Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her fourth post.
In 2011 the poet Melissa Green wrote a series of poems in the voice of Mad Maud, from the pair of anonymous early seventeenth-century songs, “Tom A Bedlam” and “Mad Maud’s Search.” Tom O’Bedlam, and with him his paramour Maud, became a stock character in English literature and folklore—an “Abram Man,” a vagrant-beggar-con man ostensibly sprung from the Abraham Ward at Bedlam (the Bethlehem Royal Hospital for the insane in London). Although Bedlam denied releasing its patients to itineracy, and there seems to have been a certain amount of theater to the Tom O’Bedlam vocation (part of the songs’ color), the joke of the songs overlay a terrible reality about the long ostracism of the mad.
Green’s Maud reflects on the cruelties, not so different from our own, then suffered by the insane, her “ancestress[es]” who “carried the gene for mental illness. I was haunted by generations of women who would have been burned as witches or would sit in the urine and shitsoaked straw of Bedlam, chained to the wall.” But this note of sympathy and reconstruction is only the beginning. Maud’s language, the language of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals and King Lear’s Edgar, who took on the persona of Tom O’Bedlam in order, like the Fool, to disguise the truth in nonsense, participates both in English literature’s notably earthy origins and its most exalted lyric flights. Maud’s home, like Blake’s, is Albion; the spaces in her lines reflect both her broken thinking and the strong caesuras of English verse’s alliterative origins. In Maud’s day wild boar were caught and trussed by the river, but people were also a hair’s breadth from, on the one hand, magic, and, on the other, revelation, as they stretched their laundry out on rocks.
And indeed Maud’s “broken mind” is a torment, but it also admits wonder. Her language is its expression and cannot pass beyond it; for Maud her madness is as elemental as the sky, and yet it is kin to the sensitivity of her perception and her capacity for love. Green writes, one wonders whether Tom and Maud could be “figments of one another’s imagination.”
In “Mad Maud’s Four Dreams,” below, as in several of the poems, in the vanishing point is a place of final blankness and extinction (a few last lines: “that place where no light ever comes”; “I fell out of the world without a sound”; “there’s mist between us now—or murk—or vanishing”; “he trod upon the stars and put the morning out”) and yet the encompassing world—the cathedral of nature and the soaring language in which the poem contains it—seems to offer a compensatory exaltation and consolation. And a complicity with those inducted, across time, in the language’s underground fraternity.
The diction of Green’s poems is often archaic and not demotic and colloquial as is the modern temper. Her radical isolation from contemporary life is, in part, its engine. But it is this very estrangement, perhaps, that gives her poems their intense lyricism and vatic force.
Read more of Green’s Mad Maud poems in Little Star #3 (2012). Her books The Squanicook Eclogues and Fifty-Two are out of print but well worth searching for. Read her memoir of her friendships with Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky in the current issue of Parnassus.
Mad Maud's Four Dreams
Once seized by sleep I dreamt I was at captived at Bridewell where all trulls
and gillots go I knew the place for I’d picked hessian and oakum there
and taken flogging by a scourge of holly leaves Roped at the wrists
to one who walked ahead and one behind we came in from the fields and lay
upon the grave-cold ground under iron grates And in my dream I dreamt
another In high summer I saw momently a sparrow flit above a golden lea
and fly into the brumous wood where there was only rustling and silence
‘Tis Maud as swiftly gone as those wings crossing a yellow meadow
I dreamt thrice By a mizzling shore St. Cuthbert knelt on stones to pray
Ice in his beard frost silvering his steepled hands Two otters bounded
from the water and breathed upon his feet to warm them rolling back
and forth upon him they tried with their fur to dry his blue besobled skin
He had for solace sorrow longing winter want cold darkness death
Wind whistling across heath and moorlands saturating marshlands
and fens in their flux I dreamt a fourth The wide blackening sky of Albion
roared overhead and I wept that neither sun nor youth nor hope nor love
would come again I crawled into an hollow oak pulled lichen over me
Maud shall have no church or coffin song or blessing priest or cross
In the mews of the dream in a bark-beetled sepulchre Maud shall have
a glimmergowk to hoot her elegy shall nither there until the mawks
liquefy her skin boil at her heart with their white roilings her body
unhouselled her soul left to the earth and night extinguishing