Sonnet for a Visiting Duchess

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of forming one of a Rose Tournament team. Our patroness was Duchess Adrielle Kerrec of house Arrochar, who had traveled from Ealdormere to take part.

Duchess Adrielle has a long-standing friendship with the Barony of the Flame, and in addition to representing her in the arts and sciences competition, I wanted to make her welcome on her latest visit.

Through a mutual friend, I was able to learn details about her SCA career as Crown Consort, a Laurel, and a Pelican, including service on the Board of Directors to personalize a sonnet in her honor.

The Three-Petaled Rose

The world admires this Queen of Arrochar
First for her Grace, that ornaments a throne
Or guest’s place equally, her sable star’s
Celestial light by her beauty outshone.
Second, all artisans her learning praise
That she hath shared with seven students keen,
And skill of her bright needle in the ways
Of dressing, fine as any Lady seen.
Third, service she hath given in heart’s blood
To guard the wider land with counsel wise.
For this alone her Name, forever good,
Echoes through eons—Honour never dies.
See then what miracle in her befell—
The Trillum Rose is Duchess Adrielle.

The First Taste of the Wine

When first the frosts of winter touch the vine
And soft’ning grapes turn stony overnight,
The vintner’s alchemy distills a wine
As rich and golden as Apollo’s light.
With sweetness as of laughter among friends,
In crystal casque this treasure doth appear.
It fractures flame, and to the eye it sends
Sequins of light more sparkling than a tear.
As the first sip of this rare vintage sings
Upon the tongue, so, tasted in the heart,
The wine of one rare moment sweetness brings
When work and love and gift unite in art.
In gladness we have raised late season’s cup—
Let’s drain the dregs before we turn it up.

Astrarium

A Planetary Sonnet Sequence

With most of my poems, I include a paragraph or three about context and process, just enough to make the piece accessible to someone who wasn’t there at the time. This one’s different. I invite you to read all, or some, or none of the notes here, as your taste directs. Glosses on each sonnet are linked to that sonnet’s numeral.

Writing this sequence has been technically challenging, poetically maddening, and personally intensely satisfying. I’m so happy I did it, and I’m so pleased you are here. Thanks for joining me.

i

Arise, quicksilver Muse, wing’d Mercury,
Gifted of tongue, to thee I boldly call.
Swift messenger, pause but an hour with mee
And magnify my eloquence withal,
Nor let presumption in me thee appall,
For service faithful I would render thee,
Holding the poet’s gift higher than all
Great Neptune’s treasures drown’d in boundless sea.
Grant of your nature bountifully, nor think
Aught of your gift I profligate shall waste,
But guard my journey, lest my star should sink
And noble calling be by me disgraced.
So must it be when inspiration drives—
Those the Muse calls spend more than their mere lives.

ii

Bright Luna, mother of madness and desire,
Thou with thy perilous beams created hast
A microcosm all of silver cast
Wherein thy poets animate the lyre.
May I make one, and yearning ever higher,
The seeming unattainable, at last
Perform: outdo the bards of ages past
With pearléd lines thy radiance doth inspire.
Though brief my sojourn on this earthly mote,
I’ll fill the crumbling vessel of my song
And learning, passion, reason all devote
To poesy, for art surviveth long.
Celestial virgin, thus I consecrate
My vision, and my life so dedicate.

iii

Escape this leaden world, my inward sight,
And range beyond the moon, then rise above
The golden sphere whence issueth dawn’s light—
Ascend where translunary planets move.
O Saturn! ancient eidolon of Night,
Instruct me! nor my scholar’s quest reprove.
Open mine eye, my ignorance affright,
Impart th’celestial science I do love
Above all grosser studies; feed my yearning
For Wisdom, as I persevere in learning.
All mortal wit can compass I’ll employ
In contemplation of the highest truth,
And lines set forth as true intention’s proof
Of art that is my duty and my joy.

iv
Great Jupiter! who survey all within
The confines of the land’s encircling curve,
Command thy powers ever to preserve
This earthly mirror, of thy court a twin.
Uphold me; let my service now begin
In earnest, as my sovereign doth deserve,
That monarch whose authority I serve—
A crown of glory, not a crown of tin.
Enthroned, she bears Astraea’s mantle pure,
And like the goddess, balances the scales
Of Justice and keeps her Kingdom secure
From every foe. Her sentry never fails.
The lyre well strung, a paean t’one I raise
Whose merit passes far my wit to praise.

v
As in the summer dusk begins to blaze
The fiery Mars, that god whose mantle red
Beswept the battlefield of ancient days
Where Agamemnon and Achilles shed
Troy’s blood–Who calls the soldier from his bed
To face the enemy with iron gaze,
Whose warlike aspect is of all most dread
To foe; so, with commanding mien, displays
Our Queen with heart and stomach of a King,
Advent’ring life and honour in defence
Of her beloved people. Trumpets, ring
Your triumph throughout Albion island, whence
Do come the noblest monarchs in the sphere.
Where Henry’s scion leads, let tyrants fear.

vi
To Venus Gloriana, fairest queen,
Belov’d of all, whose everlasting youth
And beauty inspire frail poets to truth,
And cannot be forgot, once being seen–
Thy copper locks and teeth of pearly sheen,
Complexion pale as samite and as smooth,
Thy sapphire eye that beams with gentle ruth,
Thy coral lips bedecked in smiles serene–
All these, great Queen, but outwardly betoken
The inward greatness of thy noble mind,
Thy charity and tender hearted grace.
Let me then breathe what everywhere is spoken,
These virtues rare thy faithful people find
Still higher than their image in thy face.

vii
As in this world the Queen’s resplendent face
Is fairest to be seen, dazzling the eye
Of her beholder, so reigns in the sky
The glorious Sun, driving his daily race.
His pow’r above, below her ruling grace
Make all right, as low corresponds to high.
Now in their service, Fate I dare defy!
O King of poets, take to thine embrace
This lowly daughter of the heav’nly Muse.
My offering, I beg, do not refuse,
But gild my labor with Apollo’s crown.
Let me be known thy servant; on my name,
Shed as thou see’st fit such measure of fame
That when my sun sets, sinks not my renown.

Notes on “Astrarium”

I’ve made my creative intentions and process on this project as transparent as I can. These notes are extensive and hyperlinked throughout. They’re organized in an inverted pyramid; thank you, journalism.

I begin with an overview, then delve into several specific aspects of the work as a whole, each in its own headed section. A list of sources and editions used appears at the bottom of those sections. At the most detailed level, I’ve provided an annotated copy of each sonnet (including glosses) linked from its roman numeral in the original post.

What It Is…

I have been writing Elizabethan sonnets for some time, and I wanted a greater technical challenge and a larger canvas. I decided to write a sonnet sequence.

A sonnet sequence, as distinct from simply a group or volume of sonnets, is connected by a narrative thread. The sonnets may not directly “tell a story” in a straightforward manner, but they must be more sequentially and thematically connected than simply a group of poems on the same topic. The best-known example from Elizabeth’s reign, Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, details the progress of a love affair, heavily influenced by the neoplatonic ideals of Petrarchan love. I took it as my main stylistic model. John Donne’s Holy Sonnets also influenced me significantly, as did the sonnets of Edmund Spenser and of course William Shakespeare. (Donne’s poems were published posthumously, so their publication date places them post-SCA period, but he was writing poetry by the 1580s at the latest.)

Sonnet sequences can be any length. Mine is seven sonnets long, because there are seven classical planets. More details about the content appear under the Subject subheading.

…and Why I Did It

The in-persona goal of the sequence–Ursula Mortimer’s goal in 1590s London– is to present herself to the community of arts and letters as both an accomplished poet and an up-and-coming natural philosopher. As a model for the former, I had Spenser, the generation’s professional Great Poet; for the latter, the Elizabethan court itself, with its bevy of gentlemen anxious to set themselves in the best possible light before their sovereign/beloved/Muse, who was also an excellent politician.

In the sequence, Ursula is showing off both her ability to write the poems and her learning in mystical fields, attempting to carve out a space for herself among the learned and noble. It’s a daring, not to say brash, undertaking for a woman of gentle birth but no fortune who has been compelled to work for a living. Apprenticed to a court wizard and learned doctor, she makes a bid for fame, status, and social advancement.

The Subject

I had had it in mind for two years to write an astrologically-based sequence addressing each of the seven classical planets*. Historian Frances Yates’s work on 16th century science showed me a path forward for this. I also learned from Yates that Sir Philip Sidney and his coterie went to court astrologer John Dee for instruction in natural philosophy, i.e., science. At that time, astrology was indistinguishable from astronomy and not too distant from magic. Dee’s work, for example, included alchemy and angelology as well as celestial observation and calculation.

*Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn

The style of the sequence is frankly as elevated and formal as I could get it, as befits both its purpose and its subject.

Structure of the Work

To determine the order of the poems, I employed the astrological concept of the planetary hours. Each hour of the day–in the Renaissance sense; planetary hours are longer than 60 minutes– is associated with a planet, and they rotate in a fixed sequence. However, the association of planet with time of day shifts daily. Unlike the canonical hours, the planetary hours were broadly unknown to laypeople. If one wanted to send out a messenger during the hour of Mercury, for example, one would have to consult a professional astrologer.

To strengthen Ursula’s claim to respect as a scholar, the imagery of the poems employs alchemical and mythical associations of the planets and of the Roman deities for which they were named. (See notes on individual poems.)

One of the benefits of a complex form is that sometimes you get more out of it than you knew you were putting in. Initially, I had no notion of creating any overriding structure beyond the sequence of planets. However, when I had worked my way through three and a half sonnets to the sphere of Jupiter, I discovered that the sequence was mirroring the traditional organization of a single sonnet: a beginning section that establishes the situation, a “turn” that introduces new meaning, and then a wrap-up. In the sequence, the Mercury, Moon, and Saturn poems show the speaker invoking the Muse and declaring her purpose. The Jupiter poem turns toward service to the Queen, which is continued into the Mars and Venus poems and the opening of the final poem. Midway through the Sun poem, the speaker returns to her goals as poet and scholar and asks for her ultimate reward. The variations in style through the sequence, from extremely elevated to more personal, serve these shifts in focus.

Rhyme and Rhythm

Besides the challenge of connecting the sonnets thematically, Sidney as a model provided a further challenge: Astrophil and Stella uses variants on the Italian rhyme scheme rather than the Shakespearean. The Italian scheme uses five rhymes, whereas the English or Shakespearean sonnet uses seven. English words have a greater variety of final sounds and fewer repetitions than Italian words, so reducing the number of available rhymes increases the difficulty of composition.

Because the Shakespearean rhyme scheme has become so familiar to English speakers, using the Italian pattern makes the poems sound less regularly rhymed or sing-song. It provides a series of surprises to the ear, holding the listener’s attention.

As I progressed in the writing, I found that every completed sonnet limited my choices for all those that followed, in both sound and sense. For example, I didn’t want to repeat rhyme sounds too often, and there’s a limit to how many times you can felicitously use the word “celestial.”

At times, I use a regular, flowing iambic pentameter meter like Sidney’s or Spenser’s, and elsewhere, a rougher meter more similar to Donne’s. Every metrical choice has a model somewhere in the works of these four exemplars.

Choices I Didn’t Make

Most women poets writing in 16th (and 17th) century England circulated their work in manuscript among members of their own class, a practice known as “coterie publication.” Even in this form, they almost invariably included lip service to the notion that their writing was a venture beyond woman’s proper sphere—a trope known as “only a weak woman.” When women began submitting their works for print, this trope was virtually universal.

My artistic reason for ignoring the trope was that I did not want my audience to read the conventional protest and consider that it represented my real views, either in my own person or in persona. I was already being bold and brash; very well then, I would do so without a disclaimer that might weaken the impact I was striving to create. (I also have a sheaf of personal reasons for avoiding that road.)

At an early point, I considered including an indicator of the time of day each hour was associated with. Since I chose to reflect a day that began with the hour of Mercury, the first sonnet would have included references to dawn; the Jupiter poem would have suggested noon, etc. I discarded this notion because sonnets are short, and there simply wasn’t enough room to shoehorn this idea in without slighting my purpose.

Sources and Editions

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume One, both for the poems and the editor’s essay on the Elizabethan period
The Norton Anthology of Poetry
www.poetryfoundation.org
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
The Riverside Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s Sonnets, The Folger Shakespeare Library
Katharina M. Wilson, Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation
Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age

The above list names items specifically read in the progress of this project or quoted in these notes. Much of the background of this project developed over years of reading and pondering, though, so this list is not comprehensive.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Mistress Arwen and Master Tonis for their encouraging and constructive criticism of poems i-iii.
Thanks to Project Gutenberg for being a place one can reliably find a quality text of anything, no matter how obscure, and to www.poetryfoundation.org and Sonnets Central for ready reference.
And always and evermore, thanks to my dear Laurel, Doctor Henry Best, who provided the inspiration to begin this project and the chutzpah to finish it.

From the Notebook: Heroes of NOWM

I wrote this three years ago today at Northern Oaken War Maneuvers, while serving at court poet to Cameron II and Amelie II.

Great King, Fair Queen, it must be told
How four men of valor bold
Full bravely on this day have fought
And shining honor dearly bought.
Torsten Lutrsson on the field
Owned no arms but sword and shield.
As any man’s his battle-art,
But rarest among men, his heart
Urged him on so fierce and strong
Even when his sword was gone
He stood at bay with shield alone,
Defending those he named his own.
Sidius of the Minions, hurt,
Kneeling in the bridge’s dirt,
Sore beset on every side
Battled to restrain the tide,
And when of sword-arm was bereft,
Fought on still with mighty left.
Listen now and listen well
What upon that bridge befell.
Victory beckoned to the side
That first should cross that channel wide
Avengar and Sviatoslav
All their peaceful ways cast off
Plunged ahead to break the foe.
Like arrows through the line they go,
Victory in a moment won
With the battle just begun.
When King Cameron heard this tale,
Summoned he these two before
And named each a Dragon’s Tooth.
Follow them and come to war!

Two Praise Poems for Crown Contenders

For the past few reigns, the Bards of Sternfeld have observed a charming custom. Before each Crown Tournament, they band together to create praise poems for every couple in the Crown List.

In the autumn, the poems praise the fighter; in spring, they praise the consort. I’ve been invited to contribute twice.

In Honour of Lady Rowen hen Enaid,
Consort to Sor Ustad Hassan al Hajii

For the Crown Tournament of Edmund and Kateryn
at the Middle Kingdom 50 Year Celebration

All wild upon a forest bough
A nightingale is warbling now,
Remembering her lover’s vow
and singing of him low.

Her melody of love ascends
To azure heights—it never ends,
But always his great heart commends
And through the wood resounds.

She flutes a dreamy lullaby
Of far-off garden, walléd high.
To enter it they two shall try,
Where roses bloom in line.

If once the kingly deed is done
And he the tournament has won
Then rose and singer become one,
And wondering is gone.

Crown Parade Boast for Dag Thorgrimsson

Now comes Dag, son of Thorgrim!

Duke of the Dragon, famed for his daring,
Wolf’s-head wearer, great weapon-wielder,
Comes to contend for the Midrealm Crown.
The well-clothed scion of the seven sovereigns,
Long line of kings who lived for this land,
Follows his fathers to the place of fame,
Gauntlets outreached to grasp prince’s glory,
He rises to shed his red blood for the realm.
Sternly now he rides the sword-storm,
Fearlessly faces the noble foe.
AnneMarie inspires him, gracious and elegant.
Give honor this day to Dag’s dreadful might!

Process notes

In each case, I considered the persona of the honoree, then made use of my own areas of strength to produce something not unrelated to that persona.

For Duke Dag, I started from a form well within my comfort zone: Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. I used natural breaks in the syntax to suggest the midline caesura, and allusions to Dag’s long lineage and personal heraldry to add relevance. I deliberately kept the verse short enough that a herald could recite all of it while walking in procession.

Lady Rowen hen Enaid provided an interesting challenge–a Turkish persona. A whole new area to research! I won’t detail all the fascinating discoveries I made, but must share the name Yunus Emre. For European lit buffs, Yunus was analogous to Dante, one of the first poets to choose the Turkish language rather than the classical Persian or Arabic as his medium. There’s even a lengthy TV series about Yunus, and I was able to find clips in which the actor playing him recited his verses. This let me hear what the originals sounded like, which was priceless information.

The examples I heard were in quatrains with four main accents per line, similar to the Persian rubaiyat. The rubaiyat, with which Yunus was certainly familiar, usually rhymes AABA, but Yunus’s third lines don’t have a B rhyme. From close listening (by someone who doesn’t understand Turkish!), it appeared that his verses either rhymed AAAA, or included slant rhymes for the A sound.

I made two decisions about the verse form: I would rhyme my quatrains AAA[sort-of-A], using an assonance rather than a rhyme for the final line. And I would steal an element from English ballads: my fourth lines would be three stresses long instead of four. Knowing most people would encounter the poem in performance rather than on the page, I made these choices to give shape to the verse and avoid monotony.

The imagery came from the more courtly Turkish tradition of divan poetry, in which the rose and the nightingale, the wilderness and the garden, are standard tropes. I connected the poetic rose to the SCA Rose, and I had my theme.

The final poem is one an English poet might have written after reading Turkish poetry in translation, hearing it discussed, and being inspired to emulate it.

My thanks to Maestra Lucia, Lady Brigitta, and the Bards of Sternfeld for the opportunity.

Master Peter’s Pelican scroll

Now tender April with her showers sweet
Has chased the dogs of winter in retreat,
And small birds serenade throughout Our lands.
Now we, A’kos and Bella, by our hands
These patents of nobility indite
And do ennoble through our sovereign might
Our subject, hight Peter Grau von Bremen,
Unto our Order of the Pelican.
For e’er with troth the Kingdom he hath served,
And of the Crown this merit well deserved.
His deadly blade borne with humility,
His gentilesse and eke his courtesy
Proclaim a man of true and tried vertu
As he hath done, so all should strive to do.
Among his noble peers now let him stand,
A veritable parfit gentleman.

indite: write; compose
hight: named
eke: also
gentilesse: refinement, nobility
vertu: virtue
veritable: verifiable, provable
parfit: perfect

Process Notes

When Peter Grau von Bremen, Master of Defense, offered me a writing commission for his Pelican scroll, my first thought was, “But then what will I do with the poem I already wrote you?!” An instant’s reflection, however, and I realized that, first, the vigil poem could still be given at the vigil, and second, I really wanted to do it.

I accepted at once. He offered cash payment; we settled on a trade. I have his promise to fight for me in a tourney, something I’ve long wanted to experience in the SCA.

My friend Dame Heather Hall had already signed on to do the calligraphy and illumination, so that was an added benefit; I was excited to collaborate with Heather.

Peter did two things that, all unbeknownst, helped me tremendously. He held his vigil and elevation at two different events, solving my I-have-an-extra-poem problem. Then he announced that he would adopt 14th-century style for his elevation, helping me to choose my poetic model. It wasn’t much of a selection process; I think I screamed “OH BOY CHAUCER!” and threw pens around. The Canterbury Tales begin in April, and Peter was going to be elevated in April–an ideal opportunity.

Peter_Pelican_Heather1

The scroll in progress

The 18-line General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, like most of the greater work, is in pairs and occasional triplets of rhyming lines. Chaucer’s Middle English verse used an accentual five-stress meter that, historically, isn’t quite yet iambic pentameter. (A gross oversimplification. Let’s move on.) Verse translations of the work into modern English do very often use iambic pentameter, with which I’m comfortable, so that was the obvious choice. I briefly considered writing the whole thing in “real” Middle English, but the determining factor was that people listening when the scroll was read out in court would not be able to understand Middle English. Instead I chose to adopt deliberate archaisms–a period practice. Edmund Spenser, for example, affected medieval vocabulary when writing The Faerie Queene in Elizabethan England. I cribbed words and phrases from Chaucer for flavor. Most importantly, Chaucer’s line “He was a verray, parfit, gentil knight” (GP l. 72) suggested the final line of the scroll verse.

Dame Heather and I worked out the orthography of the scroll together. I changed some spellings to 14th-century forms; she suggested using the character thorn (þ) in place of “th” in most places. I’m most pleased and honored to have my first contribution to a peerage scroll include such wonderful people and beautiful art.

Peter_Pelican_Heather4

Master Peter Grau von Bremen, OD, OP, and scroll

Photos by Heather Rocchi

Master Peter

In honour of the Pelican vigil of Master Peter Grau von Bremen, MOD

 

When I was new apprenticed
To a master worldly wise,
One day at court he pointed out
A lord in dashing guise.

Then said he, “Mark that gentleman
All fine in swordsman’s trim—
If you need help, and I’m not by,
You can rely on him.”

Since that day I have oft enjoyed
The good cheer in his word,
Though in his eyes, a shadow paints
Past sorrows hard endur’d.

Upon his lips the laughter
Is a never-failing stream,
While with courtesy and valor
He commands the world’s esteem.

And long I’ve marked the steadfast hand
His duty e’er did tend,
And had the joy and honor
To name him as my friend.

Should I have an apprentice
In a day far-off and dim,
I’ll build my trust upon this rock
And bid her, Be like him.

Process Notes

Sometimes inspiration happens.

At Candlemas, I was thrilled to see my friend Peter Grau von Bremen, Master of Defense,  placed on vigil for the Order of the Pelican. After dinner with my Laurel, during which we talked over how pleased we were and how well-merited we found the award, I drove home alone. Words started forming, and by the time I had traveled from Lexington to Louisville, I had a stanza and a half.

I texted my husband before reaching home to let him know as tactfully as possible that art was happening and I would need to come in and write down the lines in my head before I greeted him. He was as forbearing with this behavior as a poet’s spouse could well be. I got the lines on paper, kissed him, and dropped. The rest of the poem took shape within a couple of days.

The English ballad form is so useful and flexible for lyric expression that it has survived six centuries past the Middle English language in which it emerged. In this case, the nearest analog is John Donne’s “The Undertaking,” which has similar simplicity of thought, tells a brief, hinted-at story, and takes a few minor liberties with meter. I used the more common ABCB rhyme scheme rather than Donne’s ABAB because I had specific thoughts I wished to express. When thoughts and phrases are flowing easily, a more flexible rhyme scheme helps keep my language from getting in its own way.

As always with a vigil poem, I wanted the verse to speak to the recipient, to be easy to hear and true to my impulse as their friend. The opening is based on a real incident the day I met Peter.

In this case I wrote an eight-stanza first draft, got some feedback, and eventually edited out the middle third of the poem and wrote a new version in six stanzas. The old next-to-last stanza, with the simplest possible summation of the role of a peer, became the ending.

By the way, did anyone notice that New Testament allusion?

A Court Barony Scroll Text

A few months ago, I got an exciting and flattering assignment. My friend Alis de Squirtl was invited to do calligraphy on the court barony scroll for the departing Baron and Baroness of Brendoken. She asked me to “do the wordsmithing”–to provide an original text.

In my search for period models, I took Baroness Cerridwen’s Germanic persona as a starting point. I had a notion to use a proclamation by one of the late Holy Roman Emperors, but the first few such texts I found in my research were dreadfully wordy, and frankly, boring. They were also jam-packed with religious references, which would have had to be edited out for SCA use.

Eventually the search led me to the translation of a proclamation in which the Grand Duchy of Lithuania granted Magdeburg Law to the city of Brest. (Magdeburg Law is a fascinating rabbit hole—it was widely adopted across central and eastern Europe, generally at the instigation of the leading citizens.) This document was much more short and sweet and included some graceful turns of phrase. I adapted it to my needs—mostly by cutting— and consulted with Alis, who found it suitable for her use.

The scroll:

Court Barony scroll

The text:

May this be forever remembered. We, A’kos, by right of arms king of the Middle Kingdom and Bella our Queen make it known by the present document to all whom it may concern both now and hereafter: Desirous of rewarding the faithful and valiant service of our vassals John the Ox and Cerridwen verch Iorwedd so that all may know their nobility, we appoint them as Baron and Baroness of Our Court for all time to come, according to the custom of the land. Moreover, we declare and forever maintain our gratitude to them for their loyal duty.
[Done this day etc]

Illumination
Seionaid Inghean Ghriogair
Calligraphy
Alis de Squirtl

Presentation photo above by Richard Mandel

Tanka for Akira-dono

Kind of an interesting story to this one. But first, the result:

 

Blue cranes rise in flight
On a golden sunrise sky,
Their silent rapture
Seen only by the boatman
Whose hand keeps the course steady.

The Story Behind the Piece, or, How I Fell in Love with an Idea and Made it All Go Horribly Wrong

Akira was put on vigil for the Order of the Pelican. I was delighted. His wife, Mistress Katarina Peregrine, had been elevated a couple of years back, and for her I had written The Dragon and the Peregrine. I felt called upon to produce something for Akira, although I didn’t know him as well as I did her.

Katarina liked the idea, so I interviewed her about Akira’s service and his persona, Japanese. She mentioned his service as exchequer and on financial committees at various levels–the sort of unglamorous, essential work that lets us have an SCA–as well as his love of archery. She also mentioned his personal heraldry. The word “quiet” came up again and again in discussing his service. It was a phone call, and I understood her to describe three gold cranes in flight on a blue field in the shape of a hexagon.

I knew exactly two Japanese forms: the haiku and the tanka. A little research showed that while haiku developed from the tanka post-SCA period, the tanka itself fit the period. I was excited to learn that it played a similar role in Japanese literature to the sonnet in English literature. I also learned that the traditional tanka was written as a single unified sentence.

The idea of gold, the gold of the coins handled by an exchequer and the gold of pure worthiness. appealed to me. I also had hopes of working in the gold of the archery bulls-eye, as in the expression “hit in the gold,” but it turned out not to fit in a single 31-syllable sentence. Sometimes you can’t have everything.

So then I wrote this poem:

Above a small boat,
Three golden cranes rise in flight
Only seen by one,
The steersman whose knowing hand
Keeps the vessel’s course steady.

And I quite liked it. The organization as the boat; the Pelican as the steersman; the moment of hushed beauty seen by a man doing a responsible job by himself. I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to get in anything explicit saying it was quiet, and also that I hadn’t stated for the reader, though it was clear to me, that this moment took place very early in the morning. (By the way, if anyone knows what time of day cranes are usually active, please message me. My search skills were not up to finding that detail.)

Then two days before the event, Katarina posted an image of Akira’s heraldry. I had gotten it wrong. The field was GOLD. The cranes were BLUE.
Argh!

At this point, I posted a (faulty) haiku on Facebook:

New info arrives.
I start my poem over.
Thank Muse for no rhymes.

And then I started revising. Ripped apart and put back together the other way round, four of its five lines completely rewritten, the tanka became the one at the top of this post. I saved the image and the one-sentence grammar. The language is more compressed, and I got rid of the dull “one” which added nothing to the image. I like that “silent” and “sunrise” are now spelled out. and the role of the steersman is now as subtle and barely perceptible as Akira’s work in real life.

I hope I don’t make this kind of mistake too often. But I’m grateful I learned about it in time to fix it.