‘Sonnets from the “New Heart’s Ease”’, Z. Finch

Illustrations © 2015 L.E. Badillo

[Excerpted from The New Heart’s Ease: An Introduction And Analysis, ed. Finch et. al. From Chapter 7, “The Chatterton Codex.”]

 [ Earth Over Sky, © 2015, L.E. Badillo ] The destruction of the New Heart’s Ease ranks among the most piquant mysteries of our time. Who can forget the excitement of its discovery? How many childhood evenings did we spend riveted to our screens, watching the excavation unfold—perhaps the first real media event of the age of deep-space broadcasting technology?

For younger readers, some history may be in order. The New Heart’s Ease was a colony ship, launched from Sestos in the Arcturus system in late 2364. In some ways, it was typical of its day: A generation ship, it carried two hundred and fifty voyagers, who expected to live out their days en route to the planet they hoped their grandchildren would settle.

In other ways, however, the New Heart’s Ease was unusual. As Sestos launching records show, it was commissioned by an obscure colony of artists, and was designed in part as an “aesthetic statement.” Its charter included the stipulation that its inhabitants continue to practice their disciplines during the journey. Had the voyage gone according to plan, the colonists would have populated their new world with artists (an experiment whose possible drawbacks, though intriguing grounds for speculation, will here be left unexplored out of respect for the dead).

Four decades into its journey, the ship’s messages back to Sestos abruptly broke off. Regrettable though it seems, this was all too common an outcome for colony ships in those pre-hyperdrive days: the distances were vast, the undertakings risky, and the home worlds entirely unequipped for rescue missions. Sestos sent no investigators, and the New Heart’s Ease disappeared from the historical record, unmarked and unmourned.

Until, thirty years ago, a high-speed ship of the contemporary fleet stumbled across the hulk. The wreckage it found astonished the worlds. No one can forget the images: the lonely gleam of the rescue ships’ lanterns, the dark, sweeping curves of the petal-shaped hull…

And yet, even as the excavation revealed more about the ship’s creators, it also deepened their mystery. Just what had been the intentions of this art-ship’s creators? Why the eight vast figures, winged and haloed, limned across the cargo-bay vaults? Why the design of the living spaces, with their trapdoors, revolving platforms, and stockpiles of horned masks and erotic automata? And why had the entire aft exterior been designed to mimic one of Earth’s legendary lost cathedrals, complete with gargoyles, two ornate spires, and sixteen pairs of (elegant, but functionally useless) flying buttresses?

Similar questions plague our attempts to reconstruct the ship’s demise. We may never know the cause of the explosive decompression that killed the settlers (as well as blowing the heads off all the pieces in the command deck’s sculpture-garden, which is believed to have reproduced the entire contents of the legendary Bargello Gallery, as well as an impressive full-scale replica of Mikkel-Vangelis’ Dying Slave).

Of course, theories abound; the most widely accepted suggests a structural weakness in the ship’s fore hull, whose unusual design incorporated a six-meter circular window. 1 However, the real cause of the disaster will probably never be known.

The colonists left little in the way of explanation. With ship data banks ravaged by centuries of deep-space radiation, we are left to try to recreate their lives from the physical artifacts they left behind—a struggle much like the one we have faced with our own ancestral planet since the Earthflare Catastrophe.

Luckily, among the pansy fantasias and mechanical puppets, the ship has yielded a few written records that survive in self-consciously old-fashioned forms. It is to one of these that we now turn: the so-called “Chatterton codex,” from which the following chapter presents an annotated selection.

When introducing the Chatterton poems to new readers, we face the question: How to frame these pieces in the context of the visual works the Sestos colonists left behind? Perhaps like this: Like those physical artifacts, they seem characterized by an intent interest in dredging the blurred and fissured history of old Earth’s art. The New Heart’s Ease’s aesthete-voyagers seem to have spent much time absorbed in studying history. Such a task would have inherent frustrations, given the lacunae that the Flare Catastrophe has left in our knowledge of the details of our ancestors’ world.

In trying to fathom the settlers’ motives, historians have postulated endless reasons. Were they simply intellectual masochists? Did some aspect of their strange, closed society lead them to place heightened value on digging through a broken past?

A few researchers (cf. Taiwo, Navalagi) have gone so far as to suggest the colonists may have glorified the very raggedness of the records. Did they make an aesthetic game of seeking the knowable, and filling in the gaps between? Did this fill some kind of spiritual need? Such a cult’s rituals are hard to imagine, but they are not beyond the reach of possibility. Further, is it conceivable that this might, somehow, have played a role in their mysterious demise?

Speculation can lead the mind down strange paths. Perhaps this is why so much of the conjecture about the New Heart’s Ease feels, at this distance, less like scholarship than storytelling. Given the lack of concrete anthropological evidence, it seems probable that the people and works of the ill-fated vessel—the bizarre fragments of writing, sculpture, tapestry and music they created during their forty years between the stars—are destined to remain an unexplained legacy: a gift from and to the universe, a whimsy, and an abiding puzzle.

We turn now to the Chatterton Codex.

The hypotheses about the Chatterton poet can be briefly summarized. She was certainly young; the odds are good that she had been born on the ship. The Chatterton texts may have been the spontaneous productions of an over-exuberant imagination, or—perhaps more likely—were set as an educational project by a tutor or pedagogue, as they draw heavily on preserved classics of archaic Earth poetry. (We assume, based on both available evidence and principles of parsimony extracted from history, that the poet was female, though some of the pieces show a cheerful disregard for gender fixity.)

The pieces do not lend themselves to any obvious overarching interpretation, though they repeat certain broad themes (e.g. love, the constellations, and a certain fondness for robots). These are hardly remarkable subjects for a young poet, terrestrial or otherwise; indeed, for one who had spent her life on a flower-shaped starship and been raised not to expect to see planetfall, they may verge on the predictable. On the other hand, we might view them as a reminder that poets across the centuries have shared similar obsessions, particularly those who have spent too much time looking at the stars.

Our present excerpt reproduces six short pieces, which the editors consider representative of the Chatterton collection as a whole. They are accompanied by footnotes, which represent our best attempts to identify the source texts on which the Chatterton poet based her variations. We must consider ourselves lucky, of course, to retain these ancient texts, even as we lament the historical details of context and authorship lost to the Catastrophe.

We hope the reader will enjoy projecting herself back to a time when these verses—and their authors—would have been widely known. One imagines the Chatterton poet engaged in a similar flight of fancy. A melancholy enterprise, to be sure, for all its charm: to explore in imagination a distant homeworld, full of travellers, bridges, and now-vanished flowers, that neither the writer nor her readers can ever hope to see.

Alert readers will note that the sixth selection is not, in fact, a sonnet, but a two-part pastoral in iambic tetrameter. But it, too, is representative, for although the manuscript bears the title (scrawled, in old-fashioned ink on paper, in a laborious neo-Gothic hand) Sonnets from the ‘New Heart’s Ease,’ a good half of the codex’s poems bear no relation to the sonnet form whatever. Whether this was intended as irony on the author’s part will, alas, never be known.

#1. The Traveller.

A Moral Tale from Far-Away.

I met a traveller from a distant star,
Who said: “A dark-faced satellite revolves
Around my planet. Sunk in like a scar
A black door lies. Its carving says: ‘Who solves
This riddle may learn of the wondrous things
That my great makers built with their small hands:
Steel birds with iron throats, cities with wings,
Genies who coughed up fire… We fused sand
To glass, cities to ash. Beware our wrath
And look upon our strength!’ Below, the sea
And sky lie waste and dead.”

Stopped on our path,
I asked him home with me, to rest and stay,
He and all his companions. “I journey
Alone,” he said, and went upon his way. 2

#2. On Immortality.
The poet’s song to her robot love.

Not dotage, nor the slow cascading shame
of ages will erode your splendid face;
your mouth, like amber, will preserve my name
long after I fall to my final grace.

Let others wrack their hearts with griefs and fears;
lay roses under crumbling musty stones;
spill their hearts’ blood in lakes of salty tears
to wet their lovers’ dry and dusty bones.

Through my apocalypse you will walk tall
in sunset lands. Your grating iron breath
will challenge and survive my final fall,
the cease of passion, and the end of flesh.

Then, love, remember me, who still defies
her numbered days in your bright numbered eyes. 3

#3. An Old Spaceman Sings to the Dark.
Enumerating the Chambers of the Heart.

How do I love Space? Let me count the ways:
I love it as the Lord loves those She calls
To tumble through our slow, infinite days
Up in Her infinite and silent halls.

I love it endlessly, as men below
Love without end the foam or sand or sky.
I love its cold, as children love the snow;
Its weightlessness, as children love to fly.

I love its distant fires, with a joy
I first learned in the darkness of old Earth
When I chased fireflies through endless night;
And when the time comes for my second birth,
I will shoot out again like that swift boy,
Burning with love as I spin down through light. 4

#4. The Beauty of the Newer World.
The poet defends her choice of muse to her antique inspirers.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun:

In fact, they’re more like stoplights. For her skin,
It’s less like swans than scaffolding, and none
Could claim her hair is more like silk than tin.

You, ancient bards! you’d mock my choice of muse.
Your lovers were all roses, perfume, air.
But could you see her, you’d choose as I choose:
—Her breasts like mountains veined with silver, hair
Sparking with lightning, cheek like gelid wine
Pressed on my heated shoulder; and, below,
Her form silver as shadows, sharp, sublime
As marbles, mountains, glaciers, deserts, snow.

And when she laughs, she’s lovely and unplanned
As any woman made by Nature’s hand. 5

#5. On the Climbing of Metaphorical Bridges.
The Cynical Spacer, in the Dense Silence of Earth Orbit, is Inspired to Poetry.

“Earth has not anything to show more fair”:
That’s Wordsworth, but I’ll take him on.—Since I
Have nothing else to do up here, more high
Than Wordsworth ever climbed the wide stone stair
Of London Bridge. (Or was that Westminster?
It doesn’t matter.) Well: with poet’s eye
He looked down on his city, and the sky
Was filled with aching music.

… Seems I care,
More than I ever knew, about that wan
Green eye below—the little world apart.
In silence here, we look down, once again,
To find the world, tiny, no bigger than
My fist pressed tight against the windowpane,
The size of my small, roaring, human heart. 6

#6. Part One: An Ascension.
The Passionate God to His Love.

Come live with me and be my love,
And I will swing you up above
The stews and cities, broils and wars
Into the peaceful field of stars.

And we will lie upon the floes
Of milky ice, where no man goes,
And fly where the white ravens fly,
And drink the fountains of the sky.

Your beauty, drap’d in silver thread
Pulled from the full moon’s spider-web,
And wrapped in jeweled Orion’s belt,
Will spark the cold North Star to melt;

And I will make your body fresh
And burn away your earthy flesh
In starry rivers, which will wreathe
Your hands in lights, and fill your breath.

I’ll cut thee out in little lights,
And love thee through ten thousand nights;
And thou wilt never need to die,
But walk in beauty endlessly.

So leave thy father and thy stove,
And be a goddess up above.
If my entreaties may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love. 7

#6. Part Two: A Retrogression.
The Maid’s Reply to the Sky God.

If all the earth and sky were young,
And truth lived on every god’s tongue,
They sweet endearments might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.

But Time pulls stars from sky to ground,
And swings the earth on her slow round,
And lovers’ full moons wane again,
Above the gods as over men.

How doth your love if she outstays
The end of her ten thousand days?
Thy gown will fade, thy love will shiver,
Forsaken by the starry river.

I have known maids of weaker will
Who walked with gods up the tall hill:
We see them now in darkling skies,
A thousand grieving pairs of eyes.

The night wind sobs, “Maidens, beware,”
As we comb out our night-black hair;
The cold wind sighs, “I thought I’d wed,”
As we prepare our vestal beds.

No, I will keep to house and stove
And leave the sky to gods above.
When truth and faith your hearts improve,
I’ll take thee then, and be thy love. 8

Closing Thoughts

 [ Faith and Relics, © 2015, L.E. Badillo ] The customary editorial conclusion provides both a synthesis of the foregoing material, and a kind of soothing closure. However, the Chatterton Codex challenges such efforts. All the productions of the New Heart’s Ease—so unnervingly untethered from context—defy us to try to extract from them either coherence or comfort.

Separated from the evidence by such a span of years, at what point does the researcher enter into the realm traditionally reserved for the poet—the realm, that is, not of historical science but of inventionand find herself spinning stories out of the tenuous fragments that remain to us, in order to assuage our terror of the abysses that constantly open below our feet, threatening to swallow the knowledge of our own past?

We live in the grip of such questions. Across the gulf of so many centuries, our grasp of allusion grows tenuous; symbolism and allegory crumble away. As the context of the original writer recedes, dissolving into the blur of time and of information loss, we feel less and less sure of being able to extract any meaning from her works, unless it be the philosophical certainty that we are all subject to the passage of time.

As Rally points out (whoever she may really have been, whatever she may really have meant), entropy is always at our heels. Flowers wither, coral shatters, even starships die.

We, your editors, have found ourselves staring into such abysses throughout this project. We have found that, the longer one reads, the less stable one begins to feel. One starts to doubt one’s own feet on the ground, the stability of one’s position in time, even the immutability of one’s individuality. The philosophical uncertainties our researches evoke—Will our voices live beyond us when we’re gone? Can we be sure we’re any more real, ourselves, than these historically dubious ghosts?—are enough to distract anyone from tool or text; they are enough to haunt dreams.

Indeed, we confess that we have begun to find the coherence of our own identities imperiled by these metaphysical ruminations. We acknowledge it with humility, and not entirely without fear.

We will allow ourselves, then, to make good our escape from this vortex of signification with what certainty we still posses intact. In closing, we beg the reader’s permission to refer you one last time to Appendix 7, where, we hope, whatever ambiguities remain may find their resolution. And we once more commend the reader to considering works of the past, where—although, even while illuminating the vistas of a lost and distant world, it also threatens the sense of solidity we depend on for the present—we are usually in good company.

Spare a thought, reader, for the Chatterton poet: as she exists now, in our unsure reconstructions; as she was then, swimming between the stars and in the black lakes of history; as she was destined to become, when, in the moment of a single percussive blast, her voice broke off and her biography, with her breath, vanished into the silence of space and the vast, chaotic ignorance of time. And perhaps—if we may put in a request, we whose voices will sound or have sounded in the reader’s mind from some point in her past (or, who knows?, her future)—perhaps you might spare a thought for us, entities increasingly uncertain and unmoored in space and time, as well.

1 In a style believed to have once been called either rayonnant, or perhaps rose. For further reading and architectural diagrams, see Appendix 7 [not reproduced in this edition, for reasons of both space and metaphysics].

2 The source text for this sonnet is believed to be the work of a poet known as Pi Bi Shall-ye, who, records suggest, thrived in the first half of the pre-Earthflare (P.E.) 1800s.
   Although scholars possess a fair amount of information about Shall-ye, there is ongoing debate about which sources should be considered valid and which unreliable. It is not, for example, entirely clear whether Shall-ye kept her heart in a bureau; whether she did or did not invent androids; and whether she died of brain cancer, or by falling off a boat.
   It has been further suggested that “Shall-ye” may have originally been two entities now conflated into one. Bautista has put forward the possibility that Shall-ye was a pair of twins (conjoined?), while Hoàng opines that one, or both, may have been male. Please see Appendix 7 for further discussion. Interpretations of the original text—whose central conceit involves “vast… legs of stone” abandoned in a desert—vary widely. In a reversal from earlier scholarship, recent consensus inclines to the view that the reference is to a ruined monument of human ruler and not, however tempting the conclusion, to the mummified corpse of a Titan Automaton.

3 The original of this text is attributed to one Wim Shaxperd, a name perhaps familiar to antiquarians. She is believed to have thrived c. P.E. 1500-1600, under the Emperatrix Isobathy First.
   The extant accounts of Shaxperd’s life are more than usually contradictory. If all credible sources are to be believed, she was simultaneously a glove-maker, a Countess, a nom de plume, a time traveler, a Spaniard, and (as Hoàng suggests) a boy.
   We have an unusual number of Shaxperd’s poems and fragments. The source text for this Chatterton poem begins,
   “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme…”

   Its central conceit, which is somewhat obscure and may be metaphorical, seem to involve immortality. Eternal life has been put on the table, attainable via some form of alchemical reaction. The feasibility of generating the said reaction depends—in a way not made quite clear by the text—upon both the sincerity of the poet’s love and her skill at elaborating cenotaphs: apparently, a not-uncommon symbolic juxtaposition in amatory poetry of the time.
   Despite the allusion to “the living record of your memory,” consensus is near-complete that it should not be seen as a literal reference to either cognitive upload or brain transfer. (Jayaraman, however, makes a convincing argument to the contrary; see Appendix 7.)

4 The source text of this piece is attributed to one Ebby Bronen.
   Bronen worked in England during the long reign of the Emperatrix Vectoria. Little is known about the poet’s life.
   There is some debate, especially from Hoàng, about whether Bronen was one of the rare, ‘minor,’ male poets of the age. (See especially Appendix 7.)

5 This is the second piece whose source text is attributed to Wim Shaxperd, c. PE 1500~1600. For more on her life, see Footnote 2.
   While the source text for this piece is well established, scholars disagree strongly about what effect Shaxperd may have been aiming for. Consider, e.g., lines 3 and 4 of the sonnet:
   “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.”

   These lines alone have generated substantial debate: Given that the period is believed to have been only Middle-Low on the Chatelet Technology Scale, should we understand the beloved as having been literally capable of extruding artificial filaments from her scalp?

6 The source text is attributed to Wem Warsworth, believed to have thrived P.E. 1700s~1800s.
   The Chatterton poet here engages with the earlier poet and the original poem on an unusually intimate level, using the poet’s preferred nom de lettres, and referring to the bridge upon which the original poem is set.
   Warsworth is a writer much associated with Earth’s nature, and the original text evokes a “city… asleep.” The images employed—of a human world “open unto the fields” and sky, “all bright and glittering in the smokeless air”—seem particularly poignant when read from our position.
   Though aspects of the text seem prophetic—especially the last line, in which the city’s “mighty heart is lying still”—most scholars think Warsworth, like Shaxperd in 1.1, was exploiting a metaphor for evocative effect, and was probably not a precocious dabbler in the field of polistic consciousness.
   A note on names: The true spelling of this writer’s name is a source of ongoing debate. While some evidence exists for an authentic orthography of “Words-worth,” as used by the Chatterton poet, this seems so implausibly felicitous for a poet that most scholars, invoking the principle of Ockham’s Kariss, agree that it is almost certainly a pseudonym.
   The Chatterton poet, while addressing Warsworth by her chosen name, also playfully amuses herself by imagining Warsworth as male.

7 This piece is attributed with fairly high confidence to C. Marloe, a contemporary of Shaxperd, who would have thrived in the 1600s.
   Consonant with the general uncertainty that clouds this period, some researchers have put forth the idea that Marloe did not in fact exist, but was a secondary identity created by Shaxperd. There is also some support for the inverse theory—i.e. that the fictional Shaxperd may have been an invention of the historical Marloe.
   Elaborating on these postulates, recent papers have also explored the notions that the actual Shaxperd and Marloe (assuming we grant historical existence to one or both), might have been collaborators (per Visser), lovers (per Fenech) and/or, one or both, male (per Hoàng, obviously).
   Proponents of another recent hypothesis suggest that both Marloe and Shaxperd were themselves inventions of an as-yet-unidentified third party. The identity of this poet has been suggested to be identifiable with an alchemist, an abbess, or another Spaniard; or (a view held by a minority) all of the above.
   For a concise summary by Timblo of recent developments, please see Appendix 7.

8 This piece has generally been attributed to one Sir Walter Rally, or Raleigh. She would have been a near contemporary of Marloe and Shaxperd.
   We do not know whether Rally’s riposte to Marloe (whose historical existence, as the reader will at this point have gathered, is in serious doubt) is pure poetic conceit, or had its roots in some actual interaction. It should also go without saying that we are not certain if Rally actually existed.
   We would like to take this opportunity to point out the way in which the question summarizes the difficulties—of epistemology, of ontology, of historicity—raised by the work of the Chatterton poet. If we could set aside the mysteries bequeathed to us by the information loss of old Earth’s records, or those of the New Heart’s Ease, we would still find that uncertainty arises when we try to see through the layers of misdirection behind which poets have cloaked, down through the millennia, not only their meanings but their identities. How can we hazard with any confidence what Rally’s intentions may have been, vis-à-vis Marloe, when we have only the scantiest information regarding the world they inhabited? How can we attribute individual motivations, when we cannot be certain that either Rally or Marloe ever actually lived?

© 2015 Z. Finch

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