“The Ambassador Diaries of Jean de Bosschère and Edgar Poe” has three sections, the first and third containing twelve stanzas each, the second containing five. Each stanza consists of six free-verse lines. Although Norman Dubie’s title refers to Edgar Allan Poe and poet Jean de Bosschère, the poem is about Conrad Aiken (1889-1973). From childhood on, Aiken loved Poe’s work, and he admired the poetry of Bosschère. Like these poets, Aiken was an orphan. The word “ambassador” comes from one of the passages in Aiken’s poem “Time in the Rock,” parts of which Dubie used as epigraphs in this poem, and Aiken referred to his Preludes for Memmon (1931) as a “spiritual diary.”
In section 1, Dubie addresses Aiken and then narrates an anecdote based on Aiken’s poem “And in the Hanging Gardens,” whose characters—a king, a princess, and a knave—were derived from Aiken and his parents. Dubie combines the king and the knave in a single figure and provides a historical name, King Henry VIII. The young king has thrown his drinking cup from a window of his castle and goes out in the rain, cursing it and his mother, to find it. When he does, he lies down at the edge of a meadow to sleep, but servants are coming to return him to his mother, who waits with dry linens. Dubie says that the king’s quest reflects a desire to be down in the muddy fields, dreaming of a castle in the air. Referring to Aiken’s fear of inheriting his father’s insanity, Dubie asks if his king is sane. When Aiken was eleven, his father shot Aiken’s mother and then committed suicide. Dubie pictures the boy going from his dollhouse in the garden to his parents’ bedroom and discovering the bodies. It begins to rain, and the walls of the dollhouse become “walls of terror, everywhere.”
In section 2, Dubie quotes from Aiken’s “Goya”—“Why wake the ones who sleep, if awake they/ Can only weep.” Positive change will not occur in the world unless disturbing truths about human nature and the human condition are brought to consciousness. One such truth is the finality of death. Referring to Aiken’s “Cliff Meeting,” Dubie would like to think such a meeting of lovers will come after death for the woman who has died, but the most he will say is that it will be an “absence” of everything that is “not pretty.”
In section 3, Dubie pictures Aiken writing poetry to heal the wound caused by his parents’ deaths. Although Aiken won a Pulitzer Prize and Sigmund Freud considered his novel Great Circle (1933) a masterpiece, Dubie tells Aiken: “They no longer read your poems.” Suggesting a reason, Dubie says Aiken disgusted the sheriff with details about his parents’ deaths—“You told the truth.” After asking Aiken if he hated women, Dubie states that the “government of children is left to women,” with “the Fathers leaving us” from the beginning. These lines relate to Aiken’s poem “Landscape West of Eden,” in which Eve wants to stay in Eden and Adam wants to explore beyond it. Dubie suggests that some children become “orphan-poets” because of this conflict; he wrote his first poem when he was age eleven. Referring to another of his poems, “Elegies for the Ochre Deer on the Walls at Lascaux,” which includes three suicides, Dubie says he once compared “the heads of two/ Bald priests” to the “buttocks/ Of lovers fleeing into the trees.” This image, combined with those of rain in the poem (collected in a reference to the biblical flood), suggests a new beginning. Love and poetry offer the possibility of a new Eden.
Forms and Devices
In addition to his use of literary and historical allusions, Dubie employs parallels in diction and syntax, including images of color and clothing, to establish relationships among characters and incidents in the poem. In section 1, he refers to a “dark courtesan” with “white braids” and to the “dark room that morning” where Aiken’s parents died. In section 2, he tells of the “lady in white” who “fell down this morning” and to the child who ran to her aid, as Aiken ran to his mother’s. The lady addresses the child as Peter, saying she had never felt so “carefree.” Aiken believed that his mother, although dead, spoke to him. Dubie renders this in a passage derived, as was the name “Peter,” from Aiken’s poem “The Coming Forth of Osiris Jones”: “There was a voice speaking” of a handkerchief, of a flower.
Dubie establishes another link with a color image when he refers to Aiken’s “red-eyed dolls” and to children who are kept “scrubbed and red/ And crying” by their mothers. This also connects with King Henry’s mother, waiting with dry linens, and with Aiken’s mother, who “had washed” his legs. Dubie creates another parallel with the color yellow. King Henry has “yellow sleeves,” and the Nazis burned Great Circle because they considered it a “yellow-book, decadent,” which is ironic, because it was Henry VIII and the Nazis who were decadent. They parallel the “princes and priests” who wanted to “pickle Goya’s feet” as well as the priests of literature who have banished Aiken’s work from the canon of accepted texts. The reference to priests also connects with the bald-headed priests who contrast with the lovers of the poem’s final stanza.
Also, in contrast to the king’s “yellow sleeves,” Goya “wore out the elbows of his sleeves.” The king “sweeps” his slipper through the grass, whereas Poe, “wearing a shawl,” coughs while “sweeping snow.” Dubie contrasts the opulence of kings with the poverty of poets and artists. In another reference to clothing, Aiken’s father “paused, while dressing,” to murder Aiken’s mother. Henry VIII lives on in infamy because he had two of his wives beheaded. Dubie writes that the king left “both the children and the women.” Aiken, himself, was divorced from his first two wives and left his children with their mother. In another comparison, the king has “wild-pig in his beard” and Goya “drew a pig on a wall.” In his fictionalized autobiography, Ushant (1952), Aiken tells of his mother drawing a pig to entertain her children, and in Great Circle he relates his nightmare about a crucified pig.
The study of these and other parallels in “The Ambassador Diaries of Jean de Bosschère and Edgar Poe” and the reading of works alluded to by Dubie in the poem do much to provide further insights into the works of both writers.