Living Will


Wolsak and Wynn. 2005. ISBN: 1-894987-02-0. 6.5 x 10, 167 pages. $22

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Bookman reviews2

by turns fabulous, poignant, tragik, full uv sly humours n laff out lowd passages, thees updatings uv the brillyant sonnets ar themselvs brillyant, a wunderful xciting reed, deeplee moovin, provokativ n a joy 2 xperiens. i highleee recommend ths latest magikulee xecutid work uv Harold Rhenisch. bill bissett

“Sonnet Pissonit.” Mr. Rhenisch, whose ancestors also translated Shakespeare, agrees. Shakey loved good thrust and parry, actors handy with codpiece and speech, and Rhenisch is an expert swordsman. Methinks the dark lady is unmasked at last. Let the play begin. Linda Rogers

bookman excerpts2


How to Cheat Death Without Cryogenics

The buzz around Shakespeare these days is whether Shakespeare was Shakespeare, or Francis Bacon, the courtier Edward de Verre, the alchemist John Dee, or the playwright Christopher Marlowe in disguise after feigning death in a bar fight so he could quietly disappear, beating John le Carré at the game of spycraft by a neat four centuries. The debate is whether Shakespeare, a simple country bumpkin, was capable of writing the intricate poetry and politically engaged plays which carry his name. Commonly, the theories presume that Shakespeare was paid to act the part of the playwright, fronting manuscripts written by a noble and educated man who had to protect himself by remaining anonymous, because only an educated nobleman could possibly have written such great, sly, and soaring things.

Sure. In towns like Alexis Creek, out in British Columbia’s isolated Chilcotin Plateau, in which poverty and the legacy of largely-successful attempts to destroy native languages have produced a generation of children barely able to deal with linguistic subtlety, a lot of instructional time is spent deciphering Shakespeare’s deliberately obscured and antiquated vocabulary As quite a number of teachers have put it to me, “It’s a rare child who comes through the school system caring anything at all for poetry.”

Will Shakespeare would have been on the side of those poor kids. After all, his Globe Theatre was in the bad part of town. Women weren’t allowed to work there, because while the plays were unfolding — while Hamlet, for instance, was teasing his girlfriend with talk of oral sex (it’s in the text) — prostitutes worked the crowd standing in the pit, while other women were shouldering through, selling dried fish, just as teenage girls today will sell you popcorn slathered with butter down at the Cineplex before any Sunday matinee; while Romeo was falling in love, pickpockets were plying their trade in the crowd. It was a circus.

Shakespeare’s plays weren’t exactly politically correct, either: boys dressed themselves as girls, girls dressed as boys, men loved men, women loved women (and even a donkey), sexual innuendo abounded, and anything went which the mind could imagine — a far cry from the paragon of aesthetic conservatism and social responsibility which Shakespeare has become today, as he is used to teach the young how plotting and symbolism are an elite, intellectual game. No wonder people are turning to Francis Bacon: the simplest detective story is an improvement on this schlocky romance.

But forget about Bacon. After four centuries, let’s talk about Will, as a man. In his sonnets, Will was worried that the beauty of his young lover would disappear with age and death, even though the love he felt for him was eternal. Time was the enemy: elite, disdainful time. Will proposed to fight Time by distilling his lover down to perfume. Will’s perfume bottles are his sonnets; the perfume is his verse, held in solution by his rhymes. Will wrote that in the future (where we live now) men will only need to read his sonnets to experience his love, to become a body housing the soul of a lover made eternal in his magical engines. It was not exactly a metaphor.

But then, literature had not exactly been invented yet. Talk of souls hadn’t become New Age yet, or even Pentecostal. When Elizabeth consulted her court astrologer John Dee on how to best counter the advancing Spanish Armada, he advised her, and her admiral, Sir Francis Drake, to refrain from pursuit, because the Spanish fleet would be broken up by storm. When a storm did destroy the Armada, many courtiers were convinced that Dee had conjured it. A reader curious to know what John Dee’s spell might have been like, needs only to crack open Shakespeare’s The Tempest: John Dee is the Duke who conjures up a storm, which rescues him from his island, which…well, you see. It is all gently mocking and delightful, the kind of thing you can laugh about with a lover, after drinking way too much peapod wine.

Except it was very, very real. In his sonnets, Shakespeare didn’t play the 20th Century game of irony. Shakespeare’s sonnets are revered today as the greatest poem sequence in the world, and, indeed, a good two dozen of them are among the most moving poems ever written. On the other hand, another two dozen are among the most convoluted. I swear that Shakespeare crumpled them up in a ball and tossed them into his wastepaper basket — and was appalled after someone rescued them, smoothed them out, and published them because they came from the Great Man. Please. We have been reading the things for 400 years, or, more likely, not. It ends here. Now.

I have taken the cap off of the sonnets. I have taken the bone cloak of death off of the man who bottled them. Here he is, in a series of notes scribbled to his lovers after lovemaking, or while waiting for them when they’re hours late, even while they’re cheating on him, separately and together, in a ménage a trois which in the end goes very sour.

Will pleads, taunts, caresses, and rages. He writes in ecstasy and even after his love has turned to hate, self-pity, and despair. If some of these poems are shocking, so was Shakespeare — but that shocking man holds the creative soul of our language. If we don’t get to know him, we’ll never get it right, and will never write with his creativity again.

Like Shakespeare’s, my versions mock, taunt, jibe, mourn, celebrate, whisper, cajole, caress, laugh, and even, sometimes, spit. I have removed the magical field of Shakespeare’s rhyme, because I believed he used it as a cloaking device to protect himself from the censors, and because at times it broke his message. I have included Shakespeare’s versions, and most of the enthusiasm of their original punctuation, so you can read between the originals and their reincarnations, to share the process of liberation and incarnation at the heart of this book. Shakespeare really did say all this stuff, although at times only slyly and out of the side of his mouth. I have put the sonnets into the present day, because as readers we deserve the same ability to stage one of Shakespeare’s performances as a stage director does, setting Hamlet in 19th Century Russia or late 20th Century New York, London, Vancouver, or Berlin The alternative, to read Shakespeare reverentially, in period dress, denies Shakespeare’s one truth: his lovers will live in us.


Time is Stalin. There’s only one way to really
outlive the bastard: join the underground. So,
why don’t you? What good will my words do
in the end, if you don’t memorize the Kama Sutra?
You’ve spent the last few years happily teasing
and being teased, but there are many girls
who’d be thrilled to spread their legs for you
and have you pump them up. Your sons
would be more like you than any picture
I can paint with words. These are just trinkets.
Hang them above your bed. Burn them in a candle.
Circle them in, with salt. Rip them up. Only life
can resist death, and nothing that anyone says
or does, whether acted with the best of intentions
or wrapped up with a bow at the Christmas
office party can make you live, like a baby in a petrie dish,
in the eyes of men. You can’t turn lead into gold, either,
and no-one has ever shown that Elvis lives.
Don’t just sit there. Get out of the house!
Call some young thing up. Your only chance
of survival lies in how good you are in bed.


But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify your self in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live your self in eyes of men.
To give away yourself, keeps yourself still,
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.


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