In these poems, I have Elizabeth Siddal in conversation with Anne Sexton. Both women have many biographical similarities, like drug addiction, depression and suicide, but differ greatly in their views of artistic creation. I had a lot of fun writing the epitaph series. The circumstances surrounding Siddal’s death and exhumation are so bizarre and macabre that a little humour is required.
(The line breaks and indents are all wrong on this post, but there is nothing I can do to make blogging poetry-friendly).
A Walk Through Highgate Cemetery with Anne Sexton
Anne and I walk through the manicured grass, admire a tombstone, large with angels in carved movement, carrying the spirit of the dead beloved to some heaven or other. We read epitaphs,
Underneath this crust
Lies the mouldering dust
Of Eleanor Batchelor Stoven,
Well versed in the arts
Of pies, custards and tarts,
And the lucrative trade of the oven.
She must have been a good cook, kept her fat husband happy with bread-pudding. Then one day she got greedy with the lamb-shanks, I say, speculating on the cause of death. She wouldn’t share, and as punishment god struck her down. I think her husband missed her awfully, when she was gone. With no one to cook for him, he whittled away to nothing.
And what about this one, Anne says, pointing to a tall grey tablet.
Under this stone doth lie
As much beauty as could die
Which in life did harbor give
To more virtue that doth live
Anne continues, I suppose she was virtuous, as men defined it in those days, sweet and humble, modestly scrubbing dirt off potatoes. Let’s say a wee grey mouse ran across her feet and gave her such a fright that she dropped dead.
I giggle shamelessly, Oh we are bad, quite disrespectful. A second nervous giggle. I’m sure they were happy enough.
Happy, exclaims Anne. What does that have to do with anything? I lived with passion. And what about you? I’m surprised you’re still alive, bloom fading and all. Not even a suicide attempt, and what are you – pushing forty? You have posterity to think about.
I’m not even close to forty, thank you very much! Besides times have changed. You still don’t buy into that death as a creative feminine act bullshit, do you?
She doesn’t answer. Ah ha! Now here’s a woman who took her art seriously. Anne is standing beside the Rossetti family plot. She reads the small, worn tablet on the ground, propped up against the large Rossetti tombstone.
Also to the memory of Elizabeth Eleanor,
Wife of their eldest son DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI,
Who died February 11th, 1862, aged 30 years
I think of the dead young bride married for less than two years who, according to Anne, took her art seriously. Consider the words also, wife of, his name engraved larger than her own.
I suppose I’ll die late in life, be old, fat, and content to be remembered as a minor Canadian poet.
Imagined Engravings on Elizabeth Siddal’s Tombstone
Here lies a poet with golden hair
Known to be both beautiful and fair,
There came a prince who swept her away,
Till death do you part was their one-act play.
A poet, fool, and lover are undeniably mad,
I’m surprised to that list, Shakespeare did not add
Scorned women who most assuredly are
All of the above, and crazier still, by far.
While young and in love, the colours of life were vivid,
The muse possessed my soul and to her work I did bid.
And there came a gentle babe inside this bony frame,
But thoughts of happiness are never the artist’s domain.
Soon fate intervened, art and life a destined still-birth
And now we all live here, under the gentle earth.
Scandal is never proper to discuss,
And yet in this grave are tales of deceit and lust
Forever my chaste mouth shall remain shut,
Unless, like my husband, you dig coffins up.
Here I lie in this grave, once more all alone,
And here on this tombstone is yet another poem.
Go on, write of my life like a fading bouquet,
How dawn was gone before the end of day.
Just be honest with yourself, my love,
For how good can it be, buried in mud.