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Anne Boleyn’s Sleeve by Juliana Gray (2013)

July 27, 2019

The first thing I noticed about this chapbook was its choice of verse form — blank verse, a form whose first known use in English was in 1540. It felt peculiarly appropriate for a series of poems about Anne Boleyn, even though she died a few years earlier — it gives the sense that she’s ahead of her time, but not excessively so, and gives us a thought of what might have been had Anne survived into the middle of the century or beyond. The poems are arranged in roughly chronological order — the fact that many poems are centered on a theme rather than a specific event (“Her Cravings” “Her Sister” “Her Coronation” and so forth — each one a small jewel of distilled emotion) keeps them from being perfectly chronological, as the subject matter of these will necessarily cover any number of years. But the center of the story is clear, indeed, Anne tells us what it is in the first poem “The End.”

Remember, please, that this is a love story
though it ends, like so many stories,
with a good woman’s body in a box.

The verse draws us in with the image first of a play, distant and unreal, then gradually changing to the reality, to the dead woman in the arrow chest.

That much, everyone remembers: the queen
beheaded; the fat, lusty king, rid
of his second wife and next day betrothed
to his third. You see the shrewish Queen, myself,
undone by her ambition; you see the king
in bulging hose, munching a turkey leg.
A shadow play, puppets behind a screen.

This sense of reality disintegrating into fantasy will continue to surface throughout the book, especially when Anne is in danger — in “Her Sickness” with the sweat, “the court fragmented / like a fairy castle made of marzipan,” and on her final May Day, Anne sees the participants as “Men in armor, ladies in silks, dolls / in a shadow play.” As she’s taken to the Tower of London after her arrest, Anne dreams that “the barge might sink, / my escorts be drowned, and I / transform to a mermaid and swim / to France, America, or heaven.” In the sixteenth century, the mermaid was often a symbol of sexual immorality, so Anne’s imagining is far from childish — her frantic fantasies of escape have a dark edge to them which conveys her fear and panic clearly.

This is an Anne who is in some ways as hard as diamond even as she has a constant awareness of the fragility of her life. She has grown up both craving power and lacking it, consistently fearful of her older siblings, who torment her with stories of a woman who was burned for killing her abusive husband. Henry himself, when he falls in love with her, attempts to be gentle but his strength and impatience eventually get the better of him — even as he’s raising Anne up in an attempt to make her queen, “his fingers, heavy with jeweled rings, left marks / like violet half-moons on my olive skin.” Her response is to order a gown of the same color as the bruises — purple, and made from the most expensive dye in the world — “dyed / from tiny Byzantine snails, crushed / by thousands to color a foresleeve’s silken trim”. The gown encapsulates everything about the Anne of this book; willing to endure much, but also intent upon exacting the proper payment in return. In exchange for the purple bruises given to her by Henry, she’ll extract from his purse enough money to pay for an expensive gown entirely of purple. The royal symbolism of the color is not lost on the reader, nor, presumably, on Henry.

The portrait of Henry that comes through secondhand is somewhat muted, but still feels very believable — charming at first, somewhat childish, generous with gifts,with an endearing love of animals, games and riddles, and a somewhat less endearing temper when things didn’t go his way. Although it’s clear that he never comes close to understanding Anne, the reader wonders if she ever truly understood him, or at least, what he had become. On the morning of her death, after drily observing that her husband was so considerate that he sent for the French swordsman even before her trial, but when she first sees the man, she has the “mad thought” that it’s Henry in disguise, before “I calmed myself, remembering / his figure had not been so lean in years.” Once again the sense of unreality surfaces as Anne is close to death, and her death sets her mind completely free, swooping away beyond the borders of England as she pursues a happy vision not of her husband, daughter, or any of her family, but her executioner — Death.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, without a doubt. Politics is addressed but Anne’s concerns largely relate to the domestic politics concerning members of her family and household — even when she speaks of Wolsey, the memory she emphasizes is how she demonstrated her sway over him by subtly demanding, and receiving, stuffed carp and trout from his famous fishponds. The wider world leaves little impression. Her power over state and religious matters is shown in the most domestic way possible — by the way she can demand whatever food, no matter how rare or luxurious, that she wants. “I was a hungry woman then / The world knew my appetites.” The only potential reason for Anne’s fall is the one closest to home — the loss of her last baby, in a poem significantly entitled “Her Failures.”

WHEN BORN? Not stated, but she is the youngest of her siblings.

THE EARLY LOVE Unusually, Henry Percy is never mentioned. Thomas Wyatt, in “Their Patronage” is “an adolescent friend / without the grace to keep his mouth shut” and is compared to a dog; not because he’s faithful, but because he’s remorselessly persistent — “He would not cease his barking. I had him muzzled / and sent away.” The reason he barks is that he resents Anne for “denying him / the bare-footed prize he once had caught.” As with the existence of her sixth finger, the precise meaning of “caught” is left mysterious. Her feelings for Henry are mysterious, possibly even to her. She wants him to pursue her, and is proud to become Queen, but her attitude towards him seems to be a mixture of fondness, anger, and — at the end — disgust at how easily he could leave her behind. As she walks to her execution one of her final thoughts is “My only love” but to whom she’s referring — Elizabeth? Henry? Wyatt? Someone else? is never made clear. Anne’s deliberate ambiguity on these key questions becomes an intriguing and occasionally maddening theme throughout the book.

THE QUEEN’S BEES We hear nothing of them except for one mention of “little Jane, with her pale hair / and face like buttered bread.” The poems are brief and intense enough that it would feel strange otherwise; there doesn’t seem to be room for hordes of waiting-women either in the poems or in Anne’s mind.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR None, aside from the King and Thomas Wyatt, both of whom appear to believe that they’re her gallant protectors and servants, and both of whom are wildly wrong

THE PROPHECY The only thing close to a prophecy is the final vision at the end, when Anne dreams of the executioner’s homecoming — dreaming of the man who for her was the personification of Death. He returns to Calais to a bucolic paradise, with a loving wife and children, his sword stored safely out of reach of his children. It’s a world and a family such as Anne has never lived in, and possibly never could have lived in while she was alive — in death, of course, people are ultimately safe from every kind of danger.

IT’S A GIRL! “My red-haired child, my rosy disappointment,” Anne addresses her. We’re told that Henry “frowned, and would not hold her” and the jousts were replaced with Anne promising that she would have brothers in the future. She receives no further mentions, except for a possible reference as Anne is about to die.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Like many Annes of the twentieth century, this Anne designs and sews her own sleeves “that softly open like a lily’s bloom / above the wrist, and overlap the hand”. Later, malicious gossips will hint that the sleeves hide a deformity, to which Anne responds:

When I was crowned, my black hair
flowed down my dove-white dress, and my hands
peeked from my long embroidered satin sleeves
To cradle the royal child within my womb.
A queen is not required to explain
herself. I often played at cards, and won.

Anne, the skilled card player, will keep a poker face about the sixth finger as well, as a queen is entitled to do.

FAMILY AFFAIRS We see little to nothing of her mother, her father is an ambitious skinflint who makes her use Mary’s secondhand clothes, leaving her with “tattered dresses” and “dirty dolls” and later on with remade gowns in colors that don’t suit her. Mary and George are both older than she, and she seems to have few fond feelings for them — as children and adolescents, they tease her and put her down, and as adults things don’t improve — the adult George is seen only gloating over the advancement he’ll get from the King’s affection for his sisters, and Mary is dismissed as “whorish” by Anne, who forces her to sell back the jewel she got from the King during her incompetently-conducted affair.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. Her earlier relationship with Wyatt is ambiguous but there’s no hint of anything like an affair with another man (and it’s hard to imagine this Anne, with her ironclad self-control, engaging in one).

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE Part of my problem in reviewing this is keeping myself from quoting half the book, as it isn’t a long one and I’d like people to enjoy it for themselves as well. But while all the poems are good, I was especially struck by the opening of “The Tower”:

I never lost my wits — only
set them aside for an hour or two,
like a leaden rope of pearls.
The sky threatened rain;
I hoped the barge might sink,
my escorts be drowned, and I
transform to a mermaid and swim
to France, America, or heaven.

ERRATA It’s very inventive but the only actual mistake I spotted was Cardinal Wolsey calling Anne “The midnight crow” instead of “the night crow” which is such a small nitpick I feel slightly bad for mentioning it.

WORTH A READ? Yes, very much so — in fact, it’s worth it enough to be worth buying the chapbook directly. Part of what made this book so good was that it felt like it could not possibly be anything but poetry — it wouldn’t work at all as a novel, but the individual poems seem to fly straight from Anne’s mind into yours. It’s not that one feels that Anne is directly from the sixteenth century; her interests are definitely from the modern era, but the reader will feel as if she’s seen a small part of her, with the greater part left mysterious by Anne’s own wish. I’ve only skimmed the surface of some of the themes and, as I wanted to keep the review relatively brief, decided not to go into the use of symbolism relating to jewelry, among other things; the reader will enjoy discovering that for herself.

There was only one thing that I missed, and it was hinted at on the title page, where Anne’s execution speech is reprinted, with one change — “God” is printed entirely in lowercase letters. In keeping with this change, God is very much pushed into the background here — while there are references to saints’ days, saints’ stories, and clerics, there’s not even a hint as to Anne’s religious opinions, her thoughts on England’s being severed from Rome and the resulting executions, or even her prayers (even the ones she was rising to say at two in the morning on the day of her death). The only face of Anne we see is that which belongs to the kingdoms of this world. This is the only thing I would change about the book if I could — there would be a poem entitled “Her Faith.”

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From → Book Overviews

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