Category Archives: sonnets

Sonnet: “Bring on the Violins”

Bring on the violins, the falling leaves,
the wistful ending to a misty day.
The long game’s over and we ride away
to sunset Heaven that no one believes.
Our world is dying, yet here no one grieves:
Earth warms, seas rise, but Wall Street’s still in play…
and we ourselves are aging anyway.
We all face death, and there’ve been no reprieves.
And yet, and yet…robotics and AI,
gene therapy, unlimited life span,
promise an almost-here-and-now sublime,
an unknown life, with our old life gone by.
Trumpet a fanfare for the Superman,
music for dancing to the end of time.

This sonnet has just been published in the Amsterdam Quarterly, this spring’s issue being on the theme of Beginnings and Endings. That may be relevant for our Covid-19 catastrophe, but of course the theme was determined a year ago, and life and death have merely decided to smile on AQ ironically.

But we were all facing death before this latest coronavirus came along. As the saying goes, “Perfect health is simply the slowest rate at which you can die.” And interwoven with death is always new life, never an exact repetition of the old life and often dramatically better. The real issue is, will the new life come at the expense of the old, or can the old reform and regenerate itself, renew itself without needing to die? The avoidance of death has been the quest of religion and medicine since those disciplines (or that discipline) originated. It is great driver of culture, and the pot of gold at the foot of the never-quite-reached rainbow.

Technically this is a correctly structured Petrarchan sonnet, with an initial octave (in this case of existential doom and gloom) rhyming ABBAABBA, followed by a volta (in this case a reversal to hope) for the sestet that rhymes CDECDE.

The sonnet is a marvellous structure for expressing an argument in a compact way.

Review: “Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” by Zach Weinersmith

Shakespeare's sonnets

Zach Weinersmith is best known as the creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Comics, a daily comic of random existentialism, religion, robots, sex, etc. As a gift to people self-isolating or otherwise inconvenienced in a time of Covid-19, he is making eight of his books available free as PDFs. I chose one for its intriguing title, and discovered the most amazing piece of literature, more offbeat-creative than anything I’ve read recently: “Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness“.

What he has done is abridge each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets from its rhymed pentameters into a rhymed couplet, abridging the pentameters into tetrameters. (And sonnet 145 being uniquely written in tetrameter, he naturally reduces to trimeter.) For a taste of this, consider Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Under Weinersmith’s treatment, it becomes

Summer’s bad, then dies. You won’t.
(OK, you will, but poems don’t.)

But cutting through to the simple essence of the poem without any of that unnecessary flowery stuff is only part of what he has achieved: the greater gift is that in radically abridging the poems, Weinersmith allows the entire series to be seen as a connected series of comments, almost diary entries, in Shakespeare’s relationship first with the so-called “Fair Youth” (the first 126 sonnets) and then the “Dark Lady” (the last 28).

As Weinersmith points out in his brief but enormously enlightening introduction,

‘the term “Fair Youth” is not present in the sonnets, but is something of a euphemism designed to, as poet Don Paterson writes in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets , “[keep] everything just on the right side of sodomy”.

After the initial 126 poems, we encounter the 28 “Dark Lady” sonnets. These contend with an unattractive, bad-smelling, yet surprisingly popular married woman whom Shakespeare negs until she sleeps with him. Most of the poems that follow this consummation concern how Shakespeare hates himself for having sex with her. Remember this next time you receive these as a Valentine’s gift.’

Weinersmith lays out the whole flow of Shakespeare’s relationship with the Fair Youth, and the relationship of both of them with the Dark Lady… You will never think of Shakespeare the same again. Read Weinersmith’s introduction, then blast through his couplets. You may, like me, find yourself needing to work your way through the damn sonnets themselves, and see them for the first time as they truly are.

Sonnet: “We’ve Reached Earth’s Edge”

The Earth’s explored, and flat. And I know this
despite Earth’s shadow in lunar eclipse,
and how horizons hide the hulls of ships.
We’ve reached Earth’s edge, stare into the abyss
with Branson, Musk, NASA and the Chinese,
toppling into blackness, falling prey
with Kurzweil, CRISPR, Google, Bostrom, de Grey,
businesslike scientists battling disease,
entrepreneurs with dark unearthly schemes:
the outer darkness space’s endlessness,
the inner darkness immortality.
Pushing and leaning into stellar space,
the event horizon of our thoughts and dreams,
the black hole of our post-humanity.

Published in the Formal & Rhyming Poetry section of this month’s Better Than Starbucks, the “Earth’s edge” idea is just another way of trying to express my ongoing fascination with the end of humanity-as-we-know-it, and the beginning of something that we can’t even visualize yet, let alone make confident predictions about. Close to the idea of the “posthuman god” at the bottom of the Wikipedia page.

Technically, this is a poorly-structured sonnet (ABBA CDDC EFG FEG), with a really weak rhyme of endlessness / space. Sorry about that. But I hope you can enjoy it for the ideas, anyway!

 

Sonnet: “The Walls of Planet Three”

On this wild planet, in its seas and sand,
forests and ice, lie ruins of perverse
attempts to overrun the universe:
the crumbling walls of failed human command–
Hadrian’s, China’s, Texas, Jerusalem…
fallen, decayed, functionless, desolate,
with scribbled mentions of their fears and hate:
Rivera… Pyramus… Pink Floyd… Berlin…
their stones – cut, mined and blasted – left land bare,
leave plants still struggling over gouge and groove.
Planet-fall’s made, but no one dares remove
their helmet in this dangerous atmosphere.
Infections lurk in water, air and ground–
walls’ poisoned Keep Out signs are all around.

Another of my sonnets that has been first published by Bewildering Stories. Maybe I just write bewildering verse…

I love walls when they are decorative, walkable, climbable or otherwise friendly. I’ve always loved the low garden walls along Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina:

But I dislike the use of walls to destroy the lives of other people, whether Palestinians, refugees or any other unfortunates who are struggling to survive. This poem, of course, is about the destructive walls–not the charming ones. In the far future, which ones will Old Earth be known for?

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!

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.

 

Sonnet: “Body Modding”

It starts with teeth, for even the healthiest:
Fillings put in, and “extra” teeth pulled out
Or realigned, the whole jaw moved about,
New faces for the kids of the wealthiest.
Tonsils, appendix, out. The stealthiest
Inject, use pills, every fluid reroute
With tourniquets, with tampons, condoms… flout
Flow, through to adult nappies. Atheist
As Science makes us with creative powers,
We add pumps, implants, radio, wires, chips,
Casually as tattoos, replacement hips;
Graft patchwork skin from humans, pigs, plants, flowers,
Joined in flamboyant Frankensteinish suture,
Racing against decay to cyborg future.

Like most of my sonnets, this was first published in Snakeskin. And like most of my sonnets, it has an existential theme. Ever since I was in high school (Stowe, a traditional British “public school” i.e. private school) and lost my belief in that Anglican school’s religion, I’ve been writing poetry about life and death. It’s a fascinating subject for those who are able to accept that death is inescapable except in religious fantasies, and science fiction, and the dreams of scientists out on the furthest limbs. Death may have proved universal so far, but so have the stories of the search for immortality in all the world’s cultures. Striving against death is part of what makes us human. And success will involve becoming something other than the humans that we are today.