I wrote a poem about what? And why?
I’m almost certain it’s a rule that anyone who writes a 269-line poem about anything has to give their reasons for doing so, along with their thoughts on the matter, in much the same way that someone who ate an entire birthday cake solo would be asked to account for themselves. But if you want to treat this post like an online recipe where I go on and on about how I fell in love with tomatoes during my semester abroad in college before deigning to give you the pasta recipe, feel free to skip this and go straight to the poem below. No hard feelings, I understand.
I can’t say exactly when I decided to write about the pandemic as an apocalyptic fairytale in the style of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the 14th-century alliterative English poem about King Arthur’s young cousin making good on his promise to allow a green giant to cut off his head, but I did. And I know that when the idea occurred to me, it seemed like the most logical thing to do. After nine months of wrangling with the form and structure of the poem, though, I can say that I was very wrong. The King in the Circular Court, the result of all this work, is probably the most illogical writing project I’ve ever undertaken. It was a crazy thing to do.
I may not know when the idea came to me, but I do know why I followed through with it. I knew early on that I wanted to write about the pandemic, that I needed to write about the the pandemic, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. I knew I didn’t want to write a conventional story because I didn’t think I would be able to capture what I wanted. I wouldn’t be able to bottle the dread and existential bafflement that have been my default emotional state for the past year and more as I’ve watched the deaths of unimaginable numbers of people, and along with them the very idea of society and a collective belief in the importance of empathy and solidarity as shared values. I also knew I had no interest in an essay because, well, the world has enough of those already. But the world doesn’t have enough alliterative verse. The galloping gait and drumming drone of alliterative poetry feels old, like it’s crawled out of granite smelling of peat smoke, struggle, and nameless things in a fog bank. Alliteration is the monster’s music, and if the pandemic isn’t Grendel stalking our mead halls, intent on butchering those inside and breaking our benches, I don’t know what is. If I was going to write about the pandemic, I realized that I could only do it in language heavy with centuries and ringing with a mail shirt. This made sense to me as I sat locked in my apartment during the summer of 2020, and it still makes sense to me now as we pull ourselves into the spring of 2021 on our hands and knees with our eyes fixed on a hopeful future. Grendel is still hunting us, but there’s a ship on the horizon.
The King in the Circular Court is not a poem about hope, though, nor is it particularly hopeful. I don’t believe in people who write things telling the reader what the work is supposed to mean because, most of the time when I write something, I don’t know what it means. I can say for certain that I was not in a good place when I wrote it, and that it reflects the distilled essence of my mood and feelings toward what has been one of the worst periods in modern human history, and one of the most difficult times in my life. I also know working on it put me in a strange place emotionally. I went whole months in the winter when the pandemic was at its worst without touching it because mining my despair and spending hours beating it into jewelry while dealing with the raw facts of a plague in my rational life was not a pleasant and completely healthy thing to do. Ultimately, though, it was something that I had to do. As difficult and frustrating, draining and downright depressing as it was, writing this insanely long and involved poem was a necessity. I didn’t have control over it: I just did what it told me to do and hoped that it would be finished eventually, because I knew I couldn’t stop until it was done. And now it is.
I have tried to keep to the form that the nameless author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (hereafter called the Gawain Poet) used, albeit with some changes. For one, I have used a lot more alliteration than the Gawain Poet. Like him, I’ve constructed the poem around the repetition of consonant sounds in stressed syllables, but where he generally limited himself to 3 to 4 alliterative syllables per line, I…have not. The only defense I have for this is, when you have good words lined up, you use them. And it was fun. Sometimes going overboard is the best way to dive in. I’ve also arranged the poem in sections like he did, with no set limits on how many there should be, or how long they should be. And like the Gawain Poet, I’ve set no fixed meter to lines; sometimes they’re longer, sometimes they’re shorter. Lines begin and end where and when I feel like they should. I have also kept the goddamn “bob and wheel” at the end of each section. I could go on and on about the brutal poetic brass knuckle that is the bob and wheel, but I’ll keep it short: the “bob” is a short line, usually 1 or 2 syllables, followed by “the wheel,” a 4-line rhyming verse of 3 stressed syllables per line. And 2 of the stressed syllables have to alliterate. I did every single one of these wrong initially and had to go back and rewrite them, more than once. I loved that. The only thing I consciously did that may deviate from the form of the original (I don’t know enough about the nuts and bolts of medieval English poetry to say for sure) is my decision that all vowels alliterate with each other. This is a rule stolen from Old Norse poetry, which is also based on alliteration. I did this because I could, and because I realized it got me out of a tight spot if I couldn’t think of any other way to alliterate in a line. Finally, there are undoubtedly mistakes in the poem, where the scheme breaks down or where I miscount syllables in a line. I would ask you kindly to keep those to yourself, not because it particularly bothers me that there are mistakes (the Gawain Poet committed similar errors–he occasionally added a fourth syllable to lines in the wheel, for example–and if the master can do it, so can I), but because knowing about of them would tempt me to go back and fix them. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to go full George Lucas on it, where I tinker with a piece of art forever in the vain hope of making it perfect. You can’t, and sometimes you just have to let go. The thing is what is, you have to accept that, and part of acceptance is choosing to look past flaws and toward the good in the imperfect whole you’ve chosen to spend your time with. Ask anyone in a relationship.
I don’t know if The King in the Circular Court is any good. I’ve spent too many hours with mental tweezers arranging the food on the plate to really know what it tastes like. But I do know that I’m proud of it, and that I did the best I could within parameters the work set for me. These days, I can’t think of a better metaphor than that.
Here it is. I hope you enjoy it.
The King in the Circular Court
Where the sea collided with the coast in a line of lime-white cliffs, a king reigned high in a tower keep made of terraced stone. It shimmered and shone like a sheet of water frozen in winter and split the sky with an ivory splendor rich in spiteful elegance. Steep sapphire stairs ascended in nautilus spirals to tall balconies cut from enormous emeralds and studded with perfect precious stones that gleamed in the sun that set like a shining red shield behind brooding blue mountains that crouched in the far misted distance. Rooks roosted under alabaster eaves and fed their young pearls and red gold rings burnished to reflect their blue wings and black beaks. And around the tower, like a torc of woven silver wire, a moat of still water guarded the gates and protected the precious man who sat uncaring and unchanging in the center of his circular court, like a thrall chained to cherished rages, upon a throne of polished black bone. Marble and moldering bones wrapped the ruler in praise away from the world and its moans that told a tale of disgrace. For the fields were barren with pestilent frost that bruised and broke stalks of golden wheat and soured violet grapes on gnarled vines. The rivers, dammed by dark slime, slowed to sluggish thick pools that swarmed with biting locusts armored in bright shining lapis shells. Leaves, burned brittle by cold and blighted by callous drought and disease, curled into paper cups that waited to catch the cold poisoned rain that blew away on cruel winds to fall in sheets upon the wide salt sea. The folk of the realm, desperate for a defender, gathered together and begged in the shadow of the spire, but found the shade of its fabled heights bitter cold and unkind; they shivered in its shelter and huddled for warmth against the damp darkness that numbed their limbs and gnawed their senses. The tower's royalty erased them like a shard of an eclipse shucked from the sky and laid against the late glaring sun in the forest green grass. Whether from the field, the fold, or the fastness of a fort town, the people felt the king's foul nature, his hungry grasp, in its grandeur and feared there was small help and tenderness housed in hands as hard as those. They waited for word from the court, for a path to peace, an ending. In answer, only the report of craven carols and sinning. Knights held tourney with token swords in the tall tower, and their blunt wooden blades and white paper bodkins conjured a counterfeit battle din that mimicked bravery. This pleased the king and kindled the fire of his fantasy, so that titles tumbled from his wagging tongue at a whim. He dressed the court in drab pretense cut from royal purple cloth: the king created a Count of Drippings and a Duke of Custard, a Baron of Gravy and a Marquis of Bread, men who knelt low in craven supplication and played at noble postures and pledged themselves to him in devoted service unto death or dread disaster. A minstrel played a march upon piles of split marrow bones, and food festered on pockmarked tables or in putrid puddles underfoot. Rats ran free and carried off rolls of rich black rye to their dens like knights who nick secrets from a serpent's beloved hoard. And like a worm, the king's retinue wound themselves around their loot, their trove of ill-gotten luxury, lusted over it with ancient avarice, and warded it with souls wasted by ease and scoured by arrogance. Broken bottles spilled brooks of sour wine and wet red throats that roared bawdy ballads woven from malicious meter and sang sour lays composed by hearts pickled by comfort in the circular court. Windows painted in perfect and splendid spring scenes masked the hateful music and the sound of sobbing screams. The tower was too tall, the townspeople thought, the stones too thick, for His Highness to hear them so far below near the lapping waves. For surely if their sovereign could see their need and sense their cares, he would rouse himself to help them, he would raise a ring-heavy hand pregnant with mercies that hung from his palms like ripe plums and wipe worry from their brows and crown their heads with blessings. So the people decided to ascend to the king in his circular court, to seek succor at the foot of his regal throne fashioned from bone and to hear wise words and healing spells echo in the hall of stone. They began to gather their chaff, the bodies and broken days ground to grist and dry memory by the poisoned air and misery. They brought it all together on sleds or slung over bowed shoulders, then they donned their finest, their feathered caps and fringed dresses: coins jingled on shirts and shining red sashes cut like jagged slashes across leather smocks and crisp cotton shirts white like winter snow. Mouths sucked meat from lean bones that leaked marrow dust and drank brackish water from drinking skins brittle with mold as dogs slunk into thickets to sleep in dry nests of sharp sticks among the thorns. Hunger chewed their cheeks and chapped their children's lips, but the heart holds when it seeks a way from woe to happiness. Hard hands stacked cow on cart, built stairs from piles of bodies and raised wooden walls black with ash and riddled with rank rot in a blighted monument, which they set with skulls that baked in the sun. Craftsmen fashioned gables from gristle and fastened them to the tower with twisted twine, and carrion birds perched upon them and feasted. Villagers raised their voices and sang songs rich with rhymes from better times, and when the sun sank behind the hills, they lit dancing fires and worked by starlight through the dark night and into the shadowless noon the next day. As their work grew, they hoisted a long ladder high against the tower's swaying side and climbed together, hand in hand and sworn to a shared destiny, in a snaking line that wound its way with slow steps up the sloping walls of the wretched spire that pierced the horizon like a shining, black bone needle. The sound of songs climbed to the wide windows that ringed the king's court, those sightless eyes that saw clouds in clear skies and slights in acts of kindness. The people's hopes trailed behind them like pennants trimmed in gold and embroidered with ancient arms sewn by hands scarred by heavy sacrifice. And they offered them up with a pauper's pride as homage to their thane on his throne. The sounds silenced the feast and marred the merry games, and His Highness howled as a beast at the tower that tarnished his name. The spire grew, spiraling upward into tall crimson clouds. As it rose, it laid a cold dark dusk across the lavish scenes of eternal spring frozen in iron frames and icy tinted glass that painted the circular court into a garish, pantomime garden with a prism pallet of light and lingering summer cloud shadow. Knights dropped their dull swords and tore their tattered doublets while the nobles fell to threadbare knees as a frightful new night crawled across the tabletops to darken their gilded silver plates. The minstrel misstruck the marrowbones with a mighty mallet made from mistletoe, and the courtiers quailed and clogged their ears with wax and mewling whines against the ghastly music, this unwelcome honesty, that unwound the bloody spell the quisling king had worked upon their world with worm-eaten promises from his purse of lies. The king cried and sobbed at the thieves who threatened the sight of his majesty, made from mirages that gilded his gangrenous life. The whalebone turret of terraced stone and the stark, wailing spike stood like feuding twins together, stock still with bated breath; they waited abreast for the first shots like ships drawn up in battle lines. Peasants and paupers peered out into the evening with milky eyes, and merchants searched through looking glasses of mirrored silver, but there was no evidence of a king's power, no imposing princely office, not even servants to hear their case or to hand down careful judgement. They found a single, sad figure, enveloped by venomous jealousy. It was a supine shade of fleeting aspect and a shriveled, flayed conscience who slinked slithered among cheap treasures and languished alone surrounded by suitors brimming with broad smiles and pleasing compliments. The people saw nobles and knights kneel in silent worship of an empty seat, of a trick of light that sat trundled in velvet, bodiless and bound by his will to trays of tin coins and mounds of toy soldiers minted with adoring faces that smiled upon this pockmarked kingdom that clung to the edge of ruin. It had been forged in royal envy of an enemy forgotten by the rest of the realm, but which haunted the high chambers of the churlish king and cursed the world. The sovereign was the servant in the tower, he knelt to another lord. For fear was the prince and the power among the men in the court. Fear whipped the king into a keening fury with phantom flails. It maimed His Majesty's reason and gathered ghosts to stalk his mind's eye and dance taunting steps to soft gut strings that sawed the air with artless scales and scored his back with biting notes. The sovereign's soul bloomed with wicked wounds, bloodless welts that dripped with bitter doubts black as bile and thick like pitch. He yowled at the stinging pain, the yawning streaks of raw red meat that he hid under heavy robes and the incantation of royal titles. But the blows ate at him, egged him on to greater blasphemies; they were worms in his wits, engineers of hag-ridden spite that hollowed out his breast and left poisoned paths through the hole that languished, blistered with rust, behind brittle ribs and bloodless skin as thin as paper. Fear came to the king, crooked in its cloak and crawling on long hands stained with hemlock and trailing stunted legs behind it in the thresh. It whispered devilish vendetta in its earl's open ear and sang hate-filled hymns against the growing tower that overshadowed the sight of the circular court, which sat so poor in power and purpose. His Highness's hands shook and he shouted rancor at the spire, that specter that spread like a clotted bruise across the untroubled scenes of sunlit spring that he idolized, and which hid his hatred of himself. Courtiers cowered in silence as their ruler dropped his robes and leapt with vicious violence from the tower into the unknown. The people moaned with relief as their lord landed with majesty, crowned in shining, shimmering jewels that mimicked the sun, danced with captured daylight, and wove a wreath around his face. But the brilliance blinded the rabble, those famished farmers, to the bloodlust that drove their lord and whet is taste for waste and war. Still, they went to him, weathered hands and hearts hungry for answers, hopeful in a hopeless task, heedless of the man and his hardened misery. For though they laid their layman's needs at his feet and kissed his filigreed rings with practiced fealty, he could not deign to hear of their dire hardships with the demeanor that a monarch's precious crown promised his people. The crowd could not see the seething tempest in his mind that made darkened mirrors of men's faces and enemies from glad glances and open hands. For in all the praise they pressed upon their prince, the petitioners did not say his name, and the silence sawed at his sunken breast, tore it open, and touched the hard-shelled, bloodless boil that hung where a heart should have beat. When His Grace finally began to speak, the people paused and hushed to hear the comfort they craved, and which comes from a king that acts with kindness. But kindness is the fruit of a life lived in a world wider than itself, and there was no such bounty in the bones of the beast that brooded before them. His Majesty lamented his lot, the unfairness of his failure, and he yelled bitter hexes into his people's faces and heaped damnation upon their heads like coals. For longing looks of grief stirred no sorrow or sadness. The only sight he could see was his envy in all its vastness. When his curses grew stale, the king struck out with his great sword: he cut a crystal crescent in the angry air, ranting as he cleaved strong broad backs, split heads, and hewed hands from empty arms. He laid whole families low in his fanatical one-sided feud-- rivulets of red-black blood ran down the twisted tower's side, and he reveled in the slick-floored slaughter; he was the slayer of slander. He counted the drops of blood that dripped from his biting blade and called them rubies, and the wide wounds he cut across cowering bodies became veins of gold gleaned from from weather-worn stones. Calls for mercy were music tuned to his name, holy recognition of his station and the star-blessed favor of his good fortune and grace. But the silence of the dead was the sweetest song and he filled it with worship. He swung his weapon until the top of the tower rippled with red waves whipped by the wind off the sea that beat against the bone-white cliffs. And when none were left to fall, when all false-hearted voices were vanquished, the king piled the people's bodies atop the tower in a leaning, woeful cairn, a spear of blood and bone that scraped the sky and surpassed at last his own looming tower and court in stature and malignant cowardice. And once his dread work was done, when dusk finally darkened the matching minarets, the king began to climb and crawl over the corpses like a spitting viper, spiraling and pregnant with poison, up a tree. At the top of the tower, he glorified in triumph and the pride of his place as the mightiest of men, a storied hero hallowed by fate. As the king stood, straight-backed, blood-smeared, and haughty, a wind whirled up from the savage sea and blew against the tower. Courtiers gawked, wide-eyed and envious through glazed springtime glass, cheered their chosen lord and sheltered in his long cold shadow. His victory was their virtue, his power their pleasure, and they wept for their forever-king, who was elegant in brutality and brilliantly cruel. The prince heard their chants and his chest swelled with his child's pride, for what value was love when lust bred such devotion in hungry men? He gloated, glowing, and the wind grew to a gale and whistled through the gables that were set with teeth gilded with gold from treasures taken from burned houses and barren huts; the wealth of forgotten villages shook. The tyrant staggered and stumbled and the terrible building bowed in the boiling storm, but bedlam knights proclaimed with vicarious bravado from open windows that their lord would live to the world's last days; no storm would stop him. no man could match him, no will would bend him, for vice was the currency of valor, and no king was richer than he. But what is princely power against the strength of a gathering storm? The wind tore at the side of the tower, rattled roofs and tumbled bricks in answer to the infant-king's arrogance--awnings fell and boards cracked, glass broke and gables bent, skulls fell from their fittings and thresh blew from chinks in the walls in waltzing curls that danced like fresh-plucked down. A groan rose from the guts of the spire and tremors gripped the tyrant, who answered the fear with curses cut from the same shroud that draped the still forms that lay folded at his feet in final understanding. But the tower splintered, its spine broken, brought down by a purpose the prince could not counter or conquer, could not whip or wound or lay low with scorn. His royal roost atop the dead loosened and leaned, then tottered, tipped and fell. The once-ruler reached his hands, rich with royal rings, to shapes as he plummeted-- he grasped at gargoyles worked from wood, held to crenellations that crumbled at his touch, and he howled at the hands that hung hard and empty to halt him. But they could not hear his dire hardships, nor do as he hoped--they scored his skin stripped his robes from his round shoulders and tore his velvet tunic from his body. The king fell in a freshet of fine gems, bare-chested and bellowing victory songs. He denied the certainty that descended on his dreams, damned at last by himself. For His Highness was caught in a cage woven from his wonton wrath and sealed by a lock wrought from petty reasons and closed by a key cast from fleeting moods. But in this at last he was lord and master, for his miserable fate was his work alone, and our doom. Marble and moldering bones had wrapped the ruler in praise and made him a monarch of woes, a king crowned by disgrace.