Hello readers! Join our team of interns as they explore over 40 years of our publication history and share their passion for some of their favorite titles from BOA Editions. In today's post, Noah M. hops across the pond to contemplate William Heyen's poetic portraits of the British royal family.
Beyond Even the Memory of a Marriage: William Heyen's Diana, Charles, & the Queen
I'm Noah, one of BOA's summer interns. I'll be a senior at SUNY Geneseo this fall, where I study English and Latin American Studies. Literarily, my interests lie in poetry and works in translation, and I’m considering a career in publishing after graduation, which made BOA a natural fit for an internship.
For me, and I imagine for many other Americans, the British royal family mainly inhabits TV dramas and the covers of checkout aisle tabloids—not what one thinks of as rich material for poetry. Looking through options from the backlist to review, I chose William Heyen’s 1998 collection Diana, Charles, & the Queen was to see if Heyen could have actually pulled this off and created a version of this story that merits serious attention. At the end of my reading, it’s clear that he did.
I was born at the end of the nineties, and there is no version of Diana’s story that I have ever heard told that doesn’t end with the Princess’s death in 1997. Heyen finished the manuscript for Diana, Charles, & the Queen a year before the accident that took Diana’s life, but a reader would not guess that from the text itself, over which tragedy seems to permanently loom.
In “London,” a poem that describes Charles and Diana’s wedding, Heyen invokes William Blake, who “shouldst be living at this hour—a verse / to blight with plagues the marriage hearse.” A whale “spouts blood under the moon” in “Omen,” which deals with the wedding eve festivities. “Albatross,” the final poem of the work, envisions a bird whose eyes, “in their wine-dark timeless seeing” are “free of us for its killing. . . .” Grotesque imagery lurks throughout the text (Beowulf’s Grendel appears frequently), although more common is the quieter, stickier sense of frustration that Diana and Charles’s marriage brings on.
This collection cannot be discussed without also taking into account the book that immediately preceded it in Heyen’s oeuvre: Crazy Horse in Stillness (1996), which takes for its material the life of the Oglala Lakota war leader Crazy Horse. Heyen portrays Crazy Horse as a mystic, a “Strange One” moving through past and future, and his eventual collision against George Armstrong Custer, the American colonel who Crazy Horse defeated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
The poet himself seems to consciously make the comparison unavoidable: in “After-Aura,” the Queen, visiting Wyoming, “intersect[s] / a path in the air where Crazy Horse had passed / a hundred years before.” Charles, Diana, & the Queen and Crazy Horse in Stillness perform similar work, with both texts exemplifying what Joyce Carol Oates called Heyen’s meshing of “the ‘visionary’ and the unblinkingly ‘historical.’” What Heyen writes in “Advice” —that Charles and Diana’s marriage was “mythic and a lie”— might well be said about this book.
One has to imagine that Heyen’s work in this collection was in some ways more difficult— in taking on the creation of more than 400 poems about Crazy Horse and George Custer, Heyen had the advantage of dealing with two men who, already dead for a century, were firmly ingrained in the mythology of the American West. In contrast, Charles, Diana, & the Queen, deals mainly with events that at time of publication were a decade old or less, with two of the three characters still alive and one only recently deceased.
Although the collection’s title names three characters one might expect to be equally important to its narrative, Heyen seems primarily concerned with Charles — maybe because so much has already been written and said about the Queen and the Princess of Wales. Heyen’s speaker addresses this division of attention directly, in “Walkabout,” one of the poems that every so often makes the reader aware of themselves as the reader of a book:
More poems here lately about Charles than Di,
I guess. Going by our book’s title, it’s a case
of false advertising, but we can’t choose which
of the royal couple walks on one side of our street
or the other. (The people demand Di.) but death
because of/despite/for/in love remains
our ramifying theme, & our future seems to fill
With comic sorrow & admiration for them both.
The poems that deal directly with Elizabeth focus mainly on her childhood, the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, and the early years of her reign. If there is an anti-monarchical slant in Heyen’s work, it comes through most clearly in Elizabeth’s poems: “Wedding Present” shows the young queen contemplating a cloth woven by Mahatma Gandhi, unable to picture him “in Rangoon, or wherever, / at his loom, or whatever, weaving the coarse cloth / to free Mother India from imported textiles.” Elizabeth decides instead that “this was a holy man who wove / with heartfelt wishes for her nuptials.” Never mind that Rangoon is in Burma.
What we see of Diana conforms to the popular conception of the down-to-earth, compassionate woman made tragic by her marriage into a family that disdained her and public attention that she was not suited for.
In Charles, we see a similar kind of mystic figure to the one that Heyen created in Crazy Horse: Charles touches a beached whale’s eye and contemplates God, longs to establish an Institute of Architecture where students will “practice reverence / for the principles of nature,” reads the Transcendentalists, throws pottery, and considers self-mummification. Charles is also deeply unfaithful to Diana (related in detail so specific that it moves beyond the erotic and into the excruciating), and although he constantly uses his status to seek out spiritually fulfilling experiences, he fails to translate his enlightenment into positive or moral action in his relationships.
It is in Heyen’s ability to share the task of the inventor with the reader that Diana, Charles, & the Queen is strongest. The poet does not attempt to persuade the reader of the factual accuracy of the narrative he creates, which would probably be impossible, even with a credulous audience. He instead reminds the reader repeatedly that he is creating the experience they read: “Cortez,” “Cortez II,” and “Northwest Royal Mounted Police” recall three different versions of a childhood memory. Heyen does not try to create a poetic voice separate from his voice as William Heyen: “I was born November 1, two months before 1941, / & christened “Willi,” writes Heyen, born November 1st, 1940. In doing this, Heyen reminds the reader that we are in a mutual act of creation with the poet and moves us beyond the default role of being only the recipient of a poem.
The poem “Ours,” early on in the collection, is the piece I think exemplifies this best:
One day about a week before the wedding,
Queen Elizabeth pressed the jewel room’s key
into Lady Diana’s hand & told her to pick
her own gift. Di in a daze clicked
open leather cases, perused silk-lined cabinets
hoping a necklace, bracelet, or single unset stone
would sing to her. One did, but here, surely,
the essential gift is the one we imagine.
Visit the BOA Bookstore to read more poetry by William Heyen.
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