Half Savage and Free

‘Ethiopia’ from 'Secrets de l’histoire naturelle' (France, c. 1480-1485). Artist : Robinet Testard. Bibliothèque nationale de France

They’d sought no probable explanation
no disambiguation of class,
(order, family, genus)
for the idiot in the courtyard
filing his nails with flint,
painting the stone walls
with his own excrement.

A few had teased her for
a nose, an eye, a grimace
perceived in the child.
But for a red-faced cousin –
rapacious youth with a lazy eye –
lurking by the dolly tubs after dark,
the truth was known to none
but Kate.

These days, one does not know
Queen Victoria from Miss Ape.
By the burning brambles certainly
there were water carriers – slaves
inured to far-off mutterings,
to the rustling grasses
and drifting sands –
to the birds.

You know, some scholars
would bet their sunny reputations
that Moses was high.

This feeling of foolishness
inside the echo chambers of
Royals that talk too much
if only say that Helena
was a hemophiliac
like her grandmother
(though it was little talked about)
and then with Charles who claims
to have seen things in a new light
attaching less importance to
divine intervention, design.

After a few years of bumping
around the Pacific then
puttering about in his little garden,
granting agency to all things equally
(turtles, finches, white rabbits)
he made a mockery of the old lines.
Such are the hazards of Royals –
fecund, rich, spoiled.

They’ll have us marrying
scullery maids and smithies
before long!

And what to make of
these hemophiliacs bloodlines?

Kate was the first to
fall ill with pneumonia;
an entire line, all in one house,
gone in a single winter’s night
except for the colicky infant
fast asleep in the cradle
of the wet nurse’s arms.

In the morning, to let the air in,
a maid, barely seventeen,
pulls back the heavy curtains
which exhale their consumptive dust
into the emptied rooms of the great house,
something inside veiled and creeping.
She waves to the smithy’s son
passing through the gate
with a posy of fresh violets
in his breast pocket.

The innocent orphan turns
towards the window.
Heir to a Godless dynasty,
with none to sprinkle the dirty
water of the parish font upon her,
she may yet take root
in this sunless world.

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