Category Archives: Poetry

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’.

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!

Sonnet: “From Gombe’s Chimps”

From Gombe’s chimps to interstellar space
We will have war. Sanctioned by the Divine,
Moses first led the Jews to Palestine
Telling his tribesmen not just to displace
But to kill all, and wipe out without trace
Each adult, child, animal, tree, vine.
Genocide’s justified, cleansed ethics fine,
To get resources for your tribe and race.

Believers justify war’s bloody courses:
We’re right, they’re wrong, so therefore they’re to blame.
Conquer through war to grab and keep resources,
Aztecs or Spaniards, everyone’s the same –
Victory to the best guns, swords or horses,
And put defeated scriptures in the flame.

I’m pessimistic about the chances of humans being able to stop warfare. It seems built into the nature of social creatures – when you define your group, you are defining everyone else as not in your group. Then, when it’s a question of who gets limited resources, groups compete and the most ruthless groups tend to do the best.

This sonnet was originally accepted for publication by Quarterday in Scotland, but that excellent glossy magazine seems to have folded after a few issues and this poem was left hanging. Fortunately the Better Than Starbucks group is still competing successfully, thanks to the ruthless Anthony Watkins and Vera Ignatowitsch, and published it.

The sonnet is one of my favourites for several reasons: technically it is purer than most, rhyming ABBAABBA CDCDCD, though the volta between the two sections is weak (or possibly nonexistent). It deals with human nature, and the problems facing us as we move into the ever more complex future. And it highlights one of my personal religious irritations, that people can walk into a neighbouring territory, wipe out the inhabitants, and create a justifying fairytale of how the destroyers are the persecuted victims. Think of the Pilgrims and other British immigrants in America… think of the Jewish tribes coming into the Promised Land: when they captured a city outside the core area,

“when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword:
But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.” (Deuteronomy 20:13-14)

But when they captured a city in the heart of the Promised Land,

“of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:
But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee:
That they teach you not to do after all their abominations.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)

It is hard to see a future without warfare, when even the most revered “holy books” teach genocide and justify it as doing God’s will.

Review: “Verse” by John Updike

This paperback, Verse, is comprised of two earlier hardcover volumes of poems from John Updike, The Carpentered Hen from Harper & Row and Telephone Poles from Knopf. The poems date from the 1950s and early 1960s, and in the words of Phyllis McGinley, “His is what poetry of this sort ought to be: playful, but elegant, sharp-eyed, witty.”

Here are the beginnings of some of his poems. Some of them are pure wordplay, as in “Player Piano”:

“My stick fingers click with a snicker
And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
Light-footed, my steel feelers flicker
And pluck from these keys melodies.”

Several of them start with a quote from a newspaper story and then run wild with it, as in “The Descent of Mr. Aldez”:

Mr. Aldez, a cloud physicist, came down last year to study airborne ice crystals.
– Dispatch from Antarctica in the Times
That cloud–ambiguous, not
a horse, or a whale, but what?–
comes down through the crystalline mist.
It is a physicist!”

And some are meditative, as with “B.W.I.” (the old British West Indies of the 20th century):

“Under a priceless sun,
Shanties and guava.
Beside an emerald sea,
Lumps of lava.

On the white dirt road,
A blind man tapping.
On dark Edwardian sofas,
White men napping.”

A largely enjoyable collection, but not up to the standard of those similar 20th century poets, Phyllis McGinley and Dorothy Parker. But then again, Updike’s many American awards (Pulitzer, National Book Award, etc etc) were for his fiction. His poetry can be considered a remarkable bonus.

Review: “The Spectra Hoax” by William Jay Smith

Spectra Hoax

In ten days in 1916, two brash young poets – Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke – produced a volume of poetry parodying the Imagists. Writing as Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish, and claiming to represent a whole new school, the Spectrics, their manuscript of Morgan’s formal poetry and Knish’s free verse, together with the blathery and pretentious preface, was unexpectedly accepted by a serious publisher and for 18 months was a major success on the American poetry scene. Poetry‘s editor requested half a dozen of their poems, but unfortunately the hoax was uncovered before publication; the editor was embarrassed and angry.

This book tells the full story of the Spectrism hoax, its defense, its termination, and how the hoaxers were in turn hoaxed by others… as well as telling the story of other 20th century poetry hoaxes from Australia and the US. It also contains the full text of Bynner and Ficke’s hoax poetry book, “Spectra”, and a selection of subsequent poems.

As Bynner and Ficke and others subsequently acknowledged, their parodies were unfortunately strong, better than much of the work of the Imagists and in some ways better than their own regular poetry. Consider these:

If bathing were a virtue, not a lust,
I would be dirtiest.

To some, housecleaning is a holy rite.
For myself, houses would be empty
But for the golden motes dancing in sunbeams.

Tax-assessors frequently overlook valuables.
Today they noted my jade.
But my memory of you escaped them.

– Anne Knish, Opus 118

Hope
Is the antelope
Over the hills;
Fear
Is the wounded deer
Bleeding in the rills;
Care
Is the heavy bear
Tearing at meat;
Fun
Is the mastodon
Vanished complete…

And I am the stag with the golden horn
Waiting till my day is born.

– Emanuel Morgan, Opus 2

Whatever else they are, the poems are fun. The story of the hoax and the collection of poems are both worth reading (especially if you like the Imagist poets), and go extremely well together in this book by William Jay Smith.