I’ve started brewing poems lately, after a long time of not.
A bit about this one: For many years, I’ve been drawn to a character named Mad Maudlin, who appears in 17th and 18th century Bedlamite ballads. She was the female counterpart to a “Mad Tom o’Bedlam” character, the catch-all term for asylum inmates released to the London streets and left to beg alms.
Most Bedlamite lyrics are from Mad Tom’s point of view—but years ago, I learned to sing one from Mad Maudlin’s, in which she’s been parted from Tom o’Bedlam and goes on a ravenous, lunatic quest to find him.
I love to sing that old song. Right now I’m polishing up an essay about it. This past fall, a poem started to take shape. Why not.
* * *
How It Comes About that Mad Maudlin Travels a Season with the Circus of Mercy
Look you priests and keepers.
knows he built me with a hole. So we are made,
some of us creepy peaches, we hungry
jades, mud-green Magdalene stones
waiting to be set in a ring. And I am
the copper setting awaiting my Bedlam stone
and I am the open catacombs I see children
play in, fiesta-decorate and amorously christen
till the day the grown-ups stop it up
and stop their play.
So I hunger for Mad Tom.
He went begging. I went begging.
We ate each other.
I want nothing else to eat.
The circus found me hacking at a statue
on the Isle of Man at some Pentecostal cathedral.
I was having a moment. I was back at the
infirmary, tasked with the night shift to feed the fairies
with their weasel teeth, to cut more mince pies
from doxies’ thighs, to brew the gall, what-have-you, for what,
for bugger-all, what-all they’ve had me do, I had to do—
Stop, said a voice. I stopped.
I learned later this was an angel and not a two-story kaleidoscope.
I learned later this was chief assistant to the Ringmaster
who found me, machete and gargoyle.
What did they give you here? said the angel.
Just booze and stones, and the wrong stones, I said.
I think the wrong person is home. They’re angry I’m still hungry.
I’m made with a hole. Please take me to Tom o’ Bedlam.
We know, the angel said. Your interview is compleat.
The train is all coaled up to roll. Come eat.