Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Playing with the Red King and the Fool

The Ranworth Antiphonal, circa 1460-1480.
An interesting initial letter decoration
illustrating Psalm 51. 

I promised to read and scour The Book of the Red King three times by the end of Lent, and I just might make that finish line. But I have also decided to read it another time afterward, as I've made more changes than foreseen. Well, that's not so surprising, nothing ever being perfect.

A mighty long book of poems, the manuscript stakes some claim to being a narrative because tells the progress of the Fool, although in fragments. The sequence includes poems about the friendship between the Red King and the Fool, necessarily an unequal pairing. The Fool is consistent, though he transforms, but the Red King's self is unpinned, and it may be one thing in one poem, another thing in another. The manuscript also contains a kind of love story about the Fool and his beloved, the Precious Wentletrap.

The whole is to some degree governed by alchemical transformation. The story felt transformative in the writing--just swooped out, some years ago, in a great rush. I have off and on tinkered with the poems and am now determined to turn in the book by the end of spring. As in the making of any object that aspires to gold, it benefits from the polishing.

Here's a little poem about the two friends. It was originally published in Mezzo Cammin (for more poems, go here.)


The King sets a table for the Fool,
Arranging the cloth and the whittled spool

That’s wound with gilt and silver thread,
A wheel of cheese with twisted bread,

The cup that holds a glowing star,
precious wentletrap (Wikipedia)
The feather tumbled from a far

Fetched place above the walls of world,
A flower of ice, the petals furled,

A wine that came some thousand miles
From the floating Fortunate Isles. 

The Fool sets table for the King
With pins and ragged skittles-string,

With glossy feathers of a crow,
Tumblers spilling dust-hearted snow,

A cup of tears, a glass of rain,
A mug that chambers childish pain,

A stick with bells, a fool’s peaked cap,
A seed, a precious wentletrap

That jails so beautifully the sea
Of pulse and whispered mystery.

And here is a poem about the Red King, one where he is grander in his identity. This one was original published in At Length (go here for more.)


In a green seed
Hidden in a shell
From the first walnut tree,
Wrapped in threads of Tensan silk,
Tucked in a giant wentletrap,
Placed inside a golden treasure box,
Swallowed by the roan-red bull on the hill
In the precincts of the Red King’s castle lands,
Inside a kingdom held against barbarians,
In a world that cares so little whether we outrage
Or whether we are bred to honor and civility—
In the out-rushing universe, the nursery house of stars,
Inside the multiverse with other worlds, each with its own Red King,
Inside the envelope that cauls all time and space in one conundrum,

The Red King keeps
His ceaseless,


  1. as i read, a heavy grinding sensation somewhere inside, as a giant slab of granite slowly scraping over a field of basalt... what's a wentle? good stuff!

    1. Oh, that's an interesting reaction! There are lots and lots of poems in the manuscript, and a lot of variety. So maybe all kind of stones and pebbles for you!

      A wentletrap is a lovely spiral shell. I'll add a picture in the post, I think, just for you. They were considered rare and valuable in the seventeenth century.

  2. turitella, cretaceous-recent. high-spired slender cerithiid. t.arenicola is the most likely, but there are many others: coronia, scobinella,calipyrgula, etc. couldn't find wentletrap, though. my palaeontology book probably isn't big enough...

    1. Hello, Mudpuddle--

      Just awoke to find a small, shaved Persian cat on my head... With some memory of my daughter coming in and laughing at me because of said cat-hat.

      Epitonium scalare.

      Good night! I hope that I wake without either cat on my head.

    2. Moore, Lalicker, Fisher, p. 324 only show epitonium bolten, no scalare, but it's probably similar: a parasitic gastropod, cretaceous-recent; strong axial ribs, round aperture. interesting. tx... why shave a cat?

    3. I see cousin shells but not that one, though I suppose they are similar, as all the others I see appear to be. But precious wentletraps are the prettiest of them all! Wikipedia: "Many Epitonium species have shells that are very attractive and quite interesting in their structure. However this species is particularly striking, partly because it is very large compared with the great majority of other species within the genus, but also because the whorls themselves do not touch and so the shell is held together only by the well-developed ribs or costae."

      My youngest was given a blue Persian, and she felts up horribly in the winter. It's our own fault for not spending all our free time combing her. She is gigantic when her fur has grown out, tiny when shaved. Our vet does a poodle cut, which makes her look ridiculous. The other cat, Theodora, bites her on sight after a shave. She knows that it is wrong.

    4. tx for the picture; it is indeed striking; i don't understand why moore lalicker and fisher didn't include a picture of it. ah the limitations of scholarship... poor kitty; an identity crisis every year! siamese are reputed to be a bit erratic; i'm not surprised she was sitting on your head after what you did...

    5. The Persian is very dumb, a cross between a rabbit and a stuffed toy. But her heart is full of love.

      Yes, it is very pretty. In my book, the precious wentletrap is sometimes a shell and sometimes a woman....

  3. "his pail is spilling silver" is beautiful. I can't wait to read all the poems in order. I know: patience.

    1. Order has been one of the puzzling things. How to arrange so many, especially when some revisit the same subject from very different angles... I am down to shuffling a few as I read, so I suppose it may be approaching final order.

  4. I can't wait to read the whole load of these poems together Marly!! Have been waiting years.

    1. It will be a while longer, as I want to read it one more time in April before I send it out.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.