Monthly Archives: January 2020

Sonnet: “Windsor and Oakes, 1943”

Oakes and Windsor

Sir Harry Oakes and the Duke of Windsor in Nassau

Edward, ex-king, pro-Nazi, was sent out
to the Bahamas for the War’s duration.
As Governor of our well-mixed-race nation
he joked with blacks but liked white rule and clout.
The wealthy Bay Street Boys, all white, agreed.
But one combative multimillionaire
felt equal pay for non-whites would be fair.
Canadian Harry Oakes disliked white greed.
Oakes pumped in cash for land, built an airport,
bought a hotel, hired coloured management,
then fought the U.S. Mob’s gambling intent.
Still, Bay Street had the Governor’s support.
Oakes wouldn’t change his mind, and he got killed.
Edward prevented justice. Whites were thrilled.

The 1943 murder in the Bahamas of Sir Harry Oakes–perhaps the richest man in the British Empire–was never legally solved. Having been found bludgeoned to death in his bed, with an attempt having been made to set the bed on fire, foul play might have been suspected immediately. But the top realtor in the Bahamas, Harold Christie (subsequently knighted) who had been sleeping in a guest bedroom two doors down from his host, hadn’t heard a thing and, discovering the body in the morning, tried to revive Oakes by getting him to drink some water.

Harold Christie first called his brother, and next the Duke of Windsor, rather than the police. The Duke of Windsor, being the Governor of the Bahamas, could have called the local police, or local British military forces, or brought in the CID, Britain’s Criminal Investigation Department. Instead he called two Miami detectives he knew (and who in later years were found to have Mafia connections), telling them “he wished to confirm the details of a suicide”. The Americans came, screwed up the crime scene, planted false clues, and then arranged for Oakes’ son-in-law to be charged.

But the evidence against the son-in-law, Alfred de Marigny, was so clearly fraudulent and the evidence against Christie and his brother was so strong that the Police Commissioner at the time refused to charge de Marigny. So the Duke of Windsor had the Police Commissioner transferred to Trinidad until the trial was completed, in order to prevent him from testifying.

One of the mysteries unresolved at the trial was matter of the four triangular holes in Oakes’ skull. Some form of local voodoo was suggested, but no one could think of anything specific that might have caused it. No one suggested it might have been a tool found on every boat in Nassau Harbour…

Oil drum bung wrench

Oil drum plug wrench

After one of the greatest legal defences of the 20th century de Marigny was acquitted and, although innocent and a British citizen, ordered deported. Unsuccessful attempts were made on his life in the next couple of years, as he detailed in his book A Conspiracy of Crowns.

Other books on the murder, two of which were called Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes?, initially failed to point a finger of blame. This was probably wise, as a couple of people who might have discovered unpleasant facts came to violent ends.

In 1950 American lawyer Betty Renner–a former Department of Justice lawyer who had done war crimes work in Japan–came to Nassau to gather evidence about the Oakes murder and speak to a potential informer. She was hit over the head, stripped half-naked, dragged over coral rocks and thrown head-first down a narrow well where she suffocated to death. Tree branches were cut and placed over the well. The autopsy concluded “there was no positive evidence of criminal attack but the possibility was still being investigated.”

In 1962 Dorothy Macksey, a 60-year-old white Bahamian secretary, was raped and murdered in her apartment some months after she told her employer she knew who had killed Oakes and was starting to write a book about it. Although it turned out she had been Harold Christie’s secretary in 1943, the Nassau police quickly determined there was no connection.

Books continue to be written about the Oakes murder. Perhaps the most complete and authoritative so far is John Marquis’ Blood and Fire, but the story is still dribbling out from those (apparently many) people who know the truth.

Oh, and by the way, my sonnet at the top was just published in Bewildering Stories, which I think is appropriate!

The Best Short Poem Ever: “Jenny kiss’d Me” by Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt, young

Leigh Hunt when young

Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add
Jenny kiss’d me.

I love the sentiment, the versification, the tightness, the back story, everything. If you erased everything else Leigh Hunt ever wrote, this poem should still be in every anthology of English poetry.

As the Poetry Foundation says, Hunt was “a central figure of the Romantic movement in England, but he was not, as he wished to be and knew he was not, one of its great poets.” But he was the author of Abou Ben Adhem (often taught in schools for its quietly uplifting morality); The Glove and the Lions (ditto, for its more boisterous morality); and the Song of Fairies Robbing an Orchard (taught less often, as schoolchildren hardly need encouragement in the heightened pleasures of theft).

Jenny kiss’d Me was originally entitled Rondeau, but the poem doesn’t really meet any of the various definitions of the form. It rhymes ababcdcd instead of holding to the rondeau’s tighter requirements of rhyme and repetition, but the alternating feminine and masculine rhymes give it a strong rhythm that is tightly adhered to. It has four feet to each line, but only two in the last, and the effect of the poem is heightened by the fact that, when reading the poem aloud, you can’t help creating a longer pause than usual before the last line – it is as though Hunt has dropped the first two feet, not the last two in that line. That last line repeats the first words of the poem (which is common in a rondeau), but does it as a fresh punch line. It is a remarkably effective piece of versification.

Jenny Carlyle

Jenny: Jane Baillie Carlyle, née Welsh

The back story is that Hunt had been severely ill during a flu epidemic, but, recovering, paid an unexpected visit to Thomas and Jane Carlyle, Jane being “Jenny”. The Carlyles had a difficult relationship to each other and the world in general. Samuel Butler once remarked “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four”. But clearly Jane Carlyle was capable of showing affection and making an impression. Hunt at that time was no longer young.

Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt at about 66

The poem manages in its eight brief lines to touch on themes of time, age, mortality and failure; also on affection, love, spontaneity and success; and to combine them all into a single image. I cannot think of a more perfect short poem in English.

Poem: “Implants and Biotech”

These are the scarecrow years
When frost tears glisten
On moulded and painted cheeks, beside ears
That no longer listen
Being more deaf than dead
And hearing only
Through implants and inputs into the head
Bonily, stonily.

Fears come while certainties lapse:
Fears of the dark,
Of abandonment, monsters, uncertainty. Now (perhaps)
Some Schrödinger’s shark
Divides cosmonaut, cryonaut, chrononaut
From those who can’t trust
The unknown, are ill-taught, or die without thought.

Thrive on change, or be dust.

This was first published in The Rotary Dial, an excellent online monthly of a dozen formal poems that was put out by two of Canada’s best poets, Pino Coluccio and Alexandra Oliver. Unfortunately The Rotary Dial folded in 2017 and Pino, after winning Ontario’s Trillium Book Award for ‘Class Clown’, disappeared off the radar.

The poem subsequently appeared in the fifth Potcake Chapbook: ‘Strip Down – poems of modern life’, where it has a page facing A.E. Stallings’ far gentler and more positive view of modern medicine, ‘Ultrasound’.

Sonnet: “Magnificent Young Thing”

You are the most magnificent young thing:
you bud, you blossom, fruit before my eyes,
kinetic artwork winning some great prize,
you move and flourish, and my heart takes wing.
I glory in you, as a countryside
enraptures one who loves his place of birth
and sees life blossoming, feels nature’s mirth
in fertile land the farmer takes as bride.
He loves his bulls and cows, his boars and sows;
sees orchards, beehives, pastures and is thrilled…
The piglets first, then the sow will be killed.
But beasts don’t know the fate of pigs and cows –
they know the farmer loves them, and that’s that.
And you don’t know you’ll age and run to fat.

This sonnet originally appeared in Snakeskin, for which George Simmers accepts a wide range of verse, formal or free, tender or cynical, objective or subjective – whatever catches his fancy. And this one is… well, it caught his fancy anyway.

 

Review: “Frozen Charlotte” by Susan de Sola

Frozen Charlotte

Susan de Sola’s ‘Frozen Charlotte’ is a book of strong poetry, both formal and free verse, collected after prior publication in 30 publications as diverse as Able Muse, Ambit, American Arts Quarterly, Amsterdam Quarterly… and The Dark Horse, and Light, and Measure. One of the pieces in this collection, ‘Twins’, has already been reprinted in the Potcake Chapbook ‘Families and Other Fiascoes’.

Her casual comfort with verse forms is shown in the last poem of the book, ‘Bounty’:

The fruit flies find our fruit, they slip
beneath the lid, a silver dome.
The dark fruit scent has drawn them in,
no other lures them out again.
They settle on apples, puckered figs,
they gorge in perpetuity,
may never fly back to their home,
(if they have ever had a home).
An allegory of choice? Well, yes–
in that we have no choice.
The fruit is fine, the day is long.
Let us feed, buzz, rejoice.

The poem divides into two pieces: the first eight lines describe the scene, and are in iambic tetrameter with mere hints of rhyme. The last four lines step back and philosophise, and alternate tetrameter and trimeter, the trimeters rhyming.

Personally, though I like the whole poem, I find the last four lines far more satisfying. The change of rhythm is good, but I don’t see any reason not to embed more formal rhyme in the first part. She is capable of sustained rhyme, as in another of my favourites, ‘Holistic Practice’. Here a middle-aged holistic therapist who has failed to create a whole life for herself – living in a one-room flat and with no family – is depicted in ten 5-line stanzas as she comes for a visit and shares pictures of her cat. The last stanza is:

But no, her Boop, he was her treasure;
her angel and her source of pleasure.
“Oh , look, how cute!”–a cat bow tie!
I grin and nod, divided by
a deep, holistic urge to cry.

I will admit that her free verse can be very engaging as well, as in her ‘ATM’:

Somehow, it’s sexual,
the rim crotch-high,
the shuffling buttocks,
the hands fumbling in secret.

Gone the dainty dialogue,
the date stamp in a little leathery
book of records, at set times. Now,
an onanism of cash, walls with mouths.

This is an example of a poem that I would hesitate to modify into a formal structure for fear of losing the way that each short line is a punchline in itself. But for the most part the less formal poems, though they often have rich ideas, are not as memorable as the well-structured ones. Blank verse in itself has no merit for me – Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ rambles tediously, without the need for concision imposed by rhyme. Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ may be long but it is packed with many more stories. It rhymes, and that leaves no room for waffle. No surprise then that with Susan de Sola’s work the longest poems are unrhymed and the least tight.

As for ‘Frozen Charlotte’, the title of the book and of one of its poems, I can only say I am grateful that a page of notes at the end gives the explanation that this was a common, naked, 19th century German doll that acquired its nickname in the US in relation to some ballads. I was unfamiliar with Frozen Charlottes. As a book title it seems memorable but disconnected, as Susan de Sola’s poems are, above all, full of warmth and life.

Launch: Potcake Chapbook 6, “Wordplayful”

06 Wordplayful

The sixth in the series of Potcake Chapbooks, ‘Wordplayful – poems to amuse and amaze’, is now beginning to wander around on both sides of the Atlantic (and hopefully further afield). This one is a little different from the earlier ones in the series: puns and puzzles, poems that can be read vertically or in reverse, wordplay in a variety of forms… but, yes, all formal poems, stuffed full of rhyme, rhythm and rich language.

Returning Potcake poets are Marcus Bales, John Beaton, Ed Conti, Daniel Galef, Chris O’Carroll, George Simmers, Alicia Stallings, Rob Stuart and myself; newcomers are Sam Gwynn, Bob McKenty, the unlikely Noam D. Plum and the elusive Dervla Ramaswamy. Mini-bios and photos for most of them are on the Potcake Poets page.

Alban Low has again provided all the art work, but he will now be taking a five or six month break to work on other things, especially the annual Art of Caring exhibition which opens in St George’s Hospital in Tooting in London in May, and moves to St Pancras Hospital in July – or at least it did in 2019. But Alban promises to re-engage with us in the early summer, by which time we may have more idea of what further Potcake Chapbook themes to pursue.

Poem: “Smoke on the Wind”

Smoke on the wind
And ice on the glass,
Leaves off the trees
And green off the grass;
Deer in the yard
And wood in the shed;
The end of the old
And a new year ahead.

This was published in The Orchards Poetry Journal, edited by Karen Kelsay Davies. The journal typically appears in June and December, and focuses on previously unpublished formal verse – though it accepts “finely wrought free verse”, and will also republish something that hasn’t appeared online in the past three years.

“Inspired by the small plot of apple trees near Cambridge, England, where writers have gathered for years with their books and pens,” Orchards naturally attracts the bucolic. I find something engaging about the idea of traditional verse in an online format… perhaps “apple” is the link… Anyway, as we bridge the past and the future: Happy New Year!