Winner — Erika Mumford Award from the New England Poetry Society
Proud Flesh: Mary Waits for Shelley
on the Gulf of Spezia’s Shore
I. Day One: July 8, 1822.
Percy Bysshe Shelley and Edward Williams
sail off on their open boat
Sudden, violent, but brief, this summer squall is over.
Until I catch sight of the Don Juan, I will stay here.
If I hadn’t experienced so much death, I would never
believe you and Edward could both be swept overboard.
Always more certain than I, you dismissed my fears
for your safety. I think of you at nineteen in Devonshire
on the beach at Lynmouth kneeling at sunrise, again
at sunset, launching toy boats you’d waterproofed
with wax and masted with sticks. Each cargoed
your A Declaration of Rights into the Bristol Channel.
It was summer, 1812, and a half million soldiers
of Napoleon’s Grande Armee marched Europe in
a doomed Russian campaign. Sure your message
would change the world if it could but reach it,
you also freed hot-air balloons you had made
from silk to canopy skies of Wales and Ireland.
Gusting into one another, I was sixteen when we met;
my body turned traitor to my mind. Already pregnant,
pinned by centrifugal force, I still remember the date,
July 28, 1814, when you orbited me from England
into six weeks of France, Switzerland and Germany.
Desire bursting us, at the beginning of our flight from those
who condemned us, I tried to live without restraint, not be
warden of your heart. I vowed our marriage wouldn’t become
a sepulcher for its eternity, but I wasn’t prepared for your body
next to mine to curl, stretch in a different way, be the first
to confess that another woman had melted walls I believed
would hold. At first, our combat was sweet; I grew tired
of escaping creditors by moving from town to town,
of the scent, the hair other women left in sheets for me
to wash. You asked me to be brave, be rational and I was.
Then you asked for more strength; I didn’t have it. I began
to believe our bed was dreaming on its own. I would not
sleep there. Feeling between us died. When we walked
to find the thin mountain air you needed to breathe, water
never cascaded to blind me, like you did, but seethed
in rivulets, rock filled streams. For the last two years, settled
in Pisa, you were happier. Unwilling to talk about the loss
of our three children, you thought only of poetry, as Hogg said,
in season and out of season, at table, in bed, and especially
during a walk. There were little pleasures— wing shadows,
long grass, how you unfolded your body from a chair, how
you’d slip stray hair behind my ear as my mother might have.
I like to remember the ferry ride circling close by Bellagio,
afternoons on Lake Como. It’s been eight years since we met.
I’m twenty-four, you are not quite thirty. If you return, we might
begin again, braid like the current. If not, I have our son Percy.
I won’t restring my heart or allow my flesh to betray me again.
II. Day Two: July 9, 1822.
Mary Shelley thinks of her husband’s other women
My hand a hat for my eyes, even though I stand here to watch
for you to wash ashore, I will not miss your body—it has
belonged to so many others. I won’t speak of virtue knowing
those who have never been tempted by one as beautiful as you,
Percy, are too fond of the word. Again, you have abandoned me,
sailing off with Edward in the Don Juan, the name a perfect fit
for you. I begged you not to leave me with Edward’s common
law wife, Jane. You admired her free spirit, describing marriage
as a most despotic, most unrequired fetter, with me as shackle.
To Jane (The keen stars were twinkling), love notes labeled as
lyrics did not fool me any more than lines you wrote in the Bay
of Lerici: Bright Wanderer, fair coquette of Heaven, / to whom
alone it has been given / to change and be adored for ever. You
poured out kisses to any woman who thirsted. First, Harriet,
who, like me, was sixteen when you met and married her to keep
the innkeeper father from forcing her to go to school. Only now
do I understand how cruel it was to invite Harriet to come along
in the role of sister when you left her to flee with me. I can mark
almost every year of our life together with death. October, 1816:
my half sister Fanny Imlay took an overdose of laudanum. I
knew it was because of unrequited love for you. That December,
Harriet, shunned because she was an abandoned woman but still
your wife, was pregnant by an unknown lover. With no bridge
to cross, she drowned herself in Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake
in London. There were other women you loved too hastily,
too easily. I never knew the name of Elena’s mother, the baby
in Naples, you “adopted” and then left, dead at one and a half.
Did Stanzas Written in Dejection—December 1818, near Naples
purge you of these deaths as water now cleanses your flesh?
When you wrote the poem I could find no mention of Elena,
the suicide of Harriet, or our own two dead daughters. But
I circled then counted the pronouns: you used I eleven times.
III. Day Three: July 10, 1822.
Remembering the faces of children,
Mary keeps vigil
As if fixated on your mouth trying to catch last breath,
I can’t look away from waves edging shore. On the underside
of water, have you been pocketed like a stone? Keeping me
company today are mouths of children, still wet and mewling.
Premature, our first daughter lived twelve days. One year later
in 1816, I gave birth to William. September 1818, our Clara
was dead at one, followed in less than nine months by William,
your Willmouse, taken by malaria at three. Percy Florence was
born in November, 1819. After my miscarriage in spring, 1820,
I was the only one to console Claire at the death of Allegra,
her daughter by Byron who had sent the girl, barely four,
to an Italian convent in Bagnacavallo. She was dead at five.
After Harriet’s suicide, we married at once, but courts denied
you custody of your children —morally unfit the judge said.
Ianthe and Charles, placed with foster parents, are alive today.
The motor of it all, it was as if you cared nothing for life
outside our bedroom. Water sweeping this shore of pails and
shovels, you returned for the next day of castles, sure other
children would be born and come with you to build them.
I have read the heart is a pump made of chambers, a muscle
that tightens then releases blood to be oxygenated, returning
it emptied. In ventricles, mine must also hold memory of anger
aroused by your words: I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
My blood disgusted you. I was the one to miscarry, give birth
four times, and dress three of our children in burial clothes.
I was no surgeon, could not make an incision in my heart
and extract your words, but even when all those bodies lay
between us, somehow, Percy, you were never irredeemable.
IV. Day Four: July 11, 1882.
Mary Shelley plans her future
You were always one to defy current. I mark erosion,
flotsam of grass on the beach, but not the ballooning
of your body. You will not be bothered by bad weather
or my moods again. Gulls cross stitch white and grey, waves
collapse. Like me, they retreat and regroup. I will not grieve.
I have no more mourning left in me. Adept at swaddling
myself in black, I have rehearsed the role of widow.
I am ready to step to center stage. Loss of our three children
did not dam your poems, only release gates. I might have
forgiven you if words didn’t continue to pour. Writing for you
was everything. After each birth was followed by another death,
I despaired, but you’d quote, If Winter comes, can Spring
be far behind? For you, April was the body of another woman.
Now that you’re dead, your poetry will provide money, support,
I never had from you in life. Percy Florence and I will never buy
stale bread or hide from the butcher again. After your corpse
drifts ashore, I will burn you, heart and all, place your ashes
in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery near your Willmouse because
for once, you didn’t leave, stayed in the library with his coffin.
I wonder—would you have preferred to be buried nearer Keats
than your own son? If it is still in your pocket, I will save
Keats’s volume of 1820 you always carried. Will it be open
to La Belle Dame sans Merci, the poem you read aloud
when you wanted to taunt me? If my heart were a granary,
I’d store such hurts but out of necessity, your words will
be winged seeds I can hinge on my back to carry me
through my future and fulfill your plea to the West Wind:
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth / Ashes
and sparks, my words among mankind! Heat from fire
you kindled that I will soon reflect to others may in time
ignite my heart, but I will never allow it to consume me again.
What I don’t feel today is guilt. I learned about the word
early, knowing my mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died
from childbed fever as a result of my birth. Her daughter,
I suckled on A Vindication of the Rights of Woman until
you came to sit at the feet of fame, to worship my father,
William Godwin, in the charmed circle I was banished
from at fourteen. Because my step-mother found me trying,
a handful, I was farmed out to Dundee, Scotland to live
with the Baxter family. After two years, I was allowed
to return to my father who was my God. To make you
notice me on your second visit to our house in London,
I chose words as if they were snowdrops I had picked
to mark early spring by making a bouquet. You invited
me to go for a ride, and pointed at the mare harnessed
to your carriage to show me proud flesh, a name for scars
on a horse where skin grows back across a wound.
Because it has been tested, flesh underneath is stronger
than the original. Buttoning my dress, smoothing my hair,
we returned to my father. At sixteen, I did not understand
your vocabulary lesson. Today, at twenty-four, I do. My
heart has its reasons, Percy; whip marks must be forgiven,
must be forgotten if they are to heal. Before a funeral pyre
is lit, I will dislodge your ring for our son Percy Florence,
and in time, I may even teach him to believe in its motto,
that the good time will come: Il buon tempo verra.
–from All of Your Messages Have Been Erased © 2010
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