned it. Doff your wide-brimmed hat. But mind your eyes sealed like a cut

And walk their lines, tic-tac-toe thin, And, backwards, count from ten, nine, tens, nines…

24 Tar Baby

After a 2007 campaign appearance, Senator John McCain apologizes for using the phrase “a tar-baby of enormous proportions.”

Clippity lippity, no, I’m not sorry, says Brer Rabbit, challenging Brer Fox’s quest. Fox runs, heads east, and gaining speed, heads west And hits his fox head on a hornet’s nest. The big payback: a doll, contrapshun, trick; Brer Rabbit gunning down the road, all lip- pity clip and drawling, Mawnin’, far off from The ha ha ha, the Laughing Place, doo dah, And Mr. Bluebird on a shoulder. The fox Has caught the rabbit, Remus. He lies low, Watching his foe and his faux audience. She’s mute without the missing sense. The tale Goes just that far. Nobody dies or fights Or hangs a shameful head. Contrapshun left For dead in dialect sets there, the tar And turpentine, as Fox and Rabbit take Their root and step aside. Miss Sally calls, Remus concludes. Harris pens Georgia nights.

Forward in time, in Michigan, a child Asks the librarian to pick a book And gets Little Black Sambo, story of A “jolly” jungle little boy who loses His purple shoes, blue trousers, little red Three-button coat, but, in his jungle home, Passive, is saved from tigers so he eats His pancakes. There it goes. In ’62, Her angry father takes the little book And goes native on the librarian. And when the child’s child takes a look On Amazon for Sambo’s tale, she gets Submission holds from Russian arts And thinks of Grandpa with his leather belt And the librarian over his knee, Hollering Sambo! Sorry! while his child Escapes pretended tigers in a tree.

And, mastered not by ol’ elusive Man But Eve instead, in spring ’09, I top A gurney in an opened paper dress, Knees up, apart, poke-prod-divided. I

25 Am getting gently fucked by ultrasound. The story goes, I’m spawning once again: Last time, my breast, and now my uterus Just past the cervix opening—a she. Another three years gone, her brother will Grow deep inside my anus. O dear Uncle Remus, I am a factory of E Pluribus Unum, useless threads of me As body politic, benign, the states An irritation with no reparation. The tumors grow. Active misprision, some- what sick and sickening vision, Remus, I Am writing when. Please say we’s almost dead. I know we’re fine. I sing what’s in my head: Tar Baby, Tar Baby, Tar Baby, Tar Baby, Tar Baby.

26 Mid-Matter Mother Nature

I am a woman. I (Though all delicate flower,

Delphinium, the pie, The gynic sea) devour.

The way forsythia Sprout with the early heat

In Spring to die in the Last April snow—concrete

Corolla, pale, all four Short petals snapped like bone,

Snow like a carnivore, Big-mouthed and overblown—

Just makes me smile. I’m of The craving kind, a she

Who stands, blue-lipped (no glove, No glove, no scarf) to see

The plant as skeleton And snow as animus.

Snowflakes are pellets in A pusillanimous

Romantic scene of winter. Stick out your tongue. Eat me.

I eat you back and splinter A crabapple tree.

27 One Fish, Two Fish

Downstairs, dolphins eat minnows, schoolgirls shriek, And dirty water gets them cold. A creak

Upstairs, the escalator steps spread flat To marble tile. The hallways echo, matte.

Hushes are palpable. Blue lights loom dim And glass reflects the fish. They never swim

Or float, but dangle like translucent strings Hang from a puppet master’s hands, no swings

Or sways. The electric eel, like a ponytail Just cut, falls round, loops big. His sliding scale

Bodes seizures, volts, charged minus, plus, the prey Of a thousand aimless eyes dare straightaway

In opposite directions—iris black, The pupil black. It sinks, its body slack.

Think; if you could break it open, ply The ball out from the socket, gouge the eye

Apart, it’d leak a piceous plasma in The murky water: ribbons, floss, lace-thin

Eels birthed from ovate wombs. The angler gapes. One fish. Two fish. The filtered air reshapes

The fixed depiction. Three fish. Four. And still Resumes. Red fish. Blue fish. A Rockcod’s gill

Yawns open. Every Damselfish stands there Legless, their eyes rolled back, a mal de mer

Mellifluous and motionless: a turn Without a turn, a gag without the burn- ing swallow. Mercy—one fish, two—the sea Of artifice and animality

Distends and flattens: my own face and three Bubbles from a barb as if to say, This is me.

28 Mother Knowledge

Symposia of CRAP: Chronic Recurrent Abdominal Pain, The morning’s exercise; the ceremony, Grand Round rules Of lecture, ponder, and applause; med school’s dim huge hall, the arch Without the curtains; “testing…;” written-on-the-body slides On PowerPoint. Forthcoming topics: Are You Eating You? Esophagitis; Masculine in Medicine; Review Of Hernias; Eye view: Morbidity, Mortality.

I often tell my brother that my trade’s philosophy Encompasses caduceus and Mom’s juris doctor, too. My rituals of education: “Class. Excuse me, do You hear me talking?” Sophomore slumps, semesters, Ides And nones, nouns, nominal slips, the gender switch in Middlemarch— The university enchants; and, we, as hierodules, Are learning servants. Class, “et tu Brute?” Write. Wait. Explain.

O universus, I’m a builder, keeper. When the reign Of all exams is done, marched, hooded, I’ll enter the fool’s Parade and wait for what is built on myth to dry up, parch, And know that I know nothing. In an office, Earth Abides Atop a stack of poems, drop slips and lists: coup, due, rue, who; I’ll watch the peach that’s turned to pit, the sun escaped from view, And search our canon’s bones, the marrow in its lost pathology.

29 Spanking the Arils from a Pomegranate

Nature has given me a jewel, Says NPR. At pomegranate-dot- O-R-G the no-mess in one, Two, three steps guarantee a fool- proof pick. One: cut the crown and lot The fruit in sections. Two: now run Your fingers through the sections in A bowl of water. Three: toss skin, Water, and membranes. Eat and grin.

Homer mentions pomegranates— Le pomme garnete, crop of the gods, Fertility and hope in lore, Solar system-tiny , Prosperity, cephalopod, A Chinese apple minus core, Granatum, rustic beauty long Been inspiration for a song Or sculpture, laurel with spiked prong—

This is my poem about a fruit. A blacker ’s not as sweet As a knife, two dripping halves and spoon- Back bitch-slapped skin. And it’s a beaut’. As Nature’s wife, gifted, I beat The stubborn arils out; and, for The sake of boredom, beat them more Than necessary, candy store

Red Hots clotting the cutting board, Gripping the knife’s serrated blade. If I wore aprons, they’d be stained. The emptied membranes, bruised and cored, Are preemie craniums, afraid With gaping sockets. Overstrained, As muse, they could be a face or letter, A whetstone, or a scarlet whetter. I eat my young. O, I feel better.

30 She’s Got It. Yeah Baby, She’s Got It.

…Lord, someone’s laughing Lord, and it’s September And 55 downtown. A drove of dove- White pigeons hovers over Harborplace. Shit’s all around the mulberry bush and doomed O’s fans, but not on him. He walks his strut

Across East Pratt: five strides. A tiny cut Of sunlight nicks his shadow. He’s exhumed From his own chest.—Do…—I excise his face Then chase the scene for where he’s not: a glove Sits in the gutter; a lilac open-toe

Dangles desire, cute mannequin, while row, Row, row of bobbling Ripkens tease—you love…?— The ironed chinos spread their legs. Arms race Their way to sea as turquoise Polos loom From windows: shoulders, pecs, an air vent gut.

How the horizon breaks as jut The land. But, blink and all order’s resumed, Though where are the hands for “Kumbaya?” The pace Of thoughts is quick as recollections of His unsaid No. I think I won’t remember.

31 A Poem That’s Not a Song or Set in the South

Maryland, my , a border line, “Free State,” disordered North/South, mountain pine Cones west, bald cypress at the Bay, with brine

Along the coast and snow in Hagerstown, White Oak, blue crab, orange and black, and down The Ocean, hon, that January brown—

Do we even have a song? Remus, the sound Of the south? I want the taste, touch, wet mouth round About the vowels in every guitar drowned-

Out syllable. My cousins have a twang. I have a Mid-Atlantic pitch. Notes hang Near a middle C. I say, I’ll do my thang?

That just won’t work. O say, but can I see, Say, quirks (“lacks natural lakes”), state oddity, (One part’s a mile wide) and sights (D.C.,

Where Lincoln’s waiting)? In another place, At the Potomac, dancing on my face, A zephyr, boa-like, but commonplace

As my perfume, nuzzles against my chin. Our Maryland version of a Chinook comes in, Descending off the Rockies’ next-of-kin

In Appalachia. Sing to me now; and, wrap Up all my naked skin. I want to nap In its nook, wear its dress, and scotch its stocking cap,

Then follow it along to Arlington, Another other place. There, I’d lie in sin On soldiers marked unknown. The air is thin

And thick as if it offers up a cure, A viscous antidote and I am sure Of this “America in Miniature,”

And anecdotes so much I know the pinned And bowing Black-eyed Susans almost grinned, Black-faced, enough to keep my peeled eyes skinned.



As the hart panteth after the water , so panteth my soul… Psalms 42:1

33 Intermission

O Mary, don’t you weep. I got a primo seat up in The mezzanine. Your song is sin It sounds so good, those sweep-

Hand snaps and constant beat, The note that’s in between the lung And top of the mouth, right on the tongue. The bass doo-wops compete

With Martha, don’t you mourn. The tan, humongous organ pipes Tail up the walls. Their flathead stripes Make ceiling screws look torn

As the Red Sea. Forgotten, Mary? No. Your long note’s the crown Around the blighted army, drown- ded, a-singing Mary…. cotton-

White conchs. You hold that note. A million bones in water skin Drift with your wakes. Seahorses spin. The stage begins to float

Not to a climax hung In sound still-life as dead as nature But life in silent nomenclature. The treble S is slung

From the conductor’s wrists. There, in the faltering high C, The alto’s note, sad symmetry And syllable, subsists

Like absent seagulls who, Ashore, leave tiny fleeting prints, As markers of their sustenance, And hover in the blue.

34 Night of the Lepus (It’s Ok If You Don’t Want a Remake)

It’s hard to make new modes of scenic play, Of representing something. To begin In the beginning, Wikipedia Is gone. It’s day and night. God rests and it’s A Paradise damn Eve will lose one day When Adam’s off counting and naming rabbits

Rabbits. Yes, I am (yes) obsessed with rabbits, Their tragedy so good. Their puffed tails play Inside my mind. God bless their day-less day, No metamorphosis. Here I begin To know I am not better. This poem, it’s (No not!) its meta-poem, (Wikipedia:

Meta: one thing: two: see said Wikipedia And “true” part-truths). It becomes a poem for rabbits, Not of, and for their constant ending, its Ferocious nature. Writing, I can’t play With pictures. I can draw with words. Begin Elucidation. I will spend this day

With mother Meta. May I? Man, the day Ain’t big enough—wacky, wiki, and pedia (Which means ten forms, one face)—so I begin Seeing North Texas, drawing tons of rabbits, Maneuvering the words so we can play, Eleven MEs on smooth plateaus. It is

My admonition of the stressed it is, My existential delve, a southwest day Where chilly winds don’t blow but branches play Still life existence Wikipedia- Available. It’s free. I’m god of rabbits And mutant mutiny concocted. Begin

The figurations. I drinking, be gin And turns with tonic, twists; and, almost, it’s Like I be He of Luke’s gospel, the rabbits My flock bawn en my briar patch all day And night. I be a Wikipedia As Brer, March Hare, and ol’ Bugs Bunny play

In dialect. Carried away, I play

35 Out Wikipedia-scribed plots, and it’s A perfect day to envoi with my rabbits.

36 U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi, you…

Like love songs where the you is only you, The dark October clouds are non-descript, Just dark, and only there in that the view Is that: a view, prospective painter’s dipped Fan brush against a canvas. It will soon Be blank again. Well now I’ve just gone on And described them; may as well record the moon As a maple-slathered Sunday ham at dawn When the sky is salmon. No: for that, no proof. They’re only clouds. But farther, somewhere up Above the stucco, in the shingled roof, I bet a crack waits like an empty cup For water which could snatch a tiny leaf And turn into an ocean and, as lief,

37 Return the ocean and the tiny leaf Back to the sky. Where was I? Yes, a shingle. I’m with it. There’s a pond atop a sheaf Of composition sheets-cum-coaster, single Stream, black and white, on its cover. Yes. I must have Done something here today because it’s night And every vertebra’s stiff like a must of Some necessity. I’ve moved with all the might Of fierce Goliath and the room is dead. The bed has bled. The lamp is on its side. I must have lived because my cheeks are red And high-heeled oxfords lie there, strings untied. Inside the soles, mud wedges deep. I hear A someone’s nothings talking in my ear.

38 A someone, talking nothing, in my ear Says, Maybe you’ve gone off and split and this Is permanence, both “since” and “was”. Noise, here, Is Hell. So Lucifer, give me a kiss With my cat’s tongue. Let Smokey lick her wish And whine a whine I’m sure, if voiced, is said Something like Oliver’s Please Sir…. Her dish Says, More. This Hell has big black crows instead Of martyrs, crying desperate souls. They swish Before the shade-less window. There, they’re yelling For days-old bread as Darin’s singing, “Splish- Splash…on a Saturday” and Couric’s telling Us Elmo’s full of lead. To this: Addendum— Now this, then that, et nunc, some more and then some

39 Now. This, then that et nunc some more, and then some Warm alibi, ahora, come inside. My tongues are speaking. They may cry. Denied, A lack becomes Desire’s memorandum In the offices of my sleepy head. Its black- Capped corners look like pores. They’re on my skin. You just can’t see them. Someone light them back In action. Something in a cardinal sin— I’d cotton to a nooner fine. For Jack, I’m Jill, a thine, a thou, a mine, a win, A sure-thing score. Then I won’t be a hack, Instead my All My Children-namesake: thin, Sexed up, (drum roll) and soon a bride? (Ba dum…) I’m open-wide and wordless. Ready? Come.

40 I’m open. Wide and wordless? Ready-come Dumb-founded? Perfect baggage since there still (…bum ching!) ain’t jack. There’s just the mooning eye In the moon. It winks and nods, a moon so sly In Domino. The sugary sign’s a thrill When days turn lovely at their end. The plum Sky cries. It calls to all in desperation. You. Look. The stars suspend themselves. A cloud- Crook capes the eye. Magenta shades ascend This planetarium as words upend The sight. But, all the constellations, loud, Insisting, won’t blend in the transmogrification. The clouds, like bellies, bulge. Their intimation: The eye—it isn’t just infatuation.

41 The eye, it isn’t just. Infatuation Or, rather, jacking off, the I’s a swill, Swig, buzz, a spell and seemly fornication Of huh? and yes. In truth, I guess I will Acknowledge, dear swift eye, I know a you Will never show. I sit addressing word On word to no one. (One plus one is true?) Now someone’s nothings whisper, How absurd. Now How is No. I cough and start to bray Like donkeys. In the mirror, I’m a herd Of dissonance. Dear Sartre, I have to say I’m happiest when I’m confused: a bird Against a sliding door, the sliding scope Of Who am I talking to? A zoetrope

42 Of who. Am I’m talking to a zoetrope? A fine illusion of the sky’s blue motion? Succeeding images? Not zoe. Just trope. There’s no real life when, lonely, you’ve a notion To drum the sense that you are company In the solitude of your own shadow’s head And every single space inhabited. I’m wedded to my own fidelity. I always scan the I, and, my God, I Am she, Duchess of her, still there outside When me is one plus one. Moon’s on the tide But I don’t write those poems. I amplify Past apperception, knowing how I do Like love songs where the you is only you.

43 For Astrophil

look in thy heart, and write.

When Love is finished riding you like a horse, Pen me. That Stella’s one ferocious Cupid; But you, you , mirror me. Endorse Your signature, your black-faced woe. I’m stupid

But at your feet. Monotonous but rooted, I, with a stallion’s stride, will follow. Force My dactyl, Love. Allow the heavens looted Of sun and moon to curl without their course;

Then, please, my sugar-sweet iconoclast, When I am wearing moons as my round face, Crack them in half and let my arrow chase Each piece and crack them, speared, until I cast

A billion shadows—subject, object, trace— Like dark erasure marks that won’t erase.

44 For Aphra Behn as I in Oroonoko

A Negro can change Colour for I have seem ‘em as frequently blush, and look pale, and that as visibly as ever I saw in the most beautiful White. Aphra Behn

Angelica Bianca in the dust, O Surinam, tanned white, plantations, I Give thee mine eager ears before thou dost Request them (Wait, wrong love story…). You tie

Your authoring around your prose: my Pen, My Story. I, full well, know that you write it, Sweet Aphra: Prince and Imoinda, when They sneak the sex, the ravish’d…moan’d. Ignite it,

You dirty girl. And, in their language, speak Your English. Translate nonsense well and tell Us blacks change color, Oroonoko’s meek. Name him Caesar. Dismember him to hell.

Your final scenes spatter with severed bowels. Your fingerprints leave eyes on all the vowels.

45 For Tamburlaine

Black are his colours, black pavilion, His spear, his shield, his horse, his armour, plumes And jetty feathers menace death and hell. Christopher Marlowe

Nina Simone says, Black’s the color of My true love’s hair; and, now, the Colors you black all over. You’re the dove, My Lord, of pandemonium. Your her,

That Zeno girl you’re riding with. On me, She’s got nothing. Ask Astrophil. Boy, I Will let marriage recuperate the sea Of bodies you have left. I’m lazuli

In my touches of blue, but you can’t tell When we’re hugged close inside your tent and all Your prisoners locked inside their cages yell, “Mercy!” I love that cocky way you call

Yourself by your own name. O Tamburlaine. I’d let you prison me and bash my brain.

46 New NASA Missions Rendezvous with Moon www.nasa.gov

I. Pre-launch

Countdown: T-minus seven, six, five, four…. LCROSS is ready, camera posed. The L- R-O, right at the perfect time, will score The evidential view after a spell Of all four engines . The satellite Moves now in orbit, waiting for the sign For Centaur’s tail to drill rock-solid night. The moon awaits the one-two punch and tine (It seems torpid, pretending not to notice; Some angles virginal, white, others dark.) And grooves, not scared, like it’s a whirl to Otis Redding’s “My Lover’s Prayer.” Here comes the spark. Intragalactic history is toyed. Where there is space there is, no doubt, a void.

47 II. Contact

Where there is space there is no doubt. Avoid The physics? Up the possibilities Of failure. Once each atom, so devoid Of size, swells with the charging chemistries, And sloe gin flows, there is no hope. You’re screwed: Inertia interrupted, senses dulled, Intentions cheapened, young girl crush renewed. Pulverulent, from dust to dust, you’re nulled To nonexistence. Now is no “before.” The details do not matter: who or whom. Countdown: T-minus seven, six, five, four; Enter embarrassment and nom de plume. Mission: success. Results? Too soon to view. But where there’s space there is, no doubt, a clue.

48 III. A hit?

But where there’s space there is no, doubt, a clue Something’s not right. The moon’s South Pole, the site For Centaur’s punch, hides in the so-black blue, A constant shadow where the sun can’t bite Off pieces for illumination; and, It’s hard enough to see as some six miles Of dust and rock and ice will lift and land, Leave craters, new, beside the rising piles Of ice, maybe, for us to drink—a resource Untapped. -328 degrees The moon is now a flagless counter-horse For the apocalypse. Its icy seas Are our survivals, in the craters’ breadth, Though where there’s Space, there is no doubt, a death.

49 IV. A hit

Where there is space, there is, no doubt, a , a pre-work fuck, when still In honeymoon-like heaven—heavy breath, Body on body, energy to kill. You watch his every movement, and his mission Control. His muscles flex and slack and he Chews plastic bottle caps. You are submission: The Santeria smitten Shiva she Who’s universal, who can walk on water, Fly high sans pills, picture herself in white And veil, taking the stance, father and daughter, The champagne toasts, a fox trot danced as light As Ginger. But, each mission is a tryst. Where there is space, there is, no doubt, a twist.

50 V. Houston…

Where there is Space, there is, no doubt, a twist Of Fate: Columbia, the Challenger, Missions aborted, landing targets missed; The universal principle astir, Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos irate Knowing how Centaurus, the constellation, Is poised (“all systems go”) to lacerate; It’s shining in a manly demonstration With Proxima Centauri as the star Closest to our own Sun; Moon close to us, A stranger lying in the black boudoir The darlin’ Clementine (a prior fuss) Mission can never penetrate. It’s stark Where there is space. There is, no doubt, an arc

51 VI. …we have a problem

Where there is space. There is, no doubt, an arc Of narrative, its curvature in silence, And silence of progressions in the dark— Missions away from home with all the violence Of smashing lips, abandon, legs, across An air mattress, no cotton sheet; affair; the land Of climax, denouement, and albatross. At home, you once-hot rabbits sit, not hand In hand. The window’s opened; fountain’s splash As loud as moon-pulled high tides clipping shores. From lust and dust to dust in flame to ash— The space is walls and table, chairs and doors. You have not known that it would come to this. Where there is space there is, no doubt, a miss.

52 VII. Re-entry

Where there is space there is, no doubt, amiss Or not, an optimism: future flight, For mankind yet another step, the bliss Of some uncharted territory, blight In constant shadow that, somehow, could be A saving grace, new formulae. The distance Will equal rate (r) over t. The Sea Of vast Tranquility bears no resistance And time wears only scars of passing years, Forthcoming wounds, a Venus mission, Mars Mischief, axis, the Moon spinning its gears As Earth’s mistress; then his, and hers, and ours, Forever waits. Time may implode. Explore. Countdown. T-minus seven, six, five, four….



The lunatic, the lover, and the poet Are of imagination all compact.


54 Back Matter

Semantics 2.0, Daughter, still, of absurdities, I like “street-talker” now. Yes, please. Breathless with ghetto woe (“…and his mama cried”) I’d call Me too American, too black, Too Negro dialect. My back Is to your front. I’m all Set with my Nikes on.


Back: as in “go,” sound on the tongue Articulated, clean, clearly hung In the aft of the mouth.


Back: dawn As near is to December. I Walk in the flakes as doctors try To drink their coffee, yawn In mittened hands while they Cross MLK and I decide To take the hill, walk further, ride It out this Saturday, Cold, cocked, nothing.

And Back: Pertaining to support; to cause To move backward; hems, haws, But strength, effort; no lack- Luster labor.


I put My back into it, start to sweat And feel the Sempiternam, wet, There in the skin afoot, All itchy, from the needle (Wednesday’s fresh ink). I turn and head For red EMERGENCY— hot bed,

55 A microcosm, beetle Of Cincinnati streets Where pigs have got a man spread-eagle, Cuffed to a gurney with the legal Miranda said, the beats

Of EKGS, the blood Of GS to the chest, STAT angiectomy, last rites, Urban Gethsemane, left bites Of jello.


Back: to rest; Arrears or overdue; Belonging to the past like back In the day.


The once crazy could crack—


The defending player who, Behind the other players, makes First contact—


Streets are talking, rakes Catcalling, and the new Sky’s crisp as all the streams Of frozen runoff. There’s no help For me, just voices: barest yelp, Incessant chatter, screams;

It’s my emergency, My good-luck charm, my fetish carved In brain waves; and, I’m fucking starved For more synecdoche—

More forms: the water-trickle

56 When it melts in Spring, the med(evac!), A glass door sliding off its track— A million worlds to tickle My fancy. “Ma’am, you next?”

I leave the hospital and walk For milk though I need none. I stalk A flying flier, text Muddied by snow and now Unreadable.


Back is the how You know where you have been; the Tao; “What up;” instead of “ciao,” “Peace;” “One;” a vision too Damn visible in memory.


Only I have to listen. See? I’m still the jigaboo.

Don’t see me as I butt In highs and lows and every nome And phoneme while on my way home To lay back in the cut.

57 Night of the Lepus (Fin)

When credits roll like Wikipedia When you scroll down the page, it’s coming. It’s Almost over. I aver it. Yes, the day Will shift to static with wee, white-furred rabbits Who run about the screen in rabid play And unfixed patterns. So I must begin,

Before the stalled TV, staring; begin Reflecting—no more Wikipedia, No cast, no script, no Bones, no soundtrack, play Of Technicolor imagism. It’s Nothing in no things, all the giant rabbits Gone and not a single fuck. Still, day

Rewinds at dawn. And, day reminds us Day Is day enough to wake the cat and begin To round her eyes like marbles big as a rabbit’s Big appetite, while Wikipedia, On the computer screen, goes ‘saver—its Marquee moves quick with intermissive play.

And it plays on. The VHS can play Again. The girl will switch the rabbits. Day Will change to night of the lepus. Horror, its Title not scary as the poster: Leigh, begin (For image, google Wikipedia.) Attempts to leave the rabbit’s shadow, rabbit’s

Big-ass incisors, rabbit’s nose, no rabbit’s Foot. Words (…no limit to the horror…) play With my attention. Wikipedia Cannot compete with horror, the horror, day With Conrad’s darkness, Sexton’s witch. Begin Kind haunting, brave at night, the night and its

Finality, banal repeated. It’s Monotony like breeding cycles, rabbits Who re-ingest their droppings. PAUSE. Begin. I’m her kind, aren’t I? Made only (hit PLAY) Of what’s been done before, familiar day, Say, obvious like Wikipedia?

Back up. I’m fine. I’m that which passeth play,

58 And rabbits, Wikipedia; and, in The end, end of days, it is what it is.

59 Five Minutes from the River

He mus'know sumpin', But don't say nuthin' Show Boat

I only think of dying in it once: Jumping right in on the Ohio side While, there, behind me in the stadium, In Bengal stripes, the kicker sets and punts. The Belle of Cincinnati’s on a ride, A white-tie dinner cruise, chrysanthemum Corsages. I, treading, forget to swim And let the big red paddlewheel browbeat My head while “Ol’ Man River” hits its first “Along,” browbeats three times inside my head With each reprise until Showboat Joe’s complete, Holding a flute, trying to quench the thirst From all that bass. And, when, the water’s black And back and forth, I hear a horn, perhaps An Overboard! or just a Who Dey! cheer, The water is an amniotic sac. I’m not drowning. I am suspended. Caps Fresh from the wake roll me as gondolier, My eyes in dank pollution, silver carp Beside me, Newport sign, its purple light. Joe’s singing faster and the water’s thicker; But, I’m not weary, nor is there a harp Or blinding brightness in the river night. I float. Someone pour out a little liquor.

60 As It Were

Right Now

Alpha-omega, ageless, lasting, It Won’t quite land Was on time’s continuum And long last die, hit the prerequisite End-stop and signify, add up to Some—

Fitzgerald’s ceaseless beat, Lolita said As Humbert’s coda. How Bolero rounds As if himself spun in the head; And that’s just the classics. With the ardent sounds

Of Eden Avenue against my back, DON’T WALK signs tweet. The 78’s airbrakes Sigh, wheeze, and sputter as the cardiac Thump-thumping Medevac leaves striping wakes

Of sea foam sky. As it is, I remember it. No need to look. I could close my eyes and wonder Not Is it just a dream? but Have I bit The dust? and now It is just Was gone under,

Or, maybe Never was, or maybe I Was never born at all and Mom’s the one Who holds the pen. Time’s its own alibi In Wednesday’s heavens’ stripes. I know the sun,

From zebraed gray and blue, will look just like I know the Second Coming would: like light Beneath a closed door or a hungry shrike Through a skeeter hawk’s prismatic wings—a white

Introduction. I may as well be dead. I know what it will be. I have a case Of ESP: before I say, it’s said Already. Miles behind in medias res,

I think each thought a thousand . It’s weary— Preserved in time, here, for the eulogist— As I am of I in passing, I in theory As in theory all theory is presentist.

61 Probably Not

As it were (We’re here?) a warning beep, then, This Is only a test—the colored bars, first blue, Next red and, down the line, the unvoiced hiss Of silence—Yes. We is all alone. It’s true,

This is not a real emergency. But if It were you’ll be instructed what to do And that will likely not include that stiff- Stone stare at the TV’s boob tube. Hey there, you?

And if this were a real emergency You probably will stop yourself and ask, Hey Self, why is the glass box sassing me? And then you’ll think of how some Girl Scout task

Like macramé could come in handy in These lawless times. Good thing you learned that whipping Knot way back when. Or, you could watch the thin Film left from sunny rain that’s slowly slipping

Its way down the window screen, or, turn the channel To Sportscenter, checkout on QVC, See CSPAN’s long Judiciary Panel, Fine Living’s Napa Valley recipe,

Over-the-Rhine get shot-up once again, And we Ohioans lose four more men As Dayton’s Becky Miller’s turning ten, So Happy Birthday. You could wonder when

“I” turns to “you” and station identification, The drawn-out pauses, seems to be a ghost- In-the-machine “part object” manifestation, Enough so Klein would say to find our most

Whole selves. It’s as if I need to get out more. My eyes are stiff. My stomach hurts. I know I’m not dumb. Shakespeare’s jars aren’t jars. They’re war. But, the glass’ true material, the show—

Its endless, permanent hole—is only a test, Transparently; a jar’s a cage, set stone, Sterile; and, screwed-up tight, it’s always best When broken, slicing skin to open bone.

62 Or Rather

For since the mortal and intestine jars From Master Shakespeare are not holding any, Well, bowels, let’s cut the talk in all the bars, The subtext as it were. A story: penny

Sinks down to a fountain’s floor amidst the flat Blue tile, the murky nickels, napkins, dimes, And looks like a goldfish on its side, and that It should be floating doesn’t matter. Limes

And lemons from the Fresh-Squeezed sign inject A yellowed-green inside the water. The tin And copper fish won’t float. “Live and Di-rect” From a studio, Sam Goody ropes us in,

A pop star’s latest greatest video, But someone throws a wish that’s now a fish That won’t float off the fountain’s floor. And though I know it’s a coin, when I hear, “Shampoo, Condish’?”

From Cuts ‘N’ More, I just can’t help the thought Of goldfish flopping in our hands as we Submerge the change, from candy sticks we’ve bought, In our pockets. I’m perched on Grandpa’s knee;

He finds a guppy in our ear. Those kids… I roll my sleeve and take the floatless fish, The penny wish, and watch the splash and skids, The two Montana quarters tossed, a pish

To all the past tight wads, so posh, today In airs of errors. Here we are, so pathic, At the Fountain of Mall, B. Dalton, dreaming, say, Conflations, like, “Hey, weren’t all Romans Catholic?”

63 Perhaps

Nothing as it is is as it seems. Lacan Is on that track: big S for signifier Over the little signified. Baton, Mon frère, my psychoanalytic prior.

The fraction’s not a fraction; and, I must Admit I have no use for math or physics As long as what goes up won’t break the trust By not returning to this paradisic’s

Hand. I ignorance. What’s the big deal About cog-ni-tion anyway? Those ads For Blaine’s alleged tricks look real. Cirque du Soleil scares me, and ironclad’s

Been overrated, and the proof is in The “Pudding head”, the stupid one, the one Who seems lobotomized within the thin Air on a mountain, (wait…) alluvion,

(I’m lost…) or watching Mona Lisa’s smirk, Wondering why her tiny lips aren’t pinker. Perhaps a dunce can make the fraction work— Dunce over signified, say, equals Thinker

And Dummy (Why not?). He’s so careful when He’s picks a-card-just-any-card. He’ll pick One for the first time/one to see again At once. (Bananas.) Stable lunatic,

The crazy sane, and all the middlemen Who act just like the minutemen, right-ready With fife and drum (da dum) and a perfect plan Quick on its feet: the dunce. There’s something heady

About him, normal in the waking dead, His dogma’s God in a recliner chair Inside his head, in faith, though Grandma said, “The devil’s got to be someone in there.”

64 And Yet

The mirror’s glass, unbroken, shows two faces. It’s sporting tens of paper cuts that hurt When found, and crannied nooks, a hundred spaces, A slouching fern’s fault line of caked, cracked dirt,

The frame’s own corner’s dust like sleep still clinging To one big eye despite a bath, and rub, And sigh to signal weary new. It’s bringing The animate to still life like the cub

From glazed mahogany. The mirror and Its tired two-faced eye take snapshots—white, Black, color—from its tripod-absent stand Against the wall. The shutter’s seconds—bright

Sun flash, omnipotent—the mirror’s eye Gapes wide and swallows and the room goes swimming In seas of Jesus. Christ, to have to see As if the lashes (post-imagined trimming)

Were threads looped through the lid and eyebrows’ skin; Have constant waking, morning, constant dawns In sight—they never stop—all in a thin, Veiled atmosphere to dull the unmoved pawn’s

Perspective. Mirror, mirror on the wall, The fairest thing? To take you down and sit And sit and sit and sit, and, in your pall, Sheer ivory sheet, to do the restless knit

Of fingers, set the sun, make dinner, and break A plate, bleed, tell Mom as it were it’s all The same if it’s the same to her. The drake Still tries to fly, I think, now the tall

Tale’s told, the unfamiliar voice, a stranger, A TV psychic hotline, and the best Is yet. Mirror, you fall asleep, your hanger The last thing viewed. And there’s the couch. You nest.

You’re arms and legs. You’re Friends at 10 and Pam New olive oil spray, and on the halls, You’re shadows, Zion, monkeys, and a lamb.

65 Tonight you have a dream with yellow walls.

66 Nevertheless

Distinctive host and epidemic, I Am an Aristotelian imitator, Horatian sicko, Plato’s poor, grave lie. My fault. I’m just a tiny-eyed small tater

In all this company. Nevertheless, Were it my time to ars confess, I’d take It to Parmenides. Enough of guess, Suppose and hunch, my model and my make—

The Way of Truth, what is, is not, is all. The Greek language, it has no use for “it” And verbs don’t always need a subject. Tall “Is” stands, or doesn’t, sans prerequisite;

Our genesis and death both just illusions. That’s fascinating. What is? My, I’ve got A bruise. What is? There aren’t any contusions. The hurt lies always underneath the spot.

What is? It’s day. What is? It’s now tonight. What isn’t? P says “superficial change.” Brazil, somewhere, is sunning in the light Which bends across my floor. Delightful range

Of reason, rights, is it that the poet does Not matter? Not who imitates or who Observes but the subject’s movement as it was? Or were? A poet of the verb, a true

“Do” activist, occurrence and existence, (And Master wants to speak of style?) I make the predicate look good. Resistance To change, inertia, writer’s block—and while

The pen keeps moving left to right, the page Fills up with script and tough philosophy, The doxa and reality, the age Of now or past remembered like a free

Association with the contemplation Of what is left to say. Parmenides, What is? Creation comes from re-creation. A helicopter lifts from Hawthorn trees.

67 Another View

The Hawthorn trees, their branches in the winds, Appear as if they could revolve and rise Right off the ground. Hypothesis? God sins And makes the Earth so we look worse. Surprise!

So back where we begin, the hatching point: The egg or the…egg. Well that’s a bust. I must Confess familiarity, anoint Myself a page and suck it up and just

Go on a write the story like an apostle. Genesis: It came. Was was. Was is. ‘Nuff said. Somebody lives and now, as if to jostle Yawn-worthy narratives, somebody’s dead.

What origins? Today is like a fine Aperitif, precursor, and the leak Of smells from kitchens. One more story? Mine? That’s like a game of telephone—to speak,

To speak of nothing. I can’t trace the roots To anywhere further than Texas, back To Choctaw Indians or Union boots Or even say for sure O yes I’m black

Because I’ve never seen the movie Roots. For that, Kunte, I’m sorry. Annapolis, I’ve been there, though; a petting zoo with newts Near Valley Forge; and, Chicken George, there’s this:

I love Jesus Christ Superstar. Dear God, In comparison, I pale and Malcolm’s X At the MoviePlex is ten. Inside the odd Conundra of the true (afflicting vex)

And fictive who, all verisimilitude Is ghosted truth, truth’s amputee, a hue That’s slightly drained of blood, a fleeting nude, Gaunt body. Still, I imitate. I do.

I was and is and will forever be In view this way as is, as me at least As if I’m Ms. Historiography, Pre-historicity’s non-oracle beast


Who thinks she knows she sees a zebra sky And goldfish coin. I wish I could rehearse in The influence, anxiety, my eye Perfectly written, pretty, first, in person.

69 Be That As It May

Dead weight, may it, the sky, ageless as that Beginning day and now the narrow patch Of clouds lacing through chimneys, halt; the fat, Blue belly, still. Let both my ankles hatch

From out their sockets, break the skin. Let me Dislocate from the ground and rising, beat, With sinking exhalations, beating tree And, beating on, my arms outstretched, my feet

Like arrows back to sidewalk craters. Let Me drift, washed over and eroded,—cracked Peninsula—the bony fragments set In air oceans like island sand. Let blacked

Out memories ride on the Riverboats. Let rabbits die. Let all the matter, fact Or fiction, go hollow like horns of goats. Let be. Let “audience” be inexact

And all the noise drummed by the Medevac, Tornado siren, and a spaniel’s wail Commingle, undefined, inside some sack Of words—and let that be my head, my tail

A pen, and in my spine, the choral stay Of execution (after thinking but Pre-utterance): a triolet where a Is ___, not aural, oral, hush and shut

In a mortal jar of What? and not yet true. The immanence of true reflection and Refraction. It is none and every hue. Today’s in future recollections: hand

As throwing star, the beer glass-bottle dancer, October’s gibbous moon’s last call, my voice As me as, frolicking on hind legs, prancer. As it were, be that, tonight, I have no choice.

There’s time to kill, time under sign, decreed, Time not yet realized, time ready, able. Just slice its tongue and wait and let it bleed. Enough. Now, God, someone tell me a fable.

70 The Fictive Who: Abjection, Authorship, and the Assertion of Selfhood in Astrophil and Stella

Pulp Poetic Fiction

…these little men Who fashion, in a shrewd mechanic way, Songs without souls, that flicker for a day, To vanish in irrevocable night.

E.A. Robinson

Tristan and Isolde; Romeo and Juliet; Tony and Maria, Harry and Sally—Astrophil and

Stella does not fall into this category of some of our best love stories. Imagine for a moment

Stella is a living, breathing, in-history-books person: donning her dressing gown, she settles at her vanity, glancing at her face in the mirror, making sure it’s powdered just right before she opens the messenger-brought envelope. She breaks the wax seal, and 108 and eleven songs spill on the table. She reads the first ten sonnets then calls for her lady-in-waiting for fear of her new stalker.

Though not a great love story, Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella provides us with Petrarchan- inspired characters, those typical of love stories: the unrequited male lover and the resisting female love object. Sidney’s A&S is poetic fiction. We don’t encounter these characters in a traditional linear narrative. One has difficulty applying Aristotelian terms to the sonnet sequence as a whole. Where can we pin the climax? The famous kiss? That kiss goes on, or rather the description of the kiss goes on, for seven sonnets (79-85), a lengthy climax by any standards.

And where’s the denouement? Is there a final resolution to the plot, or even a plot at all?

Michael Spiller, in his book, The Sonnet Sequence: A Study of Its Strategies, explains Sidney makes no “attempt at coherent narrative,” but notes, “it does seem that the discrete sonnet

71 maintains a lyric or meditative persona so strongly that aggregating a large number of them along narrative lines poses insuperable problems” (60).

As critics, our job is unraveling the lyrics’ problematic aspects. Spiller defines the lyric sonnet sequence as one where the sonnets individually register the moods of a reflective persona whose continuing presence usually is marked by the following: direction of sonnets to the same person or addressee; maintenance of a symbolic language; thematic recurrence; and most importantly and commonly, the emergence in the sequence of reflections on the act of uttering or speaking it—metapoesis (141). Sidney spins his reflective wheels to an artful effect, though not going in a linear direction. The sonnets, as texts, with the two Petrarchan characters, seemingly obsess over Stella, the love object.

Stella, like many Petrarchan-inspired love objects, is abject; not simply servile, but almost absent. Wendy Wall, in The Imprint of Gender, writes, “the female is privileged median space of specific class-identified reading and understanding” in the homosocial coterie of the manuscript culture where male authors exchange sonnets, with poetry functioning as communication between friends (34, 38). Anthony Hecht, in “The Sonnet,” explains, “from antiquity through the Renaissance, the friendship between men was regarded on high authority to be not merely the equal of but superior to the love between the sexes” (142).

But, Astrophil, as Petrarchan lover, is abject, too. Catherine Bates, in “Astrophil and the Manic Wit of the Abject Male,” writes

Astrophil is abject….Astrophil emerges a mere fraction of a man, a

weakling who gladly suffers the dictatorship of this ‘schoole-mistresse’ of

the heart….Moreover, Astrophil is not only overmastered, the willing

victim of a superior power, he is also emasculated. Within the specific

72 gendering of amour courtois, the courtly lover is explicitly a man who is

subjugated to a woman—a situation which puts at stake not only his self-

possession but his virility and phallic power (1).

The abjection of the two fictional characters leaves us with Sidney as flesh and blood, the only one capable of amour courtois and coitus. He uses authorship and a prosody of destabilization (working against our expectations of the sonnet’s formal properties) to transform his fictive characters from separate persons to a single, unified, neoplatonic abjection which characterizes himself as public author and private person, abasing yet confident, student yet teacher. A&S shows us subjectivity and authorship as a multiplicity of subjectivities, facts and fictions.

These multiplicities reflect the changing times of courtly England. In Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction in Renaissance England, Christopher Warley explains “Sidney’s life located him at the intersection of a number of different discourses and in the midst of substantive changes in conceptions of social distinctions” (73). A&S, written during manuscript culture, is

Sidney’s ultimate work of re-creation. In A&S, every prosodic move of destabilization and neoplatonic influence transfigures the tradition of the sonnet sequence (where Dante, Petrarch,

Surrey, and Wyatt flourish) into a study of self-fashioning and the ways in which poetry, or re- creation, has a place in the changing perceptions of public and private space as mid-17th century bourgeois society increasingly places the body, and text, within the confines of cozy, candle-lit chambers.

With his prosody of destabilization and Renaissance self-fashioning themes hidden in

Petrarchan discourse, Sidney strikes a match. Then he fans the blaze.

73 The Vector of the Volta: The Sonnet’s Saga

[O]ne of them profoundly formal, the other intriguingly sexual.

Anthony Hecht on the two reasons for the sonnet’s survival

Critics glorify Sidney as the starter of the sonnet’s “vogue” in Elizabethan England. Of course, the sonnet en vogue, or in voga, more accurately, predates Sidney by centuries. The New

Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics reaches back to the 2- Sicilian form, the strambotto, saying the Italian sonnet results from the addition of a double refrain composed of two (782). The Encyclopedia credits Giacomo da Lentino (fl. 1215-1233) for the addition of the double refrain (what becomes the ) to the strambotto’s , and its popularity

(782). Guitone d’Arezzo (1230-1294) establishes the popularity of the Italian octave composed of two envelope and two rhymes (abbaabba) amongst the Italian artistic, and Dante’s

Vita Nuova and Canzoniere as well as Petrarch’s Canzoniere traditionalized it, along with the cdecde sestet. What becomes known as the doesn’t translate well into English.

Hecht writes, “English is not so rich in words as Italian, and so, while the form is easy and unforced in its original language, it risks becoming something of a tour-de-force in English”


Petrarch’s first sonnet in the Canzoniere, translated roughly as “songbook,” in its native

Italian illustrates the economy of sound common to the Italian form using only 5 rhymes.

Voi ch’ ascoltate in rime spase il suono

di quei sospiri ond’ io nudriva ‘l core

in sul mio primo giovenile errore,

quand’ era in parte altr’ uom da quell ch’i’sono,

74 del vario stile in ch’ io piango et ragiono

fra la vane speranze e ‘l van dolore,

ove sia chi per prova intenda amore,

spero trovar pieta, non che perdono.

Ma ben veggio or sì come al popol tutto

favola fui gran tempo, onde sovente

di me medesmo meco mi mergogno;

et del mio vaneggiar vergogna è ‘l frutto,

e ‘l pentersi, e ‘l conoscer chiaramente

che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno.

Even if you don’t speak Italian, you can see how Italian allows for a great deal of rhyme due to the number of words ending in vowels. As the sonnet moves from the Continent to England, it needs a more English-friendly . Before Sidney, Wyatt and Surrey stand as

England’s premier sonneteers. Surrey establishes the pattern which comes to be known as the

English or Shakespearean sonnet: ababcdcdefefgg.

In any language or version, the sonnet’s trademark is the volta. For the Petrarchan form,

Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, defines the volta as “the division between octave and sestet…usually correspond[ing] to a division of thought” (244). The Oxford Concise

Companion to English Literature calls the volta “a pause in thought after the octave” (604). In the oft-used textbook for young writers, An Introduction to Poetry, X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia write, “Most sonnets turn, or shift in tone and focus, after the eight lines” (707). Francis Mayes

75 deems the volta a “psychological break” where the poem changes course after the subject is laid forth, while Norman C. Stageberg conceptualizes it as a “syntactic and ideational stop at the end of the eighth line” (313 and 133).

The volta is the sonnet’s most important rhetorical move as the sonnet functions as a rhetorical device of deductive reasoning. Similar to deductive logic, what follows the volta (the turn in thought) is true, no matter how absurd the octave’s premise. The sonnet presents an argument and, with the volta, concludes that argument either by supporting or (seemingly) contradicting what comes before it.

The English translation of the Petrarchan Sonnet I (by Mark Musa, his spacing) highlights the rhetorical importance of the volta in the Italian form:

O you who hear within their scattered verses

the sound of sighs with which I fed my heart

in my first errant youthful days when I

in part was not the man I am today;

For all the ways in which I weep and speak

between vain hopes, between vain suffering,

in anyone who knows love through its trials,

in them, may I find pity and forgiveness.

But now I see how I’ve become the talk

so long a time of people all around

(it often makes me feel so full of shame),


And from my vanities there comes shame’s fruit,

and my repentance, and the clear awareness

that worldly joy is just a fleeting dream.

The “But” in line 9 is a volta red flag (as are most conjunctions in line 9 of any Italian sonnet).

The poem begins with Petrarch asking his readers for forgiveness for his youthful musings of pain and suffering. Following the volta, he acknowledges how his verses have shamed him, or rather (in the final ) how he’s shamed himself with them (and from my vanities there come shame’s fruit). He repents, aware that happiness is not worth pursuing in life or poetry. As the poem moves from octave to sestet, Petrarch finds self-forgiveness in a newfound awareness of poetry’s uselessness. The apology, then, is not for his verse but rather for the naiveté leading to those verses. The volta and the introduction of his shame change the reading of the octave; it’s not a poet asking forgiveness for his verses but a man asking forgiveness for his actions. As the

Encyclopedia notes, the poem opens with a “strong statement” which develops, through deductive logic, into something more specific, in the final conclusion, that there is no joy to be found (782).

The above definitions of the volta apply to the Shakespearean sonnet, too, with the volta located at line 12, where the sonnet moves to the final . The scheme ababcdcdefefgg loses the power of the enclosed in the octave’s quatrains, and also their nod to heroic couplets, but this version offers a form ripe with rhetorical opportunities: the writer isn’t locked into a rhyme more than once, and the quatrain’s alternating rhymes create a stair-step effect as we climb closer to that final moment where the heroic couplet reemerges. The Shakespearean sonnet, in that final couplet (the only place in the poem where the rhyming lines are adjacent),

77 comes to a shut-the-door, end-of- discussion close. The volta, in any sonnet, in any language, serves as a sign reading YOU’RE READING A SONNET….CHANGE AHEAD. Consider

Shakespeare’s familiar Sonnet 130, a perfect of the English volta, still initiating a division of thought or shift in focus as in the Italian version, but in line 12. In lines 1-11,

Shakespeare famously downplays the looks of his lover, only, after the volta, to put the sonnet to bed, figuratively saying she knocks all other woman out of the Renaissance garden, even statues of Venus: And, yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.

Even in Wyatt’s “Whoso list to hunt,” where he keeps the Italian abbaabba then adds cddc but ends with the English couplet, even with the off-rhyme, the force of the volta as a signifier of a rhetorical change is just as powerful as that in Petrarch’s Sonnet I.

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is a hind,

But as for me, alas, I may no more.

The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,

I am of them that farthest cometh behind

Yet may I by no means my wearied mind

Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore

Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore

Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.

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,

78 And wild for to hold though I seem tame.’

Wyatt gestures towards the Italian volta at line nine, in the repetition of “list” and “hunt,” but the four lines that follow reiterate the poem’s opening discussion of the hunter’s weary (and fruitless) pursuit. The most definite pause in thought comes with that colon at the end of line 12: here Wyatt tells us why the hunt is in vain. The hunt isn’t a waste of time because he’s a shoddy hunter; the hunt is in vain because the hunted belongs to someone else and cannot and will not be tamed. At the turn, the hunter’s seeming failings are not failure but simply inevitable; his failure is out of his control and all the agency lies with the hunted. The volta marks this switch in agency. The I of line 1 becomes the hunted’s I in the final couplet.

Both Hecht and Stageberg discuss the staying power of the sonnet and the harmonic ratios of the form. Hecht writes, “our bodies react with excitement and with the sympathy of attraction to an edifice whose mathematical proportions we intuit as resembling what we would like to be at our best” (135). He cites Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man as exemplifying the Italian sonnet’s 8:6 proportions, as well as notable architecture, including the Villa Foscari (135-136).

Stageberg explains that the sonnet has aesthetic pleasure in its equipollence, what he calls, “the scaffolding for a series of concentric balances” which are logically equivalent (136). For both authors, the volta acts as a control of the reader’s experience. Stageberg writes, “In perception, familiarity with what to look for is determinative of the nature of the percept and makes for ease of apprehension” (133). We are, in his words, used to “certain expectancies” in terms of meter, line length, rhyme scheme, sub-units, stops, and pauses when we read a sonnet.

Sidney holds the sonnet’s tradition like a hammer. He takes it, and, in A&S, shatters our expectations.


Everything but Set in Stone: A&S as Iconoclastic Sonnets

Within this Church Sir Philip Sidney lies, Nor is it fit that I should more acquaint, Lest superstitions rise, And Men Adore, Souldiers, their Martyr; Lovers, their Saint.

Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, “Epitaph on Sir Philip Sidney lying in St. Paul’s without a Monument, to be fastned upon the Church door.”

A&S begins, playing like a pop song detailing the pain of a boy who can’t get the girl:

Loving in Truth, and fain in verse my love to show,

That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain,

Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know;

Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;

I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,

Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain;

Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow

Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain.

But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;

Invention, nature’s child, fled step-dame study’s blows;

And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.

Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,

Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,

‘Fool’, said my muse to me; ‘look in thy heart, and write.’

80 Sidney should dedicate Sonnet 1 to Petrarch. Just as in the opening of the Canzoniere, Sidney gives us a man troubled by a woman, looking to poetry for relief. But from the sequence’s start,

Sidney separates himself from Petrarch with several unexpected prosodic moves.

Sonnet 1 is closest to an English sonnet, with the ababababcdcdee, but is a hybrid of both the English and Italian form with the repetition of the a and b rhymes. And the volta is, seemingly, all over the place. Line 9’s “But” signals the Italian volta, but it is not where the biggest pause in thought or change in reasoning occurs. From the beginning of the sonnet,

Sidney uses repetition, not just rhyme, to link the quatrains: line 4 repeats 3’s “pleasure,”

“reading” follows “read,” and “invention” comes in one form or another three times between lines 6 and 9. Line 9, then, simply expands on the ideas presented earlier.

The real volta comes in line 12 with “Thus.” Here Sidney moves from the abstractions of

“invention,” “pleasure,” and “pain,” and confronts how he will “paint the blackest face of woe.”

He’ll do it with self-torture, figuratively conceived in the choice of “myself” instead of “me” or

“my self.” As in “Whoso List,” the volta comes with the biggest insistence and instance of agency.

Furthermore, Sonnet 1 (Catherine Bates notes, 6, 8, 76, 77, and 102) employs hexameter rather than pentameter. Today, poets take license with meter when writing sonnets. In Sidney’s time, however, using hexameter, and in the opening sonnet, was not normal. Bates suggests that the hexameter and the opening poem “overflowed…spilling beyond the tight confines of the regular form with an excess that was not to be contained” (13). The messiness she implicates in the hexameter is often a problem, as six feet per line often lead writers to tri-syllabic feet resulting in a stumbling verse (Say this dactylic hexameter, aloud, for example—One day my mother was looking for strawberries, riding a bicycle). In A&S, hexameter, famously employed

81 to close Spenser’s in the Faerie Queene, offers a statement of prosodic power, i.e. I’m going to give you a sonnet and give you more than you expect: extra feet; hardly any padding.

Hecht writes, “Sidney incidentally carries off his alexandrine lines with enormous grace and skill, and in English this is no easy task: our language has been ill at ease with hexameters, which too often seem to us to deteriorate into doggerel or light verse” (139).

Bates also suggests that Sonnet 1’s opening trochee points towards weakness as a writer because of the feminine ending. Line 1’s “Loving,” is an example of diaeresis, “[which] in classic prosody, denotes the slight break in the forward motion of a line that is felt when the end of a foot coincides with the end of a word” (Williams 189). In that break our ear is left to linger over the word. In the Poetry Dictionary, John Drury describes trochaic meter as “an emphatic meter,” mentioning both its childlike simplicity and its mystical power. He reminds us the witches of Macbeth use it for incantation (328). Sidney’s opening trochee functions as a kind of incantation: a surprising welcome into a poem we expect will be about such “loving” as we pause before the other five feet unfold.

In Sonnet 5, Sidney flexes his author muscle again, craftily manipulating the volta’s position, even more so than in the opening verse:

It is most true, that eyes are formed to serve

The inward light; and that the heavenly part

Ought to be king, from whose rules who do swerve,

Rebels to Nature, strive for their own smart.

It is most true, what we call Cupid’s dart,

An image is, which for ourselves we carve;

And, fools, adore in temple of our heart,

82 Till that good god make church and churchmen starve.

True, that true beauty virtue is indeed,

Whereof this beauty can be but a shade,

Which elements with mortal mixture breed;

True, that on earth we are but pilgrims made,

And should in soul up to our country move;

True; and yet true, that I must Stella love.

Sonnet 5 is another hybrid of English and Italian sonnets, but different in that he flips the second quatrain reusing the a and b rhymes so it mirrors the first (abab then baba). But the position of the volta is a huge departure from either form. Sidney begins with an expletive construction (It is), leaving the pronoun in question, and repeats the construction verbatim at the opening of the second quatrain. In line 9, where the Italian volta would be, Sidney gives us more insistence on the truth of his thoughts on true beauty’s “inward light”; and, in line 12 where we found Sonnet

1’s volta, he repeats “True” again to reaffirm the foolishness and naïveté in pilgrims like him.

The volta comes in the fourteenth, and final, line of the poem, and not even after “True” following line 13’s semicolon. The volta arrives in the middle of the final line with “yet:” “and yet true that I must Stella love.” Furthermore, the volta, again, accompanies an insistence on agency, just as we saw in Wyatt’s “Whose list.” The volta introduces the “I” implied in “we” and “our” but missing explicitly from the poem before the final line. Sidney begins with a modifier modifying nothing, and ends with two definite nouns: “I” and “Stella.” “I” does the work. Stella does nothing.

83 Didactic Form and Fantasy: Astrophil and Stella as Archetypes of Petrarchan


…Inside the odd Conundra of the true (afflicting vex)

And fictive who, all verisimilitude Is ghosted truth, truth’s amputee, a hue That’s slightly drained of blood, a fleeting nude, Gaunt body. Still, I imitate. I do.

“As It Were”

In the poem excerpted above, I write “I’m a Horatian sicko.” Sidney clearly borrows from Petrarch as the sonnets progress, so much so that the images become redundant, leaving our hypothetical Stella sitting at her dressing table, yawning with boredom. But at Sonnet 14, Sidney steps away from addressing Love or other abstractions, and begins addressing his friends and fellow writers. Sonnet 14 opens with a question to “my friend,” and the friend isn’t Stella:

Alas, have I not pain enough, my friend,

Upon whose breast a fiercer gripe doth tire

Than did on him who first stale down the fire….

Sonnet 15 continues addressing the confidant:

You that do search for every purling spring

Which from the ribs of old Parnassus flows;

And every flower, not sweet perhaps, which grows

Near thereabouts, into your poesy wring;

You that do dictionary’s method bring

Into your rhymes, running in rattling rows;

You that poor Petrarch’s long-deceased woes

84 With new-born signs and denizened wit do sing:

You take wrong ways, those far- helps be such

As do bewray a want of inward touch:

And sure be length stol’n goods do come to light.

But if (both for you love and skill) your name

You seek to nurse at fullest breasts of fame,

Stella behold, and then begin to endite.

Sidney shows his skills and iconoclasm in the poem’s allusions. Parnassus, the mountain sacred to Apollo and home to the Muses, not only serves as the birthplace of poetry, but as a figuration of Adam as well, so that the “springs” and “flowers” flowing from the rib (italics mine) are subsequent versions of Eve. We know how that particular story ends. But Sidney doesn’t explore the story of Adam and Eve, or the betrayal. His concern is writing Eve incorrectly:

“running in rattling rows,” “want[ing] of inward touch.” In the bizarre rhyme scheme of abbaabbaccdeed (call it a Sidney original), we get the turn at line twelve, and also the sequence’s first mention of Fame as a result of writing.

If I’m Stella, I’m thinking What’s Fame Got to Do, Got to Do With It?

Sidney tells his fellow poetasters if they want to suck at Fame’s teat, they need to look towards Stella and then start writing. Authorship is a vehicle for Fame. Sidney’s didacticism operates at full throttle here. He teaches his fellow writers while asserting his power as

“ultimate” author. Like the sonnets before, the turn comes with Sidney showing off his activeness, his moves to write. He is the only one who’s “beheld” Stella, the only one close to

“the fullest breasts of Fame.” The other sonneteers need to do it, but haven’t done it yet.

85 Sidney’s insertion of sonnets addressed to friends emphasizes the 16th century manuscript culture, where, as Wall notes, poetry is a product of aristocratic social ethos—writing private poetry is a public act of social classification (12). In Sonnet 15, Sidney assumes the highest social position as he suggests he’s closest to Fame. Wall goes on to explain the double audience of Renaissance manuscript culture: the homosocial groups of elite writers exchanging work and the desired females the texts address.

As the manuscript culture transforms into print culture, Wall discusses the “Authority of

Flesh,” where men assume power over their texts of poems organized into a single but dismembered female body as the text becomes a feminized good conflated with the female mistress (60). Sidney, clearly, asserts his authorship in A&S, and in this particular sonnet, his didactic impulse: This is what you should do. The inclusion of these “manuscript culture sonnets” explicitly gives us Sidney as teacher, perhaps inclined to teach too much.

Sidney’s didactic impulse and his desire for Fame embody a delusion of grandeur or an expansion of the self where others (other writers and even Stella) shrivel in comparison. In

Bacon’s tract, “A Fragment of an Essay on Fame,” he writes, “The poets make Fame a monster.

They describe her in part finely and elegantly; and in part gravely and sententiously” (444).

Sidney does not make Fame a monster in Sonnet 15. He encourages his friend to seek it. The monster here, perhaps, is Sidney’s ego. Each time he moves the volta, each time he eschews expectations of traditional rhyme schemes, he reveals his agency as author (above all other authors) of not just Stella, but of Astrophil as well.

Bates tells us that Astrophil, like Stella, is abject. She highlights the “weak” opening sonnet with its alexandrines and feminine start. She writes, “He is unmanned because he ‘has’ nothing, nothing to say” (13). But there are 108 sonnets here. For her, “Astrophil emerges a

86 mere fraction of a man, a weakling who gladly suffers the dictatorship of this ‘schoole-mistresse’ of the heart” (1). As noted before, she theorizes Astrophil as an overmastered victim, but also calls him emasculated. She notes the specific gendering of amour courtois which makes the courtier explicitly a man subjugated to a woman, endangering his phallic power (1). She alludes to Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” where the “melancholic is abject because he remains forever coiled around the mother’s body and has, therefore, never achieved the most primitive subject/object differentiation” (5). She continues, “[H]e [Astrophil] conforms, almost to the letter, to the account of the male masochist as it was later to be formulated by Freud,” (16) with masochism providing “an image of male abjection” (17). Astrophil is abject, but not for the reasons Bates cites. Freud continues in “Mourning and Melancholia:” “The melancholic’s erotic cathexis in regard to his object has thus undergone a double vicissitude: part of it has regressed to identification, but the other part, under the influence of the conflict due to ambivalence, has been carried back to the stage of sadism” (588). Bates does not examine the sadism Freud couples with masochism. In A&S, Sidney displays this coupling, representing the masculine as masochistic (and abject) but also sadistic, an important notion implied in his definitions of the author found in his Defense of Poesy.

Consider the torment the character Astrophil inflicts on his fellow writers in the manuscript culture sonnet, 21, clearly testing the patience of the “friend:”

Your words, my friend, right healthful caustics, blame

My young mind marred, whom love doth windlass so

That mine own writings like bad servants show,

My wits, quick in vain thoughts, in virtue lame;

That Plato I read for nought, but if he tame

87 Such coltish gyres; that to my birth I owe

Nobler desires, lest else that friendly foe,

Great expectation, wear a train of shame.

For since mad March great promise made of me.

If now the May of my years much deline,

What can be hoped my harvest time will be?

Sure you say well; your wisdom’s golden mine

Dig deep with learning’s spade; now tell me this,

Hath this world aught so fair as Stella is?

Sidney, in another hybrid English and Italian sonnet, saves the volta for “Now” after the caesura in line 13. The sarcasm started with “Sure” in line 12 is clear, and that sarcasm, rereading the poem, makes the friend’s every word, reiterated by the author, meaningless to the author.

Essentially, Astrophil the character says, you can’t do what I do (not self-abasing at all here); the friend’s world is nothing without Stella.

Yet we are a quarter of the way through the sequence and have no tangible idea of what she looks like, sounds like, how she moves. We only have Petrarchan tropes of abstract Love,

Cupid, Pain, Pleasure, Stars, Moons, etc, personified as living beings. The tropes go on without gesturing to specific physical features other than the clichéd “bright eyes” (6). (Turn around, bright eyes….Every now and then I fall apart….) In these tropes, Sidney tangles his fictive “he” and “she” in a mess of gender slippage similar to Astrophil’s embodiment of both masochistic and sadistic tendencies. In Sonnet I, with the hypothetical writer character of Astrophil and his descriptions of his writing, Sidney problematizes conventional gender norms

(masculine=dominant, feminine=subjugated). Stella, as hypothetical love object, plays the

88 masculine/dominant role as she may seek pleasure in Astrophil’s pain; she’s the sadist. Sidney emphasizes Astrophil’s feminization in the phrase “[he’s] great with childe to speak.” This feminized position still embodies a masculine dominance, though, as the feminized object dominates herself/himself, “beating myselfe [himself] for spite.”

In Sonnet 8, Love is written as male, and as Stella:

Love, born in Greece, of late fled from his native place,

Forced by a tedious proof, that Turkish hardened heart

Is not fit mark to pierce with his fine pointed dart;

And please with our soft peace, stayed here his flying race.

But finding these North climes to coldly him embrace.

Not used to frozen clips, he strave to find some part

Where with most ease and warmth he might employ his art.

At length he perched himself in Stella’s joyful face,

Whose fair skin, beamy eyes, like morning sun on snow,

Deceived the quaking boy….

Astrophil rewrites Love onto Stella’s body, but then, as line 10 indicates, allows Love to exist separately from Stella as well. And, as the sequence continues, Astrophil rewrites Stella as celestial being (the sun in line 9).

In Sonnet 26’s sestet he writes,

For me I do Nature unidle know,

And know great causes great effects procure,

And know those bodies high reign on the low.

And if these rules did fail, proof makes me sure,

89 Who oft fore-judge my after-following race

By only those two eyes in Stella’s face.

Stella is celestial again, but Astrophil redirects our attention to his role as writer (masculine) in the penultimate line. But Stella, the celestial, the sadist, is both Cupid, god of love, and the love object. She’s the facilitator of the lover’s love for the love object and the love object at the same time. Sonnet 12 begins:

Cupid, because thou shin’st in Stella’s eyes,

That from her locks, thy day-nets, non ‘scapes free,

That those lips swell, so full of thee they be,

That her sweet breath makes oft thy flames to rise,

That in her breast thy pap well sugared lies….

Sonnet 13 continues in its sestet,

Cupid then smiles, for on his crest there lies

Stella’s fair hair, her face he makes his shield,

Where roses gules are borne in silver field.

In Sonnet 17, Sidney similarly writes Cupid onto Stella’s face, and vice versa: “Of Stella’s brows made him two better bows, / And in her eyes of arrows infinite.”

The instances of Stella rewritten as Cupid in the sequence are particularly interesting because of Astrophil’s discussion of images in the afore-mentioned Sonnet 5:

It is most true, that eyes are formed to serve

The inward light; and that the heavenly part

Ought to be king, from whose rules who do swerve,

Rebels to Nature, strive for their own smart.

90 It is most true, what we call Cupid’s dart,

An image is, which for ourselves we carve;

And, fools, adore in temple of our heart,

Till that good god make church and churchmen starve.

This poem names Cupid as an image of the eyes formed to serve the inward light of subjectivity.

The image, then, as subjective, is never static. Astrophil’s figuring of Stella, as Cupid and as image, illustrates the fluidity of representation. In this fluidity, Astrophil as writing character is no fool. He moves on from Sonnet 5 to rename Stella Cupid again and again, knowing full well that he has undermined this sonnet’s “Truth” of images.

Stella, in all this, is absent. But what do we know of Astrophil, either? We know very little about him except his authoring acts of Stella. Sidney’s continuation of the sonnet sequence after revealing a distrust of images so early on (Sonnet 5) echoes the neoplatonic (and popular

Early Modern idea) concept of the truth of multiple representations. In Sidney’s presentation of multiple representations (or re-creations) of Stella, Astrophil the character avoids the pitfalls of self-flattery, despite the instances of “sadistic” teasing of friends. He avoids the pitfalls by not assuming any one representation to be better, or more right, than another. He allows himself to make claims and then rejects those claims, mirrored in the sequence’s many acts of closure (after the moving volta) followed by an opening of yet another sonnet.

The Fictive Who? A&S and Sidney in Neoplatonic Discourse

…seagulls who, Ashore, leave tiny fleeting prints, As markers of their sustenance, And hover in the blue.



Sidney’s commingling of closure and the inconclusive, similar to the conflation of the gender roles, creates a text where what is known or finished exists with the unknown and unfinished. The lengthy sonnet sequence is an ideal form for a neoplatonic discourse, an order of existence encompassing multiple representations of unity. But the recuperation of disparate ideas and the incessant rewriting of Stella as diverse (sometimes contradictory) images place the reader in a poetic jam. Because of Stella’s role as an abject and unstable subject while she shifts in Astrophil’s many representations throughout the sequence, she lives (her mind, her body, her kiss) as a fiction of Astrophil’s mind and pen. Given the prevalence of the language of writing in the poem, phrases like “new-found tropes” in Sonnet 3 or “fruit of Writers mind” in Sonnet 11, the writing of her, and the topic of authorship in general, takes over as the subject of the sequence.

We are left asking what to do with Astrophil as the writing/lover character. Sidney, as he reminds us again and again with his verbal flair and formal metamorphoses, is the author. His name is on the text, so how do we theorize Astrophil? A reading ignoring Sidney as author with agency over his texts gets us nowhere when trying to read this work in the context of Early

Modern changing conceptions of self-making through authorship. Foucault explains in “What is an Author,”

it would be false to consider the function of the author as a pure and

simple reconstruction after the fact of a text given as passive material,

since a text always bears a number of signs that refer to the author” (the

author is there before the text so he can’t be simply something constructed

by the text) (1265).

92 It is too easy, then, to read Astrophil the character as Sidney’s avatar. Astrophil is not

Sidney’s biography deployed on paper, despite references to Lady Rich or other actual persons of the court. Conflating Astrophil with Sidney doesn’t help the reader. Foucault reminds us that the author is a “particular manner of existence of discourse” (1264). We have to look at the text as an interplay of signs (for poetry, tropes function as ever-important signs) and the content they signify. Bates falls into the trap of conflating Astrophil and Sidney’s biography in her explanation of Astrophil’s abjection:

If Astrophil and Stella seems to begin with overabundance, with syllables

extra to requirement, the extra foot adds nothing and only makes the lover

flounder in an unconventional meter and in diversionary puns. From the

outset, Astrophil is maimed and directionless, the opposite of the

masterful, soldierly male. Indeed, he is more like the Sidney who, as a

schoolboy, suffered from recurring leg trouble, or, if he is a soldier, then

he is one who has already been subjected to love’s war and has returned

(in a strange anticipation of future events) with a shattered leg (16).

As Sonnet 20 notes, Astrophil is more than maimed: “Fly, fly, my friends, I have my death wound, fly.” But I suggest we, instead, conflate Sidney’s Petrarchan characters of

Astrophil and Stella, looking toward his use of tropes like “beauty,” “body,” and “soul,” and the famous kiss sonnets in the sequence. The kiss sonnets reveal Sidney’s Petrarchan-Platonic construction of the self through his authorship of these two fictional lovers. Though Greenblatt writes about More and Utopia at this particular moment in Renaissance Self-fashioning, his definition of self-fashioning is relevant here for Sidney and A&S: “[self-fashioning is] self- conscious role playing [through characters] and an intense meditation upon its limitations” (33).

93 ’s The book of the courtier (Book IV) describes virtues of the courtier while employing a neoplatonic discourse. The book of the courtier provides useful context when reading Sidney’s kiss sonnets and their neoplatonic implications. Castiglione defines a kiss as quite significant:

[A] knitting together both of bodie and soul, it is to bee feared, lest the sensuall

lover will be more enclined to the part of the bodie, than of the soule: but the

reasonable lover woteth well, that although the mouth be a parcel of the bodie, yet

is it an issue for the wordes, that be the interpreters of the soule, and for the

inwarde breath, which is also call the soule (607)

He continues, writing, “[T]hat bonde [a kiss] is the opening of an entrie to the soules, which drawne with a coveting the one of the other, poure them selves by turne the one into the others bodie, and bee so mingled together, that each of them hath two soules” (607). Earlier in The

Courtier, Castiglione describes the soul as “for the most part bee also evil, and ye beautifull good. Therefore it may be said that beautie is a face pleasant, merrie, comely, and to be desired for goodnesse: and foulnesse a face darke, uglesome, unpleasant, and to be shunned for ill”

(599). The mention of beauty here is important as, for Castiglione, beauty is the hallmark of the soul: “Therefore Beautie is the true monument and spoile of the victor of the soule, when she with heavenly influence beareth fule over martiall and grosse nature, and with her light overcommeth the darkenesse of the bodie” (601). In A&S, Sidney places great importance on beauty, mostly Stella’s beauty. Stella, as Beauty, is figured as the soul, following Castiglione’s model. In Sonnet 3 he writes Beauty onto Stella, “[I]n Stella’s face I read / What love and beauty be.” In Sonnet 59, he combines beauty with soul, writing:

That Stella (O dear name) that Stella is

94 That virtuous soul, sure heir of heavenly bliss,

Not this fair outside, which our hearts doth move;

And therefore, though her beauty and her grace

Be love’s indeed…

But Stella, for all her figurations as beauty and soul, is only as present as the abstractions in those figurations. In Sonnet 81, the kiss is not an actual kiss between two people.

O kiss, which dost those ruddy gems impart,

Or gems, or fruits of new-found paradise,

Breathing all bliss, and sweetening to the heart,

Teaching dumb lips a nobler exercise;

O kiss, which souls, even souls together ties

By links of love, and only nature’s art;

How fain would I paint thee to all men’s eyes,

Or of thy gifts at least shade out some part.

But she forbids; with blushing words, she says

She builds her fame on higher seated praise;

But my heart burns, I cannot silent be.

The since (dear life) you fain would have me peace,

And I, mad with delight, want wit to cease,

Stop you my mouth with still still kissing me.

In this sonnet, Sidney dehumanizes Stella as “fruits of a new-found paradise.” Later, in line 9, questions of who/whom arise? The second use of “souls” is ambiguous: does “even” act as a modifier of the original “souls” or the second “souls,” suggesting equivalence between

95 Astrophil’s soul and Stella’s soul? Also, the final line is confusing, to say the least. Does “you” refer to Astrophil, the character’s, mouth” or to Stella’s character? The lack of punctuation allows us to read it either way. The characters morph into one.

In Sonnet 106, Sidney writes in the first quatrain:

O absent presence, Stella is not here;

False flattering hope, that with so fair a face

Bare me in hand, that in this orphan place

Stella, I say my Stella, should appear.

Astrophil’s ownership of Stella, in line 4, is clear. So is his dependence on her “absent presence” as his exists in an “orphan place,” “orphan suggesting a lack of parentage which, in turn, implies the sense of being from nothing, a state of non-existence.

The attempted kiss, in Castiglionian terms, is Sidney’s attempt to knit together body

(public/visible) and soul (private/abstract). Astrophil is body (presence), and Stella is soul

(absent presence). In the neoplatonic sense, the body and soul are not actually divided. Sidney, reigning over all as author (in his particular manner of Petrarchan-Neoplatonic discourse exercised in a prosody of destabilization where he is the ultimate agent, transforming the traditional sonnet), illustrates this in Astrophil and Stella’s coupled figurative presence and their coupled literal absence through Petrarchan tropes, pronoun slippage, and mirroring descriptions.

A Tri-Dialectic: Abjection Times Three

Face One (Ain’t shit!) meets Face…(Fuck you.). Face Two: Who’s who? Face One: It’s me. Me you. You who? Who’s there? (That’s three?)

96 “Front Matter”

Abjection is the condition of being servile, wretched, or contemptible. Without gesturing toward a biographical sketch of Sidney, what can the characters of Astrophil and Stella tell us about his authorship?

Bates wants to remove the common critical recuperation of the abject male in the sonnet sequence and hopes to avoid glorifying both the male lover and the male author. She explains that Sidney avoids authorial glorification through his manic wit: he writes Astrophil as a male author, perhaps showing some of his own authorial flaws at the same time (14). She hopes to find a way to leave Astrophil and Sidney as broken as the abject Stella.

Sidney-Astrophil-Stella: the triumvirate of abjection.

I find it difficult not to glorify Sidney as author, given the iconoclastic vision of his prosody and the length of this project. Sidney is the agent of his authorial decisions and A&S exemplifies several assertions laid out in the Defense of Poesy. Sidney’s fictive who (Astrophil joined, as one, with Stella: “Sweet Stella’s image I do steal to me”) is the ghosted truth of the self as author: one individual, public, private, with the verisimilitude of the Early Modern concerns of writing (Sonnet 32). Sidney, in his neoplatonic unifying of Astrophil and Stella, and his prosody of destabilization, presents authorship as multi-faceted, broken, contradictory, and imperfect. To borrow from Foucault again, Sidney lives in his fictive Astrophil and Stella. He doesn’t disappear in his authorship of them, but writes himself in his authorship of their fiction.

In Sonnet 45, Sidney delivers the famous line, “I am not I, pity the tale of me.” Consider that sentence in the context of this sonnet and the entire sequence.

Stella oft sees the very face of woe

Painted in my beclouded stormy face;

97 But cannot skill to pity my disgrace

Not though thereof the cause herself she know;

Yet hearing late a fable, which did show

Of lovers never known a grievous case,

Pity thereof gat in her breast such place

That, from that sea derived, tears’ spring did flow.

Alas, if fancy drawn by imaged things,

Though gales, yet with free scope more grace doth breed

Than servant’s wrack, where new doubts honour brings;

Then think, my dear, that you in me do read

Of lover’s ruin some sad tragedy:

I am not I, pity the tale of me.

As characters, Astrophil writes Stella, from her vantage, writing woe onto his face; and, he writes tears in her eyes before he writes her reading of him as a tragedy. The point of all this reading and writing is in the final line, which the volta initiates: separate the subject from the writing of the subject.

For all of Sidney’s prosody of destabilization, his didactics and subversion of Petrarchan images, then, there is a message, and it isn’t simply “Look into thy heart and write.” In A&S, inwardness is more than “soul-searching” or waiting for the Muse’s inspiration. Rather, inwardness actively attempts the reconciliation of an individual’s disparate and countless parts.

The first quatrain of Sonnet 35 ends: “Within what bounds can one his liking stay, / Where nature doth with infinite agree?” To paraphrase, how you can define yourself with the infiniteness of your self, and nature?

98 To use the words of Katherine Maus, only through “authorial self-characterization” (34); our understanding of A&S as a reflection of Sidney’s understanding of himself as author (his authorial self-characterization, his tale of himself) is predicated on our acknowledgement of

Sidney’s definition of the poet in the Defense. Here, the poet is subject to the authority of his own pen and no other’s (193). But in this subjectivity lies the universal as, for Sidney, “poesy dealeth with katholou, that is to say, with the universal consideration” [taken from Aristotle, whom he credits] (192). And the universal, being subjective, is not about truth. Sidney writes,

Now, for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For, as I

take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false; so as the other

artists, and especially the historian, affirming many things, can, in the

cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies. But the

poet (as I said before) never affirmeth. The poet never maketh any circles

about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes


For Sidney, creation and meaning aren’t made through simple imitation or mimesis.

Meaning is made through the representation’s transformation of the actual world, not its resemblance to what it was [what it originally intended to represent] (194). Sidney writes, “That imitation whereof poetry is, hath the most conveniency to nature of all other, insomuch that, as

Aristotle saith, those things which in themselves are horrible, as cruel battles, unnatural monsters, are made in poetical imitation delightful” (194). The author is infinite, universal, an agent of transforming. The universal, for Sidney’s poet, lies in authorial agency and the author’s servitude (abjection) to his desire to make meaning through metamorphic creation.

99 Sonnet 37 refers to this anxious desire to create, here personified in symptoms of substance-abuse withdrawal we may find at a rehab clinic:

My mouth doth water, and my breast doth swell,

My tongue doth itch, my thoughts in labor be;

Listen then, lordings, with good ear to me,

For of my life I must a riddle tell.

The first line of Sonnet 40 reads, “As good to write, as for to lie and groan.” In Sonnet 44, “the sobs of mine annoys / Are metamorphosed straight to tunes of joys” (italics mine). In Sonnet 49, where love rides Astrophil’s character like a horse (as I note in the poem “For Astrophil,”), the anxiety of authorship is figured in “humbled thoughts, which bit of reverence move, / Curbed in with fear.” But the wand that whips him and the wand he whips himself with is “will” or the faculty of conscious, deliberative action and determination: agency.

Sonnet 108 provides a capstone to the love-hate relationship the author has to authorship.

This is the final move of the sequence:

When sorrow, using mine own fire’s might,

Melts down his lead into my boiling breast,

Through that dark furnace to my heart oppressed

There shines a joy from thee, my only light;

But as soon as thought of thee breeds my delight,

And my young soul flutters to thee, his next;

Most rude despair, my daily unbidden guest,

Clips straight my wings, strait wraps me in his night

And makes me then bow down my head, and say:

100 ‘Ah, what doth Phoebus’ gold that wretch avail

Whom iron doors do keep from use of day?’

So strangely, alas, thy works in me prevail,

That in my woes for thee thou art my joy,

And in my joys for thee my only annoy.

In his last hybrid sonnet (abbaabbacdcdee, with an off-rhyme in “next”), Sidney makes no last effort to name Stella. We have, as in many sonnets, only pronouns, but only non-gendered pronouns referring to Stella (“thee” and “thou”). We have no “she” or “her.” Reading this sonnet as a final, but more subtle allusion to authorship is more than fair given the sonnets such as 44, which begins, “My words, I know, do well set forth my mind; / My mind bemoans his sense of inward smart,” and Sonnet 34’s “Come, let me write. ‘And to what end?’ To ease / A burdened heart.” “[M]ine’s own fire” reads as creative fire, the urge to make monsters beautiful through verse. When that fire which makes the tongue itch and the breast rise results in verse, it breeds delight; but, as soon as delight arrives so does the despair of acknowledging the outside world

(Phoebus, the literal changing of day and night, not that created by the author’s pen). Sidney gestures towards an author’s dissociation from the outside world in line 3 and 4 of Sonnet 33:

Till now, wrapped in a most infernal night, / I find how heavenly day, wretch, I did miss.”

Yet, in the ultimate turn of the final sonnet 108, authorial agency (the work of creation) in line 12’s volta, prevails. The last lines leave us with the woes of writing and creating art

(reading “art” as both verb and noun), woes both joyful and annoying as the author is master and masterly enslaved.

Sidney, as author, like all Petrarchan poets, is triumphantly abject.

101 In her discussion of writing in Early Modern England, Annabel Patterson notes, “the self is always necessarily a product of its relations [to others and to itself]” (139). The triumph of

A&S as a text lies in Sidney’s imitation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, Wyatt’s “Whoso List” or any other poem: he takes from his predecessors and recreates the tradition. A&S, then, serves as the iconoclastic Early Modern text, a Renaissance revival of art, a humanist way of re-learning giving us an even more modern version of allusiveness or intertextuality by taking on not just the in voga form, but the tradition at large. His sonnet as song embodies body and soul, the act of authorship, a delusion of grandeur in its seeming control and an inward self-conscious questioning as he goes out on an public limb (a limb which, when face with the prospect of print, implicitly involves thoughts of Fame) transforming the tradition.

At the end of the Defense, Sidney leaves us with a curse: “yet thus much curse I must send you, in the behalf of all poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favor for lacking skill of a sonnet, and, when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph” (206). His existence lives in writing. A&S is not a love poem, and it’s more than an ars poetica. It is a model of existence through intertextuality and re-creation, through the combination of disparate parts, and existence dependent on the “lives” of others.

Authorship is transfiguration.

Under Sidney’s instruction, poets can renew the sonnet sequence each time they pen a new poem of their own. Reading Sidney’s A&S as a search, hidden in the mask of a courtly love poem, for an understanding of selfhood through the abjection (and appeal) of authorship gives us a lens through which to view other Early Modern texts, and, more interestingly, contemporary

20th century texts. What happens to conceptions of Anne Sexton and “Her Kind” when you strip away the language of 60s confessionalism and her well-known suicide? What if we consider

102 Sexton’s writing of herself, the devices and tropes and methods she uses, rather than the self we know through biography? What happens when you consider Berryman’s modes of authoring of

Mr. Bones?

No matter what the text, no matter how inward or confessional, no matter how black the blackest the face of woe, do not pity the tale of the author. He pulls the strings from the private wings of the page, and the figures dance, signify, wearing parts of his face, bearing parts of his heart.

Give us more, Sir Philip. Give us more.

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