Enlightenment on Nirvana

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD feels slightly guilty about Kurt Cobain

The Peaceable Kingdom probably isn’t the first place one might have looked for Kurt Cobain. Of all the ironies and confusions of his brief life, perhaps none was as pointed as his choosing to kill himself in a room overlooking that sign, announcing the entrance to Seattle’s exclusive Leschi neighbourhood, with its panoramic views of Lake Washington and the snow-capped mountains beyond, where one morning in April 1994 Cobain, then in the third year of his marriage to his fellow musician and sometime actor Courtney Love, first injected himself with heroin and then took a shotgun and blew his brains out.

Yes, he was 27, like several other high-profile musicians including Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before him, and Amy Winehouse to follow, which has helped popularise the belief that age is imbued with a mystical horror for anyone who plays the guitar or goes near a microphone for a living. A professor of psychology at the University of Sydney named Dianna Kenny has even published a statistically detailed paper on the subject. It concludes that the most common age for a rock musician to leave the mortal stage is in fact 56 (2.2%, compared to 1.3% at 27), although she concedes that an inordinate number of those both in and out of the 27 Club have succumbed by suicide, murder, injury or accident. The percentage of professional musicians dying by their own hand reached 9.6% of all such fatalities in the early 1990s, before falling to 4.5% today, set against an overall suicide rate which remains broadly stable at 0.25% of the adult UK population as a whole, while remaining the major single cause of death for males under the age of 45.

Why did Cobain do it? That’s a question the statistics can’t answer. Among other contributory factors, there was a history of self-harm in his family; he was a heroin addict, and, perhaps not coincidentally, suffering from crippling stomach pain; he may have been bipolar. And then of course there’s Richard Burton’s aphorism about the toxic nature of fame, which he defined as ‘a sweet poison you drink of first in eager gulps, before you come to choke on it.’ In 1989, Cobain moved from the ghost town of Aberdeen, Washington (British readers need only think of one of the country’s sadly reduced former Northern manufacturing hubs, but with rows of domino-like houses built of decaying wood, rather than brick, to get some of the flavour) – where, showing a bitterly precocious lyrical talent, he once scrawled on his childhood bedroom wall, ‘I hate Mom. I hate Dad. Dad hates Mom. Mom hates Dad. It simply makes you sad’ – 100 miles up the road to the comparative bright lights of Seattle.

Kurt Cobain (playing drums) in 1981

Within two years Cobain and his group Nirvana, with a sludgy, bottom-heavy guitar sound and a matching dress sense that some critics fastened on to dub ‘grunge’, had accommodated themselves to signing a seven-figure contract with the corporate behemoth Geffen Records. Six months later, the band released its breakthrough album Nevermind, which to date has sold 35 million copies worldwide, been recognised by the US Library of Congress as ‘culturally, historically and aesthetically important’ to the nation, and which Rolling Stone magazine, displaying its usual air of critical reserve, describes as

…a dynamic mix of sizzling power chords, manic energy and life-changing words … boast[ing] an adrenalised skill at inscribing subtlety onto dense, noisy rock … At the album’s sonic extremes, “Something in the Way” floats a translucent cloud of acoustic guitar and cello, while “Breed” and “Stay Away” race flat-out, the latter ending in an awesome meltdown rumble that’s both prehistoric and very contemporary in its approach.

(No, I don’t really know what it means, either.)

Before long, Cobain was wasting away in his own private Graceland, in this case a multi-level Seattle lakefront home hidden behind a brick wall topped by a screen of bushes with a sign out front reading ‘Beware of the Dog.’ He seems to have enjoyed the money, if not the deceitful comfort of living amongst the very software billionaires and corporate bankers whom he despised.

At bottom, I think the sad but inescapable truth is that Cobain saw himself as ill-placed in life’s queue. Perhaps only in America could a multi-millionaire in his mid-twenties complain of being under-valued, but there were compelling reasons for his dissatisfaction beyond the obvious material ones. Not only did Cobain have the misfortune to come from a family of depressives, he chose a profession notorious both for the brevity of its successes and the shark-like aspect of most of its managerial class, whose business morals might well have raised tuts of disapproval among the more malevolent attendees of a Sicilian Mafia conclave. Add the proximity of drugs and guns, for both of which he had a marked taste, and you can see the beginnings of the potential for disaster.

Cobain’s cousin Beverley, herself a psychiatric nurse, once told me that it was always hard to envision him growing old and contented, or for that matter reconciling himself to the indignities of today’s burgeoning senior-citizen rock tour circuit. For what it’s worth, I happened to write a slim biography of Cobain which appeared in the summer of 1995, about a year after he died, where I allowed myself the reflection: ‘The prospect of him playing Nevermind to a crowd of paunchy, late middle-aged fans in the year 2020 must have been unthinkable for a man who insisted life effectively ended at the age of 30.’ I’d change quite a lot of the book if I had the chance to do so today, but I think that one observation, at least, has stood the test of time.

Speaking of which biography: looking back on it now from my advanced antiquity I feel that in certain fundamental aspects I may have done its subject a disservice in suggesting to the world, or at least that small part of it that actually bought the book, that Cobain was at bottom little more than a petulant, self-loathing young man, admittedly with an ephemeral talent to entertain, who ultimately stands as a representative specimen of the sort of individual, surely found predominantly if not exclusively in the United States, who can be both materially pampered beyond avarice and yet simultaneously and vocally unhappy. This was not quite fair of me.

Cobain had certain quantifiable reasons for his misery: ill health, the residual effect of his wretched childhood in the backwater of Aberdeen, a difficult marriage, the bitter aftermath of Nevermind, which led to renewed record-company pressures for more of the same and to the consequent regime of doing tour after album after tour ad infinitum, which Cobain himself likened to the spectacle of a caged gerbil running on a treadmill. Both perversely nostalgic for his impoverished childhood and ever apprehensive about the future, he seems not to have had the gift of enjoying the moment. In the years since his death, several of Cobain’s journals have come to light in either commercial or private form. His disregard for dates and names, his rather approximate handwriting, and his apparently only passing familiarity with the rules of English grammar can often serve to confound the reader. As a rule, he narrates in a kind of singsong stream-of-consciousness which, disconcertingly, gives equal weight to events great and small; drugs and deaths, and thoughts of suicide, roll along with minute observations on the physical appearance of things. But Cobain’s voice is nonetheless always compelling. Reflecting on the whole thing today, one is increasingly left with a profound sense of sadness and waste, as opposed to any more venal emotion, at his loss. There’s also the fact, in passing, that with hindsight I should never have wholly swallowed the reminiscences of certain of those of Cobain’s near contemporaries with an axe to grind against him, or for that matter with some obscure agenda to pursue of their own that might have led them, and thus their interviewer, to an at best partial understanding of the events of the-then recent past. Nonetheless, it should go without saying that none of those who in their different ways contributed to my understanding of my subject can be blamed for the shortcomings of the text. They are mine alone.

Three decades on, Cobain’s image as the unwitting poster-boy of Generation X, the ones experiencing the world through the fun-house mirror prism of MTV and cheap drugs (later stigmatised by the American author Douglas Coupland as “42 million gripers”) serves as a distraction from his actual body of work. For the patron saint of slackers, he was surprisingly prolific. Nirvana released three full studio albums in just four years, which borders on the Stakhanovite by modern standards, quite apart from the profusion of greatest-hits compilations, live recordings, remixes and box-sets padded by spurious ‘rarities’ that help to pay for the Geffen company Christmas bonus to this day. Added to that, Cobain was constantly writing, touring, subjecting himself to interviews and in general becoming the world’s consensus rock star in the era between Michael Jackson and Michael Stipe. No, none of Nirvana’s music changed the world, despite what some of its more excitable proponents claimed for it. But it was always meticulously well crafted, and there are countless stories about Cobain’s habit of simulating ennui (what was Nevermind, but a shrug of indifference?) while in reality spending endless hours polishing the product. An early and rather touching example of this dedication to the job was recalled by a woman named Betty Kalles, who hired the 22-year-old Cobain to work as a summer maintenance man at a Washington state seaside hotel at the time Nirvana were coming up through the ranks.

Kurt was quiet, but he was also clean-cut and polite,’ Kalles told me. ‘He was never able to work on Fridays or Saturdays because his band would go out and play on those days, but he would always make it in to work on Sunday morning on time. He was really a model employee, but when he finally quit his job he told me the chemicals he was using to wash the windows were making his fingernails soft, and he was unable to play guitar. “I have to do everything for my music,” he said.

The author William Burroughs, who knew a thing or two about life (and for that matter death, having once drunkenly shot his wife through the head), whatever one makes of the literature that ensued, once remarked that he thought Cobain had been ‘acting out a kind of morality tale about what it means to be famous in America.’ Essentially, the plot was a simple one: the mother-dominated yet wayward boy from the wrong side of the tracks, discovering a talent to amuse, knows enough to turn it into money and stardom, but would always rather be elsewhere, doing something else.

In that context, I’m always reminded of the story Cobain’s estranged father Don told me about seeing his son for the first time in seven years after talking his way backstage at a Nirvana concert in Seattle in September 1992. The scene was an unprepossessing, concrete-walled room filled with tables of sweating, plastic-wrapped cheese plates and domestic beer, with people constantly tugging at Kurt’s arm even during his few minutes alone with his father. ‘I felt sorry for him,’ Don said poignantly. ‘It didn’t look very glamorous to me.’

Perhaps in the end it’s enough to say that when a materially and emotionally stunted childhood gives way to an adolescent taste for heavily amplified rock music and nihilistic literature, and factors such as debilitating stomach cramps, heroin, and the need to project oneself on stage in front of tens of thousands of delirious strangers are added to the mix, even a more self-confident man than Cobain might have been brought to the point where he considers his options.

Just twelve months after Cobain’s brief reunion with his father, Nirvana released a new album containing a sardonic and often caustic collection of songs named In Utero. One of the record’s tracks contained the line, ‘Wait, I’ve got a new complaint’, and another one ended with the repeated chorus, ‘I miss the comfort in being sad.’ Six months later, Cobain barricaded himself in a spare room above the garage attached to his Seattle home, took a lethal dose of drugs and then put a shotgun to his head. Sadly we’ll never know, but it’s entirely conceivable that had he lived he could have become a sort of David Bowie figure, his cutting edge progressively dulled, perhaps, but still remaining creatively restless across a variety of media, and on balance not likely to be found today crooning a medley of Nevermind-era hits from the stage of a Vegas casino auditorium. He is badly missed.


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

His boss stood at the door and told him

To pack his things and leave, like scraps or trash,

And looked at him with cold and empty eyes

And said it was just math; don’t take it hard.

He sighed and gathered what he had and left.

There would be other jobs, but what he had

Was dead and bleeding on the granite floor. 

The sky outside was drained of all its glow

And building lights succeeded all the stars.

And then they each went out, and all was dark. 

Horses for remorses

CLARENCE CADDELL is the author of a collection of verse, The True Gods Attend You, published by Bonfire Books. His poems have appeared recently in The Brazen Head as well as in Quadrant, The Crank and other venues. A translation of Jean Moréas’ Les Stances is underway, as well as another book of original poetry

Why is it that I never win on horses?
The one my brainstem picks I look on past
To pick the one that comes, if not quite last,
Just in the middle, as I knew it would.
It is as if the knowing in me pauses
Before an obstacle it knows it should
Jump over; as if coming in first place
Were something frightening; as if the ways

It trod were drawn upon a map the same
Size as the path itself, obscuring it.
And this is why I foamed about the bit
When it was time to tell the one of you
I chose the other. Then when the words came
I said them to the wrong one, right on cue.

Violenta’s Revenge, Part II

JEZ PUNTER is based in London. 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. This is Part II of his long poem, ‘Violenta’s Revenge’; Part I may be found here

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)

My faithful maid leaned close to hear my plan.

‘I keep five hundred coins with certain jewels,’

I said to her, ‘by which that beast began

his odious seducing, fash’ning fools                            

from this impov’rished house while buckling rules.

Now this same money shall be all your fruit

if what I plan you help me execute.

‘Yet come of it what will, this hate I harbour

soon shall manifest itself in deed,

if not by accident then by a murder;

for vengeance will not stop until its feed,

until it gains what nature has decreed.’

My maid, aware of my determined nature,

promised then to aid me in my venture.

‘First of all,’ she did instruct, ‘you must

dissemble totally your burning grief,

contrive to show not one bit of mistrust

of him, our knight, his new nuptials. In brief,

you must applaud them well, show your belief

that he and his new wife are meet and right;

that rather than offence you cheer the sight.

‘And then to him a letter you must pen,

well-scripted by your own person, thereby

to let him understand just how and when

great pain you suffer, how you should surely die

if not another visit he might try

to you; for you, you’ll write, “still love him so”,

and are “with horror filled to let him go”.

‘Our rich deceiver shall be quite beguiled

by thinking to have you at his command.

He’ll come to lie with you; he’ll see his child;

he’ll act as he did previously, demand

you do his want and will. But you’ll be damned

if this restarts a circumstance of strife.

For unbeknownst to him, he’ll lose his life.’

So to begin the enterprise: I prayed

Janique to for a time withdraw herself

because, although indebted to her aid,

to write I needed to be by myself.

I hence did lift some parchment from my shelf

and with renewed and fresh audacity

inscribed as follows with capacity:

Señor Didaco, I’m persuaded now

that if you will vouchsafe to read, peruse

these characters within, you might allow

by your compassion ease of my agues

and griefs that so assault and so confuse.

Dear Sir, these pages penned are of a soul

by heat lost now transformed to cindered coal.

Behold now here the image of my life:

A wench with child forsaken and forlorn,

quite stupefied by gloom which, like a knife,

dissevers, tears apart what was reborn

when you appeared as like some wished-for dawn.

Our coalition was secure, I thought.

But how your breach of pledge left me distraught!

Only my maid (God bless her charity)

has had the wherewithal to save this soul

so brutally condemned eternally.

Evicting me from an engulfing hole

she set my thinking mind then on a goal.

No longer did I feel Death did conspire

but hoped that you – whom did my offspring sire –

might read these words and know of my appeal.

Alas, how many hundred-thousand times

of late have I longed to, in helpless zeal,

descry the sound of Death’s foreboding chimes

and wish he would enclose me for my crimes.

I have not recognised, for all my sins,

where blissful sleep has ends and doom begins.

And yet the journey of my thoughts within

is further torment – swollen vexing visions,  

mutilating worlds of voices, sin,

unhappiness, regret for my decisions,

where neighbours’ accusations are incisions!

My self is stolen from me, set adrift

by subtleties of claw so sharp, so swift.

Come hither to me, cruellest man, I say.       

See in what lean and ugly state I’m left.

Perhaps rejoice in how I’ve split away –

a mind that married, now a mind bereft;

a mind and soul inside their body cleft. 

Behold an aging, broken, piteous dam,

fragile of frame yet once a noble lamb.

Thus as my tears did make my words dry up

I suffered not my pen to issue more.

I wet my tongue with water from my cup

and called out for my maid to do this chore:

‘Gentle Janique, go forward from my door

and carry unto him these letters written.

With hope upon receipt we shan’t be bitten.

The residence was of his pa-in-law.

When welcomed in she asked if she might speak

to Lord Didaco. The servant went before

her, querying after he whom she did seek

while she then waited for what seemed a week.

At last a face – broad and framed with beard.

’Twas he, she knew. And though she was afeared

she feigned a smile and duly spoke her duty:

‘Renowned Señor, I stand before you here

as one who neither reads nor knows the beauty

of good literature, but yet I dare

to say all’s true in these here leaves. I swear.

Madame Violenta sends them unto you

and begs you give them all attention due.’

Janique then handed forth my written letter,

which he read reclining in his chair.

She watched his facial muscles get the better

of him, scanning it hard, revealing bare

the thoughts my words incited in his care.

It was as if he’d been withholding breath

when he exhaled; it shocked her half to death!

‘Janique, dear friend!’ (he started as he spoke),

‘the tenor of these words that bite my eyes

does such a sudden passion now provoke

within, I catch myself hence by surprise.

It is as if a cloud in me does rise

but yet contains many a contrary gust –

much pity, hatred, love, disdain . . . and lust!

‘My heart is vexed, yet yearns to now do battle;

the window of my soul is freed from blinds.

Janique, dear friend, assist these thoughts to settle.

Tell Violenta still a feeling binds.

So yes I’ll visit her – if this she finds

appropriate. And say unto your mistress

too: I’ll duly make amends, redress

‘for my neglect and every ounce of sorrow

caused. But mark: my call must be at nine

o’clock P.M. No more then shall she furrow

her brow in aimless anguish and consign

my name to mud. I’ll love her ’cause she’s mine.

I’ll come tomorrow early ’mongst the gloom

so may a reconciliation bloom.’

On hearing what the man had thus imparted

I replied, ‘Janique, God bless you for

your service. I’ve not slept here since you started

out for worry, but now you’ve prised the door

to our proceedings I can act the more.

I have devised that we’ll provide a rope

secured unto my bed. Its end will droop

‘over the edge. Didaco will soon nap,

and when he does I’ll cast the end to you

so you may thenceforth take it up and wrap

it round your arms most tight and pull it true

across the bed trapping the sleeper who,

before knows what’s occurring, will then float

in dreams of death – for I’ll have cut his throat!

‘Therefore a knife must you prepare – nay, two

in fact; of but the finest steel, no matter

the cost. Didaco’s soul shall thereby rue

the day he sent to me his first love letter,

and I shall laugh to see his lifeblood spatter!

But pray, Janique, allow me this one thing:

leave me alone when those knives start to swing.’

At home inside his pa-in-law’s that night

Didaco at an early hour did break

away from dinner saying he must make flight

to go and map his land – of hill and lake,

a survey was he ‘now required to make’.

His wife asked why he’d not done this before.

He had ‘forgot’, he said. But it was ‘law’.

‘And love,’ he added as he stood and dressed,

‘I won’t be back until next day is dawning,

since I’ve some chief affairs to be assessed.

His wife acknowledged him with sleepy yawning,

muttering, ‘Farewell. Till next day’s morning.’

Didaco’s groom then brought forward a steed

and off he cantered to perform his deed.

The clock was nine o’the evening when I let            

my door swing fro and was confronted by

the fiend. He kissed my hand. I was well met.

Directly then a shrewd, facinorous lie:

My scripted words, he claimed, had made him cry!

I listened patiently to this announcer,

saw him sat, and then began my answer:

‘Señor Didaco, you bid me good morrow,

yet you in deed have quite annihilated

she whom you abandoned. So much sorrow

I’ve borne, so many imaginings vacated,

hopes and aspirations amputated

from a mind receded into air.

Now here observe my state, my dire welfare!’         

Didaco hence, observing my affliction,

fearing from my mouth some more alarms,

was moved to sympathy, was moved to action:

he collected me up in his arms!

He complimented me upon my charms

before vouchsafing his new marriage ill!

In to it he’d been ‘handled’ ’gainst his will

so on, so forth. A second then I thought

he might be speaking true. Howbeit

I then recalled the reason I had brought

him here so did regain myself and hit

him with a contrived smile; and then with grit

embarked upon my speech: ‘Señor Didaco,

although you left me in a state of woe,

‘and though I’ve no foundation to believe

your present words, the love I hold for you

is rooted deep within. I can’t conceive

your fault to be so great that I’d imbue

myself with warring hate till turning blue.

And so my offer’s this: You and I

shall twice a week within my bed here lie.

‘For I suspect that if I might at times

enjoy your company I could remain

within your grace and favour, and the climbs

of love again grow strong, then the domain

of mutual warmth once more become germane.

By God in Heaven’s will we shall grow old –

together in love, content in all the world.’

Attending well to this the man agreed

to all that I proposed. (Of course he did,

his blood was up, he prepared to breed.)

But first of all at supper was he bid

to sit. Janique had made a meal, varied

in meats and bread – and pudding rather stodgy.

Then wine, and thus our guest became sleepy.   

Suggesting we both rest a couple of hours,

I said, ‘As you’re aware, a restful sleep

is something I’ve not known in months. It sours

the appetite for love. But you shall keep,

my love, I know. You don’t wish me to weep.

And fear you not, when I no longer tire

accommodate I shall your great desire.’        

This rankled with the man but yet before

too long my foe – former husband – yielded,

laid beside me still, beginning to snore.

And then I spied (although the curtain shielded)

Jan, my maid, and recognised she wielded  

in her hand the aforementioned rope.

Then she moved and I was filled with hope.

Conveying the cord across his sluggish body

Janique then passed the end of it to me

and I to her beneath the bed, thus ready

to fast ensnare our hated enemy

as we’d devised. I was now fully free

to act the thing that we had so arranged.

Now was the moment I would be avenged.   

I quickly snatched the first great knife from off

my stool and sought the perfect point of skin

for entrance in. He gave a kind of cough

as I advanced upon his throat. His sin

of treating me like naught would mean no win

was he to ever see. Thus in a flash

I plunged that blade into his cheating flesh.

The body jerked beneath me where it lay

as I, becoming now enchanted, rose

up on my knees and, as though at play,

began to hack with blinded fury those

few features that were eyes and mouth and nose.

I was Medea filled with fuel and fury,

no more the victim suffering injury.

I angled neat my weapon’s dripping point

and then like oysters shucked his eyeballs clear,

the salty fluid bubbling to anoint

my raging hands, impelling me to sneer,

‘Farewell! No longer can you interfere

with my emotions, wretched plunderers!

Now it is known you were but harbingers

‘of doom!’ And then his lying tongue I took.

I seized and fast removed it at the root.

‘Abominable perjured thing! Villain and crook

of truth, deforming words just to recruit

a foolish girl! Say, am I still as cute?’

I flung that member on the floor to lie;

no longer would it make a maiden cry!

And then into his useless gut I tore,

creating holes without insight or taste.

My blades, now whirling windmill branches, bore

like mining tools, mashed organs down to paste,

all juice and red stuff happily displaced.

The warm wet pleasure galvanised my heart

and made me howl with laughter at my art.

‘You’ve breathed your last, your very, very last!’

I sang. Then, out of breath, I sought my maid.

She was still there, wrapped in the rope we’d cast

with all the strength of thousands. She had stayed

until the end. But now as she surveyed

the aftermath of all my frenzied work

she was struck mute. The sight did try and irk

her eyes. ‘Janique,’ I said, ‘fear not, the end

of all our woeful darkness has arrived.

Each prick of pain that once did fast distend

has been dispelled, and we are left, survived.

A better outcome could not be contrived.

I now do feel myself so eased of pain

when Death appears for me. I know I’ll gain

‘an even greater rest – eternal peace.’

Janique, although wide-eyed at all she’d seen,

regained herself enough to help release

the rope and then assess the poor has-been.

‘These sheets,’ she quipped, ‘will be hell-fire to clean.’

‘Hush, hush,’ I said. ‘Just help me move this louse,

expel these wrecked leftovers from our house.’

We listened once we’d thrown and heard a thump.

We looked and spied it half upon the pavement.

Next, on top of it, I dropped the pump

that was his lying, cankered heart. It’s movement

spoilt for all eternity; enslavement

of girls a thing no longer to take place.

The trial was over, mine the winning case.

But I yet had instructions for my maid:

‘Janique, this casket here is full of money,

that which I promised you. So be well paid

for all your service, easing the agony

I did inherit. You have been my nanny,

nurse and maid, plus more than you can know.

I’m full of gratitude. But now, do go.

‘Go to the nearest port and find a ship.

Thence sail at once to Africa and there

be safe. Use well your earnings and equip

yourself with anonymity. Prepare

yourself a brand new life. You’ve been so fair

to me, now please, accept this extra pay

and make some haste. God bless you on your way.’ 

And so with mutual tears we said farewell.

My serving maid of ages went away

while I in out-and-out exhaustion fell

onto the floor and slept. For many a day

I’d not so much as dozed without the play

and pull of fretting thought, but now . . . peace.

I slept, emphatically. I found . . . release.

It was the noise that woke me up – the shouts

and cries of outrage from the street below.

And under this a general murmur, bouts

of talk as crowds were drawn to see the show.

I watched them in the morning’s early glow

and heard that none of them could recognise

the victim in his disfigured disguise.

And so I shouted from on high: ‘Good sirs

and ladies of the streets, you all contend

upon this issue like a pack of curs

but shan’t know how this quarry met its end

unless to my account your ears you lend!’

The crowd, intrigued, did lift upwards their heads

and asked, ‘You know why he was torn to shreds?’

‘I do,’ I cried. ‘So hear my testimony!

Know this: the form that once did stride as Lord

Didaco here without great difficulty

lost his life. He was by my hands gored

and hacked to death – because he was deplored

by me in every way. Then down he plunged,

and thereby I was mercifully avenged!’

Perhaps it was my hellish look of eye

that meant the throng accepted what I said;

or that my forearms glistened with red dye

and many curdled splats adorned my head.

I laughed at them. I knew that I was dead.

They whispered it was ‘known a well-dressed knight

did keep the girl; ’twas sure he was her blight.’

However, the deed was done; I was a brute.

The sergeants, officers of law were called,

and, with my brethren and my mother mute

on learning what had chanced, all too appalled

to speak, henceforth to prison was I hauled.

I wondered at what speed I’d meet my fate.

They told me that was for the magistrate.

The sun had barely nudged the mist next morn

when I was mauled and wrenched into the air.

The brows of all the officers wore scorn

or else gestured they’d reason none to care.

Thus to the palace was I taken, there

to meet, as well as the judiciary

determining my fate, near everybody

of the town within which I had grown.

Didaco’s pa-in-law, his widowed wife

and all their kin did seek to view the ‘crone’

who stole from their loved one his ‘blameless life’.

My brothers twain were there, addled with strife;

but mother? No. Too mentally harassed.

I wept. And then the magistrates amassed.

Before them all, the greatest of the town,

I was instructed to relate my tale.

They wished to know how I had been brought down

so low by this well-dressed, well-valued male.

Thus I embarked upon a new travail:

I told them how the demon had pursued me,

had said for months on end I was his, ‘truly’,

how he had had us married in the night,

the nuptials solemnised by priest unknown;

of how we’d lived together out of sight

for near a year until one day alone

I found myself. ‘He’d chosen to disown

me,’ I relayed, ‘like some old ragged doll,

condemning me to stare and blankly loll.

I then divulged how all had thus emerged

the previous night, how he whom was a wolf

was by my maid Janique held fast and purged

of all his worldly essence by myself,

but then how all the horror did engulf

Janique and, fearing similar mania,

she’d jumped into the Rio Turia.

From wall to wall inside the palace court

light lukewarm tears did fall from doleful eyes.

Many lamented the misfortune brought

upon my pitiful soul, the hardship, lies

of one who eagerly did optimise

his carnal pleasure playing with his power,

whom now had fixed it so my life was over.

The chief justice began: ‘A woeful crime

is this that’s been your harsh and ruthless deed.

Therefore it is decided that your time

upon this earth is ended. You did bleed

yourself through sorrow and through anguished need,

but this excuses not defying the law

for your own means. Your actions we deplore,

‘and so do sentence you to be beheaded

by the axe within our public square.

Not only was your plan well executed,

so excessive was your want to tear

your prey to pieces little can compare. 

Your mother and your brethren can go free.

May God have mercy on them, and on thee.’

Now here I am, dear reader, in my cell,

awaiting patiently my devilish fate.

The day on which I am to enter hell

has been postponed until a later date

whereon a certain duke can celebrate

my end amongst all of Valencia.

He comes from Italy, Calabria,

and undertakes a fair old trek. No matter,

I’ve had additional time in which to write

my tale, recalling how, one day, a letter

did arrive for me from one young wight,

a boy who laughed and danced and made a sight

beneath my rickety agèd chamber window.

‘Real love’ was his, he claimed. His name? ‘Didaco’.

Was it just merely youth that killed us both,

condemning two to death by cutting blade?

We each had barely but begun our growth,

and now a poem’s tragic end is made;

herein are my last thoughts before I fade.

The ink is smudging underneath my tears,

and yet I’m smiling now – I’ve no more fears.


Jazz, and An Aside from Critias

MICHAEL YOST is a poet and essayist living in rural New Hampshire with his wife and children. His essays and poems have been published in places like Modern Age, First Things, The University Bookman, Dappled Things, The Brazen Head, and others. He substacks at The Weight of Form.


Smooth and liberal,

It mounts and valleys down, percussive,

Tempoed to itself, accustomed nowhere.

In pulsing figural

It floats; a summer gown, successive

Patterns born and dying in the show-wear

Donned by limbs as loose

As birdsong larking through the growling

Traffic down by ninety-five; the silence

Short, the sound profuse

As flesh in Rubens, pain in howling,

Or leisure in a world convulsed by violence.

An Aside From Critias

You see how Socrates, in fact, is dead.

All talk of immortality aside,

There is no touch of it in that bald head.

And neither does his daimon still abide.

And I see also how the just are paid –

The bastard filches birthright from the heir,

Good kings go mad and die betrayed,

As doves go gracing, landless, through the air.

I see the grass push up between the garden stones,

As mobs push through the guard at courts of law,

Or as the maggot pushes twixt the bones

Of some philosopher, the rib and jaw.

Then come on wildness; blast both weak and strong

Since nothing is forever, or for long.


BEN MORGAN is a writer based in London. His pamphlet Medea in Corinth: Poems, Prayers, Letters and a Curse is published by Poetry Salzburg and he has also published in Stand, Oxford Poetry, AlchemySpoon, One Hand Clapping and elsewhere.

“Where did we go wrong, do you think?
Probably with the discovery of agriculture”
Hari Kunzru, Interview Magazine, March 2020

We needn’t only leave things as they are.
The great roof of leaves and monkeys is a beauty,
and sometimes, yes, it triumphs over rain –

though the storm will always beat it –
but it grows as you or I grow, as we feed it.
Nor can it outrun us like the deer.

See, here, where the sharp berry
answers your touch with a bite.
She never rears her head as high

as the star-hungry forest, but she bleeds
sweetness in winter; and the limbs
of the bodiless spider are rivers in air,

sailable by foot. The purple hearts,
bruised lips of the goddess,
which purse and beat around our feet

die into life’s blood – food, livid wetness.
All purposeful things are shaped for hands
like yours and mine. Time itself

will fall from us. No more days
like slow-blooming beads of water,
waiting for the crash of an animal,

but a series of small and greater dances,
each nestled in the circle of the larger,
like you, and me, and the children.

We needn’t only leave things as they are.
I learned this last night inside a dream,
then woke in a sweat, thinking he was here,

the one who told me – boarlike in his fatness,
yet his children, who carried his great bier,
thin and trembling as arrows in the wind.

Is this a dagger they see before them?

STUART MILLSON is appalled to find Mid Wales Opera facing closure

Founded 35 years ago to bring the finest music and drama to rural towns and communities, Mid Wales Opera is a company specialising in bringing pared-down versions of the greatest music-dramas to far-flung parts of the country. 

On Saturday 23rd March, their run of Verdi’s Macbeth came to an end at the c. 500-seat Brecon Theatre (Theatr Brycheiniog), with a capacity audience enjoying Jeremy Sams’s English version of the score. Directed by Richard Studer – and full marks here for the stage lighting and ‘recycling’ of roles among the chorus – Mid Wales’s own glorious opera company succeeded in generating a dramatic effect, just as overwhelming as anything you might hear at Welsh or English National Opera.

How was it possible for an orchestra-pit ensemble, just 15-strong, to conjure much of Verdi’s lush orchestration? Under conductor Jonathan Lyness the resident chamber orchestra, Ensemble Cymru, achieved this miracle – the timpanist also playing the side-drum, and their splendid cellist generating a rich, resonant sound in those dark moments of the drama. 

On stage, meanwhile, Macbeth’s court, began its disintegration: soldiers with a Fascistic air, reminiscent of Richard Loncraine’s film of Richard lll, marched up and down, Lady Macbeth – the brilliant stage presence of Mari Wyn Williams unleashing her amoral powers, and Macbeth himself, sung by Jean-Kristof Bouton, descending into his ‘feverish visions’ as the apparition of the murdered Banquo appears at a castle feast.

The witches, dressed as 1950s’ office secretaries, but with demonic eye make-up reminiscent of Kathleen Byron’s unsettling appearance in the 1947 film, Black Narcissus, deserve great praise for their unsettling performance. Finally, the end comes for Macbeth as a forest supernaturally advances upon his fortress – actually, the English army in camouflage, although on stage at Mid Wales Opera only the Scottish saltire was raised. (Surely a major omission that the Cross of St. George did not appear?!)

What next for Mid Wales Opera? A real-life dramatic crisis, no less: the shocking removal of one hundred per cent of their grant from the Arts Council of Wales, casting doubt over whether productions of this kind could ever be staged again. Is this a dagger they see before them? It would seem so. But the story is the same, everywhere. Last year, the BBC tried to disband its own elite choir, the famous BBC Singers, and cut its symphonic strength across three ensemblesMeanwhilethe length and breadth of these islands, from Birmingham to Bournemouth, our orchestras and theatres struggle to convince those in power of the vital need for the arts. 

Quite simply, Britain now has a choice: do we just become a TV/consumer society, turning our backs on the splendour and enrichment of music and the arts? Or do we challenge the Arts Council and those in political office for a change in direction? As the wise Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger put it: “Neglect the civilised arts at your peril…”

To support the appeal for Mid Wales Opera, write to Bryn Wgan, Caersws, Powys, Wales, SY17 5QU