Marly Youmans

About the Red Book

What does it mean to be a king?

To have the birds flock to your arms?
Gather flocks of men or cattle?
Is it to have the love of men?

What does it mean to be a king?

If without love, it is nothing.
Is it to weave with love, a stole?
Or weave a crown from copper wires?

I do not know what it means.

Is the king first to smelt copper?
Is he useful, is he that first?
What is the use of this word, king?

I whirl about, wanting to know.

The Red King leans beside a weir,
Catching weir-minnows with a thread,
Till his pail is spilling silver.

What will he do with silver fish?

He hangs the fish where moon's a pail:
Like flitters of moonshine, sky-milk,
The king-caught minnows start to shine.

Is shine the way of the Red King?

A starshine, moonshine way to be . . .
Without such shine would be no way
And no Red Book that I would make

To light what it is to be king.

The Starry Fool

In a shivering of bells
The Fool comes shining, shimmering
Unseen along the moonshine way.

Little fir trees sprinkle his path
With needles, lift their limbs and point
To the bright whirligigs of stars.

And the crack in the Fool's heart is for once
Mended, as if without a seam:
He shakes his bell-branched staff at the stars.

So cold, no one plays the watchman,
But in the tower called The Spear
The Red King rules the chiming hour.

There he will spy the moon-washed Fool
Skittling like a toy top through the city.
He will run outside to greet him,

Calling, My brother and my self,
My mirror, the crack inside my heart!

The King and the Fool

American Skittles, Jeu de Roi, Toptafel

The royal toymaker brings in a game
And sets it on the table by the king.
As wide and long as a coffin for a dwarf,
Made of cherry and of tiger maple.
The little hand-rubbed maze is glistening.
A top is wound with string, and the turned pins
Stand ready to be ravished from their spots:
To reel, to fall, to wallow on the ground.
The King admires the cunning workmanship.
Late at night when all have gone to bed,
The Red King and the Fool begin to play.

When the Red King pulls the cord, a shower
Of falling stars arcs down the cheek of night,
And when the Fool receives the top and gyres
The string around its base, then yanks it hard
So that the top careens through arch and door,
An infant shrieks the dark to murderous bits.
The Red King claps his hands and laughs with joy,
Winding the gyre as history repeats
Itself backward. Crowns drop. The poor and rich
Change places as in ceremonial dance.
The forest takes the field, the sea the land.

But when the fool jerks free the string, the sighs
Of the dead drift free from tombs and barrow mounds,
And last year's leaves go skittering in wind,
Earth stirring as if restless for time's stop;
The stars recede, the stars recede and dim.
Yet the Red King will not have it be so.
He winds the golden cord and bowls the top,
And every pin now yields to gravity--
He laughs and the fool weeps, or else it is
The other way around. It's hard to know,
Gyring and ungyring under the stars.

The Two Tables

The King sets a table for the Fool,
Arranging the cloth and the whittled spool

That's wound with gilt and silver thread,
A wheel of cheese with twisted bread,

The cup that holds a glowing star,
The feather that tumbled from a far

Fetched place above the walls of world,
A flower of ice, the petals furled,

A wine that came some thousand miles
From the floating Fortunate Isles.

The Fool sets table for the King
With pins and ragged skittles-string,

With glossy feathers of a crow,
Tumblers spilling dust-hearted snow,

A cup of tears, a glass of rain,
A mug that chambers childish pain,

A stick with bells, a fool's peaked cap,
A seed, a precious wentletrap

That jails so beautifully the sea
Of pulse and whispered mystery.

The Moon of Precious Wentletrap

The moon is ripe, and so the Fool will dream
His moon-round dream of Precious Wentletrap:
Each moon she climbs the staircase of his dream,
The beautiful, the Precious Wentletrap,

With her skin as porcelain-white as a shell
And wind-flushed cheeks anemone-rose-pink
And hair of spiral whorls, sleek like a shell . . .
She lets him kiss her by a sea of pink

That sounds against his ear like sighs of love
As he calls her his Pearl, his Princess, his Own,
And she turns in his arms like the sea! This love,
The only thing he names his very own,

Will moisten his sheets with the salt sea-foam
And leave him empty, wondering for hours
At such a love, as frail as trembling foam,
Till he cries, How can we know what is ours?

The Birthday Cap

It is the Fool's birthday, so the Red King
Gives him another birthday cap: this time
It is yellow, as yellow as a ring
Of gingko leaves, slipped from their mooring-stems
On falling, fan-fluttering yellow days.
The lovely yellow birthday cap looks like
A teapot cozy for an emperor:
The Fool stands by the Red King at the heart
Of the garden, wearing his brand new cap,
And though he can never for an instant
Forget the black hours of his youth, he tells
The King that his soul feels tossed like the flags
On clipper ships that scud across the sea.
The yellow sun lights up the spangled cap
As the Fool spins around, coat-tails flying,
Then stops, old wolfish memory at his throat.
"Why are you so kind to me," the Fool says,
And he wonders, Why would anyone be
So good when I am worthless, worthless, worthless?

But the Red King smiles at the yellow ball
Of the sun and murmurs, "It is our good
Pleasure to turn base metal into gold."

The Turret Stairs

Some nights the Red King climbs the twisted stair
That narrows like a precious wentletrap,
And at the top he pauses to admire
Sea shells of Chinese rice paste under glass,
The gift of a faraway emperor
In times when shells and tulips signaled wealth,
Though now these false ones are the rareties.
He tugs a silver chain to loose the way,
A folding stair that seems a skeleton
Of a precious wentletrap--he mounts the frame
And stands at tower-top in open air.
The great river of sky is running fast,
Streaming over diamond shells of the stars,
And he stares long and long and muses how
Time pours across eternity like cloud
Rushing across a face of blazing night,
And now and then murmurs a single word . . .
When he returns to ordinary life,
Following the spirals of the stair,
His eyes seem distant dazzlement like stars,
As if he'd drunk from sky's eternal deep,
It is the Fool who flails him back to life
Batting his head and shoulders with a wand
--A dried pig's bladder lashed onto a stick--
Until the Red King hears the chat of birds
Dawning in the eaves, and down below him,
A suing clamor at the castle gates,
Begging the King for justice, mercy, boon.
The Lark Sellers, peddlers of the morning,
Are singing out their wares, while unaware
But troubled by a dream of prophecy,
The mad girl gossips call the Shrike begins
To wake, to flower into speech and shriek
Without a stop the Red King's secret names.

Directions for a Birthday Hat

Take willow peelings, stained to black, and steam
Them in fresh water from a running stream:
Weave into the shape desired--the tea
Cozy, the boy-balzo, roundtop dipping
Shallowly and rising in the center.
Then pluck the down from northern swans and pack
The basket frame and stitch with silken twist,
And after, line the hat with taffeta
--Yellow, dyed with weld and alum mordant--
And clothe the willow cage and prisoned snow
In samite dyed to red with sappanwood
And woven with a pattern of spring leaves
And now and then a glimpse of beaten gold
Winding like a wentletrap around the thread.

Do this, and you may prove a royal fool
Or else be drawn to honorary ranks
Of fooldom, or else give a birthday hat
To your own fool, your best-beloved of friends,
As does the Red King to his dearest Fool
Who climbed the gyring stair from blackest earth
Through white and gold and met him under skies
Where red dwarfs hum the music of the spheres.


Marly Youmans is the author of four novels, two books of Southern fantasy for young adults, and a collection of poetry. Forthcoming poetry books are: The Throne of Psyche (Mercer University Press, March 2011), The Foliate Head (UK: Stanza Press, tba, with artwork by Clive Hicks-Jenkins), and Thaliad, a post-apocalyptic epic poem in blank verse (Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing, late 2011.) She also has three novels due out in the near future: Glimmerglass and Maze of Blood from P. S. Publishing in England and A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, winner of the first annual Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction (Mercer University Press, 2011).


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Marly Youmans

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Meredith Bergmann: An artist's statement is a formal thing--not written out in lines, but still constrained in length, and more particularly, tone. One should assert one's strategies, and boast about creative mischief. (Dithering is better done in verse.) But I'm restrained by wanting you to find out on your own what tickles me, and what moves me the most.

I sometimes doubt that humor really heals. Perhaps I want to wound instead, to wake; to wrong what may too easily be right. I love how sudden recognition feels, and play with that in everything I make--as in my second sonnet for this site.
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