Castle Utopia, J.S. Absher

Michael Diehl, Middle Falls


Castle Utopia


Routed from his ancestral stronghold,
the Castellan camped on a lake. A good
place, he thought—a line of hills

to watch the approaches; two islands
shaped like tears in the midst
of deep water, where one

of the French kings – Philip the Bold
or Philip the Fair, who can remember? –
once bivouacked safe from ambush.

A beautiful place – lakeside rushes,
fingerlings always moving, always pointing
forward, bodies of such transparency

their lord could see anything they
swallowed. Meaning comes
from what we devour, so mused

the Castellan: poet, put that in verse
and sing it tonight as we feast
on tiny transparent fish.

Men, he told his gathered bravos, his
poisoner, his executioner, the pet poet:
Leave other men’s wives alone. Strike

none of your subordinates. Take only
what is given. Kill only when you must.
Don’t piss upstream from where you drink.

Poet, put that in sapphics.


When he could defend his Isles
de Larmes
no more, his soldiers

heard him beg the devil

to take him quickly. They deserted,
but toasted him at reunions—a dreamer!
but by God he could hoist a barrel

to drink from the bung; then Poet
recited an ode: inside the great man’s ear,
death was a buzzing fly.

Poisoner and Executioner shaved
heads in penance and composed
a treatise on betony: when it shines

in the meadow, dig down to its hands
and feet. Tie them to a dog’s neck,
Executioner wrote, making sure

that she is hungry. Next, cast a gobbet
of meat before her, so that when
she lunges for it, she will jerk up

the mint without human hands.
Turned apothecary, Poisoner prescribed
betonica against visions and dreams: no one

who eats it daily or hangs it dried
around the neck will write flattering verse
or build a kingdom on illusion or think

the world’s a bitch that will not eat her litter.

J.S. Absher 


Review by Martha Zweig

After a day or 2 in simple delight and admiration for Castle Utopia (1502), an aesthetic muscle memory of Something Else started nudging me: The Story of Jorkel Hayforks, my favorite in A Calendar of Love, by George Mackay Brown, (1921-96), a favorite book, set in the Middle Ages in and around the Orkney Islands, near-ish enough to Absher’s castle’s setting. Has Brown been a bee of inspiration in Absher’s bonnet? Is Castle Utopia (1502) an homage? Is there a lineage? Also similarities of subject matter: delusions of grandeur in history, high and low brought to common mortal reckoning, which apparently matters to me despite the general nevermind-about-subject-matter I try to maintain towards poetry. Really? Am I this primitive still? In fact, Absher and Brown differ more than seemed to me at first. I reprinted Absher in prose and then in paragraphs resembling Brown’s, one or two sentences long. Absher’s italics and line breaks seem to stand out most.

I use italics in my poems to quote someone’s speech or thoughts/dreams, also, sparingly, for disembodied this-&-that.  A character speaking in quotation marks in one of Brown’s poems I searched up distressed me greatly. No no! sez I, but why? I thought it went back to the Bible, voices of God and Jesus italicized there, but no. Rather, poems and poem-ish, Song of Solomon, Psalms, Proverbs, prophets. Italics-for-emphasis is said to have begun in the 16th century (1502, say). But why/how does italics emphasize? I now suppose we experience a subliminal handwriting, person-to-person intimacy. Quotation marks in most prose fiction instead distance author from reader to keep the business onstage, plural impersonal audience understood.
Line breaks offer the line itself as unit of sense, such as “the mint without human hands” bringing to mind a mint WITH human hands: disturbing. Good line breaks and stanza breaks also work on the reader subliminally; later you more consciously look back for clues and find them. A good line break sets you up in notions to get postponed for later & otherwise messed with:
line 2/3:  “good/place, he thought”… Teetering pause at good,  something is good, what exactly? Oh, “place” is good, we can go ahead with place, but if doubt hints in “he thought” then dash to the first next thing he can latch onto, those hills, big stanza break to contemplate the hills. In the stanza space we buckle up our big-boy military perspective and then never mind anymore that islands are shaped like tears.
line 11/12  “fingerlings… always pointing/ forward…” We were enjoying watching the tiny fish dart about until somebody in charge says they are “always pointing” (what? no they’re not, oh, you’re thinking of fingers, silly you,) BREAK to “forward”, a military command just when our own eyes turned back and down as a line broke in some fog of war. Disturbing.
Snark to poets, including Emily Dickinson, and also in the search-term world there’s a video game called CastleTopia.


Review by Paul Willis

This weird and wonderful poem had me at the very beginning with “two islands / shaped like tears.”  The date at the start, 1502, made me think that I was in for a retelling of a historical narrative.  But the word Utopia in the title cautioned me to think otherwise.  And indeed, the feasting on transparent fish, the comical yet sage advice to not “piss upstream from where you drink,” and the final treatise of the Poisoner and Executioner on the powers of betony—all of these assured me I was in a world of the poet’s own delightful making.  Each stanza presents a head-scratching surprise, and the sum total of these surprises holds the strange consistency of a vibrant dream.  My hat is off.   All the better to scratch my head in amazement.

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