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Parthian Tears

John Philip Simpson, The Captive Slave (1827)

For King Charles III at his coronation

. . . wound, like Parthians, while you fly,

And kill with a retreating eye.

— Samuel Butler, Hudibras (1678)

On November 14, ’48,

the day before I turned nine,

I was reading H. G. Wells’s The Time

Machine in the Hotel De Aar

with my brand-new puppy

snoozing at my feet—

Rusty, I'd named him,

a Rhodesian ridgeback’s

half-breed offspring,

got on a dachshund mate,

a farmer’s gift.

Outside, the ochre smart

of the Great Karoo’s whirling dust,

hit the second-story windows, hoo-hoo,

while elsewhere, somewhere, Lilibet,

whom my teasing aunts had promised

I’d get as bride one day, gave birth,

it seems, to you.

I confess I wept for you, Majesty,

at your coronation—a sigh

from post-postcolonial slave station

to mortgaged bouncy castle

estate . . . for we are relatives,

your granddad was my liege, you know,

and all of us kin to Genghis Khan,

as everyone is, of course

—the old boy lived an age ago,

all trace of him now faded.

Even so, una furtiva lagrima,

a tear, or two, sprang to my eye.


I tell a lie!

There was no dust storm

that year—it was in '49,

and for myself that summer

that I shed those “Parthian tears," if I did.

And how could these memories make

any difference in any case to the likes of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha you?

All’s tickety-boo!

Note: The Parthians, a nomadic people who long ruled the Iranian empire, successfully resisted Roman imperial expansion in Asia, famously employing a tactic that became known as “the Parthian shot,” in which mounted archers swiveled their upper bodies at full gallop to shoot at a pursuing enemy.

Squeak o’ the mouse to James Elkins for Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings (2001).

A different version of this poem was published in the New English Review in June 2023.


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