|Sestina for the six wives|
My brother’s wife, but only I loved Catherine:
No woman did I ever trouble more
To be the mother of my kingdom’s heir,
To consummate my first, my last, desire.
She failed; and still I travel to her, farther
Than dreams can ride, into her castle blackness.
While black-eyed, six-fingered Anne, all blackness –
But yellow for the funeral – round Catherine
Danced, and so miscarried; leaving me father
To no son, but to the death of More and more.
The French blade of a sonneteer’s desire
Took off the goggle-eyed brunette; which done, ere
I had half composed a twisting hybrid air
And walked the paths of polyphonic blackness,
I found in fresh green leaves my heart’s desire.
Since neither the Marquess Anna, nor Catherine
Of Aragon would give, let plain Jane Seymour
Be the mother, and I at last the father
To the name of his father’s mother’s father,
King Edward. Fog clears, sun explodes the air.
Queen Jane lies back exposed on Childbed Moor
Bleeding into her last puerperal blackness.
And I must seek a wife: another Catherine,
An Anne. But all I find when I desire
Are dreams that buck, a face that cleaves desire,
A Flanders nightmare come to lure me farther
From my senses; until a fifth, a Catherine
Comes pumping down my dropsied, ulcered skin, air
Off Venus’ mount, bubbling eruptive blackness –
I rise! I sing! – for a breve. For hundreds more
Lie in Mistress Catherine’s score. And the maw
Of Traitor’s Gate gapes wide. Some say desire
For heads is for maidenheads; that the blackness
Gathered in these my good looks proves them father
To impotence, one nine-year-old their heir.
But winch me here, and I will show them, Catherine…
(And you, Catherine, that if you had given more –
Bequeathed me one male heir – this one desire
Had flamed no farther, the rest been sweet blackness.)
An interesting anecdote about this poem: many years ago, I was typing it on to a computer in a remote corner of the castle where my school is based – Kimbolton, where Catherine of Aragon was sent by Henry VIII to die.. When I reached the second stanza (about Anne Boleyn), the computer crashed for no reason. A friend managed to get it working so I started again. The same thing happened at the same point. Then I pressed a wrong button and lost forty pages!