Tidying the Tower: the Lady of Shalott without Tennyson

I did not want to be awakened
called from cloth to casement

when he stepped into my mirror, a fire
plumed in my body

from frame to frame he filled its space
till space existed for his resplendent bearing

his unbearable light put out the world
emptied me of the pictured landscape

back then, I never could tell
what in the mirror was me, the room, or the world

two small boys, their red bonnets bobbing
among yellow leaves: saw all from above, my perspective

around a topography of hills and distance
my hair grew briary, seasons unfolded over my face

one winter a herd of deer stepped
delicately over the frozen river

their soft nubile horns nudged
velvety through my threads

the sight of him cracked my gaze:
sickened of sight, I wanted touch

stones crumbled under the weight
of my longing, the pattern unravelled

small boys bled on the flagstone floor,
deer crashed through ice

tidied the tower, twigs from my hair, swept up
bits of mirror, spread

tapestries on the floor to lie on
a glittering professional, he did not turn back

up there, I’d said, this blue for the water:
it must have been a trick of the light, effect of distance

in here it’s more like grey and ever
so swift

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Tidying the Tower”?

“Tidying the Tower” was prompted by Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” which still eludes me even though I’ve taught it many times. Tennyson’s poem is a riddle. In writing the poem, I wanted Shalott to have an opportunity to say things about her world and experience. Imagining her speech was a way of trying to understand the character Tennyson had created while deviating from his creation at the same time. In Opening the Island(2002), there’s a section of poems where a woman character in a literary work talks back to the author of the work or to a male character in the work. This poem is one of them.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Tidying the Tower”?

In terms of form, I use couplets so that the reader will step slowly through the poem. Because Shalott is an artist, a weaver, the poem employs many visual details. She is a watcher. And because Lancelot (the “glittering professional”) does not give her a glance, does not stop for her, she despairs to the point of madness, a condition that is manifest in the chaotic state of the tower and her appearance—the need for “tidying.” More visual details. Also, the poem employs a time shift, retreating from the moment she sees him, her moment of choice, into the past when she had been contented, and then it returns to the present.

This poem “Tidying the Tower: the Lady of Shalott without Tennyson” originally appeared in Auto/biography. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 172 (Spring 2002): 112-113.

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