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Broken

The painter is unknown, but it is probable that the tiny subject is the Dauphine Louise-Louise, oldest daughter of Francis I.  In a time heavy with symbolism, little sense can be made of the work.  It is a portrait of a young girl, a child not yet grown out of her childish fat; the laces of her bodice strained across her chest.  The ribbon of her kerchief disappears beneath her chin – laces and ribbons trying to force a child into a woman’s shape.

Possibly this is a posthumous work, for the little girl died at the age of two, convulsing uncontrollably in front of her dismayed parents and doctors.  This would explain the background of funereal black, so unlike other children’s portraits from the 16th century:  no furniture, no books, no toys.  No memento mori symbols of a brief and risky life unfettered by hygiene; no baskets of fruit presenting the child as the fruit of a sacred union; no cat to symbolize lust or dog to imply loyalty.  There is nothing to soothe a little girl’s loneliness.

The only other object in the painting is in the girl’s hands.  It is a dead sparrow.  Death has loosened its muscles:  the beak gapes open, the neck extended, the wings limp.  This might be a thought for the vanity of life – all must die, including small birds – but the girl’s expression is not accepting, or knowledgeable, or serene as would be expected.  Instead, she is startled:  her blue eyes seem to pale with amazement.  The diminutive corners of her mouth twist downward.  Whomever this painter was, he or she has made a subtle and intuitive study of a child on the verge of tears.

She will cry out of grief and confusion.  She will cry because she does not understand why her beloved pet is so quiet and acquiescent, why its throat does not flutter with sound.  Its eyes are dull; the opaque lids have turned them away from her, far from her girlish affection.

The girl holds the sparrow in the gentle bowl of her hands, her fingers searching for the quick heartbeat, the thin, complex pulse of her little pet.  She holds the creature as gently as a hunting dog – retrieving its prey with its soft mouth; careful not to press with tooth or tongue the still surface of its broken prize.  Both are careful not to harm it, though it be dead.

Louise of France. Oldest daughter of Frances I and Claude of France. Died aged two, of convulsions. Engaged to Infante Charles of Castile from birth to death.

The Bower

The pavilion was born in 1572.  Its walls were made of canvas.  And like sails they were held up by a platoon of 40 ships’ masts – seasoned with mists, salt and the voices of fishes.

It was Elizabeth’s pavilion.  A queen for fourteen years, she had grown tired of her palaces:  Whitehall, a pale leviathan; rosy-colored Hampton Court; St. James, which still bore her mother’s initials carved into its guilty stone; Greenwich – where her father was born and Richmond, where she would die.  These buildings were built on history, enmeshed in circumstance and ceremony.  She needed something that reflected her wit, femininity and power – the unexpected whim of England’s unequaled queen.

So when the French envoys were to visit in 1572, with marriage proposals, land and trade agreements in their pockets, Elizabeth decided to entertain them outside.   She hired 500 carpenters and artists to decorate and disguise the canvas walls.  They would create a gallery suitable for those visitors most likely to return home with stories of the handiwork that was raised with a single wave of the Virgin Queen’s arsenic scented hand.

Above tables weakened by plates of spiced meats and sugar paste sculptures of cathedrals and chessboards, boughs of birch and ivy wept from the ceiling.  Roses and honeysuckle were braided in a living fabric that pressed against the walls painted with trompe l’oeil stonework.  The air of the artificial bower bloomed, growing fragrant and green.  It mixed bravely with the sickly rancid scent that rose from the pomanders held close to the visitors’ noses.

The ceiling was painted with the curling vines of an exotic harvest:  pomegranates, melons, cucumbers, grapes, carrots – reminders of the foreign lands within England’s grasp.  Finally, rising out of the greenery, at the very top of the unlikely construction was a sweep of twilight, “spangled with gold and most richly hanged”, marked with constellations and sparks of stars marked with “lights of glass”.  Gilt ornaments and lanterns decorated the deceptive evening, their fey light varnishing the crawling garden.

Elizabeth’s pavilion, the rippling façade of brick and botany, was meant to be used only once.  But it was to remain standing for another ten years.  And in that time the vines had rotted and the flowers had become gangrenous.  Showers of dust, gilt and paint stood hypnotized in the shafts of sunlight piercing the ragged walls.

However, the scent of decay – the sweet repellent aroma from a diabolical boudoir – could somehow still beckon.  Birds hatched through the dilapidated canvas, attracted by the death throes of the suffering forest.

They were tiny envoys, bearing tokens of music, color and spirit.  Their whimsical movements, the audacity of their flight were an inspiration.  Once, within that flimsy architecture, art had dared to imitate life.  And within a decade it would be rescued by it.  A mystery play of metaphysics, aesthetics and semantics had been re-enacted within a forest that was – like a sleeping Eden – in the process of being re-born.

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Today I Am 60

Today I Am 60

Today I am 60.  And for this accomplishment I think that I at least deserve a furtive round of applause.  Just a polite recognition that I’m officially older than everyone I know…if fact everyone that I see on the streets.

Today I am 60.  And I’ve seen some odd things in my vast life:   Streakers.  Mazatlan ca. 1979.  That copywriter who wore a Viking helmet while he worked.  The AVN Awards.   And in addition I am still able to grab hold of occasional bouts of happiness, if I’m fast enough.  And I’ve been published, which is a jolly thing.

Today I am 60.  And when one has the audacity to do so, one can hear falling like acorns the warnings, regulations and guidelines to follow once one achieves “a certain age”.  A silly expression, I’d just like to mention in passing:    If you can’t bring yourself to mention the number – it doesn’t bother me; time is tedious and remorseless and there it is – then do take your delicate advice and deposit it somewhere else.

Today I am 60.  And age-related advice is like bubble wrap:  meant to be useful, but great fun to step on.  I have all the things that the elders have been warmed against:  make up, hair dye, buckets of jewelry, socks with pictures of Bambi on them – I have them all and simply can’t be give them up.  I have mermaid earrings.  A ring with a bunny on it.  And did I say Bambi socks?  Also skinny jeans:   it took me 3 years to get into a size 9, and an unfortunate age won’t make me give them up.  Immaturity, I believe, is not within the pervue of the fortunate few.

Today I am 60 and to honor the event, should I wish, I will eat pizza sitting on the steps of a public building, wearing a 1920’s style bathing suit.Image result for suffragettes - pizza

I will drink a toast, only bypassing the glass and going straight for the bottle instead.

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It’s so unfortunate that as one grows (very) older the limitations increase.  In the wider scheme of things they’re small things, but come on.  I’ve earned the freedom.  And if it’ll make anyone happier, I do have my AARP card.

This was not meant to be belligerent.  Is it?  Obstreperous maybe, truculent perhaps…but all I really want to do is be friendly, charming, charismatic, alluring, dignified and delightful.   And I want to invite you all over for plein-air pizza and wine.

The Dear Loved Boy

The romantic is cursed with a delicate type of blindness, a reckless folly that begins by meaning no harm yet which in the end will taint its imprudent victim with a painful destiny.

“He gained the love of ladies gay
None e’er to him weas coy
Ah, woe is me, I mourn the day for dear Gilderoy”

The romantic sentiment is made from a fey alchemy: soft feelings, gentle indiscretions.  It is responsible for the quiet dismissal of reality; replacing it with an insidious fancy that invades the dull fabric of reason like a golden thread.

“With muckle (much) joy we spent our prime
Till we were baith sixteen
And oft we passed the langsome (long) time
amang the leaves sae green”

Admittedly such a deadly attitude is not as common now as it once was.  This is a cynical world.  But centuries before it was not so much the case. Imagination was different – like prisms, thoughts of love and romance was split like gems to achieve an entirely new purity, a new light.  Men saw a woman’s pale skin as a fleshly metaphor for virtue and truth – though the feminine tint was laced with arsenic.  And women saw romantic possibilities in the dark eyes, slim figure and the feel of restrained muscular strength of her gentleman as he held her on the dance floor.  This was a generation easily deceived by their feelings, more than willing to travel the labyrinth of ardor that stretched before them.

“O, that he still had been content
with me to lead his life,
But ah, his manful heart was bent
to stirring feats of strife,”

Patrick Roy McGregor, known as Gilderoy, Gilleroy, Gilder Roy or Gillie Ruadh (“the Red-haired Lad”) was an outlaw of democratic tastes:  he was a robber, a blackmailer, a cataran (cattle thief) and a murderer.  He and his band of criminals terrorized the lands throughout Aberdeen during the early 17th century.

But he was pretty.  His white skin and auburn hair were not reconciled to his violent tendencies.  And the ladies loved his beauty and were happily blinkered from his misguided daring.  He was ‘bonnie’, ‘handsome’ and ‘winsome’.  Their yearning and tributes appeared in stories, ballads, prose and verse.

“My Gilderoy, baith far and near
was feared in every toon,
And boldly bore awa’ the gear
of many a lowland loon (peasant, rogue)”

The ‘arch rebel’ was finally apprehended in 1636.  McGregor stood trial in Edinburgh with his associates John Forbes, Alistair Forbes, Callum Forbes, George Grant, John McColme, John McGregor McEane, Gillespie McFarlane, Alistair McInneir and Ewin McGregor alias Accawisch.

“At length, with numbers, he was ta’en,
my handsome Gilderoy”

The charges were many; a miscellany of achievements of a dubious personality:  “tressonable usurpatioun of our Souerane Lordis royal power”,  “pat violent handes in the persones of the said Alexander (Hay) and his wyfe, tuik thame captives and prissoneris, for thair ransome and libertie”, involvement in a number of “crewall slauchters” or murders.    His choice of victims was an egalitarian one, preying on common folk, lairds and ministers.  He was supposedly betrayed by his mistress Peg Cunningham, and was able to stab her to death before being arrested.    Even more flamboyant tales claim that he robbed Cardinal Richelieu and picked Oliver Cromwell’s pocket…but a ruffian’s accomplishments had their limits.

He was found guilty on July 29.  The pleasantly fitting Scottish word for verdict (“doom”) was that McGregor be “drawin backwardis upone ane cairt…to the mercat (market) cross of Edinburgh.” Along with John Forbes he would be hung until dead on a gibbet that was considerably higher than that of their associates.  They were also to have their “..heidis be strukin af from thair bodies, with their richt handis, and the said Gilroy his heid and richt hand to be affixit on the eist or netherbow poirt of Edinburgh, and the said John Forbes his heid and richt hand to be put upone the wast poirt thairof.  (heads be struck off from their bodies with their right hands, and the said Gilroy his head and right hand to be affixed on the east or netherbow port of Edinburgh, and the said John Forbes his head and right hand to be put upon the west port thereof)

“To Edinburgh they led him there,
and on a gallows hung;
They hung him high above the rest,
he was sae trim a boy”

Such was his fame that a garden of ballads blossomed directly after his execution, such as “The Scotch Lovers Lamentation:  or Gilderoy’s Last Farewell…To an excellent new Tune, much in request”    Such popularity speaks of an ill-conceived pride, a stumbling thrill, a naïve delight…the ingredients of a misdirected affection. There are times when a passion gallops like an unrestrained fever, and its victim is unprepared to deal with the machinations of its subtle sickness – the extravagance of undisciplined emotion.

Thus having yeilded up his breath,
I bore his corpse away;
With tears that trickled for his death,
I washed his comely clay;
And safely in a grave sae deep
I laid the dear loved boy,
And now forever I must weep for winsome Gilderoy.

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The Sparrow

Every afternoon I visit my mother – to lift her fluttering spirits, to sift through the mail, to discuss issues with the family cat, to wash some dishes, to see that the garbage cans are on the curb, awaiting their departure. The past few years have not been…winning, and I would do all I can to combat their reckless demoralization.

I visit her because her happiness is a vital catalyst to my own contentment. It is an elusive ingredient as treasured as a pool of gold coming to life in an alchemist’s hand. Her wit and laughter is incisive, subtle and madcap – a cat’s cradle spun by a lovely mind. And I would have that fabric remain strong, and not become bleak and threadbare.

I visit her not only because it is a daughter’s obligation, but it is also my tendency, my preference. By myself, I can be bleak and quiet. But together we are comical, critical and satirical. And in the end I always come away with my pride in my mother, in our unique, magnificent relationship, affirmed and confirmed.

And every afternoon when I leave I give my mother a hug. I can feel her bones as small and delicate as a bird’s. And I hug her hard, to keep her safe and to keep her from flying away like a wayward sparrow eager to rejoin her kin.

Happy Mother’s Day – I’ll be over tomorrow, and for days and days after that.

I love you very much.

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Vegetable Curves

VegetableCurls-GiordanoWrithing in vegetable curves

Coiled like petticoats

Wrapped around a woman’s ankle

Neither bud nor blossom

A garden invader

Spinning green and modest

And as workmanlike as a salad

Wound tight as a shell

Like the helix of the ear

It grew close to the earth

A stairway of leaves curved to listen

Not to the sea

Not to words

But to the botanical life

That breathed and rippled

Through the maternal silence

Of its earthy crib

The Many Small Details

 

The seasons change in an alchemist’s patois – using a language that is rich in subtleties and mystery.  It is a sum of transmutations that have been distilled in an earthly alembic ever since the world spun itself into existence.

The change is as delicate yet invasive as a drop of paint falling into a bowl of water, spreading in a fading bouquet of coils and tendrils.  The cusp between seasons is a time of winsome details, tiny births and hushed deaths.  There is an anthology of detail to regale one of what is to come, a silent speech of promises to be fulfilled once the threshold is crossed.  This new dialogue, rough and poignant, contains a revelation of detail that curves into being every three months.  It begins with a change as delicate as twilight dripping into dawn, as elusive as the stars twisting into a new formation.

It is on a periphery, a borderland familiar yet altered, a soft and gradual rift.  If one is clever enough to look and see, to gather together the many small details like a bouquet the change does not go ignored and Nature’s herculean sweat will not be wasted.  Nor will go unheeded the four conversions of the year: fraught with as much magic as a forgotten chemist’s lab, hung with colored glass, philosophies and saucers of bubbling gold.

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Edward VII Reviews Field

“The simultaneous movement of those hundreds of white arms, the rustling of robes, the flashing of the jewels made him think of a scene from a ballet.”
‘To Marry An English Lord’, Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace

The prince lowered his head
As he stood inside the chapel
And wrapped around his temples
He felt the rhythmic carving of gold
With all apprehensions
Responsibilities
And weary years
Impaled on each prong like worms
Suffering with promise
And the ache of the future

When the king raised his head
There was a luminous movement
As one hundred peeresses
Raised their tiaras with round and powdered arms
In a frisson of light
And synchronized loyalty.
Flesh under a king’s review,
A soft population
Bred for discretion
And immodest seclusion

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Spirited Souls

One gilded afternoon in 1899, the Wyndham sisters were seated together on a couch, pliant yet statuesque, within the velvet recess of their drawing-room in Belgravia.  Their satin dresses, weightless and ethereal, merged into an ivory cloud, dimpled with lavender and gold.  Their limbs were slim and exhausted, starved of all bourgeois musculature by centuries of aristocratic breeding.  Ballerina necks balanced on nests of bones, smooth with the lazy flesh of diaphanous bodies.  Their chilly, patrician hands barely had the strength to hold a teacup – warmed only by the bronze liquid that shattered the porcelain into shards of light.

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These ladies – Madeline Adeane, Pamela Tennant and Mary Constance, Lady Elcho – were called “The Three Graces” by the Prince of Wales, Windsor’s glittering roué. They should have been content with their decorative existence as royal favorites, draped across sofas like animal skins, clothed like the sea in gowns of froth, their fashionable spines bent by the bones of whales.  But there was a wary intelligence, entwined with the bland vanity, which lurked in each of the sisters’ faces.  Like a predator, it waited: within eyes as dark as Pandora’s Box, under the brows’ dusky horizons, trembling on subtle lips.

Pamela, the youngest and prettiest of the three, had the misspent spirit possessed by those cursed with such charms.  Overly aware of her advantages, she had the disconcerting habit – though possibly excusable in one so lovely – of rising from the dinner table and facing the wall if she felt she was receiving insufficient attention.

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Lady Mary had the discipline and logistical talent to seamlessly govern a large household, a philandering husband as well as a string of noteworthy lovers.  Her amours ranged from Prime Minister Arthur Balfour to the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt – long past but never over his affair with the courtesan Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters.  Mary traveled with Blunt to Arabia, where she would bear his child, in 1895.

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Madelaine was looked on as the forgotten Wyndham, only because she had to audacity to be content with her lot.  Shy and gentle, she was the closest to the Edwardian feminine ideal.  Happy, with a talent for needlework and bringing up her children, Madelaine seemed to embrace all of the housewife’s virtues.

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The Wyndham sisters shared a DNA of foolishness and restlessness, tempered with a soupcon of quietude.  But their dreaming wisdom was designed for speculation and fancy. They had the leisure for thought.  Because of these serene qualities they were prominent members of a unique social group called The Souls.  (Lord Charles Beresford supposedly said: “You all sit and talk about each other’s souls — I shall call you the ‘Souls'”.)

Weary of salons absorbed with politics and gossip, The Souls sought to distance themselves from such mediocre concerns.  They were bent on pleasure, but pleasure of a superior kind…their intellect was both arrogant and amusing; their arguments louche, ridiculous and brilliant.

The Souls sculpted their dialogues as if they were works of art, with wit that was nimble and flirtatious.  Lovers and ideas were shared with incestuous abandon.  They were daring, but beautifully so.

The Wyndham sisters’ lives of exclusivity, culture and indolent wisdom would end – as it would for all members of their élite class – with the First World War.  In 1918 peacetime, tethered with a new cynicism, began…but their exquisite lives had ended many years earlier.

“I am and always shall be sorry for wounding the feelings of anyone I care for but otherwise it is difficult to wholly regret days of beauty and romance.”

– Mary Constance Wyndham

“Should 2016 Be Forgot…”

“Should 2016 be forgot
I wouldn’t even mind
Twelve months seem to have come to naught
With goodness all denied

With goodness all denied, this year
Has won in every way
I’ll take a cup of wine you bet
To wash defeat away”

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