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Elizabeth -- Michael Ondaatje

Guest poem submitted by Kamalika Chowdhury:
(Poem #1708) Elizabeth
 Catch, my Uncle Jack said
 and oh I caught this huge apple
 red as Mrs Kelly's bum.
 It's red as Mrs Kelly's bum, I said
 and Daddy roared
 and swung me on his stomach with a heave.
 Then I hid the apple in my room
 till it shrunk like a face
 growing eyes and teeth ribs.

 Then Daddy took me to the zoo
 he knew the man there
 they put a snake around my neck
 and it crawled down the front of my dress
 I felt its flicking tongue
 dripping onto me like a shower.
 Daddy laughed and said Smart Snake
 and Mrs Kelly with us scowled.

 In the pond where they kept the goldfish
 Philip and I broke the ice with spades
 and tried to spear the fishes;
 we killed one and Philip ate it,
 then he kissed me
 with the raw saltless fish in his mouth.

 My sister Mary's got bad teeth
 and said I was lucky, hen she said
 I had big teeth, but Philip said I was pretty.
 He had big hands that smelled.

 I would speak of Tom, soft laughing,
 who danced in the mornings round the sundial
 teaching me the steps of France, turning
 with the rhythm of the sun on the warped branches,
 who'd hold my breast and watch it move like a snail
 leaving his quick urgent love in my palm.
 And I kept his love in my palm till it blistered.

 When they axed his shoulders and neck
 the blood moved like a branch into the crowd.
 And he staggered with his hanging shoulder
 cursing their thrilled cry, wheeling,
 waltzing in the French style to his knees
 holding his head with the ground,
 blood settling on his clothes like a blush;
 this way
 when they aimed the thud into his back.

 And I find cool entertainment now
 with white young Essex, and my nimble rhymes.
-- Michael Ondaatje
Deviating from the theme of poems remembered to a poem of historical
premise, I would like to submit Michael Ondaatje's "Elizabeth" (from
"There's a Trick With a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems, 1962-1978").
History is, after all, a sum of all memories.

In characteristic Ondaatje style, this poem explores several scenes with
still-life precision, each complete and powerful in its imagery, each
seemingly isolated at the outset except for the narrator's voice threading
through. Only as you read along, the impressions merge and the whole story
emerges with subtlety and depth.

But to me, on first encounter, a startling realisation lay in its hidden
historical references. This is a poem set in a retrospective slice of the
life of Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of the infamous King Henry VIII and Anne
Boleyn, often known as the Virgin Queen.

The theme of the poem itself is dark, rendered harsh when the poet uses a
coldly detached tone, infinitely harsher in first person narrative. This
poem stands by itself. Even so, perhaps the most compelling thing about it
is that it brings history out of books and into the ruthless light of



The obvious characters in the story are Philip II of Spain, who ended up
married to Elizabeth's half-sister Mary I, Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour
of Sudeley, and Robert Devereux, earl of Essex. Uncle Jack possibly refers
to Lord John Grey, and Mrs. Kelly could be Katherine Parr, Henry's 6th and
last wife, who was later married to Seymour and brought Elizabeth into their
household. Ambitious Seymour died in a gruesome execution without being
given a trial. Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower of London by Mary I,
and later went on to succeed her to the throne of England. Essex was a
favourite of the queen at court in later years, before she had to have him
put to death for treason .


The whole story is told here:

Wikipedia on Queen Elizabeth I:

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