The Rest is Lost
A sequence of 16 sonnets inspired by the life of Elizabeth Sidney
Poetry by Julia Damassa
History is brimful with stories of women who triumphed over adversity to achieve astonishing and admirable feats in an unforgiving patriarchal society.
Literature, the Arts and the Media pay homage to them everyday, and rightly so for these heroines are our perpetual role models. They remind us of how strength of nature, presence of mind, determination and being diligent equate easily with codes of honour. Refreshingly, Elizabeth Sidney, the muse who has inspired me to write this sequence of contemporary sonnets, is no heroine or role model. Four hundred years after her death at the age of twenty seven, she is closer to never having existed than she is to memory or tribute. Yet she began well, the eagerly anticipated stella child of man of letters, Philip Sidney, the David Beckham of Elizabethan England, and expectations were high. No astrologer could predict how spectacularly she would fail to fulfil those expectations, both as a mother and as a poet. Perhaps blame lies not within herself but elsewhere – husband, parentage, politics, or perhaps the ticking biological clock became something of a time bomb. Whatever the truth of Her story is, I am intrigued by this unsung anti-heroine under-achiever and her lost potential. These sonnets are for her, while we continue our search for her poems. The rest is lost.
Julia Damassa lives in Bottesford with husband John and son Will. She is an enthusiast for the theatre, and leads the Mermaid Group which meets to discuss and read the works of Shakespeare. Jules writes modern sonnets, and has completed a series based on Elizabeth Sydney, daughter of the Elizabethen poet and soldier Sir Philip Sydney, and fifth Countess of Rutland.
The Woman’s Part
Our ship has sailed over the edge.
There’s a fire in my heart because of you.
No matter how hard I try to dampen it
The heat of my desire, wanton spirit,
Rises in my head and sets in my shoe!
Sit with me awhile, let’s admire the view,
The high-arched brow, the pronounced bridge, the rue-
Full grin as the river flows beneath it,
Your face is a vista of morning dew.
Only this morning dew dampens my flame,
There are clouds in the sky, no, in your eyes,
A hand gently pressed on mine does the same,
So slowly desire turns into derise.
Farewell, fonde youth, since thou must needs leave me,
Fie, fortye thynges are yet untold to thee.
Why have we become language terrorists?
Being vulnerable is human access,
A gentle failing that leads to success,
To what we should embrace and not resist.
Yet it seems the powers that be insist
On aggression and violence to express
Emotions they would rather we suppress
That journalists print and lawyers desist.
The milk of human kindness has gone sour
And flows just like a poisoned spew of words
Towards our final unfinest hour
Where only shouts and jeers and taunts are heard.
Please tell me, does it have to be this way
That we live together afraid to say…
(That we lie together afraid to say…)
This mantle of me sits uneasily,
A skin that needs shedding, masks to remove,
I am more painted than portrait to prove
My worth as a wife or fertile filly.
Trussed up to the nines, I feel so silly
And long for our talks, knowing you approve,
The ghosts in the forest you use to soothe
These empty, futile days so merrily.
And so I perform my part perfectly,
The “hostess with the mostest”, my label.
Heed not his words, I tell you directly
You are always welcome at my table.
From now till then and all eternity
I remain your true friend, Earine.
When I consider everything that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
To gaze upon the work an artist shows
The Universe shifts to make a comment.
When I consider how we capture time
Slips through fingers and onto the palette,
Sweet words entombed in inferior rhyme,
A photograph still is no more valid.
Then I treasure ev’ry imperfection,
This bold pastiche of the natural world,
The artistry clear in its reflection,
Clenched hands brush-stroke white petals unfurled.
And so are we all too temporary
Engraft upon the grave of memory.
The Widowed Wife
O, paint me pregnant with my mother’s face
That I may feel full of her fertile grace.
Don’t let my husband know what I intend,
But let your paintbrush stroke and be my friend.
I do not care to see my likeness there,
My unique features should be found elsewhere,
In the eyes and mouth, in the look and smile,
The sweet expressions, of a new-born child.
I grieve his loss, the sun, my son not born,
He does not cry or play or rise at dawn.
So paint me in black for I in mourning am,
The rest is lost, except this marriage sham.
Should I awake to find your canvas true
My life is yours to do what e’er wills you.
In your time, remember me to my Lord.
Memories of harmony and discord
Prevent me from returning to our home
And I, flameless phoenix, alone must roam.
In my time, remember me to your Lord.
Time is a healer I can ill afford.
Today I cried a river over him
And I, sad shep-her-dess, alone must swim.
In time, I ask you to remember me,
Not as your wife, as one who lived freely.
The ghost of Youth is given up and I,
Un-na-tur-al spinster, alone must die.
The beyondness of things surprises me,
Too much to know, too far to clearly see.
Sidney ‘s Arcadia
Let me confess to these feelings of shame:
Brother, I’m jealous of you, son and heir
Of father’s voice, his words you will not share
But hide in your heart till all sound the same.
Issue, I wish you did not have our name
Which you parade too boldly everywhere,
Given the chance I’d gladly burn or tear
You apart and blame it on a child’s game.
The burning of books is common, you see,
Women, too, by heretics and the Bard;
My brother’s spine’s not made as it should be
Of vertebrae and bone, his cord is card.
So be it, I’ll succumb to heresy
To be rid of this sibling rivalry.
Advice to Daughters
after Advice to Husbands
Who doth desire that proud her dad should be
First be she true, for truth doth truth deserve,
When such she be, then he her worth may see
And her father’s pride he’ll hold in reserve.
Not silent, nor causelessly outspoken,
Not underdressed, nor dressing like a nun,
No kiss promised, nor promises broken,
Never cloistered, nor having too much fun.
Spend what you want, but little on yourself
(The one doth force, the former doth entice),
Enjoy male friendships, but beware the shelf
Where daughters end up who are just too nice.
This done, thou hast no more, but leave the rest
To virtue, fortune, time and dad’s behest.
‘Tis not a castle but a house of cards
And mine is marked “bawdy.” Between two Vales
I lie in the margin hearing their tales.
Call this a masque? It’s a game of charades!
Us shadows for the queens and kings and bards.
Flown in on a wire, the wind in my sails
I soar like a phoenix while bright Luce pales,
The paper walls fall, “I’m free, best regards.”
But no, I land in my sinister place
And cease building my castles in the air.
O how they gasp when they see me as Grace –
“She’s a beautiful view without compare.”
Black diamonds at my throat, O, how they choke
The laughter out of me, their witless joke.
Dark Snow, Cold Fire
for absent friends
Being away from you is Christmas-time
Without gifts, a cold Winter without snow
To warm the heart, to make the world a-glow,
A frozen soul and yet it’s Summer-time.
I thaw on my return, words flow and rhyme
Bears fruit, the leave turns from green to yellow.
Why then is bright Autumn’s abundant show
Rotten to the core, cankered in its prime?
This grief is in its infancy, a Spring
Of hopeless, budless dreams and “What a shame!”
My voice, once good for song, no longer rings
The Yuletide Greetings, instead cries your Name.
This Christmas will be devoid of its cheer,
Without presence, because you are not here.
‘Tis madness or sadness? I cannot tell;
Then crying, now raving, they back away
Afraid to look me in the face and say
Your legs are turning black and how you smell!
Nurse, take my child again and nurse him well;
Love him for me; teach him to play and pray,
Speak to him of me kindly everyday
And when it’s time you may ring the death-knell.
You see, Phyllis, you are my only friend,
A friendship born out of envy and spite
It’s true, but you’ll prove true in the end
Bringing an end to this painful birth-right.
As gold from brass by force of fire is tried
So friends from foes in troubles are espied.
The Painted Lady
Today I saw a butterfly pass by,
Her name was Scarlet Swallowtail, she said.
With wings of blackest jet and brightest red
She cut a blaze of beauty ‘gainst the sky
And took away my breath with her sweet sigh.
A caterpillar’s voice then filled my head
Laughing, and so I followed where she led
To a place where they never hear you cry.
No question why, instead she touched my hand-
Such delicacy and strength fluttered there-
My eyes beheld this small and slender land,
A vista of delight beyond compare.
The view and magic faded as night fell
And I, embraced and displaced by her spell.
In forty days, twice have I left the house
And smiled less. I’m sixteen and sick of life,
Sick with the boredom of being a wife.
Hunting and hawking and me as the grouse,
I, quarry, you, quiver, cat eats the mouse
And shows tail as trophy under the knife.
It is sad already, this tale of strife-
Allows smiles to hide, dark thoughts to arouse.
“Old before her time, dressed beyond her years”
I see my skin is jaundiced, they say “tanned”
“Merely sweat from Summer’s heat” I cry tears,
“Fever” I shiver, “Flushes can be fanned.”
O how I long once more for the Tower
The place to wile away each idle hour.
Much has this life that may it loved make
And gives not rather cause it to forsake
I am at the end of my beginning,
The Merry Cemetery beckons me
Singing, to enter her wings silently
And leave behind the dark din of sinning.
How peaceful ’tis here, calm underpinning
The ghostly mausoleum I see,
With arch and alabaster deity,
I genuflect and commence worshipping.
Ophelia lies here and Hero too,
Juliet’s entombed, Lady M’s at rest,
I question why I cannot jo-in you
And find comfort in thoughts of being blessed.
Then I leave, when hearts are full with weeping,
A smile, for our loved ones who lie sleeping.
(A smile, for our children who lie sleeping.)
I also have a muse, her name is Death.
In the LadyPark, winged chariot waits
And she watches, as they open the gates
To drive the dear doe through, with baited breath.
O how majestically I pace the heath
With cloven hoof and heart, this hart berates
The noble women with their piercing Fates
And without compulsion to lay a wreath.
Beneath her hide I reside, through her vein
I flow, I know she is with child, heart beats,
My foetal twin bleats out in silent pain,
On embroidered seats the parade retreats.
The doe’s death lingers in my memory.
What is a poem if not empathy?
Sh + O
A text message to the bard.
Shhh, he writes, the Sun, in his light I bask,
No star I unless fading Nebulae,
The stella child has died mercifully,
O, I am less than nought, Shadow’s my mask.
Is it Hero or Zero you may ask?
She waits as a trophy bride, patiently
For her husband’s return triumphantly,
Yet her fidelity is brought to task.
Then Shadow it is, I sit in the wings
Eclipsed by my starry messenger. O!
His text, the brightest constellation, sings
Of player and prayer and yes, shadow.
Shhh, here comes the final act, how they cry,
Love, laugh and die, as shadows clap and sigh.