Tuesday 16 March 2021

Five Fabulous Poems by Jessica Stilling


Gouty and Intolerable

Bernard went to Rome with a drop of blood

splashed thin and dark a rounded porcelain surface

Took a ship bound for Africa and saw

He’d never get there

Touch such foreign soil - the seat of the Empire, as far as he’ll go


Neville in his room with the fire, his lovers

A room full of books was he a professor at Cambridge? Oxford? Did his literary   

criticisms fill the stacks at The British Library?

Gouty and intolerable he said...when we are both famous...are we?

                                                                                                                        By that scene

There is a single point in time when it all makes sense

Watching a boat drift soundlessly, the buzz of a fly, sunlight glinting off the surface of a puddle — a moth

The most amazing thing in the world

The raw rash of youth, judgements made of hopes that have been dashed

crumbled — tossed

Held us back all along


When we are both famous...gouty and intolerable

One day you wake up and your hands shake, swollen and misshapen

And it seems so far away making tea like Byron (and not like him) and then one day you are

—Old enough to see the surface of your skin, feel the water rushing and wonder how was it that you were ever so stupid?

What we wanted, what never could be, we see it so clearly when it's too late

Convert to Zen Buddhism and hope you can accomplish in the next life what you couldn’t in this one


But then you sit or stand, some lying prostrate, one final time

There’s always a last moment, there has to be

Some of us are just lucky enough to witness it

Sit and perceive like the surface of the sea

Gouty and intolerable

“...and if you are dead I shall weep”



Virginia Woolf: Volatile Woman


I shall go mad they said

And so we did

King Edward in the bushes

Why Edward and not Victoria?

She made the high fashions, monarchical rule that’s really

            What they were rebelling against

The way she screamed for her husband

The Royal Albert Hall must have radiated such heat

Who are we talking about now?


They fought me forced food down the dark cave of a mouth

A hollow hole

The surface of a snake back to the apple

I won’t eat


Only voices

            Cry out in other ways this is madness, madness

You put the kettle on, drip, drip, dripping

Polite like mother in her drawing room sip-sipping

Father in the library painting the books

a mass of ordinary colors

Disguised we don’t see the quiet darkness of Victoria

She only wore black once Albert went

We wanted light



She sat still typesetting

Against the ocean

Such waves! Pull-pulling

Can’t come back from that

The way the ocean finds her

Victoria would not leave the palace

            When they lowered old Bertie into the ground


We were lucky

To be grateful

It was a river and not an ocean

And left a body



Stitches scathe the side of her face, a trench in Trafalgar

Just walking the streets and sixty, seventy years later we remember that there were Nazis

The war, the war, but it’s always the war when will Europe be over this bloody


Buildings shocked of shells beckoning back Normandy

They’re just not there

Not worn crumbling compacting concrete

A city should age gracefully

It’s how new it is, that’s the warpath

Bomb after bomb pummeled every night

I thought England was the land of castles


They put it back together shiny, big box store here, a chain pub there

Virginia’s house is a hotel now

You can stay and stare out at a statue of her for 150 Quid a night

I remember going there to see where she came from and there was just an

inscription, one of those blue signs, the ones they have everywhere like it was just another place

A statue of her head sits in the park

So Mrs. Dalloway can walk through town buying flowers herself

The British sure do know how to get things done

Kept the Nazis back in six instalments

Cold beans for breakfast and half-naked meat pies

Across from the National Gallery where her sister’s portraits hang

            Suspended ghosts of another century



 Gone so far gone we don’t know where they went or how to pick them up again

“Only eat the Indian food,” they said. “Everything else is shit in London.”

Ah the spoils of wars

            Or conquering


How many died during patrician?

And what, what did we see at the West End again? I think it was Orwell.

How come I didn’t recognize the actor from Downtown Abbey?

Must not have known him yet time works that way

Around and around a war another war and other conquerings

            until we can’t breathe down here anymore

But at least there’s still cobblestone

And wrought iron gates

Virginia would have wanted that

The way her house gleamed all white, the plaque said herself, her father, her sister

right there on the wall I wonder if they rent this place out

Walking Regents and Bond, up toward Kensington Gardens, Kings Street, The

            Royal Albert Hall and all that

Not a brick over 1950

Who knew newness could be so scary

            So ugly

They want you to think they’re okay

Patched up all nice and smug, scars stolen a modern modesty

Under that brand new brick surface

There are castles near the Superstore


You Have Been Reading Byron


You have been reading Byron

Climbed the spring of Castalia sprung oracles at Delphi

and thought this is how words are made

In place of worship – song

You have been reading Byron

            Who won modern cities in Africa took them like sugarcane in moldy fingers

I looked him up on Wikipedia

The whole New Criticism theory


Affectations there was an article in The New Yorker

Bernard would have read The New Yorker

Neville wouldn’t touch the stuff

Maybe he would have contributed

But that’s always the rub

Civilization might eat itself                                                          When we’ve seen such decanance


You have been reading Byron

Who thought he was a Jew

Harrod this and Hebrew that

And didn’t he read

Wilde professing Saint John and Salome

I bet she was beautiful

            The way she danced –

Why do they always blame the woman

            When they lop off heads to carry on platters?


You Have Been Reading Byron


You have been reading Byron

Joined the Greek War for Independence

Someone else’s fight

            The sticking of noses and the

            Don’t belong

            It’s a way out – the bane of colonialism

                        Or is that capitalism?

The British are always somewhere


Spent all that time in Italy

Died at thirty-six

I’m thirty-six or I was when I started this

Still don’t know what is more

To write poetry

Live in worlds, diving down so deep, one, two, three, six, one hundred lives all

            Reeling lost together until you just can’t find them


To be home in southern Europe at a time

When it might have been the end of the world

We always believe the world is ending

Each batch of kids convinced they’re the very last ones

Nothing follows

How could it? We’re so special

When did it get so small?

You Have Been Reading Byron

You have been reading Byron

Saw him bathe in green Greek springs

“And made a bumbling idiot of himself.”

As only white man can

Someone in grad school said that

But bumbling idiots don’t die at thirty-six

Bumbling idiots live forever

Voting the deaths of children

            And their children’s children

The Last Generation

Someday, some generation really will be it

They won’t be proud

--- It won’t make them happy


You have been reading Byron

I might have known you

Have been you, Byron, Dostoyevsky, Meredith’s young man

Another of the thousand lives

An ancient world where artists are a thousand years old


The Fool Falls From Somewhere Else

“It is to this we are attached. It is to this we are bound, as bodies to wild horses. And yet we have invented devices for filling up the crevices and disguising the fissures.” Rhoda (pg. 64)

To the sea we are held tight with leather cuffs

            Left twisting submission to the body of eternity

The frothy, milky foam

attaches to our skin, crawled out of it like turtles to the sea

Sought back to things familiar

No- the waves pushed us out

When we couldn’t see and had no eyes


I remember the summer I first saw the ocean

And I was sad

to learn it wasn’t blue

But stood an arrested gray

To our outstretched fingertips

And the days that have passed

Life will not bind me to its blue surface

And other crevices, other devices, in my ears, cling to my back and wail in the


In the end (65) the present moment- an emerging monster to whom we are



The fool steps off a cliff and they laugh

Point and leer and wonder where he’s going

It’s eons later, the primordial time of eternity that they realize

He was the only one worth saving

Jessica Stilling - The poems, Gouty and Intolerable, Virginia Woolf- Volatile Woman, London, You Have Been Reading Byron, The Fool Falls From Somewhere Else and Hampton Court come from a collection she is working on. This collection takes a look at Woolf's novel The Waves and tries to make sense of it through a hybrid of poetry, flash fiction, and short personal essays - but mostly poetry. 


She has published two literary novels Betwixt and Between (Ig) and The Beekeeper's Daughter (Bedazzled) and her next literary novel, The Weary God of Ancient Travelers (DX Varos) will be published this summer. She has also published some young adult fantasy novels under the pen name JM Stephen. Her poetry has been published in The New Reader Review, Caustic Frolic, China Grove Review and Bridge Eight. She has published creative nonfiction in Ms. Magazine, Bust Magazine and Tor.com. Jessica has done a lot of writing about writing for the blog Bookfox and The Writer Magazine and sits on the editorial board of The Global City Press, a small press out of City College of The City University of New York. She has taught Creative Writing at The City University of New York, The State University of New York, The Gotham Writers Workshop and The New School. 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Two Poems by Wayne Russell

  Of Fire and Steel Alone in a room the images take tattered forms- words switch out with memories in  swirling visions. One by one, letters...