28 February 2019

#27 - Coils

Nikola Tesla – engineer, inventor, futurist, pigeon-fancier (1856-1943)

He cups my head and tells me I’ll be fine –
He’s built a cage especially for me.
Of all his loves I am the most divine;
To save my life he would pay any fee.

He tells me dreams – of lightning tamed and caught,
Of mankind magnified by unseen waves,
And something else, enshrined in loving thought,
To blast his enemies beyond all graves.

But Nikola no longer musters hosts;
Investors are short-sighted, stunted men –
They doubt his genius, call his visions boasts,
But we know that his star will rise again.

His name will etch the Heavens, scored by nerds
For now he’ll spend his grace on us poor birds.


By Napoleon Sarony - postcard (radiographics.rsna.org), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26187019
Tesla, aged 34, circa 1890. Photo by Napoleon Sarony

26 February 2019

#26 - Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

Alice Bradley Sheldon (1915 - 1987) - science fiction author

"I know goddam well what's out there, under all those masks. Beauty and Power and Terror and Love."

And I awoke and found me here alone
still dreaming on this gleaming alien shore,
compelled to document and to explore
the monuments and signs of the unknown
where love is love, on winds of whimsy blown,
where love decides exactly what love's for,
where love is hope and fear and peace and war,
where love abides, so many years from home.

Decipher me with someone else's creed,
project on me the prejudice you hide,
embody me with myths on which you feed
the grizzled veteran and the modest bride.
Give me a gun to kill the one I need,
then lay me down upon the cold hill's side.


25 February 2019

#25 - Beyond

Laurence Michael Dillon (1915 -1962) was a British physician and the first trans man to undergo phalloplasty

Right. “Where the mind cannot be made to fit,
the body should be made to fit the mind.”
Now that’s a quote (abridged, as I’m confined
by metric form) that made me think a bit.
For, as an aging man with budding tits,
expanding gut, to walking sticks resigned,
my brain is asking to be reassigned –
a body closer to a young Brad Pitt’s.
So kids – take care. I’ll close this month of rhyme
(it’s been a blast as always – Hello Fay!)
by thanking you, dear readers, for your time,
and leave myself just two more lines to say:
be thankful for each day of health you’ve had,
and don’t forget to exercise a tad.


24 February 2019

#24 - Tears of a Clown

Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) English actor, comedian and dancer.

A clown is meant to be a cheerful fool,
distracting guests from every plague and plight,
but usually we’re gloomy, as a rule:
I’m Grim-all-day, though I may smile at night.

The painted grin is just a crude disguise
to camouflage the turmoil underneath.
Look closely and you’ll see the saddest eyes –
a man who’s drained of all his self-belief.

I can't escape the howling in my head
but what else can I do? I am so old.
I’ve acted here for years, it’s all I know.

A smiling harlequin in white and red
and when I’m not on stage, I feel so cold.
The show must go on! So, on with the show!


Joseph Grimaldi and Joey the Clown 

23 February 2019

#23 - A Wider Horizon

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – groundbreaking astrophysicist and first woman to head a department at Harvard University (1900-1979)

While waiting for the rest to reach your height
You graded faith to mark it dubious,
Yet labelled inspiration numinous,
And showed how heavenly bodies talk at night.
Where others trudged in darkness, you saw light;
Where they stayed safe you dared the luminous,
Found early on that Fear kills Curious
And learned to keep achievements out of sight.

But those before you taught resilience
And some fires can’t be hidden – that’s the truth:
The skies blaze messages not of this earth.

They finally unveiled your proper worth;
Soft voices hailed the insight of your youth.
You changed the ways we value brilliance.


Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry is pretty dry – I also recommend looking at quotes attributed to her, for example: here, which last is where the title of the poem comes from.

(And yes: I’ve screwed with the proper rhyme scheme because sod Petrarch I’m a creative, that’s why...)

22 February 2019

#22 - Fiat Lux

Aurora rises swift across the plains
and forests of a land that's left behind
once sold across the western sea in chains,
she holds that childhood vision in her mind.

And where white men are fighting to control
by whips and laws, by bible, hymn and psalm
all aspects of another person's soul,
the wonders of the classics are her balm.

So Virgil, Horace, Homer, Milton, Pope
bring consolation to a suffering heart
for though the saviour might yet give one hope,
humanity lies at the crux of art.

The Lord is master of all cruelty.
But maybe, maybe, He can set you free.


21 February 2019

#21 - Legacy, Part II

Julia Maesa (c160 - c. 224 CE) sister-in-law to an emperor, aunt to two emperors, grandmother to two more. How we define women by their relationships to men!

I hear ya, Cecily – though I’ll say this:
I had two daughters (gave them both my name),
and they both married worthy men of fame
(as – on the subject – did my little sis).
They all had sons – the dynasty prolonged;
I spoiled those children (as a Grandma’s prone):
and placed them, lovingly, where they belonged –
as Emperors, upon a regal throne.
This family’s mine – the Empire by extension –
these young ‘uns worship me as matriarch.
Now I have all the power (and the pension) –
so hear my wisdom, Cecily, and mark:
you’re quite correct – yes, having girls is great –
but boys are easier to manipulate.


I've got a mate who can sell you one of these.

20 February 2019

#20 - Mathematics, and the Unbearable Lightness of Womanhood

Hypatia of Alexandria (350-415 AD) was a philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician

We always need more women teaching STEM.
Hypatia the Queen of Roman maths
rose to the challenge like a shining gem,
it didn’t save her from the bishop’s wrath.

A woman I may be, but I am wise
(like every woman who has come before).
I am no warring politician’s prize.
I hear the rebels knocking at my door.

We don’t know why they ripped her limb from limb
and scattered all her writings to the air.
It might have come from spite, a grudge, a whim.
The hardest sum to solve is hatred squared.

They tried to silence me, I think they failed:
My name is not a whisper but a wail!

Hypatia by Jules Maurice Gaspard

19 February 2019

#19 - The Sun On The Waves

Gráinne Ní Mháille (aka Grace O’Malley) – ‘The Pirate Queen’ (c.1530 – c.1603)

If only I could write Queen Grace a song,
A chant to fill the lungs and swell the sail.
To pin her to a sonnet seems quite wrong –
O’Malley versus English rules? They’ll fail.

This “nurse to all rebellions in the province”
Could most politely be called ‘combative’.
As bare-faced with a priest as with a prince,
She had precisely zero fucks to give.

So hoist the sheets and hoist your flagons high,
And drink to Grace the Bald, the Bold, the Queen;
Three score and ten, still letting bullets fly –
The most audacious pirate ever seen.

To know her is to marvel, and feel blessed;
Her legend still lives on, without arrest.


Grace O’Malley, kicking arse and probably not bothering with names.

18 February 2019

#18 - The Girl in the Fireplace

The clock is broken, embers crack and hiss,
no language can interpret what occurs
she gives a lonely traveller one last kiss,
then steps into a future that's not hers.

The war is endless, internecine strife,
nobility's outsider at its heart
a friend of kings, but not a kingdom's wife,
a patron and practitioner of art.

The bells are silent, rain falls like a shroud
as Voltaire muses on inequity
which wears away at beauty, drip by drip.
The grief of kings is rarely sung aloud,
the deluge whispers as it meets the sea
"she will not have good weather for her trip."


17 February 2019

#17 - Legacy, Part I

Cecily Neville (1415-1495CE) was an English noblewoman, the wife of Richard, Duke of York, and the mother of two kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III.

A mother wants to raise her kids aright –
to give them every chance to flourish, grow
up strong, compassionate, and erudite,
prepared for all that life may have to throw.

I paired each daughter with a goodly knight
(by ‘goodly’, I mean ‘having lots of dough’);
they lived as well-bred ladies, sweetness, light,
but then – my sons… my sons… I just don’t know.

Am I to blame if all they did was fight?
Did my maternal failings simply sow
the rancour that besmirched the rose of white?

If I could have a backsie, one more go,
I’d set aside those dreams of Dukes and Earls –
forget the boys, and stick to having girls.


16 February 2019

#16 - Sweet Peas

Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) Russian revolutionary and philosopher

Oi, Galton, you relentless fucking twat,
This Social Darwinism is a con!
You’ve had your fun, but now I smell a rat –
Your competition theory is all wrong.

Cooperation is the way to thrive,
A concept that you don’t seem to confront.
So, sod off with this ‘man’s combative drive’!
Coz property is theft, you fucking cunt!

Injustice can be fought with conflict, sure,
But conflict’s not the impetus for change.
Anarcho-communism is the cure –
Let’s tear the State apart and re-engage!

So, join a commune, grow your own sweet peas!
And quit with the eugenics, Galton, please?


#15 - Self Portrait

I stand before you - three foot one of pride
And stubbornness - been like this since day one.
My statureʼs never something I denied
And though Iʼve strived and lost, Iʼll swear Iʼve won.

Iʼve travelled green roads through this country fair,
Seen England from the backside of a tent.
And though I dazzled all who stopped to stare,
It took a man to beckon my ascent.

Now Iʼve outlined both great and small with smiles,
As much at home with royalty as churls;
With everything Iʼve gained across the miles
I owe so much of this to Dukes and Earls.

The medals, gawps, and namechecks you can keep
Iʼve strength and hard-won hues to wrap my sleep.


Miniature of Sarah Biffen, painted by herself.
Using her mouth.

14 February 2019

#14 - Burning Down Convents

All opera needs a bloody heroine
to face down malice and hypocrisy,
to drink and love and fight before she dies ‒
une amoureuse who fills life to to the brim
with all the joy and pain that make us free
she knows that faintheart seldom wins the prize.

So if you want to gain a boy's devotion
with something that will hook him nice and quick ‒
unsheathe your sword in one swift fluid motion,
then stab him through the shoulder ‒ that's the trick.

And if you want to grab a girl's attention
with something more than just a winning smile,
there really is one thing I ought to mention ‒
go burn down convents baby ‒ that's the style.


13 February 2019

#13 - Specifics

Anna Komnene (1083 – 1153CE), Byzantine princess, scholar and historian.

You’re dressed as a Crusader, are you? Sweet.
Pray tell me, English, which one is your fave?
The one where good king Richard was so brave?
The Third one then, that ended in defeat –
a weeping lion in the desert heat.
Perhaps the one when boys who couldn’t shave
marched in their thousands to an early grave?
Or maybe when that huge Venetian fleet
besieged Constantinople for a year?
Is that the one that brings you hearty cheer?
Or maybe you’re a moron, drunk and dumb,
who dresses ‘wacky’ in the name of ‘fun’ –
appropriating iconography,
without a clue about the history.


If only Richard I had thought to take a Spitfire...

12 February 2019

#12 - Earl Grey (Not the Tea!)

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (1764 – 1845) - politician

I’ve never been the kind of man to brag 
but my career was something to applaud!
I led the House of Commons and the Lords
(at separate times) and if that’s not your bag, 

I changed the way that parliament’s elected 
and helped abolish slavery as well;
in all my years in office I perfected
an oratory style unparalleled. 

Despite these feats, I fear my legacy
has been reduced to such bromidic fluff:
I’m just the bloke whose name is on the tea 
despite the fact I loathe the bloody stuff! 

But can one litigate when one’s a ghost?
I’ll send Twinings my grievance in the post. 


Grey circa 1820

11 February 2019

#11 - The Undaunted

Alan L. Hart – physician, radiologist, medical researcher, novelist, short story writer, all-round Renaissance man

The boy who worked the land then tended men
Whose chests held monsters that he called by name
And, naming, mastered, hunted, speared, and then
Eradicated as a source of shame.

The man who showed us those mysterious rays
Kept secrets that no single soul should bear;
This pioneer in many different ways
Defined by his unceasing, fierce care.

He said he never hid, that much is true.
And even when Fate frowned, he took his chance –
Through all the lauds and plaudits he accrued,
Contested frame of flesh mere happenstance.

Now decades on we still hear his true voice
He fought and, winning, gave more men that choice.


10 February 2019

#10 - shadow master

I've fucked and fought my way across the south
a bloody trail from Naples back to Rome
a shadow master with a gobby mouth
and never any place to call my home.
The patronage of power is my shield
dissolute behaviour is no bar
whether it's a sword or brush I yield
but murder is just one small step too far.

So courtesans and young men heed my call
there's always room for revels at the inn
where Holofernes screams down from the wall
and John the Baptist wears my broken grin
where Judith prowls the campfires like a ghost
and shadows fall as fever on the coast.


09 February 2019

#9 - Sacerdotal

John Peel (1939 –2004) disc jockey, radio presenter, record producer, and journalist.

I see the fans, the proper music fans –
who lose themselves in harmony and song;
who find nirvana in the blissful throng;
who fill their lives with soundtracks of romance.
I watch them at the festivals, askance,
who worship in their thousands, arms aloft;
who consecrate with cheers these blessed crofts –
arenas of devotion, joy, and dance.
I envy them. I do. I often do.
Against this force, what hope might poesy dare –
reclusive, at the fringes, unenjoyed?
just to endure and bide, intentions true:
the beat of heart, the single breath of air;
the splash of ink, the voice from out the void.


You're right. It wasn't really about him at all.

08 February 2019

#8 - Bad Press

Caligula - Roman Emperor (12-41AD)

They say I was a ‘nasty piece of work’,
There was no depth to which I would not sink.
A megalomaniac, a massive jerk.
A cruel and evil bastard on the brink.

I did profess my godliness, that’s true,
And disagree with Senate once or twice,
But there are many things I did not do!
And I’ve been charged with every human vice!

But I brought back democracy to Rome
And rode the Bay of Baiae on my horse!
And what’s my legacy in every tome?
A potent sexual deviant, of course!

Or maybe I’m just lying through my teeth?
I’m thousands of years dead, so let me sleep!


Bust of Caligula

07 February 2019

#7 - Not Conquered Yet

Countess Constance Markievicz – Irish rebel, socialist countess, and first woman elected to Parliament (1868-1927)

Where once you glided forth in muslin gowns,
You wear your uniform with dash and pride.
Where others seek approval, you court frowns;
You’ll not let any fool cut short your stride.

You’ll use – and teach – all skills that come your way;
Sew flags, haul coals, and teach young folk to fight.
And from this stubborn path you will not sway,
Though time and time again constrained from light.

Your bodycount consumes my current thought,
Though I can’t fault your constancy to cause,
And no-one can deny how hard you fought:
Sínn Fein Amháin you gained despite the flaws.

I’ll laud your fire but will not sing your song
And pray the flames it fed won’t rage too long.


“Sínn Fein Amháin” means “Ourselves Alone” in Irish Gaelic - the slogan of various Irish nationalist movements, including the Home Rule campaign. In the Ulster accent it sounds roughly like “Shin Fain Ahvain”.

Massive thanks to various poets (including the rest of the 28 Sonnets Later collective) who gave me feedback and advice on this, especially Serin Thomasin who basically rewrote the penultimate line for me (and then I messed with it again).

06 February 2019

#6 - Ishiyama-dera

I am novel scripture is my blood,
Ishiyama-dera makes me whole
the clouds of cherry blossom newly-bud
a floating bridge of dreams across my soul.

I am violet colour is my code,
calligraphy and woodcut shape my name
the future is a winding forest road
where waters mirror patterns I became.

But I am woman language is my child,
struggling into myth behind a screen
a lonely daughter still unreconciled
to all the words of men and what they mean.

The priest bows low and strikes the temple gong,
for I am singer - Genji is my song.


05 February 2019

#5 - Clarion

Princess Pingyang , 598-623CE was the daughter of Li Yuan, the founding emperor of the Tang dynasty. She helped him take over the throne from Sui dynasty by organizing an "Army of the Lady", commanded by herself.

I’m the biggest fucking badass in the land;
I shock and awe the Empire of the Sun.
I’m desecrating dynasties by hand,
don’t need no stinking dude to get it done.
This Army of the Lady I command
is tearing up your territories for fun;
you motherfuckers better understand:
a daughter’s way more deadly than a son.
So maybe show a little damn respect 
a movie of my life is overdue!
I’ve paid the piper, now I will collect
acknowledgement and reverence from you.
So fear the Princess from the working class,
and shove that fucking Mulan up your ass.


Not actual footage

04 February 2019

#4 - Dreaming of Sarah

Sarah Kane (1971-1999) Playwright 

Four forty-eight and I can’t close my eyes
in case these thoughts congeal into a voice.
Resistance is so hollow, though I’ve tried,
sometimes it feels like I don’t have a choice.

Four forty-eight, and I can’t close my eyes.
There’s soldiers wearing rifles in the hall.
It’s closer than I ever realised –
the rise and the inevitable fall.

Four forty-eight, and I can’t close my eyes –
I feel a soldier breathing somewhere near.
Reality is hell when magnified;
they’d sooner ban the play than heed the fear.

How many choices does it take to dream?
How many voices does it take to scream?


03 February 2019

#3 - Modus Vivendi

Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick – “The Kingmaker” (22 November 1428 – 14 April 1471)

Three fortunes merged, and then another four,
Have birthed a son who’ll rise in wealth and grace:
The silver thread that underpins the score –
He’s paid the piper, now he calls the pace.

The right of wives twice buys him lands and gold,
Through strife attends the titles he would claim,
And others’ fortunes force him to be bold –
To nothing less than all he’ll raise his aim

But secret love lays low his careful plans,
So now he must away to woo his foes.
His student learned too well and slips his hands,
And off to well-penned infamy he goes.

Unmarked he lies entombed by tangled briars:
Ambition’s knight undone by better liars.


02 February 2019

#2 - Little Ax

From Houston onto Phillie marks a trail
of brothers bound together by the past ‒
those golden echoes ringing down at last,
as axes crack the fear and rend the veil.
That Memphis spirit tells a gospel tale ‒
small-framed but with a mighty vocal blast,
a tenor voice, so clear and unsurpassed,
transforming to a preternatural wail.

So sound the trumpet, bang the drum, proclaim
humanity in each and every guise ‒
our imperfections all mapped out in scars,
our virtue burning like a holy flame.
Eternity may face us down with knives
but words will never cage just who we are.


01 February 2019

#1 - Optics

Walter Tull (1888-1918) Footballer and 2nd Lieutenant

“I really don’t see colour, mate,” says Geoff,
“I mean, I see, but I don’t really mind
the only black out there today’s the ref
(who, while I’m on the subject, must be blind).
I only come to cheer the mighty Blues,
as – stylishly – they tear the foe to shreds.
Of course, you must expect those jeers and boos
from lowlife scum that all support the Reds!”

“I also don’t see colour, son,” says Death
“Just belts of bullets, sharply named and tagged;
a mound of stained stones, kissed by legions dead;
the lonely fog of cold, expiring breath.
Perhaps a splash before the body’s bagged
at last: red lips turn blue; blue blood flows red.”