Book Review: Strong Stuff

Banner - cover slanted - Life Death King Edward

28 September 2017
· Reviewing ‘The Life and Death of King Edward’ by Joshua Gray ·

Hark back to April 2016 when I wrote about Joshua Gray and his #Bard154 project. He compressed my 14-line Sonnets into 140-character quatrains, and posted all 154 of them to Twitter.

Joshua has now expanded upon his contractions. His new book of poetry, The Life and Death of King Edward, was recently published.

Even today it’s hard for me to type ‘King Edward’ without anticipating the bootsteps of Little Cecil’s guards, coming for me with halberds.

Alembic woodcut - Life Death King Edward

The book numbers just 111 pages, but Joshua’s alchemy gives each one a high specific gravity. In his poetic alembic, my already-condensed metre and rhyme have been boiled off. What remains is the double-distilled essence of the story, as he sees it.

The Prince Tudor interpretation of the Sonnets is an issue of debate among Oxfordians. If you’ve seen the 2011 Roland Emmerich film Anonymous the idea won’t be new to you. Even if you don’t subscribe to the theory as Joshua does, you should find it no bar to enjoying the book.

Prince Tudor in a nutshell: Variant 1 posits that Elizabeth and I had a son who was brought up as Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Variant 2 adds that Elizabeth was also my mother. It’s complicated.

Don’t let it scare you off. The story, told in this book through blank verse using a variety of voices, can hold your interest no matter how factual or fictional you believe the premise to be. Joshua owns his opinion and I remain reticent, but this review is ecumenical, up to a point. If your Bard wrote his sonnets as impersonal dramatic exercises, dozens and dozens of home-schooled homework problems simply to suss out a verse form, then Joshua’s book is not for you. But in that case, welcome to my blog! I presume you arrived here by accident.

The Life and Death of King Edward plays out in seven sections: prefatory Inductions, five Acts, and an Epitaph. There are background notes before each section, a few footnotes, and a handful of black-and-white illustrations. It’s well organised.

You know you’re in for a ride when the first thing you read in the first section is young Princess Elizabeth dropping F-bombs. The book is not profane, but this is a significant beginning, meant to knock you slightly off balance. It does.

Bess swore like a sailor when she wasn’t on display. She may have learned a few of her more nautical oaths from me. Burghley’s face would go beetroot under his beard, and I would try to stifle my giggles.

Acts I through IV tell my story from the 1562 death of my father the 16th Earl through the Earl of Essex’s harebrained, disastrous uprising in early 1601. The characters speak in first-person modern English, beneath titled headings. Sometimes it’s soliloquy, sometimes dialogue. In one instance the narrator himself breaks into the conversation.

This is where you notice Joshua’s talent for distillation, perhaps bespeaking his years in Appalachia. The final line in the following excerpt made a lingering impression on me. No wonder.

The Queen is speaking to me about my ‘crown’ signature, and whether I see myself as her heir.
Edward Oxenford crown-or-coronet signature

  • It is treason, you know.
  • Do not worry,
  • I find no treason in you.
  • But if there ever is,
  • your signature is enough
  • to stain a rope red.

Act V contains the sonnet quatrains, with minor tweaks from the earlier tweets. They’re divided into roughly chronological chapters, according to the structure that Hank Whittemore developed in his 2005 book The Monument. Whittemore contributed the summaries that precede each of these chapters.

Last time when I asked Joshua to select a sample, he chose #76 (that every word doth almost tell my name). This time I’m picking one that highlights the unconventional interpretation.

Sonnet 116, my original:

  • Let me not to the marriage of true minds
  • Admit impediments. Love is not love
  • Which alters when it alteration finds,
  • Or bends with the remover to remove:
  • O no! it is an ever-fixèd mark
  • That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
  • It is the star to every wandering bark,
  • Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
  • Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
  • Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
  • Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
  • But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
  • If this be error and upon me proved,
  • I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Joshua’s filtered distillate:

  • Look, divine right is unchanged
  • in the changing crown. It is ever-fixed.
  • The line bears life eternal.
  • If I’m wrong, I am no poet.

You won’t find any of that in your copy of Booth.

The Epitaph concludes the book with the Threnos section of the untitled poem known as The Phoenix and (the) Turtle, first published in 1601 in the multi-author collection Loves Martyr, or, Rosalins Complaint, over the name William Shake-ſpeare.

Hint: it’s a pseudonym.

The Life and Death of King Edward can be read in a sitting or two. It’s short, powerful, and intense, like two fingers of neat whiskeyMy alcoholic analogy is American, so it’s -ey.. I admit that I’m partial to the evaporated metre and rhyme, but you can hardly blame me for that. When Joshua first posted his tweets in 2016, we agreed that the quatrains served best as companions to the originals, not replacements. In that light they don’t lack a thing, and they add much.

The Sonnets and the quatrains are two spirits distilled from the same mash. The first has matured, its colour and depth enhanced by age. The second – new, perhaps illicit, and which not everyone chooses to drink, is the product of the second trip through the still: the white lightning.

The Life and Death of King Edward

  • · by Joshua Gray (@joshuagraypoet)
  • · Forever Press, April 2017 — paperback, 134 pages
  • · Amazon UK | US
  • · And look who’s in the bibliography:

I'm in the bibliography - Life Death King Edward