Un-harkened Angel


Alex Kurtagic, London: Spradabach, 2023, hb., 997pps.

DEREK TURNER finds mordant fun in a tale of modern alienation

In 2009, Alex Kurtagic published Mister, his novel of a highly-cultured IT consultant operating within what he saw as the hellscape of contemporary Europe – a man too intelligent for an age suspicious of intellectual distinctions, and too independent-minded for a continent in thrall to neurotic pettifoggery. In Angel, we meet a similarly misfitting man, but one with even less adaptive ability – indeed, a man almost without agency. This is a behemoth of a book about a midget of a man, wandering solitarily in the drab wasteland of these times.  

Angel is a student of 17th Century literature at an English university, whose unhappy fate it is to combine refined tastes and fastidiousness with an inability to impose these on even his immediate surroundings. He is physically slight and correspondingly cowardly, chronically short of money, and not even compensatingly articulate. Traditionally, angels enunciate glad tidings, but this one (aspiring poet though he may be) can barely sustain a basic conversation. He is announced to, rather than an annunciator. His most obvious resemblance to Biblical or Hebrew angels lies in his essential insubstantiality.

Angel is surrounded by people infinitely more impressive than he is – especially women, from his formidable mother and sister, and brilliantly inductive fellow-students to the mothering Amelia who (for some incomprehensible reason) pants to enfold Angel in her ample embonpoint. He is an incel, but unlike some incels, not potentially dangerous. He is not even angry – although the debased nature of his university, and society, deserves almost unlimited contempt. Kurtagic’s front-cover oil of his Van Dyck-bearded subject excellently conveys the nervy nature of his character, his twitching worriedness and state of blinking surprise at the awfulness of almost everything.

We do not lose sympathy for Angel as the tale unfolds, because we never really develop any. Even if somehow we could, he would haemorrhage it with his every action, or more precisely inaction. It is only at the very end that we start to feel sorry for him, but we can never feel respect. He is epically inept and wholly dependent on others, unable to perform the simplest task without mishap. He gets a menial job, but can’t manage the hours. He is given expensive things, and loses them. He is given excellent advice, and makes no attempt to follow it. He gets blamed even for things that aren’t his fault – and we are neither surprised, nor particularly perturbed. The reason he has no money is that he burned through a generous grant from his wealthy and influential parents in pursuit of an American woman (Madison) so obviously unworthy that people who have never met her instantly smell the gold-digger.

Huge events unfold around him, which culminate in unexpectedly dramatic style, but he is so busy mooning about his love-interest (and feeling sorry for himself) that he misses all the portents. And yet this over-specialised evolutionary aberration ends up as one of his cohort’s rare survivors. His near-invisibility ensures that he is mercifully overlooked by the most malign influencers, except when he accidentally offends à la mode ‘activists’ of one kind or another. He does encounter real rebels, but (probably luckily for him) never capitalizes on these encounters, through distractedness or pusillanimity.

But if we cannot admire Angel, we can smile at some of his pratfalls and predicaments. The author’s mordant sense of humour is abundantly in evidence, as his protagonist lurches from one petty indignity to the next – building up debts, humiliations and resentments, borrowing money he can’t repay, exasperating his family, failing his few friends, irritating his tutors, losing all his clothes at the launderette (and all his illusions about Madison), and vomiting all over the fragrant front of the only woman in the world who wants anything to do with him. Angel’s phobias are Ruskinian in their rarefaction, as he registers disgust with bad table manners, dirt, drunkenness, earrings, oxter hair (on women), tobacco and tattoos.

This is however not just a novel of amusing incidents, but also of serious ideas. The author is a determined logophile, and even those with above-average vocabularies may encounter words that are new to them, or that they have forgotten. These pleasing encounters contrast with sometimes over-long staccato dialogue sections when Angel is trying to attract the attention of barmen or shopkeepers, or, yet again, failing to explain himself to his supposed intellectual peers.

Sophisticated sociopolitical arguments are seeded through this book – about sex differences, elitism, the nature and purpose of universities, and freedom of conscience – but none of these viewpoints are expressed by Angel, although we infer that he generally agrees with their conservative-reactionary tenor. There are shrewd observations of today’s cry-bully tendencies, with their manic oscillations between psychological extremes, attacks on easy Aunt Sally targets, and protesting-too-much parading – and excellent evocations of cityscapes in all their Bladerunner alienness, or broken-down decrepitude. Strewn names of books, films, and paintings betoken authorial wide interests, and the book’s production values hint at his awareness of the importance of aesthetics in shaping worlds. Kurtagic is certain there is such a thing as ‘good taste’, and that it is at root a moral choice. This is weighty literature, in more than just a physical sense.

We eventually leave Angel all alone, contemplating the ruins of all his hopes and with no obvious avenue of escape, with even his once-powerful parents implicated in his downfall. It is a desolate outcome indeed even to so inglorious an odyssey, and even for someone not obviously deserving of respect – because behind his seriocomic unfolding can be seen substantive insights into 21st century society, and in his deeply-grained disappointment something of ourselves.

This review first appeared in The Miskatonian (Home page – The Miskatonian) and is reproduced with permission

London Lies Bleeding – Prologue

Image: Derek Turner
GOMERY KIMBER introduces Justin Martello, “a new kind of hero”

‘No,’ I said. 

Saul Ruzo opened the cell door. 

‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,’ said Ruzo.  ‘Strip.’ 


At knifepoint, Ruzo’s thugs stripped me naked and bundled me inside. 

‘You like it, Martello?’ Ruzo asked. ‘I call it the torture cell.  It’s based on a design by Alphonse Laurentic.  You heard of him?  He fought for the good guys in the Spanish Civil War. Only we’ve made a couple of improvements, bring it into the twenty-first century.’ 

‘American progress – where would the world be without it?’ 

Smirking, Ruzo slammed the door shut on my remark. 

The torture cell. 

It was impossible to rest. The concrete bed sloped at an angle of twenty degrees. It was impossible to sit comfortably on it either. And exercise was out of the question because the floor of the cell was an obstacle course of house bricks fixed haphazardly into concrete. 

Painted on the cell walls were surrealistic patterns designed to disorientate the prisoner. The clock above the cell door ran either too slow or too fast, and there was no window, making it impossible to know whether it was night or day. 

Air con and cameras were two of Ruzo’s improvements, the lighting effects also. 

Sometimes the cell was tolerably warm, sometimes freezing, and sometimes so hot that the sweat ran down my bare legs. And at any moment, the space might be bathed in lurid green light, or pitch suddenly black, followed by strobe lights, daylight, dusk, dawn, then back again to green, or crimson, or puce. 

And all the time the phantasmagoria was accompanied by repetitive music and noisy sound effects: death metal, advertising jingles, vicious dogs barking, babies screaming, women weeping. Over and over and over again. 

‘It’s designed to send you crazy,’ Saul Ruzo confided when his men returned me to the chamber after the first mock execution. 

And it had. 

With a start, I opened my eyes and looked at my visitor. 

‘Lieutenant Mbweha is very pleased with the progress you’ve made, Justin,’ said Piers Wyvern. ‘She says you might be well enough to be discharged in a day or two.’

I was seated in the uncomfortable armchair beside the hospital bed. Piers Wyvern glanced at me to gauge my reaction, but I was so full of sedatives that I barely reacted at all. I wondered where I would go, now that my house had been sold. 

‘Pity about the rain,’ he said. ‘We might have had our picnic in the grounds.’ 

Piers opened the wicker basket that he’d brought to the military hospital where I was being held. He claimed he’d just returned from a week in Venice where he’d lost heavily at the casino but enjoyed some wonderful food. He was certainly plumper than the last time I’d seen him. His sandy hair was sun-bleached and his florid face tanned. He wore a reddish-brown suit, and not for the first time he put me in mind of a well-fed fox. 

‘Still,’ he said, spreading out the picnic blanket on the hospital bed, ‘cosy little room they’ve given you. We can have a nice chat.’ 

I made an effort to stir myself. 

‘Chat?’ I said. ‘About what?’

‘Why, the future, of course. Now, what would you say to a glass of wine?’ 

I didn’t respond. I sat slumped in the chair wearing military issue pyjamas and dressing gown feeling nothing at all, apart from the draught from the window. So far as I could see I had no future. 

Piers removed the bottle of Gambellara from the wine cooler sleeve and poured two drinks. As I put my glass down on the wooden bedside locker, I spilled some wine. Piers produced a paper napkin and fussily mopped up the drops. He needn’t have bothered. The stained old locker was defaced with many a scratch and cigarette burn. 

‘There’s roast beef with watercress and horseradish,’ said Piers, trying to tempt me. ‘And antipasto, kalamata olives – or one of these delicious miniature scotch eggs.’

His voice was thick with anticipation, for Piers was a greedy man, at his happiest when there was the prospect of not just three, but four meals a day. 

‘Pour me some water,’ I said. 

Reluctantly, Piers did so, from the two-litre plastic jug that stood on the locker. The medication made my mouth dry and I drained the plastic tumbler as soon as he handed it to me. Piers looked disappointed.  I was spoiling a treat. 

‘I don’t wish to appear rude,’ I said. 

‘Not at all, Justin. They’ve got you doped, haven’t they? Silly of me. I thought you might be fed up with hospital fare, it’s always ghastly. But perhaps you’d have been happier with a bowl of clear soup and a soft bread roll.’ 

Disappointed, Piers popped one of the miniature scotch eggs into his mouth and devoured it with relish. 

I looked away. Summer rain ran down the dirty windowpane, and outside in the gardens a gusty south wind whipped the rhododendrons. I didn’t care for Piers Wyvern, just as I didn’t care for the Royal Navy psychiatrist, Lieutenant Missy Mbweha. Before diagnosing me, she’d gone and fetched the official manual of psychiatric disorders and consulted it for some minutes before pronouncing her verdict. 

‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ she’d asked at one point. The question had made me burst out laughing. 

I looked at Piers. He was a confirmed materialist as well. As far as Wyvern was concerned, pleasure was the only thing of undoubted value, and it was around pleasure that he arranged his life. I watched as he decided what to devour next. 

‘Won’t you have something?’ 

‘Have you been discussing my health with Mbweha, Piers?’ 

‘Of course not. Patient confidentiality, and all that,’ said Wyvern, looking up sharply from the delicacies. He softened his tone. ‘The thing is, everyone’s concerned about dear old Justin, who’s come through a very rough time, who in fact has had a rough old life, all told.’

‘A very rough time,’ I repeated. ‘A rough old life.’

‘Your parents and everything,’ explained Piers with great kindness. ‘That sort of traumatic event in childhood, it’s bound to affect one in later life.’

The comment angered me. I wasn’t ‘traumatised.’ So far as I could see, the psychiatric profession pathologised any deviation from ‘normality.’ The only people considered ‘normal’ were those who posed no threat to the possessors of power. 

‘This has nothing to do with my parents’ murder, Piers.’ 

‘We just want what’s best for you,’ he went on, blithely. ‘I mean, you don’t want to be stuck in one of these places for the rest of your life, do you?’

So that was it.  I suppose I would have realised sooner if I hadn’t been doped. 

‘Where exactly are we, Piers?’ 

‘Thought they’d told you, dear boy. Rendlesham Hall, Suffolk.’ 

‘Yes, that’s what they told me, and I said I’d never heard of a military hospital of that name.’

‘Well, neither had I for that matter.’

‘It’s off the books.’

‘Now now,’ Piers chided me. ‘Don’t get upset. Why not try that wine? It’s Giovanni Menti.’ 

‘So, what is your plan for me?’ I asked. 

‘We thought you might like to do us the occasional service,’ Wyvern said, choosing one of the roast beef sandwiches. ‘Nothing too onerous, and nothing that will trouble your conscience, either.’

He bit into the finger sandwich. 


Hurriedly, Piers chewed so that he might respond. ‘There’s no need to decide right away. Have a think about it over the next few days.’

‘The answer is no, Piers.’ 

‘It will do you the power of good. The nine-to-five, there’s something to be said for it. Reason not to get hammered in the evening for one thing, or at lunchtime.’ With a smile, he raised his glass to me.  It was a thin smile and not entirely pleasant. ‘Ordinary life, more or less, keeps one grounded.’

Mounting anger was rousing me from my sedation. 

‘I flew too close to the sun, you mean.’

Piers regarded me sceptically. 

‘I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities,’ he quoted.   

Piers had no time for metaphysics, which was surprising given his ancestry (the Wyvern family had produced many an occultist and alchemist). I’d known him twenty years. As a green lieutenant, I’d been assigned to act as his bodyguard while on secret service in Iraq, and Piers had been delighted to learn I’d attended what he allowed was a fairly decent school and knew Latin and Greek. 

I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities

It was from Ovid, the opening line of The Metamorphoses. The poet’s unifying theme of transformation, I recalled, involved the hunter and the hunted, and more often than not, violence inflicted on the victim, as well. 

‘Come home, Justin,’ Piers said. ‘All is forgiven.’ 

I was feeling emotional.     

‘That’s right, drink your wine, there’s a good chap. Remember Thorne, your old Staff Sergeant? We thought he might act as liaison.’ 

I almost choked. 

‘What do you mean? I run my own ship.’ 

Piers frowned. ‘Not any longer, I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘Theresa thought it better you step down. After all, it was only on an interim basis, wasn’t it? And you’re not really a businessman, are you?’

I took the comment personally. True, I wasn’t a businessman, but I was a leader, and it was on that basis that I’d agreed to run the Seton-Glennie operation.   

‘Theresa spoke to you?’ I said. 

‘Mrs Seton-Glennie did indeed speak to me, icily admittedly, but she told me she wanted you to step down. I’m sure you’ll speak to her, in due course.’ 

‘Get out.’ 

‘Steady, Justin, steady.’ 

‘Leave me alone, you bastard.’

‘Now that’s quite enough! Need I remind you I was the one who rode to the bloody rescue after you were shanghaied by Ruzo?’ 

‘Shanghaied?’ I repeated. ‘Abducted, you mean, from the most secure police station in London, Paddington Green. Do you really think I believe you people didn’t have a hand in it?’ 

We did not, asserted Piers, red in the face.  Handing one of our own to the Yanks so that they could torment you? Absolute rubbish!’ 

I bit my lip and looked away. I was absolutely certain that the powers that be had indeed handed me over to Ruzo and his loathsome ‘gators, but saying so, even to my ears, sounded like paranoia. 

Piers regarded me as though with great concern.   

‘Justin,’ he said softly, ‘you’re my friend and I have your best interests at heart. What has to be has to be. You’ll come back to work for us, and that’s that.’


Wyvern was about to remonstrate but when he saw the murderous look on my face he decided that discretion was the better part of valour. I watched the smooth-talking cynic struggle to stand. 

‘I shall leave the picnic,’ he said, breathing hard, ‘for you to enjoy. Goodbye, Justin.’

After Wyvern left, it took me some time to calm down, and by then I was hungry. I stood up unsteadily and examined the picnic hamper. Amongst the food I discovered presents – Italian coffee and biscuits, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes (the brand we’d smoked in Iraq), a lighter, and a little box of Baci chocolates. On the back of a picture postcard Piers had written in his florid hand: ‘Dear Justin, trusting you’ll be on parade again very soon, much love from your DQ.’

DQ, Delta Quebec. That had been Wyvern’s call-sign in Baghdad, until the Americans learnt what DQ referred to, that is. 

I turned the postcard over and looked at the picture, not surprised to see the Botticelli self-portrait. When Piers first saw me in shorts he told me I had ‘Botticelli legs.’ 

Rejecting the nostalgia and the feeling I’d behaved discourteously to an old friend, I flicked the postcard aside, and helped myself to a sandwich. 

That was when I discovered the phone, in amongst the food.  It was of a special design, the kind issued to MI6 officers in the field overseas.  It contained only one contact number: Thorne’s. 

There was something else – my passport. But when I opened it I discovered it had been stamped ‘WITHDRAWN’ in red ink and the top corners of the pages clipped off. I supposed it meant I’d be working for 6 in the UK, MI5 territory, and therefore supposedly forbidden. I swallowed the food in my mouth, but without appetite. 

I remembered the time when I had dominated life, but for some time now life had been dominating me. 

Cutting the grass

That was the phrase Saul Ruzo had used. 

‘You got above your station, Martello, you need to be reminded who’s boss. You loused up my operation, Operation Eagle’s Nest! Well, now you’re gonna pay.’ 

Hands trembling, I cleared the picnic away, got into bed and tried to go back to sleep.

Forest fantasy

Image: Leonhard Lenz. Wikimedia Commons

Seren of the Wildwood  

Marly Youmans, Wiseblood books, illustrated, hb., 72pps., US$16

LIAM GUILAR is beguiled by a dream of tangled trees

The Wildwood holds the remnants of the past, / Strange ceremonies that the fays still love / To watch – the rituals of demon tribes / Who once played havoc with the universe, / And everything that says the world is not / Exactly what it seems is hidden here, / But also there are paths to blessedness.

So begins Seren of the Wildwood, Marly Youmans’ narrative poem that drifts the reader through a tale that seems both familiar and strange.

Traditional fairy and folk tales have been a resource for many modern writers and film makers. The old story is usually rewritten to correct a perceived ideological bias, or to rationalise the magic, or to make it acceptable to modern audiences, whose ideas of story have been shrunk by mass market films. With notable exceptions, rewriting fails to produce anything that comes close to the originals in their ability to unsettle and entertain. Writers can study archetypes, read the psychoanalytical literature, immerse themselves in Joseph Campbell et al, naturalise Propp’s Morphology, and still produce a story that fails to hold an audience.[i]

The stories Walt Disneyfied are closer to inappropriate dreams that don’t care about your daylight ideology, or your preferred version of the world. They exist in the liminal space between waking and sleeping, recalling a time when the wolves were real and the forest was a dangerous place. Marly Youmans’ story moves bodily into that space, where nothing is quite what it seems, and never quite what it should be, where hope and disappointment are as commonplace as leaves and what we might label cruelty is just the way the world is.

Her poem is not a retelling of a previous story – but is rather a new story, inhabiting old spaces to make them new again. Seren grows up on the edges of the Wildwood, her childhood overshadowed by the death of her brothers, which the story ascribes to her father’s ill-chosen words. Constrained at home by her mother’s care, she is lured into the trees by the promise of friendship and adventure. She meets characters who harm and help her, moving through a dream-like landscape, made real by Youmans’ descriptions, until she finds her way home.

The poem is written in sixty-two stanzas, each consisting of twenty-one lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter ending with a ‘Bob and Wheel’. The Bob is an abrupt two syllable line, the Wheel four short lines rhyming internally. They break the visual and aural monotony even the best blank verse can produce over a long narrative; they can summarise the stanza, comment on it, or provide an opportunity for epigrammatic statement:

[…]Next, a King

Not young but middle-aged his curling beard

Gone steel,

His mind turned lunatic,

His body no ideal

Of grace and charm to prick

Desire: man as ordeal.

The Bob and Wheel, famously used in Gawain and the Green Knight, inevitably evoke medieval precedent, as does the walled garden Seren finds but can’t enter. Although the Wildwood is not the harsh landscape Gawain rides into before returning home, the Knight of Romance rode into the forest to seek adventures because the forest was the place where the normal social rules and expectations did not apply. There is often a didactic element to such stories, but fortunately Youmans avoids the temptation to turn hers into a sermon.

Her poem is full of good lines:

Like some grandfather’s pocket watch wound tight

But then forgotten, Seren moved slower

And slower.

The descriptions of the landscape anchor the fantastic story. In the following quotation Seren is heading towards a river she must cross and discovers a waterfall:

And so she travelled toward the roar of rain

With thunder, apprehensive as she neared

The lip where torrents catapulted free

From stone and merged into a muscular

And sovereign streaming force – the energy

That shocks the trembling pebbles into flight

And grinds the massive boulders into bowls.

Occasionally it is not easy to decide if a line is padded or what might be padding is deliberate stye: ‘It seemed satanic, manic, half insane’, but this is so rare that the fact it’s noticeable is a tribute to all the other lines where it isn’t.  

The poem is rich in images and incidents and packed with a diverse cast of characters, but what does it mean? This is the wrong question. In school we are taught ‘how to read a poem’. For ‘read’, understand ‘analyse’ and the purpose of the analysis is to explain ‘what the poem means’ or, in its most depressing formulation ‘what was the poet was trying to say’. These questions and the approaches they require have little to do with the experience of reading poetry outside the academy.

Stories, poems, and narrative poems especially, can be a way of thinking in and through language, in a non-linear, perhaps non-rational, associative way. The story works for the reader when it activates memory, prior reading, knowledge and experience. The question therefore should be, what does the story do for you while you’re reading it, and afterwards, when a phrase, an incident, or an image remains in your memory.[ii]

Youmans’ poem encourages such a line of thinking; there are numerous allusions to other stories, tying Seren into a network of intertextuality, (at one point she is helped in the story by remembering the stories she has been told), there are images, which evoke a host of medieval precedents, but Youmans avoids the simplification of neat equivalence or the temptation of a tidy conclusion.

In terms of traditional narrative arcs, if you believe in the importance of such things, the story ends abruptly and very little is explained. There are questions left unanswered and threads that were run out but not neatly tied together at the end. The reader is being treated with respect and left alone with the story. It is a book that invites and rewards multiple rereading.

Reading is made easier because the book itself is a beautiful object. Wiseblood books are to be commended on producing such a fine hardback at such a low price. Printed on good quality paper, one stanza to a page, Seren of the Wildwood is illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. His black and white images complement the tone and mood of the story.

[i] There are obvious exceptions to this generalisation and to be precise everyone who has told these stories has altered them; the Grimms were notorious revisers.

[ii] The undeniable consequence of this line of thinking is that the book that haunts one reader is the same book another reader can’t be bothered to finish, regardless of the reviewer’s praise or condemnation. This seems especially true of narrative poetry. 

Anthony Burgess – The Professional

BENJAMIN AFER outlines an extraordinarily prolific and versatile author

Some weeks ago, I was offered a small commission by a respectable new journal to contribute a few thousand words on Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, but reluctantly deferred owing to considerable concern that a short essay composed under the duress of manic end-of-year busyness would result an inadequate treatment of such a monumental work. But when I was offered some column inches in this journal on the subject of Anthony Burgess, I accepted without hesitation. After all, Burgess has long been one of my most-admired authors, and I have more than a casual familiarity with his work, having read and re-read a good deal of his fiction many times over.

This cheerful attitude quickly fell into a tense anxiety when I realised, sitting down to write, that the great scope of Burgess’s œuvre would make this a more complicated and technically demanding matter than any essay on Proust. For even if Marcel still has Anthony pipped on word-count (and that’s not entirely certain), the latter’s ability to write masterful works in so many genres, in so many different styles, on endlessly varying subjects, in both fiction, non-fiction, symphonic music and poetry means that there is ample material for several lifetimes worth of Burgess-study. Both authors can be poked in the ribs, so to speak, with that infamous jibe given by a member of the royal family upon the presentation of yet another volume of Decline and Fall – “Another damn’d thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

Even Burgess’s socially mobile origin story is so uniquely mid-century that it requires hefty contextual explanation, and the subsequent biographical aspects seem to go on twisting and turning forever. We have Burgess the precocious Catholic schoolboy, Burgess the soldier, Burgess the lover, Burgess the adulterous scoundrel, Burgess the schoolmaster, Burgess the august television intellectual, Burgess the tax-dodging expatriate, Burgess the linguist, Burgess the Joyce expert, Burgess the librettist, Burgess the avant-garde composer, satirist and poet. At least Proust remained mercifully confined to his bed, doing little else but huffing Escouflaire [Ed. Anti-asthmatic medicines] and “scribble, scribble scribble.”

Indeed, this systematic under-appreciation of Anthony Burgess seems to be less a consequence of any mediocrity on his part and more a consequence of sheer befuddlement on the part of lazy critics, academics, and other taste-making ne’er-do-wells. There is no adjectival hole into which the man or his work can be easily pigeoned. As G.K. Chesterton said of the Christian ideal, Burgess has not been tried and found wanting. He has been found difficult, and left untried.

John Burgess Wilson (later confirmed into the Catholic Church with the middle name Anthony) was born in Manchester, in February 1917. His mother, Elizabeth Burgess, died less than two years later of the Spanish Flu, and his father Joseph took up with Margaret Dwyer, the landlady of the pub in which he played the piano as an evening job. Though Joseph Wilson was by trade a shopkeeper dealing mainly in tobacco and alcohol (which kept the family out of poverty during the long depression years – “the poor always found money to drink”) Burgess always recalled his father as a frustrated composer, skilled enough to play all the favourite pub tunes and provide spontaneous accompaniment to silent films in the local picture house, but otherwise an archetypical mute inglorious. His self-description was always that of a composer who wrote books rather than a writer who dabbled in music.

Despite his father’s apparent gifts, Burgess remained ignorant to music as a whole until hearing a prelude by Debussy on his home-built radio. The attitude among lower-middle class Mancunians of the interwar years, both at home and at the Xaverian College to which the bookish young man had earned a scholarship, held against teaching music to young people – there was no realistic prospect of any money in it – so, undeterred and with characteristic bullheadedness, Burgess taught himself to play the piano at the age of 14.

Moreso than the solitariness of his schoolyears and the often-warlike relationship between himself and his stepmother (later given brilliantly repulsive illustration in the Enderby novels), Burgess was always quick to recall the Catholic, and particularly Irish, aspect of his background. At least one journalist joked that to hear Burgess talk of his home city, one would suppose that Manchester was a suburb of Dublin. With echoes of the late-century “Troubles literature” that familiarised many British and American readers with the largely self-generated Cagot-apartheid between denominations in Northern Ireland, Burgess recalled in print and on television interviews the automatic jeering and separation between “Cat-licks” and “Proddy-dogs” in Jazz Age Manchester, long before the children on either side of the dispute had any rational grounds to do so. Burgess’s father often took him aside and cautioned “Son, don’t give allegiance to any Hanoverian Protestant monarch. Your last monarch was James II.” It was taken both as a sort of nostalgic joke and as a deadly serious reminder of where the lines lay in the Britain of that era.

Once again hobbled in his ambitions to become a composer when the music department at Victoria University [Ed. Now part of the University of Manchester] turned down his application, he was instead taken in by the literature department in 1937, and a female economics student called Llewela “Lynne” Isherwood. Burgess was able to finish his degree before the inevitable call-up for National Service.

To put it plainly, the army did not suit him. He was constantly being arraigned for disciplinary offences and, most commonly, for overstaying his married leave. Despite his best efforts, the army promoted him to sergeant and found a place for him in the Educational Corps. Burgess’s flair for language earned him a posting in Gibraltar, working as a debriefer on behalf of stranded Dutch and French expatriates. A brief lock-up on the other side of Spanish border following an ill-advised tirade on the diminutive height and not-so-diminutive portliness of General Franco would be given its vicious counterpoint in an incident made famous by a disturbing quasi-literation in A Clockwork Orange: Lynne, still back in England and pregnant with the Burgess’s first child, was beaten and raped by a gang of marauding American deserters under the cover of the blackout, losing the baby as a consequence. Burgess, for reasons unknown, was denied home leave to see her. The horrifying inability to protect his wife or even comprehend the reasons for such an act seems to have given succour to Burgess’s mystical-Catholic belief in the existence of a pure evil that stalks out potential in every human being. Try to find any trace of rational-choice doctrine or liberal social-excuse theory in the following passage:

All right, Dim,’ I said. ‘Now for the other veshch, Bog help us all.’ So he did the strong-man on the devotchka, who was still creech creech creeching away in very horrorshow four-in-a-bar, locking her rookers from the back, while I ripped away at this and that and the other, the others going haw haw haw still, and real good horrorshow groodies they were that then exhibited their pink glazzies, O my brothers, while I untrussed and got ready for the plunge. Plunging, I could slooshy cries of agony and this writer bleeding veck that Georgie and Pete held on to nearly got loose howling bezoomny with the filthiest of slovos that I already knew and others he was making up. Then after me it was right old Dim should have his turn, which he did in a beasty snorty howly sort of a way with his Peebee Shelley maskie taking no notice, while I held on to her. Then there was a changeover, Dim and me grabbing the slobbering writer veck who was past struggling really, only just coming out with slack sort of slovos like he was in the land in a milk plus bar, and Pete and Georgie had theirs.

These are not horrors to be explained away by some bunk about absentee fathers or inadequate youth-group opportunities. The bucking refutation of modern sociological ideas in A Clockwork Orange is, in my view, the true cause of the furore later kicked up around the hitherto modestly known book when the Stanley Kubrick film appeared. As Burgess himself noted, the Russell-esque socially liberal literati, who normally kept their safe, snobbish distance from those poor working-class underdogs whom they supposedly championed, took great personal offence at the character of Alex – an obviously intelligent, strategically minded-young man with two loving parents and an orgasmic appreciation for “lovely Ludwig van.” They were forced to see, not as they usually did a violent, irrational sub-species in need of a good Pygmalion-job, but instead a character they themselves identified with.

A Clockwork Orange takes the territory explored by Dostoyevsky via Raskolnikov to a logical end by removing even the pretence of a reason for what Alex does. Unlike the would-be Übermensch Raskolnikov, there are no delusions of grandeur to Alex. His material needs are well-satisfied, and he delights in the pleasure of violence itself rather than violence as a means to an end like robbery or survival. He indulges in evil acts more or less for their own sake. He knows the difference between right and wrong, but simply fails to consider why such a contrast should impede him. More chillingly to the modern progressive mind, Burgess takes a firm stand on the human necessity that Alex be able to choose to live in such a way. A further insult is levelled at the intelligentsia by the way in which their “Ludovico Treatment” gives us a stronger feeling of nausea and repulsion than any of the crimes committed by young Alex, because the former is a hideous restriction on any moral choice that renders the victim an eponymous clockwork orange – only superficially organic and alive. By contrast, the ultra-violence and juvenile thuggery of the Droogs is all-too-human. Their lives are an expression of forces that cannot be created or destroyed; merely redirected; a fact so wonderfully illustrated by Burgess when a wretched, suffering, “reformed” Alex is torturously worked over by two policemen, whom he suddenly recognises as former members of his gang.  

Although A Clockwork Orange is the title most people will conjure in their minds when they hear the author’s name, for Burgess, the success and media frenzy around the book became a case-study in the ancient artist’s headache: the inability to choose which of your works becomes a public ‘favourite.’ Though the creation of Alex’s “Nadsat” argot is a deservedly acclaimed feat, Burgess was always quick to point out that he considered the work a minor one of his own canon, a jeu d’esprit knocked off in a couple of weeks. From the release of the film to his last days, he was continually badgered by obnoxious phone calls from tabloid papers and crusading members of the public asking if he felt personally responsible for that week’s nondescript heinous act of violence, particularly if the act in question involved sexual extremism. 

But Burgess, ever our dogged professional, was never one to pass up the opportunity to turn a unique life experience into fine prose. Picture a corpulent, dyspeptic middle-aged English poet-cum-lecturer staggering around a New York apartment borrowed from some ten-a-penny feminist academic on sabbatical. He’s naked. He’s staggering towards a telephone which, when answered, usually delivers a barrage of ranting phone calls from angry citizens who are eager to denounce him for what began as a film adaption of Hopkins’ poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, which has evolved to become a salacious piece of exploitation. The poor chap did not produce, write, or contribute to the project in any meaningful sense, but nevertheless his name has appeared all over the credits. A talk show has phoned asking him for an appearance that night:

[…] Some boys have been attacking some nuns. In Manhattanville. I’m shocked you didn’t know. I assumed–

“Nuns are always being attacked. Their purity is an affront to the dirty world.”

“Remember that. Remember to say that. But the point is that they said they wouldn’t have done it if they hadn’t seen the movie. That’s why we’re—”

I see. I see. Always blame art, eh? Not original sin but art. I’ll have my say, never fear.”

“You have the address?”

“You ignore art as so much unnecessary garbage or you blame it for your own crimes. That’s the way of it. I’ll get the bastards, all of them. I’m not having this sort of nonsense, do you hear?” There was silence at the other end. “You never take art for what it is – beauty, ultimate meaning, form for its own sake, self-subsisting, oh no. It’s always got to be either sneered at or attacked as evil. I’ll have my bloody say. What’s the name of the show again?” But she had rung off, silly bitch.

Enderby went snorting back to his poem. The stupid bastards.

Enter Francis Xavier Enderby. On the back cover of my copy of the excellent Vintage Classics edition of ‘The Complete Enderby,’ is a snippet of praise from Gore Vidal, who pronounces the Enderby series to be “even finer comedies than those by Evelyn Waugh.” I cannot really disagree with this, devotee of Messrs Pennyfeather and Boot though I am, but my first point of comparison would not be to anything by Waugh, but rather to the borborygmically-challenged elephantine Catholic Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

The Enderby novels (Inside Mr Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament and Enderby’s Dark Lady) belong to that august class of comedic books which can be called, without hyperbole or cliche, achingly funny. Concerning the declines and falls of a minor poet who writes in his filthy lavatory and lives off a small annuity left him by his detested stepmother (Burgess leaves little speculation room for biographical critics), Enderby appears to us as a kind of innocent shrew of self-supported masculinity, unsociable and fragile as he may be. His livings, though squalid, are secure, and his muse is to be reliably found in the WC whenever he wishes to call upon her. Any aspiring writer or artist will know what a screamingly enviable position this is to be in.

But alas, the forces of polite society, modernity, Ludovico-toting medical-establishment quacks and (shudder) females and marriage all conspire to destroy what precious little Enderby has in life. Like any master of the picaresque, Burgess knew that the plot is wholly superficial; what keeps the humour alive and glowing is the flavour of each situation the protagonist finds themselves in, and how they go about the inevitable extrication into the next one. Enderby’s numerous literary and menial vocations, alternate personalities, disconcerting love interests, expatriate nationalities and endless personal problems are navigated deftly enough by Burgess, though with a little slowing and self-indulgence at various points. 

It feels a little wrong to reserve so little space for the “serious” masterpieces. Like everything Burgess wrote other than A Clockwork Orange, the major novels remain ignored and little-read. Napoleon Symphony is a controversial, rather Freudian portrait of l’Empereur composed along the lines of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, which in itself might be the only work of art famous for who it isn’t dedicated to. Earthly Powers deserves its own treatment entirely, but suffice to say it is a heroic send-up of a man Burgess fervently envied for his wealth and literary celebrity – the repressed homosexual author, intelligence agent and fellow Riviera-expatriate W Somerset Maugham. Christopher Hitchens pointed out that the novel’s famous first line (“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”) is such savagely accurate parody because it is so much better than anything “poor old Willie” ever wrote in his life.

There is so much more to Burgess than can be covered in a small essay such as this. He began his career, for example, with the superb Malayan trilogy, concocted when he was a colonial civil servant in the 1950s with a terminal diagnosis (obviously proved to be wrong) and a moody, alcoholic wife to support as best he could. The switch from “John Burgess Wilson” to “Anthony Burgess” was to accommodate the fact that in those days, it simply wasn’t on for respectable government men to write funny novels.  But Burgess knew which career beckoned most.

What I admire most about him was the sheer professionalism he brought to the craft of writing. There is nothing bohemian or “artsy” or, God forbid, “Bloomsbury” about his character or life. This is borne out in his habits – come rain, come shine, come hangover, he would swing his way to the writing room at nine o’clock each morning to set down his 2,000 words. Other writers chided him for this (“written your weekly novel yet, Burgess?”) but this was so obviously spurred by shame and jealously. There really never is any excuse for the loose manner in which so many scribblers comport themselves; writing is not some gentlemanly pastime but a profession, with all the great and grim caveats that label entails. When encouraged by his publishers to try a word processor, Burgess rejected it not for any romantic attachment to typewriters or pen-and-ink, but because the keys could be pressed all to easily – “the slam of key against platen is like the hammer to the anvil, you can hear that work is being done.” Ite, missa est, Mr Burgess.

Taking Possession

LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head. His most recent book is A Man of Heart (Shearsman, 2023)

Normans on the great north road

somewhere in England in 1071.[i]

Hubert, lord of these grey riders,

fought at Senlac, and since then

has been useful to the King

His reward, the manor he rides towards,

larger than the home he left in Normandy.

Walter, his seneschal, riding beside him,

fought at Senlac with distinction,

rallied the savaged in the Malfosse .[ii]

Between them, non-armoured, long haired,

Aelfric, an Englishman. Their local guide.

Their translator. He makes them awkward

in ways they’d struggle to define.

If pushed, Walter might reply;

he has no scars: his hands are soft.

The manor is wooden, unfortified.

Too easy to attack and futile to defend.

All this, thinks Hubert, I will change.

After the automatic military appraisal,

the childlike revelation: this is mine.

All mine. A group waits, women, children,

men so old they can’t stand straight.

The lady of the manor steps towards him.

Hubert remembers that in the English time

she could have run this place without a husband.

Now she and it are forfeit to the crown,

the crown bestowed them both on him

and he has come to take possession.

That thought will take a long time growing old.

He examines her the way he will inspect the cattle,

fields, fish weir and the little mill.

Tall, straight, young, blonde: she will do.

‘Where are the men?’ Vague images 

of those long legs, fine hips and breasts

do not make him stupid. ‘Where are the men?’

He has lost friends who were not so cautious,

in this green folded landscape, where the trees

and ditches hide those desperate for revenge.

Aelfric translates the question.

‘Where you should be.’ He ducks his head

til he remembers he rides with the victors

and she’s the one who lost and all her pride

will not avert the fate that rides towards her.

‘Her brothers, father, uncle, nephews died

at Stamford bridge and Senlac hill.

Their tenants and dependants died with them.’[iii] 

The idea that Englishmen are long-haired,

beer swilling, effeminate, will creep

into the Norman mind but not in Hubert’s

even if he lived a long and idle life.

Those longhaired drunkards stood their ground,

all day. Charge after charge breaking

on that obdurate line of shields. 

Anyone who’d seen a horse and rider split

by one swing of an axe would think twice

about disparaging the man who swung it.

But Aelfric swung no axe. That much is obvious.


After inspecting the boundaries,

a wary country ride with scouts,

after the inspection of the manor house,

after the welcome meal, Hubert decided

it was time to inspect his human property.

The men at arms were organised.

Guards posted, tasks allotted.

Walter thanked, allowed to leave.

Hubert talking to his Lady through Aelfric

was reminded of those shields.

When he was polite, she seemed insulted.

When he had tried to show an interest

she had seemed offended. He sensed

that what he said was not the words she heard.

She was nobility, understood the world

and what would happen next and so he doubted 

his tame Englishman was being honest.

He would have to learn her language,

some words at least, while she learnt his.

Bed, he thought, could be his classroom.

He stood up, took her hand. She did not move.

‘If you don’t go with him’, said Aelfric 

he’ll strip you for his men at arms.’

It was a stupid lie. This Norman was no fool

who’d break his prize possession out of spite.

Aelfric ignored the look she cut him with.

Once she’d been too proud to notice his existence

now she was this Norman’s mattress

and whatever in his character was broken,

or unfinished, rejoiced at her humiliation.

The curtains closed behind them.

Aelfric edged towards the drapery,

heard the sound of fabric falling,

imagined the pale body emerging.

He heard Hubert’s belt and sword unbuckled 

then set down, heard them move together.

Imagined his hands, heard Hubert grunting,

then making garbled noises like a stricken pig.

A female hand, the curtain parted.

She was naked, radiantly naked,

white flesh tinged pink about the throat.

Aelfric moved. She was majestic,

desire erased the thought that he’d been caught

erased the room, erased his name

and everything except desire

for the body moving closer to him

small hands reaching for his belt.

Who knows a dead man’s final thoughts?

Perhaps he was thinking mine at last,

perhaps he heard her say, ‘You should have died

with all the others’, and perhaps, before the knife

sliced the artery in his throat and geysered blood,

he realised she had spoken flawless Norman-French.

She caught him as he fell, pulling him down

screaming in English, help, help, murder, help.

Walter, sword drawn, running, saw

the Englishman raping the frantic lady

thrashing on the floor, hauled him away

one quick blow striking off the head.

The woman, sobbing, pointing at the curtains.

Behind them Hubert’s naked corpse,

twisted, reaching for the knife stuck in his back.

While the bodies were removed

Walter held the shuddering woman.

The King still owed him for the Malfosse.

Perhaps this manor. He would need a wife.

Hands skilled in settling a skittish mare

gentled the shaking body

aware of its taut lines, soft curves,

its bloody promise. She would do

when he came to take possession.

[i] This date is entirely arbitrary.

[ii] When the English army finally broke and ran at the Battle of Hastings, a small group turned and savaged the pursuing Normans at a place the Normans called The Malfosse.

[iii] Fulford Gate, Stamford bridge, Senlac, the three battles fought by the English in 1066. Many of the victors at Stamford Bridge died at Senlac (Hastings).

Violenta’s Revenge

JEZ PUNTER is based in London. When not writing poetry and plays he works as a chef. His poetry has appeared in First Time, Popshot, Bunbury, Eunoia, Snakeskin, Riggwelter, Dream Catcher, theCRANK and on the Society of Classical Poets website. He is currently writing a commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Violenta’s Revenge

After wooing her, Lord Didaco jilts his lowborn wife Violenta in favour of someone else.

Violenta exacts her revenge. Based on a story from Matteo Bandello’s Novelle (1554)

From forth a most grandeval stock of knights

Didaco, noble, young, with heart all riled,

appeared so as to centre neat his sights

on us who, under Spanish climate mild,

held all our dear Valencia beguiled.

He came to seek and court his infamy,

as in like manner he would soon to me.

For we were known, we ladies of the town,

throughout Iberia and thence beyond

for our assured repose and rife renown,

which faithly meant that we would not despond.

A fit and ordered question, we’d respond.

But not to him, this knot from in the grain.

A cut of eye, a smirk for his refrain.

Though thoroughly a city-sprouted son,

too green had he existed hitherto

to wear a badge amongst them all and none.

But then ‘of age’ and everything was ‘due’.

(It was to be my life he would imbue.)

Arising into public show, all heat

of heart (and thigh) he sought to eat,

acquire a means to sate the priming licks

a lust-led junior bears in ripening days,

thus duly set himself to work with clicks

and clucks and japing lines, as were his ways.

(A dog keeps more decorum when it bays.)

Yet what of me? Where else was there to roam?

Away from here, my ever-honoured home?

Valencia, ramparted coil of coast,

my ever chiefest seat of faith most true,

great guardian of justice, known as most

bulwarked and parapeted source of rue

for many a foe who can but pay their due.

I could not leave so was all audience

to what hindsight names lecherous conveyance.

‘Centiglia’, that was his family name;

and when we met it’s so, I do admit,

my gentle friends and I had earned some fame

about the streets provoking as was fit

the Jacks who liked to stalk, and stare at it.

We baited, fooling in our dalliance,

not thinking on a tangible alliance.

When he first cast his rod I lent him line,

did speak in idioms and commonplaces;

I caught his glance, said it I would refine –

if he could prize not every of our faces.

And so he swore, and I allowed embraces.

He swore of further things – of what he felt,

of how my look transfixed him; then he knelt

on knightly knee and pledged all love to me!

He talked of war-won accolades, of feats

of great endeavour, triumphs mercilessly

done, showed wounds as if they were receipts,

said we were fresh and so were owed the streets.

He spoke of how our union was fate;

of future times. I would reciprocate?

I could not say, so he then pried for more,

requesting secret news of where I dwelt,

how was my parentage – well-made or poor? –

my aspirations, what I had been dealt.

What was the look upon my face, pray, guilt?

What was, he wondered, my picked-out vocation?

But I would give no utterance or action

further. I disdained his lack of manner.

So he betook himself to search my name,

did door-to-door pay visit for my honour,

word of me and of my family game.

With bit well-champed ’twas me he wanted tame.

Inevitably by way of searching speech

he learned my place, my curbed societal reach.

For I was but a goldsmith’s modest daughter,

whose father died when he could give no more.

I had a loving and discerning mother,

two brethren working as my Pa before

safeguarding income on our trading floor.

But little else had I; though I was chaste

and honest, virtuous, never debased.

To boot I was well-read, and beautiful,

though you may not discern so here today.

I treasured books of words quite fanciful,

insurance ’gainst those youths renowned to stray

(I never stopped to think they would betray).

When reading ceased I exercised the needle –

to highest degree, no hour ever idle.

The news of all these pastimes he acquired

just like some blood-besotted fox-head hunter;

even the way I liked to be attired!

and that my parents named me Violenta.

He ’compassed me; I was to be his centre,

living flame to burn his pooling oil,

his additive, protection ’gainst his spoil.

And so began his suit. Every day

he called in at our humble residence

to lavish this and that. What could I say

to shun, to quash his over-confidence?

He visited despite my non-compliance;

for I refused them all, the messages,

the flowers, letters set in languages.

But he did persevere, did gift a scent

unto Mama, asked boys on his behalf

to vouch for his trustworthiness as gent.

‘A citizen true’ would be his epitaph,

he pledged. And in the end I had to laugh.

His care for me had reached nigh half a year

by now. The gent was ardent, it was clear.

So I a serenade afforded him.

But he was overcome. Could do nothing

but sink with sighs and sobs! He tried to trim

his fevered outburst venturing to sing

but soured his throat with what the words did bring.

I from my casement looked down with alarm,

my mother, worried, gripping at my arm!

Implore the rascal, in the end, I did

to sanction entry of some goodly sense

into his brain. How was he, pray, to bid

for my affections floored and buckled hence?

At this he breathed, ’fore fashioning defence:

‘Mistress Violenta,’ (his zeal was on the run),

‘I fear my eyes are lost, for at the sun

‘I have most helplessly directed them.

I speak not though of that, our shining pointer,

I speak of thee, who like some diadem

of brighter hue, are called good Violenta,

your shine on me so infinitely greater!

Pardon my tears but they flow from a heart

that has long threatened well to split apart.

‘Such numbers of my letters you’ve ignored,

such messengers of mine have turned away,

such smiles I gave returned with cold regard,

dismissive words of me been heard to say,

foundations hard on which a case to lay.

But yet a case to put I have, ’tis true:

I am in love, and my love’s name is you.

‘And so I say to you, Valencian fair,

act not as does the adder in our Psalms

that stoppers up its ears against the care

of its benevolent owner’s words and charms,

but hear with no unwarranted alarms;

and know although I seem a sign of sin

my heart is good if you but look within.’

His lines were medicine, did make me feel

ashamed at ever doubting his intention.

All trembling where he stood he seemed so real,

so virtuous and far from sly invention.

Thus giving pardon yet with apprehension

straight to him did I purpose response.

I would make plain his chances of romance.

‘Listen, Didaco, Señor of all our streets,

though I did not accept your numerous letters,

this does not mean I well denounce their treats,

their lines of passion broken free of fetters,

their moves of mood a youth so often suffers.

Despite a posting I did not allow them,

not once have I since lectured to condemn.

‘But yes, I have stoppered my ears of late;

as well have fortified my gentle heart.

’Thas been for fear, for dread I might relate

too much and so mislay in me that part

that God did label grace. I could not start                

again succeeding that. I’d be all shame;

I would have slayed my goodly fam’ly name.

‘Yet you intend no shame to put on me,

of that prospect I am entirely sure.

You wear your openness for all to see,

playing the jester here beneath my door.

You talk of love; perhaps I should hear more?

All of the oaths you say I do believe,

and now you’re here I wish you not to leave.

‘So hear me, world! I promise now henceforth

within my heart Didaco shall be placed,

and not one other as I live on earth;

for I’ve decided to no more be chased.

And yet by no exploit am I disgraced!

One warning though, Didaco: If you abuse

this trust I furnish, you shall truly lose

‘the very thing that you’ve so stubbornly sought.’

And thus I ended my pronounced acceptance

and awaited what it might have wrought.

But he (said beau) could mutter not a sentence

until my mother met him by our entrance:

‘My Lord Didaco, though you’ve been kept guessing,

rest assured that you have all my blessing.’

The Señor wept – presumably with joy –

and took his leave. He’d call upon the morrow

to all my genial company employ.

At this a tingle ran from mind to marrow.

Though my chances elsewhere now were narrow

great excitement overran my veins.

He wanted me, and I could see the gains.

But yet one year and half he kept his length

adhering to my fiat for some dignity.

We trod the battlements, praising their strength,

and laughed – but with upmost propriety.

Yet all the while I kept dubiety –

until of course, he had had enough,

his patience worked and worn away to fluff.

Consulting with his friends for some advice

it came about he next detained my mother

and (six hundred ducats to entice)

sought hard to plant himself into her favour;

as well a dowry, more than any other

he’d assign, if he the title ‘husband’

might receive. Ma smiled and called him brigand.

But I would not be summed in cold currency.

The offer he produced was firm offence!

If he and I in union were to be

a more exuberant plea should he dispense;

for nuptial oaths must not stand on pretence.

His eyes did film again. ‘Why do you tarry?’

he questioned. ‘All I want to do is marry.’

‘But why, you foolish stripling?’ asked my mother.

‘Why all this show and tell, this drooling, acting?’

‘Because, good matron,’ he returned, ‘I love her.

She is my one, yet here I am still waiting

deeds reciprocate to settle our dating.’

At this Mama relented. Now she knew

the match would work, the one fashioned from two.

For confirmation whereof he then eased

from off his finger an almighty emerald,

requested kisses from me (still he teased)

before ensuring that the gem was settled

on my digit and our union labelled.

But then he said (and, yes, I lacked suspicion),

‘Mistress fair, permit a last instruction:

‘Tell not society nor any friends

of this, our partnership now newly sealed,

till I’ve informed them fully of our ends,

and so established what may gossip yield;

for they know not before you I have kneeled.

But notwithstanding this I’ll find a priest

to solemnise our coupling at the least.’

And so it came to pass: a most clandestine

episode at four A.M. o’ th’clock,

the dark, in hindsight, seeming to predestine

what would be one systematic shock

foreshadowing one systematic shock.

Mama, my brothers and our servant thus

did witness marriage without hint of fuss

(although we fussed our bed sheets well in sport      

once we withdrew that morn into my chamber!).

For æons we did lustily cavort

in joy and mirth, needless to encumber

urge and itch one single minute longer.

Postpone the moment more? Heaven forfend!

We went to bed and so my eyes opened!

(As did much else.) And it was nigh on evening

when, with our pleasures slept away, we roused

our bodies limp with lust and love remaining,

so I could show my love where he was housed.

He wore a crenulated forehead as he browsed,

for he was not impressed. ‘But ’tis no bother,’

he averred, ‘I do not wish to smother

‘you with too much attendance. I shall keep

a house that is my own, some simple garret

where I can read my books and, after, sleep.

Besides, our marriage hence is to be secret,

yes? – until you’re famed as my love’s object.’

Object? I worried, his speech unordinary.

But yet I swore as he commanded me.

I was his wife, affianced to obey,

and he had business ’bout the town, ’twas clear.

‘Sweet love, fret not,’ he emphasised, ‘I’ll pay

a thousand, nay, twelve hundred ducats here

so you may keep all of your holdings dear.’

Our household (drab and dern) did need the sum,

so I agreed and of our deal kept mum.

He took his leave, my honest husband new,

and Ma and I reoccupied ourselves

with all our daily rounds. My brethren too

resumed their work i’the shop, stocking shelves,

keeping the books, all that that involves.

Didaco often stayed, as was his whim,

and as my duty told I treated him.

Yet soon the sun had made its whole compass,

and of some public advert to our bind

my gallant had not moved to any purpose.

I wished for us to settle, not be maligned.

For now the gossips openly opined

about my mother and the man who came

at oddly hours. It attracted shame! 

And then nature bestowed a pregnancy.

a joyous thing in circumstances fine.

But fathering guide was there none such to be.

Though he made call, he was withdrawn by nine.

Some vessel was I – to drain of all its wine?

A boy was born, a day to surely bless,

but joy was fast assuaged by foul distress.

Our nearest neighbour then enlightened all,

suggesting I was something he did ‘rent’,

some sort of secret maiden at his call,

a hidden harlot off’ring entertainment!

I lost myself in tears, I was forspent.

When next he called against him I did rage.

I was his wife! and twenty years in age.

I once was held by all in great esteem,

of reputation decent, conscientious.

But neighbours need no small excuse to scheme

and blame when one is inconspicuous;

they frenzy up themselves, becoming vicious.

‘My love,’ said I, ‘do you not know they taunt?

Foul rumour by its nature stays to haunt.’

At this my knight breathed forth a goodly sigh

and swore of changing his behaviour hence,

acknowledged weddedness he did belie

by playing shirker. He had no defence,

except he had much ‘business to dispense’.

‘For my shambolic ways I shall atone,’

he vowed. ‘Our marriage now will be well known.’

Alas, the lying villain knew to use

affection well, for I had burgeoned lenient.

This man had now become my love, my muse;

’twould hurt to play someone not all-compliant;

upon his whim and way I was reliant.                       

And this he knew, knew I his heart required.

My solitude was now with him attired.

Thenceforth his stays decreased. When he did show

it was to sate his carnal longing only,

with often not so much as a ‘hello’.

He seemed to smirk, cared not that I was lonely,

just had his way; the ill-hewn brute abused me.

Forsaking God and his own conscience then

I learned this cock indulged another hen!     

Indeed, frequenting other homes and haunts             

of divers gentlewomen in the city

is what he did. It was divulged – his flaunts

and foins of manliness, cupidity

exposed; his actions heartless, arbitrary.

I listened as he talked dissimulation

but knew what words were simply cold concoction.

But yet more salt was there to fire the wound:

Word reached our household he had now obtained

the lasting favour of another. I swooned,

with tears. Two years now past and I had gained

nothing but child, and now the child was stained.

The lover now to whom he played the suitor

was of Ramerio Vigliaracuta,

mayor, senior of a most ancient house,

red-rich and noble, highest in pedigree.

His daughter though was boring as a mouse

they said. But my espoused did not agree.

He wed the girl with great solemnity,

the nuptials eulogised by one and all.

Didaco gained a dowry, me my fall.

In hardest sorrow were we saturated,

me, my mother and my dearest brethren.

My baby cried, sensed something aggravated

his surroundings, like some ominous siren

voicing loud our desperate situation.

But we knew not to whom we could object.

No one would hear, to them we were abject.

Before the Church we pleaded, to relieve

the hurt; against our neighbours made a fuss.

‘You and Didaco?’ They would not believe;

and we knew not the priest who married us!

‘Thus,’ said they, ‘we’ve nothing to discuss.’

We stood against our city’s greatest lords

and were dismissed as prattling rancid bawds.

Didaco now was lodged with his new wife

inside the house of his new pa-in-law.

All dowry-rich, indemnified for life,

he praised the city – it praised him the more,

while I did take the appellation ‘whore’.

Throughout our world – brutal, prized, fortressed –

Didaco’s marriage was proclaimed the best.

The rakes, they envied their young colleague’s catch,

this daughter of Señor Ramerio.

‘Surely Valencia’s greatest ever match,’

they cried throughout the streets. It was a show –

for them. It was not my scenario.

Unto my chamber I withdrew, and there

I cried and cursed the world with not a care.

My body went diseased, did lie constricted:

an ireful, shrunken casing of its form

as fortune grasped, flayed me raw, evicted

hope and let immeasurable torment storm

on through, ever obsessive to perform.

My former lover lessened me. His bilk, 

his jeering stayed with me like sour milk.

My torn mind screeled beyond any affliction,

my suff’ring thoughts as soon as born unbound.

For all was snatched away from me, made fiction:

the bliss, felicity I thought I’d found!

But I was just a kernel to be ground.

Oh how I wished that God would grant relief,

for I was burning water, unencumbered grief!

It was some count of days before I stirred.

When finally I broke my lids apart

there stood before my bed the slightly blurred

resemblance of our maid, Janique, her heart

destroyed for me. ‘Mistress,’ she said, ‘let’s start

appeasement. So as to mollify your grief

we should contrive to snag our wretched thief.’

Henceforth she explicated, saying, ‘I,

I’ll beg some speech with the deceitful crack

and make him understand that by and by

he must unto the house that he did wrack

with woe. I’ll talk to him of what you lack.’

‘No, no, Janique,’ said I, so much fatigued.

‘Your meet advice is gratefully received

‘but talking time is past. I wish no longer

for my ears to hear Didaco’s terms.

Such sounds will only blight my insight further,

warren their way inside like rabbits, worms

abusing to implant what he affirms.

No, no. I am resolved so much in malice,

hatred, there shall be no courteousness,

‘only an execution by my hands,                               

a vengeance for what wrath on me our god

has laid. Painful time’s unyielding brands

reverted cannot be, but yet the sod

can be condemned to the eternal nod.

He takes my honour, I shall take his life –

by any means, Janique. By club, by knife!’

My faithful maid leaned close to hear my plan . . .

[To be continued]

Five poems by Marly Youmans

The most recent books by MARLY YOUMANS are the book-length poem Seren of the Wildwood (Wiseblood Books, 2023); a novel set in Puritan New England, Charis in the World of Wonders (Ignatius Press, 2020); and her most recent collection of poems, The Book of the Red King (Phoenicia Press, 2019.) She divides her time between Cooperstown, New York and Cullowhee, North Carolina.

The White Ibis 

Shell islands bleached to white, left by natives

In salty tidal rivers, and the ibis 

Dazzling against the sky…and there I saw

The wedding-froth of mating plume and leaned 

And caught a feather in my hand, the whole 

Bounty of landscape trembling with the heat 

And with the strange and flaring energies 

Of something not yet known, one tremendous

Something manifesting presence… that’s how 

It was for me, so strange it was to stare 

From the prow of the sailboat and to let 

A sunlit feather slip into my hand. 

At dead of night the ibis came to me, 

As beautiful as Eros to the soul, 

And bent to press its breathing dream-shape close 

Until I shivered, feeling spirit pour

Out of the river with its oyster isles,

Out of starred sky, out of the heart of the bird, 

Proclaiming more and more and ever more, 

Hidden behind the arras of the world. 

The Summoning

Long ago, I rode a horse

   As pretty as a ballad and strong,

And I called his name Lord Randal,

        With a neck like a tower, withers

As glossy as the Chinese silk,

             And all of him a song.

One day we found a curling path

   That led into the forest’s edge,

And on that path there lay a thing,

        Magic of a flaming feather.

The horse Lord Randal said to me,

             Here’s trouble, ruin’s pledge.

And did I bend to grasp the gold

   That bore the mark of fairyland,

And was I careless of the wrong?

        Come danger and come woe together!

I cried, and marveled at the fire

In rachis, calamus, and vane

           That quivered in my hand. 

To the Flowers

Flowers, you give yourself effortlessly, 

Without a stint, now strewing fragrances

But soon your petals in a dream of rain. 

I think you are a lesson meant for me, 

You giving soul and beauty all away 

And never counting out a single cost. 

I lean into the breeze, feeling myself 

Like grasses, rippling with the summer’s sun, 

Seeking like you to give myself away, 

Artlessly with art, a paradox 

That will lose luster, die, and be a seed.

Three hundred yards away from Lake Otsego,

The river makes small thunders at the dam,

Not yet the potent Susquehanna, no,

And the great blue heron like a long-legged god

Who rules the leaves and lapidary rocks

Skewers a fish and stalks out of the stream

Picking his everlasting way on stones…

I would not be the bluegill with his small

And flapping motions, helpless to change a fate,

Nor the heron, kingly in his element:

I side with flowers, incense, radiance,

The streaming of a blossom into air.

The Angel in the Tree

Who can understand the sins of angels?

Angular figure bent to thieve

A single egg, the bangle

Of halo dangling from a branch as leaves

Wholly surrendered to the wind

Go still: some presence grieves

The bird, the nest, the plucking from the tree,

The way the angel’s featherings

Seem leaves, the tragedy

In falls of feathered and unfeathered things…

A pebble that disturbs a pool

Begets a world of rings.

“Pray You, Love, Remember”

   This painting is the first using my daughter Cecelia’s motifs, 

    in my own style; her peonies, her sky, a glass structure 

    representing her soul house. —Laura Murphy Frankstone

A simple, delicate glass house to float

In skies like lakes, with peonies that float 

Like clouds and pitch their shadows on the sky

Like lilies on a pond, though clearly sky

Lades the canvas field with its forever,

Mystical, transparent blue forever…

The soul-house, left adrift in peonies,

Sets free one note of song, and peonies

Begin to stream perfume and streaks of song

Until the sky and blooms and glass and song

Are blent as one, and soul as fair as glass

Is painted, snared in flower-cloud and glass…

   O soul-house sing the songs of kingdom come,

   Of was and is and timelessness to come.

The Agony of Sin

JON BISHOP is an MFA candidate at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he studies poetry. He lives
in New Hampshire

This deepened dark has set my mind to prayer.

I fill my fallen soul with sins each day

And purge them from myself before I sleep

And ask my God (oh, God!) to fill the air

With not my faults but with His grace and say

How He has seen me pull up from the deep,
Like haggard birds that soar across the sun

To flee the coming cold. They wait for May,

As I await my Lord to save His sheep.

We know He’ll come again when days are done, And all of Hell will