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Issue 27 • January 2018
edited by Adele Gardner

Authors’ Notes about the Poems in Issue 27

“Camelot Cats” by Mary Soon Lee: “Camelot Cats” was my fifth attempt at writing an Arthurian poem. I’d already written poems about Arthur, his soldiers, Lancelot, and Guinevere, and I wanted to try something further removed from the familiar characters. I often begin my writing day in my living room in the company of my cats, and that’s probably what led to this particular slant on Camelot.

“Rex Arthurs” by Deborah L. Davitt: When I took a class in Arthurian romance at the University of Nevada–Reno back in 1997 or so, I’d also recently taken a class in American literature that had focused on the Western, not just as a genre, but as a legitimate literary expression. With those competing thoughts in my head, they collided into a short story that examined similarities in the underlying themes by taking Guenevere’s kidnapping at the hands of Malagaunt in Le Morte d’Arthur and putting it in Western terms. Unfortunately, I lost that story in the intervening years. Eye to the Telescope has allowed that notion a new expression and new life.

“A Good Knight’s End” by Marge Simon was partially inspired by folk songs sung by Joan Baez earlier in her career: the sadness a fair maid has over her love, a knight, lost in battle. Speculatively speaking, Godwyn could be another name for Gawain. Legends are many and convoluted concerning Sir Gawain’s life and loves throughout several countries. He had several names in other languages. Chivalrous he was, but did he actually marry Dame Ragnelle, whose ugly looks were changed to beauty thereafter? Instead, he might have fallen well and truly in love with a fair lady of Court, to whom he pledged his troth and wore her silk scarf into battle. Did he indeed die in a duel with Lancelot, or might there be another version?

“Gawain’s Rap” by Vince Gotera: During the 1980s, in U.S. po-biz, we endured the Formalist Poetry Wars, as some of you may recall. Poets called New Formalists were reviving interest in writing poems in traditional forms, in rhyme and meter. These poets were attacked by members of the free verse establishment, who called them reactionary, ultra-conservative, Reaganites, and so on. Thank goodness those wars are now gone. 
      In the MFA program I was in during the late ’80s, however, the poetry wars were definitely not gone. We fought often about formalism vs. free verse, and I tried to stay in the middle, bridging both. The battles were tiring, though, and seemingly personal. So one day, angry about the drubbing one of my formalist classmates had received in workshop, I thought, why don’t I write the most formalist poem I could muster? I settled on writing a rap, employing hymnal stanzas, with internal rhyme in lines 1 and 3, the longer 4-beat lines, and frequent soundplay: the alliteration of Christmas/crib, swoosh/swept, jerk/jumped; the assonance of my, I, Yuletide, wife, life, and slide in the final stanza; the rich consonance of emerald and hollered or decapped and picked. I even used some sly, enjambed rhyming, like girl down / underworld, where the rld rhyme is created by the ending rl of “girl” and the beginning d of “down.” Ditto in lines 7 and 17: door swept / horse and heck so / axe.
      In addition, to be even more subversive, I wanted to use a speaker who would be very distant from rap. Thus arose my DJ, Sir Gawain. I’d always loved Arthurian legend (as a kid, I had read and reread the Howard Pyle novel, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, with the glorious illustrations). I also snuck in some African American culture, for example, the word “teenouncy,” which is Southern slang for tiny, teeny. (Some of you may know that word from The Color Purple; I used Alice Walker’s spelling, though it is pronounced tee-NINE-see.) And of course, the opening “Yo!” and the hip-hop-style “Sir G” rapper name.
      Well, to make a long story short, my little revenge didn’t quite pan out; I thought my free-verse classmates would trash the poem and I could sit back and gloat, but no, they loved it. Nevertheless one of the proudest moments of my MFA apprenticeship.
      I’m happy “Gawain’s Rap” went on, after its 1989 appearance in The Wooster Review, to be noted in at least one Arthurian scholarly bibliography, and today the poem’s appearance here in ETTT enlarges and entrenches its Arthurian pedigree. By the way, if you’re wondering if the poem works as a rap, here’s a recording you might enjoy: Gotta love that Gawain, what a trickster. Paragon among medieval MCs, ne plus ultra. Word.

“Green Lady” by Amanda Partridge is a poem from the perspective of Lady Bertilak in the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as she watches her husband become the Green Man at the hand of Morgan le Fey.

“Our Morganna” by Jessy Randall is about the experience of two teenage girls coming to feminism by way of the character of Morganna in the Arthurian legends. 

“Old King Coel” by David Lee Summers is inspired by a passage from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, one of the earliest Arthurian fictions. There, King Coel is presented as an ancestor of Arthur, and some suspect that Geoffrey’s character is the inspiration for the famous nursery rhyme.

“Igraine” by Jane Dougherty: Igraine was happily married to Gorlois, as far as anyone knows, and had three daughters with him. When King Uther Pendragon became enamoured of her, she refused his advances and told her husband, who left Uther’s court immediately and returned with Igraine to Cornwall. Uther took this departure without leave as sufficient excuse to declare war on Gorlois. With Merlin’s help, at the height of the battle, Uther appeared to Igraine in the form of her husband and begot Arthur on her. Sources vary as to whether Gorlois was dead at the moment of Arthur’s conception. For the Christian version of the story, this point is important. For Igraine, it was a mere detail in the tragedy, for as was usual in these times, the victor of the war took the vanquished’s wife as well as his kingdom.

“From Her Tower, the Lady of Shalott Sees the Ice Age Come” by R. Mac Jones was inspired primarily by the Tennyson poem, in which the character of Elaine, the Lady of Shalott, is cursed to remain in her tower, watching the world always, and only, in her mirror. In the poem, she turns from the mirror to a world covered by ice, and to the ways ice mimics the world beneath it and the mirroring effects of the ice covering the world outside. 

“The Passage of Merlin” by David Lee Summers was inspired by stories from The History of the Kings of Britain and The Life of Merlin, both written by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey’s History was the source of Merlin predicting British victory from the struggle of two dragons beneath Vortigern’s stronghold. The Life of Merlin gives an account of the young, dynamic Merlin who is at once a loving brother and a jealous lover.

“The Hawthorn Muses” by Shannon Connor Winward: As a young girl, I was not much impressed with Arthur and his quivering Guinevere. For me, the beating heart of Arthuriana was the magic-workers: Morgan le Fae, Merlin, and of course Nimue/Nynave/Viviane, that mysterious young girl who was able to seduce and fool the great wizard. The circumstances of that betrayal vary from story to story; some, like Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave—one of my first Arthurian dalliances—say Merlin was tricked into a cave and sealed in forever. Other tales have him trapped in a rock, a tower, a bush, or a tree. For this poem, I went with hawthorn, which is richly represented in Celtic lore for its associations with fae folk, magic, and miracles.

This time” by F. J. Bergmann was elicited by the last sentence of Skook’s cited poem: This time of year you can see to the bottom of the lake. In that poem’s context, it clearly referred to the origin and end of Excalibur’s manifestation in the living world, and that evoked dwelling upon who might yet be watching that lake, with knowledge of what had transpired there. Of course the relationship between master and apprentice—particularly an amorous relationship between a male master and a female apprentice—undergoes changes when viewed through a modern lens.

“The Death of Private William” by Oliver Smith: My paternal grandfather, William (b. 1896), survived the Somme (1916) by running away; he avoided capture and execution as a deserter by joining a Scottish regiment under the name of Robert Burns.
      The poem contrasts the noble Victorian (and Edwardian) view of chivalric knights with the horror of trench warfare and that battle in particular. Even though I know in my head how far from reality it is, I still find the Arthurian cycle quite seductive as a founding myth of the British (and even as founding myths go it is very, very mythical). I love Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites and come from a generation that in retrospect was in many ways surprisingly close to those surviving Edwardians. 
      I drew upon the paintings Sir Isumbras at the Ford by John Everett Millais and The Death of King Arthur by James Archer for some of the imagery, and a little Kipling rhythm seems to have seeped into the common-time, so apologies if it’s a bit retro.
      Although the poem is titled “The Death of Private William,” my grandfather died at the age of eighty-four after a full and very, very mythical life.

“five sigils” by David F. Shultz: I would like to thank Adele Gardner, whose editorial feedback substantially improved this poem.

“And I Am Still the Lady of Shalott” by Mary Cresswell: Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott is incarcerated in a castle by a river and forbidden to look directly out of the window (though she has a primitive form of traffic mirror). She hears Lancelot singing “tirra lirra,” rushes to the window, and is struck down by a curse—she goes downstairs, writes her name on a rowboat, climbs in the rowboat, kicks off downstream, and dies. Lancelot observes her corpse and says that she’s not bad-looking. (That and “tirra-lirra” are all he has to say in the poem, though everyone sings quite a lot.)

“To the Knight’s Lady” by Marie Vibbert: “Érec et Énide” is the oldest Arthurian romance written by Chrétien de Troyes, completed around 1170. (Only one romance predates it, the Welsh “Culhwch and Olwen,” but at the time I wrote this poem I believed it was the oldest Arthurian story of all.) As an idealistic college student, I found it telling that this ancient poem deals directly with a battle of the sexes. First, that Erec doesn’t fight to win his own honor, but to claim the title of Most Beautiful for Enide. It is posed as a pedestal of power for Enide—but the poem harshly shows the unequal roles of the sexes, culminating in a journey of verbal abuse toward her from her hero as she tries to warn him of danger against an order from her husband to be silent. I was an active fighter in the SCA when I read this story, and it stuck with me as I faced the modern interpretations of chivalric behavior, where men gleefully fought to crown their queens but seemed blind to the real struggles of those same women.

“Dearest Galahad” by C.R. Harper: It’s difficult for me to shake the image of the Fates themselves testing a young Galahad for his father’s White Knight tendencies. I offer it as a companion to another Round Table vignette:

greenbelt stroll …
Sir Gawain looks out
over both shoulders

“Ask” by A.D. Harper: According to Jessie L. Weston, the Gawain episode I quote is a paraphrase of “the Bleheris Grail story, as given by Wauchier de Denain, in his continuation of the Perceval.” The Jessie L. Weston paper in question is here:

“Excalibur’s Lament” by PS Cottier takes the position that the sword in the stone and the sword used by Arthur are one and the same. (This is not the position in all versions of the Arthurian story.) Excalibur speaking for himself gives a slightly different take on the myth. The sword’s voice is linked to both previous and later events as well, so the poem has time travel elements.

“Swordsplaining” by Richaundra Thursday stemmed from my favorite character in Arthuriana: the Lady of the Lake. I always loved how she seemed to be part siren, part witch, part guardian spirit, and how the story could not move forward without her. As I was rereading many of the traditional translations, I was frustrated with the way women were depicted to a degree more severe than when I was a child. In this case, I was considering how Arthur paradoxically must “work” for his crown (by proving himself worthy), yet was always entitled to it, being the son of the king. That cognitive dissonance is one I see replicated by men through many work and recreational environments, and the temptation to downplay or delegitimize the roles of women in these locations is endlessly aggravating. The “witch” sharing coffee with her is not necessarily intended to be Morgan or Nimue, but rather a stand-in for all the witches that act as a “MacGuffin” in tales with heroes that both require and despise them.

“The Future King” by Lorraine Schein is inspired mostly by Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, concerning what happened after Arthur’s death, when the sword was returned and the barge arrived to take him to Avalon. It also was inspired by a recent issue of Marvel’s Silver Surfer comic and the recent kilonova event.

“Glastonbury Apples” by John Caulkins uses anaphora to describe the peculiar effect of apples that must grow in the magical soil of Avalon.

“Arthur’s Seat” by Andrew J. Wilson is a triolet that is based on an old legend from his hometown of Edinburgh.