To Mary Sidney, On Reading Her Psalms

By Jacqueline Osherow b. 1956 Jacqueline Osherow
You give me a little courage, Mary,
in your skittish dedication to her highness;
I too can dare as humbleness may dare;
if there’s anywhere to speak with you, it’s here
at the wordy Anglo-Saxon periphery
of the universe’s one great surge of praise
 
though I’m lost here. Where’s the joyful noise?
the syllables I managed to memorize
before they were weighted down by meaning?
and what’s all this complicated rhyme?
Don’t mistake me—I’m not complaining;
it’s just not my notion of a psalm
 
for all my love of wrought, elaborate things—
especially when they’re the sort that sings
and yours do sing a stunning song—
but they’re off-kilter without the awe
inherent in my ancient holy tongue.
I miss my amen sela, hallelujah
 
though I do applaud you and your brother—
going for the full linguistic bait-and-switch
in the move from one language to another:
David’s disarmingly direct speech
a tour-de-force of formal contrivance
(no form repeated more than once
 
in each of a hundred fifty psalms!)
in your show-off/virtuoso hands.
Talk about such a song in such a land—
but what else is there in dreary England?
Its sole extravagance a trove of synonyms
that endlessly perplexes and expands
 
its mongrel, unbeautiful tongue—
a language, frankly, crying out for poetry
given its absence, even, of integrity
not to mention intrinsic song. . . .
(Its sound: water going down the drain
according to my friend, an Italian,
 
after riding in a compartment of Americans
gurgling all the way from Florence to Rome.)
Why not a convoluted scheme
of intricately wrought meter and rhyme?
So what if the Hebrew has no strict patterns?
Aim for a parallel sublime;
 
aren’t poems for the impossible?
Though perhaps yours wouldn’t have been written
had you known how daunting their task was;
you had no Hebrew, used the Coverdale,
Wyatt, Geneva Bible, as cribs for Latin,
even psaumes de David, mis en rime Françoise . . .
 
Clearly, your secret weapon was ignorance,
also useful (look at me!) in writing a poem,
your psalms fourth- and fifth-hand half the time.
Unless (of course!) your stroke of brilliance
was to focus on the one thing you could do:
Sing and let your song be new
 
which they are, profoundly, even to me,
who know so many bits of the originals
of what you claim you’re “translating” by heart.
Still, I’ll be reading along, alternately
put off and spellbound by your art-
ifice, when my wary eye suddenly falls
 
on something both completely known and new,
my own—our own—ungainly language
for a brief instant alien with grace,
a black-on-white typescript mirage
in which English letters turn into Hebrew
or at least intercept its holiness. . . .
 
How did you manage it, Mary?
Your contemporaries called it piety—
but I don’t believe that for a second.
What motivated you was love of poetry,
or rather of your legendary
brother—lost so young—whom you would spend
 
your whole life working to immortalize. . . .
I’m not sure he needed you. No lighter touch
exists in English poetry than his . . .
a touch you often managed to approach
in your grief-induced lyric resolve
to force a bit of him to stay alive.
 
Poetry as solace, as wizardry—
and there he is, with you, all the time,
clearly palpable in all your artistry.
It was your eagerness to be with him
that kept you going back to intervene
with yet one more indomitable line,
 
got you through all hundred-fifty psalms.
Or maybe it was just your poet’s ruse
(poetry often thrives on self-delusion)
to trick yourself to rise to his occasion. . . .
Unless he just provided the excuse
to stake your own (quite vast) poetic claims,
 
impossible to say from this vantage point:
to distinguish collaborator from muse,
self-doubt from false humility
but, then again, there’s a poetry in mystery.
Who will contradict me if I confuse
my own passions with yours—so convenient,
 
inevitable?—in a poem like this—
though you and I—despite the labyrinth
of misapprehension, class, religion
reinforcing our dissociation
(Jew from Christian, commoner from countess,
twenty-first-century from seventeenth)
 
come together in passion upon passion
(forgive me, Mary, if dare too far):
psalms, poetic forms, your genius brother
(I mean both the poet and the man;
no poem could manufacture that much charm).
We’ve even suffered from a kindred harm:
 
my version, albeit, fairly mild,
though I too was admonished as a child
about what a woman dared not do.
Still, I have a vast cohort, while you
were almost entirely alone.
Better yet, I had the complete Dickinson
 
(published just a year before I was born);
I didn’t know it yet, but I had you . . .
while you had to ransack antiquity
for even fragments of poems by a woman.
But of course you weren’t troubled by inequity—
it was, frankly, all you knew—
 
you might even have relished your position
as sole woman poet, thinker, patron—
lonely as it was—though you did encourage
your precocious niece, Mary (later Wroth).
And who can really estimate the damage
of your appalling bargain: a brother’s death
 
required to turn you into poet?
Of course, in your time, death was everywhere.
Perhaps you were pious—a last resort
to shore up an attenuated heart
against even further disrepair,
immersion in the psalms a sort of antidote
 
to life’s massive overdose of pain:
from living with a sad, disfigured mother
(small-pox scars from nursing a sick queen)
mourning her husband’s lost affection
to deaths of favorites—your sister, your brother,
your only daughters, Katherine, then Anne.
 
God made this day; he did us send it
In joy and mirth then let us spend it
Excellent advice, if it would hold—
And maybe it does, when you can summon
all that air or life enfold
to distract you with a binge of exaltation . . .
 
or if that fails, then an assiduous
extravaganza of sublime detail
calibrated to provide the wherewithal
to face a universe we cannot alter
if not with joy and mirth, at least with grace:
a perfect, hand-illuminated psalter,
 
the loops of all its letters filled with gold—
a treasure, even, for an exacting Queen—
offering a deity who’ll listen
to a voice alternately humble, bold,
beseeching, thankful, ecstatic, bleak,
through which (hallelujah, Mary!) you still speak.

Jacqueline Osherow, “To Mary Sidney, on Reading Her Psalms” from Shakespeare’s Sisters: Women Writers Bridge Five Centuries, published by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Copyright © 2012 by Jacqueline Osherow. Reprinted by permission of Jacqueline Osherow.

Source: Shakespeare’s Sisters: Women Writers Bridge Five Centuries (Folger Shakespeare Library, 2012)

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Poet Jacqueline Osherow b. 1956

POET’S REGION U.S., Southwestern

Subjects Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Arts & Sciences, Poetry & Poets, Reading & Books, Social Commentaries, Gender & Sexuality

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 Jacqueline  Osherow

Biography

Raised in Philadelphia, poet Jacqueline Osherow received her BA from Radcliffe College, Harvard University, and her PhD from Princeton University. She is the author of several collections of poetry, including Hoopoe’s Crown (2005). Her debut collection, Looking for Angels in New York (1988), was chosen for the Contemporary Poetry Series.

Often inhabiting a variety of demanding formal structures such as terza rima and the double . . .

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SUBJECT Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Arts & Sciences, Poetry & Poets, Reading & Books, Social Commentaries, Gender & Sexuality

POET’S REGION U.S., Southwestern

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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