the failures of neoclassicism

I HAVE BEEN commissioned to write a perfect poem. A poem like a pillar, a poem that could hold up a new Parthenon with nothing but the strength of its stanza breaks. There are many poets at court. I have to really excel at this if I want to be noticed. Someday I want to read my odes to the queen in front of the queen herself, not just to her veiled gentlewoman acting as her silent antechamber surrogate. Someday I want to wear a laurel crown on my brow, not of gold but of real leaves painted gold. A lie that’s true deep down is the best kind of artifice. If it were really up to me, I would write a poem about the king’s consumptive cough and the way it echoes through the palace in the middle of the night while the queen and everyone else is out carousing and spilling red wine on white tablecloths. I’ve never touched one of these tablecloths, but I have seen the washer-women carrying them early in the morning. I have never eaten a peacock. I wonder how good something so gaudy can actually taste. Another thing I’d do (had I the power) is to make everyone at court – cavaliers, artists, chambermaids, priests, errand-boys, mistresses – wear a uniform of black and white. That way no patterned calicoes or brocades would distract from the true color of their souls. Perhaps if I put this in my poem, the queen will give it a thought. I once saw a peacock ranging about the palace gardens at midday, a broken silver chain around its neck. It had gotten loose, but it would be rounded up and eaten by evening. There is no escaping some things, is there? I don’t yet know what fates I will be unable to escape; I haven’t met many monsters yet, though I trust they will cross my sunlit path soon. If it were up to me, I’d make a poet the prime minister. Not myself, mind you. I would much rather wander about all day reciting verses to the bent-backed gardeners, the children who sweep the chapel floor after Mass, the old women who sew the servants’ livery, the dirty little dogs that hide underneath banqueting tables. I lead a busy life for a poet. Almost every day I walk by a girl who wears a man’s wig and stands guard at a door behind which lies I know not what. I have never talked to her. I wonder at her silence. I doubt I would be able to stand there all day, wordless, perfectly postured, seeing and hearing everything and nothing, like a pillar, like a Corinthian column. ❧

published in the spring 2020 issue of jabberwocky (umass amherst)