Vivian Shipley

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  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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