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The Swans of Camelot

Prelude: Nesting

Graceful swimmers, we
claver on cool water,
whispering the ways of cob and pen.
Watery nests a transience then,
we pause in the celadon stream
reflecting mute questions
in the rising and falling waves
of sun-bent time.
Are we a dissonance
in the respiring rhythms
of a muddy bay?
Shall we dare perceive
our pale beauty
as the twilight travail
stirs a dusk within?

1. Igerne at the Well

Clear, quizzical pool—
affirm that once you knew
a blithe face wreathed
in eagerness to hope.
Questing me? As if the sea
would surge back, seeking you.
No, puddle, we are only we
with this difference—
that my cracked hours
have tributaried nearly all
away, while you spout innocence
ever speckless from a virgin stream.

Image, does it matter
how past time rounded me
with shape so flourishing
and full, and cheeks in childish cheer,
so exquisitely, that my lord father
gave me in my twelfth rose year
to make a wife for Gorlois?
And that I did, dull-witted,
wondering how this petaled thing
mislaid a merry lady-game
for wivery's staid plodding
year on year.
The water shivers.
It starts a shudder
on my skin.
Tell me, ripple-face,
whether children love their babes
above sisters' tendency.
I have my doubts,
seeing how pale a regard
these grown ones return to me.
Suffice to say it worked
as practical art will,
this course in motherhood
and marital apprenticeship—
My youth!
Need I confess I'd got
too young tired of groveling
in the seventh sacrament?
No pure priest need preach me more
beyond experience.
Snug slavery can be borne;
it is our wifely code.
So might have I until my end
had not Uther craved
this nunnish-passioned wife
in the outer limits of such love.
For this head-dragon,
quaint, faint laughings
across a crowded hall
only signified a blood-rising call.

And so to Merlin
with his throbbing thighs
he went; vowing he would die,
for pity's sake,
if of Igerne was applied
no comfort.
Leave it to Merlin
not to waste of words.
In short, as Gorlois
gussied up he came,
my wildfire king;
and with him false semblances
of our veriest castle clucks
Bertel and Jourdain.
Met by such a warbling trio,
bibulous in the hall,
how was I to know?
As the night wore on
and I had needs must do
my wifely deed,
as normal our ado,
the fumblings took
a strange and manic style—
freezing me first to the hairpins
and then stoking me over so
until, elder porcelain I was,
the shell of me clean broke.
Over the sill burst
the thousand-lit vessel of dawn,
reflecting how brilliant
the old marriage vows had woke.
In that I was deluded.
For, thanks to Merlin's little sham,
this man showed Gorlois' face
and Uther's otherwise.
To be fair, Merlin should be thanked
for that ingenious revel
while ignorance kept
my purity intact.

Magic night!
As phylacteric bridge
did it span me well
between marriage and marriage.
That moon's strange fusion
of illusion and reality
woke a dragon blazing
through my mind
as I tried on with Uther
an unsuspected and undreamt identity.
Yet, having this new flame,
it strained my sorrow all the more
to find Gorlois slain
and floating in a ditch.

O husbands, old and new,
and one too many!
To contemplate
the temporal and immortal states
of these two
should have undone my wits
without that lynch-pin
strengthening in my womb,
the son radiant of a single cause
for sanity and life.
Quite late did I learn
what a swollen king would trade
for my receptive grace.
For Merlin, that bounder,
knew fair game.
That blighting sightseer!
That nosy mermerist
who, stuck with a dry pipe himself,
sips juices from another nest!
Why else?
Or he'd have settled down
and left off hocus-pocus,
cheating unwise lovers
of their golden son.

O my son, my son—
my filched little one!
I was the mere gateway
for a thieving charm.
Hollow this house
of Uther and Igerne
when the milk that burned my breast
was wrought in streaming anguish,
profanely falling onto stone.
Life I grew,
and love I would have poured
eagerly, as a woman now,
upon this infancy.

O my son, my son,
for you have I rocked in vain
until Uther too,
driven to despair and late regret,
fell ill and lay
for three wide days,
tongueless and inept.
My warrior-lord, my waker,
tranced in ominous sleep
while I burned and languished
at his side.
The past.
Am I not too salted down with years
to bear its pain?
Widowed, I had a dream
wherein my infant son
was brought to lie by me
at long last.
So tired his sleep, so tired,
and on his papery brow
the care of a futile age
of men.

My own face
in glassy water,
loss and waste.
A robeless woman bared
before the cruelest judge.
What is this female body
but a sieve
of sheerest tissue
fusing God and man?
Fraught with holes myself,
I reap natural residues
of the sped-on past.
Like a glistening stream
have they all
slipped through
my inmost being,
leaving spasms of exodus
thrusting wall on wall.
Coarse, dried vacuity, lady fair.
Old to be now fashioned.
Emptied of use.

2. Morgawse Awaits Lamerok

Fierce as a flinten shard
split off this wintry dark,
I am the sharpest spear
of a spilt family.
Wilder angers
stir the dusky sinews
in my pounding skull;
and I alone, sleepless,
rove the sky of night,
vowing reprisals
on the stars' sheer,
simpering lights.
Confectioned court-bull—
that sweet-flavored love
they pine and die for—
at the core stinks excremental.
Scrape the dainty scales
and find the same pit swarming
beneath every light distress.
My mother Igerne,
so coated even!
And wallowing shameless as a cat
in her disloyal sin.
Gar—at that moment
I knew Gorlois
was my truer parent;
for though Igerne bore me,
I am my father's daughter,
warring for him
on our half-carved kin—
that late-sprung nub of catkin,
Arthur, a once and so-called king.
Bowed wrong into our cradle,
he fell out the weird-grafted shoot
of our maternal dame.
Bauble of our mother's age!
Bumped off her sagging shape!
I am sick with rage.

Eyes gleam in the night.
Cruel, licking flames within
the iron harness of my head.
In fury my brain burns,
and my teeth long
to clamp the soft flesh
of filial vengeance.
Heart-sore but intact,
I feed with mother-force
a combustion of five sons:
for if a fate keeps me
falsely tender, still
can I lap and nourish
this pack.
I should amend.
Except for its own sake,
there's nothing to despise
in tenderness
when instrumentally applied.
To our young Arthur
I taught the civil dance
of predator and prey.
The silly chaser unaware
became the chased;
in fatal fascination
he embraced my exquisite fleshly art.
Limpid, laughable youth!
In curiosity he sought
to pass his little blade
through woman's fire.
How well it suited me
to scorch the wart!
My servants and I tittered
as they were warned away,
better to let him sneak
in secret to my bed.
O how heavy the draperies hung
with drolleries that night!
To our dewy upstart brother
I showed a familial gadget
he'd not dreamt of.
I taught him the hard hot facts,
exchanging doggy-panting sighs
for a stiff whiff of reality.
What an oafish tangle when,
falling helpless as a pup
into my molten stern,
he howled to heaven
that primal scream
forever branded in his brain.
Fair-eyed beggar boy
got more sin
than he wagered for,
passion-wounds enough
to terrorize three lifetimes.
The morning carter caught him
hanging helpless on a wall,
barfing all away.
And yet,
the bumbler filled my pot;
whence came our Mordred
to a boil.

But was all the alchemy
of my cursed quest
prepared for one pure triumph
on his flesh,
when I whispered in his ear,
“I am your elder sister, dear,
and you the scrawn
of old Igerne's shame”?
Not yet.
This famed young cutworm,
in lecherously leveling me,
has cut into himself;
and as the years squat by,
his root shall come to wither,
sag and die.
For I have sucked his pus
and grown a sword
more lethal than
his sore, smudged might.
And I bore my share of pain
in breeding promise. For
mortal hate did scald a sun
quick-frozen to the sky
when our whelp Mordred
first uttered infant's cry.
Of pity, therefore,
I have need;
for sacrifice repaid a thorn
in my tranquility.
Did I not suffer overmuch
in rearing Mordred up
from snot-run childhood?
Was I not selfless
in my maternal quest?
Disgusted, yes.
Too many's the time
I pinched
his chickeny bottom,
sending him squalling
for his nurse;
and though he late
acquired the power of speech,
she always knew.

Perhaps somehow I failed
with this blackguard son.
Time droops by,
and nothing comes
of my great aspiration
for this weed.
When comes the backbone
for his life's great deed?
Shall I not live to see it?
The moon's dark side rolls by
complacently. I wait.
Dully keeping house!
My life is over.
Dreary and haggard,
I still wait.
Swift, my sweet
successful vengeance
vanished in a freakish night?
And all beyond that
sour infatuation,
brainless needlework
despoiling my lust
for war's imagination?
Is this all?
To do nothing is there
of a stormy night
but heckle the harpist
for more time-killing tales,
or at the break of day
to glare at women
washing fetid clothes?
To their grief,
these Irish slaves toil
for a lady with five sons,
all who leave their laundry home,
especially our least,
the grubby one.
To think on it—
all my life
honed like a lance
to bear him!
This term is dead.
O my life!
Seething single act
of unreasoned nothingness,
mean, yellowed pimple
on the universe.
The rage
cannot still in me.
Unmerciful seed that bred me—
was not this molten will
better hammered
in the hatchet of a man?

The whole course gone wrong,
conceived amiss.
I flee through the doorless corridor
of this self, flaming,
unable to prevail
in my own strength.
This poisoned mantle
of an unfilled quest—
if barely I shall breathe
in peace, at all subsist,
it's by averting vision
from the chasm of life's purpose
and the hollow that is death.

Fawn before the dingy glass awhile,
and pose.
Sleeken and uncoil
thick ebon tresses,
is this handsome face
not real?
What is this cloud
that hovers haggardly
upon my well-formed lips?
Will it not disseminate
with sleep and love,
unfilm the soul
which would have been?
Where are the agents
of elusive grace?
Go, churlish time—
fetch my lover Lamerok,
my hairbrush,
my powdered dainties,
even—my son!
Hideous and vicious glass,
I defy you, liar!
Here in this troubled breast
bursts a beautied life;
snuff the rest.
I will it.
By my head,
I'll have it so.

3. Guinevere at Matins

Now I've prayed in abbey
all these years,
I question still
the reasons to repent.
Vexed come only addled facts
fixed hard as fate,
while the spirit
slips to mist
outside a narrow penitence.

That the sweat of Lancelot
has washed me
and my hands have dabbled
in my poet-lover's hair—
our deed. It's so
how we have laved the bruise
of miscast marriage
in our midst
and salved the wound
with outlawed love and trust.
My love, my only love!
knowing not to be my only lover,
did bridge the chasm circumstance,
pass over proven evidence—
my marriage
and my former men—
and love simply
the light worth of me.
And so I buoyantly did him.
There in spirits
beam we innocents,
though spiteful tongues contend
true love that's misaligned
deserves its bans
blared in crueler context,
the gross anti-nuptial
called adultery.

That bitter vow!
Can words make unity?
Lay the blame on Merlin's doing,
all this marriage squall,
for he was more possessive of his change
than any saracen mother-in-law.
Premeditatively he set me
in Arthur's erring sight,
knowing bestially and full-well
I would betray the king,
so restless a rule of nature
sown in my nativity.
A faithless wife forever will pervert
the threat of anything
worth distraction
from a muddled, mothy magician!
Aptly had he chosen
female fodder,
a green girl neatly blameable;
and so,
with Winchester's priest we rehearsed
a grand military maneuver.
Dally on the stream of things:
When Leodogrance got word
of Arthur's suit for me,
he declared the news the best he'd had
since I'd nubilely gained degree.
A daughter safely wedded
cures two men's perspiration;
no more thought he need to glare
at courtiers and minstrel men,
warriors and altar boys.
Sweet engagement!
Reprieve from hard suspicion
blessed this interval of grace
with blooming opportunities,
a quick maid's interregnum chance,
secure, secure!
Revelations and adventures grew,
gauzed by my impending vow.
A curious bird I was
with eager young men,
and laughed in my delight to learn
the way on a smooth salt strand
and the apex in a pomerie's pale glow.
Such likewise solace I once thought
might even lace my wedding night.
The fables they scatter on this score!
A manservant, glancing on our nuptial bed,
familiarly did cry, “Heigh-ho, king,
a might stout workbench there to ply!”
Approvingly taking me in.
While Arthur, far from roaring
fierce blue Bretonic wrath,
a king in shivers,
tattered before my eyes.
He knew me not.
To this lusty servant
I saw myself—later.

Precious paltry cause for faithfulness,
I thought.
I slipped the knot:
the unicorn ran free
of legal purity.
Detached, I rephrased my life with art,
poeticized my flesh
as coupling rhyme.
Surprised by generosity,
the pilgrims flocked with ardors
for a benign queen;
and for an era I became
a well-loved lady, lithesome,
as too many knew, and slightly lean.
Sitting with them all around
in court, I thought,
somewhat rueful to disgrace, yet—
if in manly repetition of delight
woman finds less than less to please,
she hones her marriage to a prime
who will admit variety.
But the king—
preoccupied in plots of warring strategy
till crystal clear it seemed,
if I must endure another time
his oft-repeated history
of rolling Frollo in the grass,
I should go mad!
Better he'd rolled me
than batter earpans night on night
with vibrations politically
shrivelling the beauty
in a morning's moonlit star.
Thought he actually of love
as but a charred wick
embedded somewhere in the brain?
Cruel the empty crises
he brought to me,
cheating my ripe youth
as only can—I know now—
a motherless man
crave a wet-nurse for a wife.
He drove me dry with boredoms
of a thousand sleep-filled eyes.
He and his specialists,
arranging and rearranging
legions in the salty sand,
like bachelor-boys perennially
playing games of knights.
The beardly arts!
Thought they all queens but fit
to play at poisoned apples,
never breathing women
twitched of heart, mind, and dream?
Their conversations at the borde
drilled holes into a sprightly brain.
Only patient bluffers,
the Bedeveres and Kays,
had dullards' access,
chewing everlastingly the fat.
Bless old Kay, my once accused!
That stupid knight who, armored full,
sat weightily on the warming dough
and waffled a whole batch of bread!
Dour, dumb waiter.
Wide the circle of my dalliance,
but not so wide as that!

Remembrances. I must pray.
O conscience, crucible of sin,
melt these present boring hours
into those lost luscious dews of spring.
Let my petaled flower open
with old innocence
for bee and bee again.
These dry robes oppress me
to the core of mind,
bearing but the waxen image
of the redeeming light.
Let me burn luxuriously fast
my mortality,
for, God-willing,
it may toughen me
as a tanner's tough
in hell.
The old anguish boils
even now in the same futility.
Heaven can tell how,
after the quarrel with Lancelot,
I burned all gossipy Camelot;
for jealousy played its role
in all who'd be what they were not.
Such bouquets were my tributes
that pricked the ladies smartly
and pouted their narrow lips.
I laughed them down
without a sound,
those dames who in sulking woman-ways
so obviously pondered,
in a pique,
the many-colored ribbons
woven through my glowing hair
and guessed the symbols of their men
who did loose them.
Proudly then
did I purvey the secrets
openly in court.
Fiercely even,
my life for a space
an honest flower,
gaudy and exotic-scented,
a quivering tissue tortured
with ecstatic brevity.
O teeming July garden!
O gloriously spreading hair
now shriven in soul-saving nunnery,
its silken oils fed to flame.
My poor reflective head,
veiled under stress-caught purity,
a barren knob!
Ah well.
These new ladybirds live best,
taught by God,
and patient am I of them
with the lore of naked nature
fueling my poor source.
How else can I do?
I was once a wife.

But what of our Arthur
near the end,
when failure sacked
the unity of politics he'd sought,
cracking the creature of his hand,
that Camelot wherein the wife herself
aroused decay?
His proud earthly vessel shattered,
at last we viewed the man
more touchable in armorless estate.
And I, withering inside,
one day saw him really,
and too late,
his selfless way
undriven furiously by time
but mirroring eternity.
In our wedded yoke,
sad as a goat.
O faith,
why not with me a ram?
Though only stars know why
he feared love,
my impetuous force
served him not well
in sprouting horns on the coronet;
but practically, we had household peace
in place of dire domestic war.
Then lost I,
not for Lancelot, my only love,
nor for scullery boys and questing men,
but for the one true sin
of Mordred's lust,
the happiest of our summered rooms.

O that weird sexless one,
old mother Merlin,
that fuming fairy,
failing to prod Arthur's stubborn ignorance
with gossips' precious evidence,
hit on tossing Mordred in my way.
Strangely bedded were those politics,
a furied song in madness scored.
Blunter yet—a bloody war.
There seeped some poison in my brain,
the moment when I glibly thought,
“What is one man laid
beside another?”
Only loving such a one
could be the crime,
and that demon Mordred
nobody loved—
though he was piquant exercise.
It was fiendish chance I loved,
to flaunt old, boring roots
disdainfully on the countryside.
No cuckoldry intended.
Mmm. Maybe with nephew.
Not with—son.
Though, truth to tell,
he came on
with ardors of three men.
The violence at first met welcome,
beating an order's peculiar weary ruin,
fighting my own drab death in dull security.
Brash blindness!
Coupling flesh with Mordred
was no idle rhyme;
the man whose inborn war
had warped and diminished him
was no simple lay.
This creature's molten spear
would reach toward killing soul,
burning white-hot the inner chapel
of its shame—
my real death upon the post.
The sin itself bred hell:
Charred at last, I bow,
knowing what I should not know.
Incarnate evil of a family feud,
blent familial flesh of mortal foes,
the bitter sap
of grim grandfathers
Gorlois and Pendragon.
Now it is whispered
how their very seed did duel
in Mordred's skull-split death,
that of his welling wounds
flowed no natural blood
but a black and raging foam.
When I did trisect sin,
my name was made a hissing in this land;
The savants called me generously to die;
and though the lower kinds admit discrepancies
and celebrate in haystacks
what we gently cleanse as courtly love,
the busy kingdom's tongue came loose,
both ends,
and deemed the Mordred escapade
no casual dalliance.
Alone, I contemplate
the wavering weight of sin
against my one true love
and against my royal mate.

This pew's too hard.
Am I alone discomfited?
Over there—
that prayerful chub-cheeked bird
cooing her clean confession—
when a queen besieged this convent,
she did feel it.
A time or so
I've taught her on her knees, hard scrubbing.
Accepting the simple order of things so late,
I've still a need to queen it
now and then,
casting my usual eye for easy objects.
A word from me once
bought spirited steeds
and expensive veils,
though never I planned
all holiness beneath.
Twisting tableaux,
acted images around the soul—
How to know?
Far better had I caught the horse
and kept on going?
Surely some likely knight
would have plucked me up
from wild Britishers' opinion?
I know the truth.
And God does also know
my petty ache too well.
So, just once, a feisty prayer—
Bloom, bloom,
brief flower of my health.
Come, mollycoddled dust,
to gloss my glimmering cup.
To age!
To spiritual ecstasy!
In the ceaseless marches of the flood,
what is woman,
what is man?
We look into wild water,
as torn and pressed
as fickle weathers have us,
becalmed alone by faith
in cool, drowning depths
of blessed blindness,
perpetually unclear.
Therefore undreamt shadows,
we pursue ourselves,
wandering the ways,
perplexed by sorrows of a lonesome tour.
And now the journey's paused;
for vibrant stillness settles,
Time is, was, will be.
Wax away, courant candles,
miming me.
Another sun has soared this chapeled face,
lighting some small grace
in once a blister's place.
Hush! Hush!
The weeds will other seasons be.

4. The Maid of the Meadowland

With a will
I came alone.
I was not taken, or bewitched,
or garnished with a marriage gown.
Beyond a marshy sea of glass
I am the meadow lass,
unfathered, undowered, and unknown.
The grasses of the kingdom
weave my bed
of fallow oaten strands and lavender.
To please myself
I am unwed.
Of the samelike days
passing the slanting lights,
sun unto sun,
I've dreamt no dread.
I drain a throbbing beast,
contain her silken flow,
plain-made and ambrosial,
her life thread
spun passionless and paining
in the mead.

Cow-catcher I, whiling a locust hour,
bent a willow limb around my hand
to let fly what vision summon.
Then I saw him.
Under the oaken spirit
overspreading meadow edge
had he come;
with his heart sore pierced,
he sought the sacred wood
above his hope-shorn head.
Beside the giant oak he formed
the shade of gallant memories,
a swathe of what had been.
So grayed his eyes
campaigning forth into himself,
and the storm-dark howling in,
I neared unnoticed to his magic glen.
Inclement toil of loss and rage
had poured fast years along his brow;
and in the trenchant scowl
grew the waste of his mortality,
thinning the jaw with starkened grief.
They all had cheated him.
Upward I sought his eye's nonbeing,
where sea swirl spoke
of time's eclipse
and mist obscured all countryside,
reflecting nought but that within.
Therein, such passers pointed
opposite in time,
we crosswise met,
stilled by a pale fire
of silent interim.

O solemn dance!

Soul spray fountained up a spring,
compassion rising from an earthy way.
My cup I lifted toward his pain,
the milk of a warm cow's mothering.
Crystal flows the river
clearing wave-knells to the sea,
and so drawn back from the inward gorge
came Arthur's light to me,
showering force like a mantle of jewels
from my shoulders to the lea.
He grasped the cup like a journey's close
and gleaned of the meadowland's grail
where, seamless of experience,
our cyclic soul met well.

An afternoon, a day, a quiet night.
A weft of heraldless accord
draws love beyond its glimpsing
into an houred doom.
Yet, endures this unploughed earth
where signatures enflame
in gentle lights of autumn—
behind, within, again.
Sweet, hushed meadow.
Soundless grace.
Ascent, winging west.
Blue-soft butterfly.
Life lullaby.

Postlude: Flight

We have borne as we could,
and have branded ourselves on water.
For a season we have fed
upon worms and softening seeds,
swallowing the mottled castings
of our coeval lot.
Gather now, singing wingbeats,
let us pierce the higher airs.
Arise, arise,
the wind calls us
whistling as a wedge
to the open sky.
Additional Information:
Originally published by The Camelot Project.