Marly Youmans

from The Book of the Red King

The Desire for the Red King

Certain people live among our kind,
So strange they might be gold or cinnabar,
So different from us in turn of mind.

They might as well be alchemists who bind
And purify black matter in a jar;
Certain people live among our kind.

They often scale the tower stairs that wind
Into the sky to catch a falling star.
So different from us in turn of mind!

They spill with life, despite the mash and grind
Of daily rounds, day-tumults that will mar
Certain people. Live among our kind,

You wilding spirits who have wined and dined
On gloam and moondrops by the sea! You are
So different from us in turn of mind.

I'd have to be a stone, failing to find
Their riddling light that burns but does not char:
Certain people live among our kind,
So different from us in turn of mind.

"My Poor Fool Is Hanged"

Who knows why the pages strung him up?
For nine hours he was hung at tower-top,
Roped by a foot, one leg crossing the other,
Until the Red King came to cut him down.
His foolish face was like a blood-red rose,
His ears were murmuring like manic shells,
His body reeled, forgetting gravity.

For nine days afterward he lay in bed,
Crying that ants were swarming in his skin
And scorpions were stinging his bare feet,
Raving of mysteries that come to those
Who hang between the heavens and the earth.

He seemed to pluck his wits from the full moon,
And as it waned talked lucidly at court
And went about the business of a fool,
But later on he wandered far away
To regions where barbarians encamp.
That was the time when mirrors disappeared,
As every pretty hand glass scrolled in gilt
Or framed in silver left with him: he staked
A thousand mirrors in between our lands
So, he claimed, that everyone could see.

Scholastic Interlude

The college came and begged the Fool to teach;
They gave him bags of silver and a wand
For rapping on the desks of boys and girls.
They gave him a black gown and floppy hat.
They gave him cupboards stuffed with books and pens.
Then how he labored to the dawn and made
Each day a ribboned maypole of wise thought,
And each wise thought danced round its polestar goal
And could have turned in endless frolicking!

One evening, tired from sage discourse, the Fool
Clambered up the stairs of the clock tower
A sheaf of poems in his scholar's sack,
And let the minutes tick inside his head,
The bonnngg! of hours rumble in his brain.
Leaning on the mandatory ivy
Draping walls of fitted stone, he mused how
The blueing landscape dwindled to a shade
That might or might not be the twilight sea.
The scimitar of moon then scaled the sky,
Flicking sparks and laying bare the stars,
And faraway he saw the castle's lights . . .
Remembering the King and birthday hats
And sylphlike shape of Precious Wentletrap,
He scrambled up the crenellated walls
And stood precarious on the tiptop,
The poems tumbling from the woven sack
And making flashes of white in the dark,
The sack itself tumbling away in wind
While hammers struck bell-echoes of the hour.
He lifted arms until the robe made wings
And, leaping with a yell into the night,
He flew--

All Hallowed Angels Say

A rondel of the Fool

All hallowed angels say, not sing
Their messages and starry praise
Because the aura of bright haze
In which they move is not a thing

That lets in harm--no sharp bee sting
Of sorrow mars their perfect days.
All hallowed angels say, not sing
Their messages and starry praise,

Knowing no minor keys to wring
The heart or damp its happy blaze.
Song needs a Fool who laughs and prays
When grief mingled with joy is king.
All hallowed angels say, not sing.

The Fool's Confession

When the Fool confesses to the Priest,
The world reels on its axis, and a gust
Of blackened leaves and feathers tears the field
To flowery bits while babies shriek for milk
And sanity inside a raven gloom
That's ravenous for blood, sinews, and bone
And knows no motherings or ship of friends
Or golden rings that vow a faithful love.
When the Fool is dried and empty as a gourd,
Unknowing everything except one thing,
A dream begins to fill the bowl of head:
A wordless word, a sluice of fiery rain,
A sweetness that is hurt, made flowering.
He staggers from the place, his eyes so wide
That everything is rainbow-rich like gems,
And in the common square on common grass,
A single, simple tree is burning red.

The Peacock's Tail

Three days of snow. The blackened world turns white.
The garden urns hoist up their wedding cakes.
An iron table lifts the crystal coffin where
King Winter goes to drowse on sunny days.
Elaborate windworks of snow fall still.
Snow stops. Sky blues. The Fool goes wandering.
In the garden courtiers are laughing
As they erect a castle made of snow,
Its ramparts crowned with swans carved out of ice
With roses from the glasshouse of the King,
Their stainless whites already locked in place.
The Red King shapes a woman from the snow,
A White Queen that the Fool thinks loveliness
Itself, and for one shining instant, he
Sees that the snow is crystalline, not white,
And flashing like a rainbow in the sun,
And that in turn it sees him, through and through,
As if snow meant a million peacock eyes,
As if his heart and soul and flesh were glass . . .

The Fool Tells Children a Story at the Solstice

Once was a particle of dust
Named Hob; and one day a big gust

Of wind whooshed him into the air,
Toward Berenice's shining hair,

The Peacock, and the Bear--the sky
Of stars seemed to be asking why

They were bright fire, when he was dust
That yearned but never would combust.

It was nothing but illusion,
Fancy, madness, wild delusion:

He floated in the dark's abyss,
Dreaming of a burning kiss

To change his coat of soil to light,
To pin his flame against the night.

Poor little fool, who dreamed that specks
Of dirt could glow above the wrecks

Of time . . . A chilly vapor held
Him in its cloud: a mote be-spelled

By cold, he gazed at stars and shrieked
Although none heard as crystal creaked

From his side, and pronglets of ice
Erupted from his earth--once, twice,

Six times they broke like winter thorns
From him. This brittle dress of horns

(As intricate as weaver's lace,
As fair as unexpected grace),

Now drew him downward, and he slipped
Into the white and perfect script

Of snow: the story of a star,
Six-armed, rainbowed, spinning from far
Realms of sky; sun rising at night;
In midwinter, this birth and light.

The Red King's Word

When your stepmother shoves you out the door
Barefoot, in a gauzy smock and cobweb cape,
Do not repine. Cry not! Draw from your heart
The goodness she forgot to tear away
And toss it to the fire that blacks the hearth.
All dross will burn to ash and leave the gold:
Now wear it like a cloak of giltwork threads.
I will requite the chilblains on your feet,
The shivering, the fear that you must be
The Winter's promised spouse: in a clearing,
There will be plump strawberries just for you,
Hidden under leaflets in the snow,
Lovely red and green springing from black ground
And snow like fairy tales of alchemy.
Take them and eat, and so be satisfied.

My royal dwarves in velvet birthday hoods
Will come to you in love and judgment, each
An angel from a rosy paradise
To take your hands and walk you through the storm,
To bring my verdict down on evil heads,
To crown your brow with sun and moon with stars.

from Thaliad

I. Luring the Starlit Muse

Year 67 After the Fire
Emma declares what she knows about the time before the fire and calls on a starlit muse, the only love she will ever have, to tell the hero's saga of The House of Thalia and Thorn.

It was the age beyond the ragged time
When all that matters grew disorderly--
When artworks changed, expressive, narcissist,
And then at last became just tedious,
A beetle rattling in a paper cup,
Incessant static loop of nothingness,
When poems sprang and shattered into shards,
And then became as dull as newsprint torn
And rearranged in boredom by a child
Leaning on a window seat in the rain.
Then beauty was abolished by the state
And colleges of learning stultified,
Hewing to a single strand of groupthink.
It was a time bewitched, when devils ruled,
When ancient ice fields melted, forests burned,
When sea tossed up its opal glitterings
Of unknown fish and dragons of the deep,
When giant moth and demon rust consumed,
And every day meant more and more to buy.
Some people here and there lived otherwise,
But no one asked them for any wisdom,
And no one looked to their authority,
For none they had, nor were they like to have
The same--no one expects the end of things
To come today, although it must some day,
And so no one expected the great flares
That kissed the world with bright apocalypse.
And now no one recalls that day of fire,
For all are dead who might have seen the thing:
Only a few survived the scathing hour.


Marly Youmans is a poet and writer living near the mouth of the Susquehanna. Her latest collection of poetry is The Throne of Psyche (Mercer University Press, 2011.) Also from Mercer is her ninth book, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, winner of The Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction, to be published in March of this year. Other books of poetry (Thaliad and The Foliate Head) and novels (Glimmerglass and Maze of Blood) are forthcoming. Earlier work in Mezzo Cammin: 2011.1, 2010.2, 2010.1, 2009.2, 2009.1, 2008.2, 2008.1, 2007.1


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