No, I’m not referring to the Disney feminist remake of the story of the Snow Queen. I’m referring to another queen who actually is still alive–Queen Elizabeth II–and to the six-season Netflix special about her life and reign. “The Crown,” as this immensely popular series is called, just began its third season. As some of you will know, Netflix contracted to make six seasons, each to cover approximately a decade of Elizabeth’s fantastically long reign. After two years with one cast and production crew, the program finds new actors to be Elizabeth, Philip, Margaret, and other players. Though the figure at the center of this dramatic. epic is Elizabeth, the title tells us a lot about what the production is really about. It’s about what is exacted from the human beings who are chosen or forced to wear the crown. And Shakespeare had it entirely right when he said so long ago “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”
What the Netflix production is making utterly clear is that “head” may be heavy but at least it is supposed to stay functional. As for other important organs, most notably the heart, they must be shut off, hidden away, sacrificed on the altar of monarchical power and control. In the first two seasons, when Elizabeth is first a child and then a very very young head of state, we see her as shy and reluctant to step into the limelight. Then she falls in love with Philip and for a little while, until the mandatory children/future heads of other states begin coming with exhausting regularity, their ardor wanes way too fast. A turning point in their relationship, in my view, came when Philip asks her not to make him kneel before her at her coronation. He says he’s fine with proclaiming her his sovereign, making him–her husband–kneel before her in public is just too demeaning and erases their intimacy. Though she wants to let him off the hook, her all male advisors use so many laden words about duty and honor and al lot of other cold virtues until she bows to their wishes. From that point, Philip begins first a flight into flirtations/gambling/carousing with the “boys,” and, in this new season has settled into mostly detached interactions or advisory meetings in which he upholds the same values that caused her to make him kneel in the first place.
Season three gives us an Elizabeth who is almost never a person, who admits to Harold Wilson, her new Prime Minister, that she is “emotionally deficient” because she can’t cry even when faced with the devastating coal disaster in Wales that killed over 100 children caught in their grade school classroom. I remember when this happened and the Queen did not visit the town for almost a week. My black and white TV ventured a weak pronouncement about it’s perhaps being too long to have delayed. When the Netflix program shows her finally agreeing to go, we hear her being told that in Wales they “expect” tears, not her usual stoicism. So, once she has paid the mandatory visit to an actual dwelling of one family who has lost their child, as she exists to the press and cameras, she uses an elegant hanky to wipe at eyes that have not watered. Midway through the third season, however she leaves the palace to go look at prime race horses with her Master of Horses, a commoner with whom she clearly enjoys relaxed conversation about withers and such details. At dinner, she talks to him about how being with horses is what makes her “truly happy,” and as she elaborates on that feeling, genuine tears come into both eyes.
Elizabeth has a sister who is just a little her junior–the infamous Princess Margaret. Margaret would have relished being a monarch and done it with élan if not wisdom. Her people would have loved her even if they didn’t revere her. In the opening episode of Season Three, the director has made a stunning decision: he shows them as little girls again at the moment their father dies and Elizabeth is told she must be coronated. Margaret says she would love to do this and thinks she’d be good at it; Elizabeth agrees as her eyes and tight little body signals that she definitely does NOT want to do it and thinks she won’t be good at it. The last thing young Margaret says is “It will be better for us both.” Elizabeth asks her advisors to let Margaret become queen but primogeniture will have none of that. The wooden advisor tells little Elizabeth that once she is queen, she will cease being a person. Rather she will be the figure wearing the crown.
As this monumental commitment continues to unfold, I remain fascinated by how powerfully it illustrates the destructive downside of absolute rule. And, since I assume the living Queen Elizabeth is watching, I have to wonder what she makes of it all. For example, if she watches the episode in which her son Charles is made to give up the life he would like to life as an actor and go to Wales so he can stage his eventual investiture as the Prince of Wales and next in line to the thrown, how does she feel when the superb young man playing Charles tells her she knows nothing about him or his views. Olivia Coleman, playing the Queen to stoic and lonely perfection, answers by looking him directly in the eye and saying “And no one wants to know [what his views are]–NO ONE.
Watching what happens not only to the person Elizabeth once she becomes queen but also to those closest to her as part of the royal family makes me sad. It also lets me read Shakespeare’s history plays with more nuanced responses as one damaged monarch after the other becomes more and more frozen into a role that neither nourishes them nor promotes good governance.
Some words delight me simply because of how they feel in my mouth as I voice them. Incunabula is one of those words. The repeated “u” makes my lips pucker, while “nabula” sounds like a word a wizard might utter to work magic or like some marvelously sinuous creature who lives deep under the sea. I remember when I first learned this word. My much-older sister had given me a strange birthday present when I turned eight years old–a book called Thirty Days To a Powerful Vocabulary. It was in paperback, maybe one of the early titles to be available in that new cheap format. On every page were words and words, each with two or three definitions and then a sentence made using the preferred meaning. I was told that each day I would learn one of these often very long and strange words. At dinner, I would be asked to say the word, give a definition and make my own sentence. Needless to say, evening meals became occasions for stress and pressure to perform.
The days I had to deal with “prestidigitation” and “post-prandial” put me right off whatever my mother was serving for dinner, but then there came a day when the word was “incunabula.” Something about its sound and its meaning drew me into its aura, and I’ve never read or heard it since those childhood formative days without rolling it around inside my mouth before uttering it out loud. If I ask myself how I feel about the meaning of this lovely-sounding word, again I feel utterly positive because books have been at the very heart of my being for almost my entire life. So always remembering that this word refers to books printed before 1500, named “incunabula” because of the Latin root of “cradle,” endears the word to me on a content level to match the auditory one.
Such books are extremely rare now and are considered words of art as well as being souvenirs from the infant stages of the field of publishing. Such books are, of course, related to the invention by William Caxton (1433-1491) of the first printing press in England. It resided in the household of the Duchess of Burgundy (who was French) and was used to print her own collection of French romances. Carrying the design from France to England, Caxton set up his own press in Westminster and between 1477 and 1491, he published about eighty books, all translated from the French.
One of the most significant volumes to come from this cradle press was Thomas Cranmer’s edition of the Bible in 1540. Cranmer himself wrote a prologue talking about what it would mean for this crucial book to be printed so that some people could read for themselves what was in the various sections, no longer having to rely on a priest to tell people in the pews what was in such germinal books. This version included a woodcut by Hans Holbein, the famous artist. In the woodcut, King Henry VIII is shown seated, watching Cranmer and Oliver Cromwell hand out copies to deserving members of the court.
Today we sometimes are warned that the book as we’ve known it may be on the way “out,” to be replaced with e-books or Audible taped books or other immaterial versions of those things we have long held in our hands, reading them with flashlights under the covers after our parents have turned off the lights, or passing them from person to person so as to have groups with whom to argue the virtues (and vices) of some new novel or poem. I listen to these predictions, keep holding my novels and poem collections in my hands, and believing that there will continue to be people who come upon their very own incunabula when someone lets them hold those first cardboard picture books while one mesmerizing story after the other is read to them. Or the next stage of encountering incunabula when youngsters check out their first/cradle books from their local library, experiencing the power of momentary ownership and the heady sense of not having to rely on someone else to tell them what’s between the covers–just as those early people in churches could finally read the word of their god themselves.
So I’ll keep rolling the vowels and consonants of the magic word for what has become a magic act down through the centuries ever since Caxton ran off a few copies of bawdy romances and we first spoke of “incunabula.”
A friend just sent me an article about Janis Joplin because a new biography is just out about her. She was a blazing comet on the rock music scene in the 1960’s, but, like all comets, vanished too quickly to be taken in fully. The new biography talks about how much she knew about music and how serious she was about making it. Of course, all her plans and dreams were vexed and then destroyed by her reckless engagement with alcohol and drugs. As I read the article I felt sadder and sadder because her biographer has found records of the constant abuse she endured from an early age. School mates taunted her for being a “:tom boy.” As she entered her teens, those tormenters called her vile names and subjected her to physical assaults/beatings. Her way of coping was to assume personae that cast her even farther from the stifling norms of the times.
Music was her escape hatch. From the start, she sang words in timbres that shocked or excited audiences, depending on how far we were able to travel with her down her rock road. She had a gravely voice with lower registers that distinguished her from her peers. Many of her songs were about being an outsider, a misfit, a rebel with a cause, a putatively free spirit who dressed outlandishly and wore her marvelous hair as a rich but unruly mass of curls that clearly refused to allow a comb or brush on the premise. Over time, she also was unable to disguise how high or hung over she often was until the jarring headlines announcing her death from a massive overdose appeared.
So why am I spending time here in 2019 talking about Janis? Because I came to her and her music in the throes of my own downward spiral. By the late 1960s when Joplin was turning out albums and astonishing audiences, I was teaching literature at the University of Minnesota and sliding further into alcoholism. Her lyrics mirrored how I had felt as a Southern girl, only six years older than Janis. I was a devout tom boy defying my mother’s concerted efforts to groom me into being a “belle” waiting for her knight on his white horse. In high school I didn’t begin primping and talking with girlfriends about whether the right boy to ask me to a football game or the Saturday double feature movies. Failing at all this, I escaped into books rather than music, but the loneliness and desperation I heard in Janis’ singing felt just like mine as I turned those pages in all those novels every weekend.
If I let my hair grow a little longer before having it cut, I could look enough like Janis to fool me if no one else. My singing voice left a lot to be desired but that turned out to be an asset when I sang her lyrics, memorizing one after the other and singing them all in my loudest gravely voice in front of a full-length mirror. My favorite song was not any of the ones now listed as “The ten Joplin songs you want to sing.” It was “Mercedes Benz,” one of her only a cappella numbers. Thinking back on that strange time, I am quite sure I sounded enough like her to have been able to do an impersonation at some fancy cocktail party. The words have never left me, or at least the important ones haven’t. “O Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz/ My friends all have Porsches I must make amends.” That came first, following by these openings of the remaining two verses: “O Lord won’t you buy me a color TV/Dialing for Dollars is calling to me” and “O Lord won’t you buy me a night on the town.” The last line of the song is “Won’t you buy me the next round.” The ad for that record shows Joplin lying on her side nursing a pint bottle of bourbon. Her brand was not mine but I look at that photograph even today and recognize that constructed face and those sad sad eyes.
So I’m very glad I was able to make a different decision from the one Janis could make: at 37, I stopped drinking Jack Daniels and began a long and sometimes excruciatingly slow journey to recovery of sanity first and by this point sheer delight in the life I’m blessed to be living. Reading about her I feel huge sadness that we lost her and even sadder that she was not able to stop her careening course of self-destruction. I just listened to her singing “Mercedes Benz” and the pain is unavoidable under that grave belting. Surely it is also worth noting that it is the “Lord” she learned about in some Texas Christian congregation where, who knows, she may have belted out hymns as a child.
If “Carla Hayden” is not a household name, I understand. And, if you don’t know a lot about our Librarian of Congress, I understand that as well. But in these days of dangerous mayhem and destructive hate speech, Ms. Hayden and her title give me hope and comfort. I only began paying attention to that job and to Carla Hayden’s execution of it when I read a couple of years ago, that our new poet laureate was,Tracy K. Smith. After beginning to read Smith’s evocative poems, I began wondering how the poet laureate is chosen. Turns out that person is appointed by the Librarian of Congress. So, then I began wondering who the Librarian of Congress was who had chosen this wonderful young black woman to be our laureate. Once I had Carla Hayden’s name in my head, I began wondering how the Librarian of Congress is chosen: Was the person elected by some group of librarians? Was s/he appointed by some subcommittee of the Congress? After a lot of false tries at “Googling”–I think I ask too long questions or something–I hit gold. The Librarian of Congress for these United States is appointed by the President of the United States, and Carla Hayden was appointed by President Barack Obama.
Finally, I learned that once someone has been named to this post, s/he cannot be removed or “fired.” Rather s/he serves until wanting not to or until health intervenes or the person dies. So Carla Hayden can conduct business as she sees fit. In my view, she has done three amazingly creative things to foster diversity around who becomes our Poets Laureate. By choosing Tracy K. Smith initially, she picked her proposal (possible candidates submit proposals for how they will spend the money they get for their year as laureate) because Smith said she wanted to go to rural and small towns where we are not hearing poetry by inhabitants in these locations. So Hayden wanted “diversity” to apply not just to skin color but to who would be found as poets. So Smith spent her year going to places like Blue Earth, MN, and delighting in what she found. She staged poetry slams near farms or in high school gymnasia, and she encouraged and listened to young people who aspire to be writers without living in a big city. So Carla Hayden decided to let Smith have a second year as laureate–totally unprecedented. When I learned this, I rejoiced for all the additional people who would be exposed to Smith’s own work while finding out their work mattered to someone with a lofty title.
Now, Ms. Hayden has pleased me for the third time by named Joy Harjo to be our current poet laureate. Harjo is a Native American writer whose work has moved and delighted some of us for decades. Sadly, she has not received the press acknowledgement she so roundly deserves. So for her to now carry this mantle is, as the British like to say, “not before time.” A new book of her poems is just out and her travels will bring her audiences both indigenous and non-indigenous. And we’ll all be the better for it..
Thank you and brava, Carla Hayden.