Round Table: Guinevere

This is part of a sequence of five vignettes of Arthurian characters and dilemmas placed into historical contexts, written on commission from Bedtime Stories for the End of the World (link). For the full sequence of poems, click here (link)

For an audio file of my reading of the full sequence click here (link – note, it may autoplay)

For a podcast of myself and Momtaza Mehri discussing our poems click here (link), and for a transcript of the podcast click here (link)

Guinevere – Hastings – 1066

He called me long-legged like a statue, and I
was swept – a wave-carved stone, a natural
body of legs, and we were young and beautiful,
then also married. So easy to fall in love – so hard
to stay. But I did my weighty duty. If this duty is
a woman’s work then Arthur demands his table
laid; the drunken sot his glass half full. Ballistic.
Bombastic, downplaying all the losses dropping
his archers on maps and planning corpses, as if
like Tostig like Hardrada the Normans would be next
to flee his fyrd his housecarls his weakened forces.
At night he sobs. Lance called me long-legged, like
a horse, and him the fabled fighter, my knight –
I leapt, as if diving into battle or fleeing from
the hunt. An easy fuck – no more the solid weight
of stone, the holding, the frozen beauty and I
not steady yet, still bounding. He saw me,
long-legged, and marked me with the will to
move. And Arthur. That old drunk that hero
lost inside his ale. That gorgeous man, that
anxious child, the sword, still too long, and
all too weighty. The flighty soldier, all the
men I loved and lost and loved again – but him
and Lance, his almost-brother. My almost man
– the bitter I always knew, the wit, the misery
hate turned to poison and ate, the winter’s
cold, the outside’s biting air, strength captivated
hardened, but he melted me to life. Do I run
to him? Fleeing, freedom, the first air I breathe
as mine. Not I. I know a man, I speak
the Welsh of my mother’s family, I can ride
a horse with grace – so I will go deep behind
the lines and find my freedom on the ground
where I was born. I owe them nothing and myself

I owe myself the world, so I will leave

Gawain – Teufelsberg – 1989

If I had thought I had my honour, mine
it wasn’t much. I crossed the greying
border, cycled, my papers clear, I, just one
of many men moving steadily past the gate
between one Berlin and the other –
somehow alike – and yet unalike. A different
tone to the grey-paved streets, both the
same, and subtly different. That fear
each time of betrayal catching at me,
the guards with guns this great game
centered on one crossing of the line
between the sides, between the spies. If I
thought I had my honour, then one drink
fewer, one lady fewer, one alluring
temptation to blurt my secrets – fewer.
When put to the test – sir – I know I failed.
Not for thumbscrews or for torture –
I would carry those alone, and laugh
at pain and death, but for these eyes
that spoke, and softness. I, too long a
lonely soldier had thought my resistance
to be stronger but here, in this second
raining city, seen and watched by life itself,
sir, I gave her my address. She was young,
vivacious, I refused a fuck – refused a kiss,
kept my shining honour unimpeached, and
then she asked, just to write a letter,
and I agreed. No secret, I know, that I
was there – this dance of spies – we
see each other, play the same long
game, the cards, the same green papers
no secret my address, they watch my
flat at night, but sir, I failed for the
temptation to feel desired and alive

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