The International Literary Quarterly

February 2009


Donald Adamson
Robert Appelbaum
Rosemary Ashton
Sujata Bhatt
Stephen Burt
Rita Dove
Elaine Feinstein
Sophie Judah
John Kinsella
Ron Padgett
Pascale Petit
David Plante
David Shields
Susan Stewart
John Thieme

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Richard Berengarten
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Denise Duhamel
Consulting Editor: Marilyn Gaull
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Consulting Editor: Margot Livesey
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 6 Guest Artist: Anthony Whishaw

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. 10 poems from “Sonata Mulattica”by Rita Dove  

A footnote in musical history becomes the keystone to Rita Dove's latest book-length lyric narrative: In 1803 violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860), wunderkind progeny of a white European woman and a black "African Prince", travels from London to Vienna to meet the continent's "bad boy" musical genius, Ludwig van Beethoven. By all rights, the sonata subsequently inspired by and composed in honor of the mulatto's talents should have borne his name -- had not young George, still exuberant from having premiered the difficult piece to great acclaim, become fresh with a girl Ludwig also fancied. Around this crucial moment, Dove builds a passionate, eccentric pageant of eighteenth and nineteenth century life -- from Haydn's discovery of the dark-skinned child genius in the servants' quarters of a Hungarian castle to Paris right before the French Revolution; from the Prince of Wales' doomed pleasure palace in Brighton to the raucous open air entertainments offered by Vienna's Prater; from Napoleon's ravaged battlegrounds to the self-satisfied refinements of Cambridge. A panoply of luminaries and extras – grave robbers and courtiers, street musicians and aristocrats -- populate this grandiose yet melancholy tale.

The Witness                  

            Peckham, London: 1860

Yeah, that’s him, Bridgetower.

Didn’t know his given name.

George, eh?  Like the King. 

Fancy, fancy for that sour

pint of breath he was wheezing.

Half-blood and all, though

I didn’t mind him. Dusty, a bit; 

I couldn’t help brushing my sleeve

after greeting–– afraid he’d sprinkle

some of that brown my way.

Sorry; it ain’t right

to make fun of the fresh dead. 

Newly–– naw, I mean to say

late, departed–– you know,

them that’s just cooling . . . .

So he was a fiddler,

something of a stunner in his day.

“Day’s done, gone the sun”––

ain’t that a German song?  Heard it

somewhere.  Kinda mournful. 

Wonder could he play that.

The African Prince Sings Songs of Love

London, 1789

Guten Tag, Madame,

permit me, s'il vous plaît . . .

Ach, you are too kind!

C'est la musique, you understand,

quel jouissance, quel travail!

And my son, mon petit chou,

mój slodki chlopiec––barely ten,   

this bright kernel of a boy,

Wunderkind in allen Aspekten! 

Je ne sais pas –– ich weiß nicht . . .

sometimes I am betroffen –– overwhelmed ––

and words fail this flooded heart. 

Whereas you, süßes Fräulein,

you are une lumière –– excusez-moi,

a discerning light.  You see clearly

how wondrous is this music

he makes.  Mon Dieu,

um Gotteswillen, Allah'a sükür:    

There is such a thing

as beauty that hurts, nicht wahr?

A wound that fascinates,

dolce mordant, that aches

when you smile.  Right here,

my angel.  Yes there. O ja. Ooo la la. . . .   


Cambridge, Great St. Mary’s Church

                                      (George Bridgetower, 1807)

I kneel, but not in sufferance,

not in faith.  There is a fulcrum

beyond which the bow tip wobbles;

no ardency nor forceful wrist

can make it sing.  I am there,

at wit’s balancing point.  Music

pours through the blackened nave,

hollowing my bones to fit

the space it needs.  It needs

so much of me, the soul’s

wicked cartridge emptying

as fast as it fills.  I kneel

because even the reed bends

before God’s laughter

splits it, and the storm

moves on.




the days before me,

slack the reins, my horse run off.

What a fable–– 

to be dunked in kisses,

sprinkled with doubts,

then slathered with high-holy


I’m a shadow in sunlight,

unable to blush

or whiten in winter.

Beautiful monster,

where to next ––

when you can hear

the wind howl

behind you, the gate

creaking shut?


A stick.

A string.

A bow.

The twang

as the arrow

leaves it.

The twang


the imprint

it makes

on the air,


the breach

no one sees




The Violin Lesson:  Adagio

To bow           

            is to breathe:  open


                     fold again, slowly:

                                 deep inside

                    a wounded angel’s

                     wing throbs & you

                                        must find it: 







               like breathing:

                                                 (That’s rather fine, my boy!)










            wing hammering sky      ember to flame


                                                Bear down      

                                                Feel the air

                                          beneath your stroke

It’s your baby now    go on

                                                nestle it   

                                                bruise it 

                                                                 make it sing



Carlton House, London: 1812

Music played for the soul is sheer pleasure;

to play merely for pleasure is nothing                                                                

but work. Is anyone listening? I am

the First Violinist of the Prince Regent’s

Prized Private Orchestra, playing

for your satisfaction –– except

His Mad Majesty’s son is a gluttonous fool,

and I’m as invisible as a statue of a moor.


Laughter drifts between the staves

like sunlight through the iron-black pikes

of Windsor ’s Middle Ward, back

when I was beginning: the courtyard

a blazing field of chipped stones

combed into swirls, like the yellow dust

atEsterházy: matted down, awaiting

the guests’ arrival . . . everything

done for the pleasure of others,

so they might exclaim All this

for me? Such extravagance! ––

as it unrolled beneath their dainty steps.         

Stop bitching:  There’s worse work

and crueler wardens.  In the end,

each note sent pearling

over their dull heads

is mine–– although they believe

they own it all, and for me

to claim even a portion of it

is to be their servant.    

Mrs. Papendiek’s Diary (2)

Embittered negotiations with the King's musicians have led

to the regrettable situation in which I found myself

this morning. To begin, the benefit concert intended to announce

young Bridgetower to musical society

could not find adequate orchestral accompaniment;

the petition was rejected summarily by the royal musicians,

who steadfastly refuse to play extra musical events

ever since the King had dismissed their appeal

to be allowed employment off royal payroll;

this standoff was resolved by Mr. Papendieck’s offer

to host the concert at our house: and so to me

fell the task of supervising ticket sales, refreshment,

the arrangement of furniture, and the like. 

But Time will neither race nor tarry, and so all was sorted out. 

The guests arrived in high spirits ––and with some surprises;

protocol was smoothed over as best as circumstances permitted. 

Mrs. Jervois shone in her purple silk and gold-worked cape;

I had settled on my muslin dress with jacket,  

graced by a chip hat trimmed in deep mazarin blue, 

as befitting the hostess for the evening. 

The entertainments began–– a flute quartet

followed by a glee, and then the Viotti Concerto

played by young Bridgetower, who sparkled with pathos. 

I could tell others were as deeply affected

at the prospect of such talent among us.  

As the children could not be admitted officially

(for that would take seats away from paying subscribers),

my little Fred curled up on the floor, his back against the sofa,

for the first Act; and when the maid came looking

slid under and stayed there, through refreshments

and Clementi’s Duet in C, which opened the second Act;

after which he rose to kiss me and went sweetly off to bed. 

There followed more singing, two quartets with Bridgetower,
a symphony, and it was over––except for refreshments

up and down stairs, and a late supper for the performers. 

Although I retired when the ladies departed,

I could hear the men laughing well into the night.

Mrs. Papendieck's Diary (4)

I don’t know what to say, how to breathe–– not in

all my years at court have I ever borne such a strange

series of events, such impromptu effrontery and rescue. 

At the turn of the year, I had decided I would travel into town

for a few days’ visit with my mother and father

as soon as the weather heartened.  Finally, the first buds

freshened the roadside; I joined up with the Herschels

and together we boarded the post coach for London --

only to discover the senior Bridgetower already inside. 

The Herschels balked, but it would have hardly been Christian

to disembark, so we squeezed ourselves onto a bench

and made the best of the situation.  Our African Impresario

kept up a merry stream of talk, which I attempted to counterpoint. 

Mrs. Herschel was embarrassed and Mr. Herschel too shocked

(and worried as well, I’m sure, about the breach in social ranks)

to utter more than a choked good day; when we pulled up

to the White Horse Cellar, he seized his wife

by the elbow, doffed his hat, and scampered

before the coach had scarcely come to a standstill.  

Later that evening I was beset once again by the Moor,                                                    

this time lurking in one of the dark passageways

surrounding the Palace.  He asked to make

my parents’ acquaintance, and when I protested

that they were too old to receive guests, asked

for a loan to fund, as he put it, “his charge’s purposes.” 

I doubt the boy knew anything of the matter

nor would he have need of such charity; nevertheless,

I searched my purse for a guinea and a half

and resolved to forget both matter and money. 

But today came the greatest tragedy:  This afternoon

the very same braggart appeared at my door

with young George, asking if I would look after him

while he “tended to urgent business” in town! 

“Ask” is too much a word; he simply called

the coach to stop, walked the path up to my home,

and deposited the boy. 


his father had gone, the poor child

poured out his woes: that he was

forced to squirrel himself away

whenever his father “entertained” ––

which entertainment was frequent,

and loud; that he was ashamed of the life

his father led so flagrantly and which

consequently he, as his son, must endure. 

I held him to me as he wept;

I must speak to the Court about these events.

#8 Victory Cottages, Peckham, 1860

                                      “Tot ist tot.


Not true, what the living claim we regret in the last hour: 

no memories worth blubbering through, nor scrabbling for favor

in the eyes of our children, nor honor sought among friends. 

Drool travels unnoticed from collar to pillow while, suspended

by blankets, a thigh dangles, blameless and bare.

Shame has lost its sting in this penultimate hell,

these next-to-last days when we’re still “ourselves.” 

I don’t need wine or gossip or weather, I don’t give a fig

for warm socks or –– don’t laugh –– the summer’s first pear,

a fruit I haven’t been able to digest for twenty years

and have mourned for as long.  What’s any of it

compared to this draining of humors, this wondrous uncaring?

Pain’s an interference; Love is cumbersome.  For I loved only

what my fingers could do, and even they did not serve me