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Shakespearean Blues by Shirley Graham
reviewed by Hilary Turner

Shakespearean Blues
Shirley Graham
Mother Tongue


“Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion.” Thus proclaimed Samuel Johnson in 1765 in his “Preface” to The Plays of William Shakespeare. The old and venerable idea that the auditor or reader of Shakespeare’s plays is indirectly himself or herself the speaking subject of those plays is tested in a new way by Shirley Graham in her collection of poems, Shakespearean Blues. Graham does more here than merely identify with such characters as Miranda, Ophelia, Gertrude, Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Lear, Richard III, and even Bottom the Weaver; she inhabits their consciousness, she echoes their hopes and doubts, and she extrapolates from their insights and their foolishness to the exigencies of the present day. The technique might be described as the poetic equivalent of method acting, yet with the author’s voice still distinguishable even under layers of assumed personae. In “Blue Walking Shadow,” for example, we encounter “A Poor Player” who “all his life long” has

tried to be
not to be himself
studying hypocrisy
the actor’s posture
so carefully
he forgot
his own name

The superimposition of one voice on another is even more striking when Graham adopts the first person. Speaking as Prospero, the weaver of spells and illusions, she obliquely refers to her own authorial capacity to conjure realities through words, intricately arranged:

Will anyone ever know what I have chosen
to do with my words? Will my words know?
Will I?
Having something to say
is a dangerous form of magic.
and lonely.
I am tired of loneliness.

The book is divided into four thematic sections, each titled with one of Shakespeare’s more oracular lines. For example, the poems grouped under Hamlet’s subjectivist declaration “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so” explore the gap between the mind’s confident ability to shape the world and its rueful recognition of its own finitude. Here is Graham speaking in the voice of Katherina from The Taming of the Shrew:

I thought I would be happy
winning the verbal chess match
the jab, the trap, the double bind
unleashed on my opponent
my voice modulating assuredly
my gaze steady as a pendulum dagger
but there is a reason
honey bees die after the sting

Like most serious students of Shakespeare, Graham is alert to his capacity for speaking “not for an age but for all time,” and some of the most intriguing poems in this volume repurpose the words of a Shakespearean character for a contemporary situation. Thus Lear’s lament “O, reason not the need,” while pardonable at a time “before mankind was bursting / at the seam,” strikes a different note in a world of excess, where

the making, taking
and tossing enough
cheap objects to clog
five oceans

have created “a topography of waste.” In similar fashion, Graham gives us a version of Richard III, wondering aloud in the sly accents of Donald Trump, “Was ever nation in this humour wooed? Was ever nation in this humour won?” It is comforting to recognize Trump as merely the latest in a long series of incarnations of the Machiavel so well drawn by Shakespeare.

A final layer in this complex collection consists of Graham’s subtle yet moving use of autobiographical material. Never completely out of sight, this personal dimension comes through most clearly in a series of twelve haikus or “one breath poems.” Many of these depict the struggles of midlife; most are associated with the ruminations of Shakespeare’s mature heroes. In response to Richard II’s lines, “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories about the death of kings,” Graham writes of a more immediate death:

a sudden thought
en route to the funeral
my friend won’t be there.

Then, responding to a line from Two Gentlemen of Verona (“Banished from her / is self from self: a deadly banishment”),she writes:
fallen cedar branch

my son moved far to the East
I fold his old shirts

It is Graham’s stated wish that her readers will discover an appreciation of Shakespeare equal to her own. For those who are already on that path, this collection is intriguing evidence of how one poet reads another, and of how “words, words, words,” as Hamlet would have it, keep on coalescing in new patterns, resonating, and acquiring new significance down the generations.

Hilary Turner teaches English at the University of the Fraser Valley.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 22.