A tour de force for our times

‘The Lamb Cycle’ gives us a new take on Mary and her lamb.


Spring into summer with a romp through a lineup of famous English poets imitated, in an act of homage, by former Kent State professor David R. Ewbank, to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and accompanied by Kate Feiffer’s delightful illustrations.

“The Lamb Cycle: What the Great English Poets Would Have Written About Mary and Her Lamb (Had They Thought of It First)” began as poems written offhandedly by Ewbank to amuse his flagging students at the end of a long semester. He ended with an appreciation of how much writing imitations enriched his understanding of each writer’s stylistic habits, typical subjects, and vision of the world.

From the 16th century through the 20th century, Ewbank re-envisions, in a tour de force, 32 writers from Edmund Spenser, famous for “The Faerie Queene,” through John Donne and the 17th century metaphysical poets, to the Romantics, including Emily Bronte, John Keats, and William Wordsworth, and into the 20th century modernism of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, and the fierce honesty of Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith.

Edmund Spenser leads the parade of poems with Ewbank imitating “The Faerie Queene’s” deliberate use of archaic language and pastoral setting to tell, in this case, a romantic tale of Mary and her lamb as if she were a medieval lady exemplifying the virtues of steadfastness and loyalty. Among the later 17th century metaphysical poets, Ewbank riffs off John Donne’s passionate, metaphor-laden love poem, “Busy Old Fool,” to write his own “Temper Rising,” ringing out “Officious fool, what right had he,” a protest against the wicked schoolmaster from an aggrieved lamb’s point of view.  Ewbank’s invention of another metaphysical poet, George Herbert, creates lines of “concrete” poetry that mimic a flight of stairs as the poor lamb gets booted out of school.

Highlighting the Romantic poets’ desire for communion with nature and an authentic inner life, in variations on William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Emily Bronte, and others, Ewbank sends Mary and her lamb into a world rife with stories of natural beauty and human passion, sorrow, and cruelty.

In “Loco Lamb and the Schoolman,” a play on W.B. Yeats’s “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop,” Ewbank lands in a 20th century world more frank in writing about sex, the body, desire and death. Tossing the lamb outdoors, the schoolman says, “Consort with unruly, rancid ewes,” to which the feisty lamb retorts:

You don’t smell so good yourself
You wolf in scholar’s clothes.
The bogus stench of sanctity  
Offends my brutish nose.

In “The Anxiety of Age,” an imitation of W.H. Auden’s Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse narrative, originally titled “The Age of Anxiety,” we get to listen to a modern Mary’s soliloquy on a bar stool about men, love, chance, and choice:

I was taught wrong. That’s my trouble, . . .
I’ve had to learn that lovers and lambs
Are quite different quantities. . . .
I knew, or at least I quickly learned,
Men are louts, and yet I liked ‘em.
What can you do?

Poet Stevie Smith’s unsettling and bluntly honest voice, in “Thoughts About the Person From Porlock,” her poem about creativity and artistic failure, is eerily echoed in Ewbank’s “Second Thoughts About Mary,” where his speaker refuses to hide behind the “improving homily/To the general effect that if one loves another/The other, perforce, loves the lover.”

For Mary did not love the lamb. . . .
I think Mary loved Billy McSwigan. . . .
For his roguish grin
And his boyish swank.

Kate Feiffer has adorned Ewbank’s varied, accomplished poems with her own dashing, piquant drawings that in a few sharply defined lines create character and mood and setting. Her lamb in love with Mary is the essence of spring—frothy, exuberant, curly-haired and nimble. In her signature style of curving lines and slender, pointed chins, hands, and feet, Feiffer captures the shifting eras and moods of Mary and the schoolmaster. An Elizabethan schoolmaster, in neck ruff and frock coat and leggings, looks down his long, long nose, complacent and self-righteous, at the antics of schoolgirls and lambs. Mary by turns is energetically tilted toward the schoolhouse, or chin up, goes toe-to-toe with authority.

A modern Mary, curvaceous, lip-sticked, and stiletto-heeled, flirts with a boy at a bar, no lamb in sight.

Whether evoking the Renaissance, the Victorian Age, or modern life in language and art, David Ewbank and Kate Feiffer perform with panache.

Holly St. John Bergon, who lives in Oak Bluffs, is the author of poems in The Sewanee Review, Ploughshares, and the chapbook “Ghostly Glances.” 

Kate Feiffer, MV Times columnist and leader of Islanders Write, will speak at the Chilmark library on Wednesday, June 7, at 5 pm, on illustrating the “magnificent and hilarious” new book, “The Lamb Cycle,” written by David Ewbank. Ever wondered what “Mary Had a Little Lamb” would have sounded like if written by Shakespeare? Keats or Byron? Emily Brontë? You will need to see this book, and hear this talk.