OKAY this is an annotated playlist of NARRATIVE VERSE from c.1380 to NOW

I LOVE NARRATIVE VERSE why *can’t* we have it all, stories and rhythm and rhyme and whatever we want? DON’T BELIEVE ME? Check it out!

– Cat Fitzpatrick

from Troilus and Criseyde

Troilus and Criseyde is my favourite book, and Criseyde is THE BEST. This sex scene is a key turning point of the book. Until now we seem to have been watching a comedy in which two buds scheme to get a girl into bed: Then the girl reveals it was really she who was doing the scheming all along and they are dummies and this will in fact be HER story. Also it is so beautiful.

What mighte or may the sely larke seye,
Whan that the sperhauk hath it in his foot?
I can no more, but of thise ilke tweye,
To whom this tale sucre be or soot,
Though that I tarie a yeer, som-tyme I moot,
After myn auctor, tellen hir gladnesse,
As wel as I have told hir hevinesse.
Criseyde, which that felte hir thus y-take,
As writen clerkes in hir bokes olde,
Right as an aspes leef she gan to quake,
Whan she him felte hir in his armes folde.
But Troilus, al hool of cares colde,
Gan thanken tho the blisful goddes sevene;
Thus sondry peynes bringen folk in hevene.
This Troilus in armes gan hir streyne,
And seyde, `O swete, as ever mote I goon,
Now be ye caught, now is ther but we tweyne;
Now yeldeth yow, for other boot is noon.'
To that Criseyde answerde thus anoon,
`Ne hadde I er now, my swete herte dere,
Ben yolde, y-wis, I were now not here!'

from "A Letter from Artemesia in the Town to Chloe in the Country"

Rochester’s "Artemisa to Chloe" is a hall of mirrors – Rochester imitates the bluestocking Chloe who tells her friend Artemisa about meeting the libertine lady, who in turn tells the story of Corinna and her seduction/destruction by the worst of them all, the "man of wit". A moral ladder is descended, except that, if we know Rochester’s other poetry, we will know that he is the "man of wit" and the "ill-natured jest" that ruins Corinna’s life is his poem "A Ramble in Saint James’ Park." At the bottom of the hierarchy the poem sets up we find the one who started the whole thing:

 

That wretched thing Corinna, who had run
Through all the several ways of being undone,
Cozened at first by love, and living then
By turning the too dear-bought trick on men -
Gay were the hours, and winged with joys they flew,
When first the town her early beauties knew;
Courted, admired, and loved, with presents fed;
Youth in her looks, and pleasure in her bed;
Till fate, or her ill angel, thought it fit
To make her dote upon a man of wit,
Who found 'twas dull to love above a day;
Made his ill-natured jest, and went away.
Now scorned by all, forsaken, and oppressed,
She's a momento mori to the rest;
Diseased, decayed, to take up half a crown
Must mortgage her long scarf and manteau gown.
Poor creature! who, unheard of as a fly,
In some dark hole must all the winter lie,
And want and dirt endure a while half year
That for one month she tawdry may appear.

from Don Juan

Moving from sex to violence but staying with morally compromised aristocrats, here is a bit of Don Juan. The joy of Byron is not so much in the sense of his narrative as in the brio of the telling. He picks an extremely, indeed overwhelmingly, difficult form, then cheats scandalously in order to pull it off. How fun! Here Juan, who is Spanish, arrives at London and encounters some highwaymen:

 

XI
These free-born sounds proceeded from four pads
       In ambush laid, who had perceiv'd him loiter
Behind his carriage; and, like handy lads,
       Had seiz'd the lucky hour to reconnoitre,
In which the heedless gentleman who gads
       Upon the road, unless he prove a fighter
May find himself within that isle of riches
Expos'd to lose his life as well as breeches.

XII
Juan, who did not understand a word
       Of English, save their shibboleth, 'God damn!'
And even that he had so rarely heard,
       He sometimes thought 'twas only their 'Salam'
Or 'God be with you!'—and 'tis not absurd
       To think so, for half English as I am
(To my misfortune) never can I say
I heard them wish 'God with you' save that way—

XIII
Juan yet quickly understood their gesture,
       And being somewhat choleric and sudden,
Drew forth a pocket pistol from his vesture,
       And fired it into one assailant's pudding,
Who fell, as rolls an ox o'er in his pasture,
       And roar'd out, as he writh'd his native mud in,
Unto his nearest follower or henchman,
'Oh Jack! I'm floor'd by that ere bloody Frenchman!'

from Eugene Onegin

Pushkin is kind of the Russian Byron, but for all his affectation of callousness, he is a much more morally serious person. Here, in Charles Johnson’s gorgeous translation, is the climactic duel scene in which Onegin kills his friend. The combination of flippancy and pathos astonishes me, and is everything I was trying to achieve in my book The Call-Out, which is essentially an Evgeny Onegin fan-fic.

 


XXX

"Now march." And calmly, not yet seeking
to aim, at steady, even pace
the foes, cold-blooded and unspeaking,
each took four steps across the space,
four fateful stairs. Then, without slowing
the level tenor of his going,
Evgeny quietly began
to lift his pistol up. A span
of five more steps they went, slow-gaited,
and Lensky, left eye closing, aimed –
but just then Eugene's pistol flamed...
The clock of doom had struck as fated;
and the poet, without a sound,
let fall his pistol on the ground.


[…] XXXII

He lay quite still, and strange as dreaming
was that calm brow of one who swooned.
Shot through below the chest – and streaming
the blood came smoking from the wound.
A moment earlier, inspiration
had filled this heart, and detestation
and hope and passion; life had glowed
and blood had bubbled as it flowed;
but now the mansion is forsaken;
shutters are up, and all is pale
and still within, behind the veil
of chalk the window-panes have taken.
The lady of the house has fled.
Where to, God knows. The trail is dead.


[…] XXXIV

What if your pistol-shot has smitten
a friend of yours in his first youth
because some glance of his has bitten
your pride, some answer, or in truth
some nonsense thrown up while carousing,
or if himself, with rage arousing,
he's called you out – say, in your soul
what feelings would assume control
if, motionless, no life appearing,
death on his brow, your friend should lie,
stiffening as the hours go by,
before you on the ground, unhearing,
unspeaking, too, but stretched out there
deaf to the voice of your despair?

from "Three Shrooms on Painted Wood"

Jumping forward a few hundred years, and skipping modernism, of which I don’t approve, Joss Barton’s "Three Shrooms on Painted Wood" is a delirious and hallucinatory exercise in how far you can derange a narrative while keeping it compelling. Here is the opening:

 

HOME
WAS WARM BRAIN FLESH LIKE MEMAW’S STRAWBERRY JELLY LIKE GOOD OL’
BOYS CHEWIN’ SKOAL GROWLING AT SISSIES THAT THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT IT
IS BUT THEY KNOW WHAT IT
AIN’T
HOME
WAS THE SMELL OF PINES WHIPPING ACROSS CREEK SOAKED SKIN AS SHE
RAISED HER HANDS IN THE BACK BED OF THE BLACK BEAT UP PICKUP TRUCK
BARRELING DOWN A HWY PAST RUSTED JUNKYARDS AND CONFEDERATE
TRAILERS AND SIGN POSTS POINTIN’ TOWARD TAUM SAUK AS THE BLEACH
BITTEN TOWEL BECAME A WIND SWEPT GOWN WAVING TO WHITE CROSSES
AND BAREFOOT KIDS ON LEAD PAINT PEALED PORCHES PITCHIN’
ROCKS
HOME
WAS A DIRT ROAD TO NOWHERE AND DITCH BEDS AND INFINITE BACKWOODS
AND SHIT PIE COPROPHILOUS COUSINS WOULD FIND OUT IN THE COW PASTURE
ON RAINY AFTERNOONS AND DIG UP WITH STICKS DARING EACH OTHER TO
EAT ONE UF’EM
HOME
WAS GRANDMA WARNIN’ US ‘BOUT HUNTING FOR MUSHROOMS UNDER ROTTEN
LOGS AND WET LEAVES SHE WOULD TELL US TO ALWAYS LOOK FOR THEM
WHITE GILLS THEM THOSE POISON WIDOW CAPS AND NEVER TOUCH THOSE
WITCHES RED TOADSTOOLS THOSE OPEN THE DEVIL’S DOOR SHE’D SAY MAKE
YOU GO PLUM OUT YOUR
MIND
HER
WAY OF WARNING HER BABIES OF THE PSYCHOTROPIC REALM A COSMIC
WILDERNESS SIS FREQUENTLY TRAVELS THRU HITCHIN’ RIDES ON THE BACKS
OF RUBY THROATED HUMMINGBIRD IMPRINTED ACID STRIPS OR WRITHING
ON POPPER CLOUDS WITH CLENCHED MOLLY JAW AND SWOLLEN CUMDUMP
LIPS OR CHEWING THE BLUE VEIN STEMS AND BLACK BELLIES OF PSILOCYBIN
CAPS THE HOLY TASTE OF MANURE AND DESICCATED WOOD AND DEATH
BITTERS CONSTRICTING THE THROAT IN AUTOEROTIC EGO-ASPHYXIATION

Darling's body

Josie Giles’ Deep Wheel Orcadia is a more sober affair, for all its fantastical setting. It tells its sci-fi story through individual lyric poems, not continuous verse, in the Orcadian dialect, which Giles describes as "a form of Scots strongly shaped by Old Norse." The story maintains its grip even as it breaks into flashes of beauty like this one, where a posh trans girl on the run in deep space from her gay corporate Martian dads contemplates her body:

 

Darling’s body

in her bunk wi astrid lyan asleep, Darling thinks
aboot her body an whit sheu’s waantid aa her life,

an whit sheu’s gotten noo. Hid wisno ower haird,
aence sheu’d left her faithers’ waant o corporate sons.

The maet o this transietion wis kent langsinsyne,
nae bother fer mosst o space, like jacks an limb extenders

an aa the bruck o bidan i’the varse, but sheu wis cursed
wi the wrang kinno faimly on the wrang kinno yird,

reclaimed fae regolith tae growe a fantasy
o pooer an no her awn confoondan sel. But noo

happan her airms aroon her nesh body sheu’s feart
sheu’s draeman yet, that whit sheu’s touchan wilno stey

whan sheu wakkens, a fossil fear as oot o time
as ony baest o ony presairve o eart. Her body,

here, noo, shoudno be bidan in aald wirds,
but hid is. Unless – an this is the true an muckle fear –

whan astrid’s touchan her, whan astrid casts a airm
ower her more-as-Martian skin. Whit maan it mean,

tae only ken thee body whan hid’s wi anither?
an deus hid ivver mean onytheen ither as grief?

from "a machine of mahogany and bronze"

Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s "a machine of mahogany and bronze" is similarly fragmentary and adventurous in its narrarive style, but in a more painful, less ecstatic fashion. Here is a section where a protest march goes wrong:

 

we marched onto the highway
         arms bent together a machine of mahogany & bronze

& a second flank of cops appeared before us
         in the on ramp
         with a blockade
                    but the chant had finally reached
                    the back of the line

& our gears cranked as the lever of force was inserted

                     struggling to move forward
                              against their wall of unbroken windows
                                       their unburdened line of blue.

& the street medics knew pepper spray was next
          & the healers knew to tell them
                     so important were seers to our collective vision.

Goddamn it, the white dude anarchists are here
                     with telescopic batons & cardboard shields
                               faces covered to the eyes in bandanas
                                       faces pressed into the mug of a mask
                                       & I knew that shit was about to go down
                                                cuz aint nobody invite these mufuckas.

Yet here they were. Fuckin up immediately.
                     Two tall ass white boys faces V for Vendetta
                                & Yankees jersey charge the cops, box with a handle
                                         bashing in front. Yo, we're screwed.

the cops send up pepper spray again; folks scatter toward each other
                      old women coughing in the crowd
                                & little kids dropping their signs
                                         with tears welling in their red eyes.

& when I can see again, someone is holding Alisha
                     by her arms, her legs still moving forward
                                a gear torn off from the rest of us
                                          so we stopped & watched
                                          phones sideways in our hands
                                knowing we hadn't planned well for this.

from The Call-Out

And finally, to finish with me, here is the narrator of my new book getting up in New Year’s Day:

 

So much for these bitches and their useful labors.
As for me, I’m pulled from a pleasant dream
about trains at like eight by my bloody neighbor’s
child practicing the Star Wars theme
again. Then again. I pull the cover
over my ears. If you don’t have a lover
then the world ought to compensate
by letting you at least sleep in late.
I fucking hate mornings. And living in a city.
And the straight family that lives next door.
And my stupid brain that can’t ignore
some child mistreating a famous ditty.
Is it any wonder I’m depressed?
All I want is to get some rest.
I’ve often thought, if the world was my oyster
and I could somehow escape this snare
I call my life, I’d live in a cloister
alone, up on a cliff somewhere
near the sea, so I could hear the beating
of waves on the rocks, and walk without meeting
a soul. Instead, what’s available to me
is my morning cup of green tea.
I groan, get up and heat the kettle
to seventy-seven degrees, and choose
a Yellow Mountain, and while it brews
I put on some Bach. And then I can settle
down for a while, all curled up,
in my favorite chair, with my favorite cup.
I try to let go of my vexation
and put myself in a state of calm.
The choir is singing Luther’s translation
of the one hundred and thirtieth psalm.
“Ob bei uns ist der sünden viel”
their voices tell me, and I almost feel
comforted. The tea is such pure green,
so vegetal, so sharp, so clean.
It smells like life, like hay and flowers.
At the bitter turning of the year
it promises spring is drawing near.
The day’s ahead, full of hours.
I drink the tea. The cantata plays.
The year’s ahead, full of days.