Wednesday, August 23, 2006



The Countess of Flatbroke by Mary Meriam, with an afterword by Lillian Faderman
(Modern Metrics, New York, 2006)

From Pembroke to Flatbroke: Mary Meriam’s First Chapbook Travels a Lesbian-Feminist Terrain

While Virginia Woolf fantasized about what Shakespeare’s sister might have written, we know what Sir Philip Sidney’s sister wrote. The Countess of Pembroke, Mary Sidney, was a recognized and lauded poet and psalmist during her lifetime and thereafter; now she is the inspiration of Mary Meriam’s new chapbook, The Countess of Flatbroke.

The Countess of Flatbroke is one of the first chapbooks released by Modern Metrics, a new independent publisher in New York City run by poets seeking to promote verse, with a penchant for formal verse, through limited runs of chapbooks. In The Countess of Flatbroke, Mary Meriam displays her passion for the sonnet. Of the fifteen poems in The Countess of Flatbroke, eleven are sonnets or sonnet sequences. Meriam’s sonnets are not like Sidney’s with their concern for the pastoral and their required laudatory expressions for family and the court; Meriam’s sonnets, rather, reflect the realities of being the Countess of Flatbroke, an appropriate conceit for a penurious contemporary lesbian poet. In “The Bitter Side of Flatbroke,” Meriam writes,

Some people lead an easy life, from birth

to death, connected, pampered, lucky, rich,

convinced that smiling fate defines their worth,

quite safe and snug and settled in their niche.

I wonder why I can’t be one of them.

Meriam doesn’t dwell on the bitterness though, instead she evokes a lovely fantasy and then concludes humorously, “Perhaps someone will throw this dog a bone.”

It is, however, in the sonnets that move beyond the trope of the Countess of Flatbroke that Meriam’s work as a prosodist is strongest. “Proserpina Hymns,” an extended sonnet with a refrain, stretches the sonnet form and demonstrates Meriam’s skill with rhyme in quatrains such as this:

I dreamt I had a bullet in my chest.

I saw the wound. The blood was blocked from flowing

by metal lodged beneath my skin, but glowing

and pulsing red, a spot above my breast.

In the sonnet sequence, “Queer Elements,” Meriam writes,
                                             They laugh at me
again for being queer. Then take me, death,

untie me, fire, make me, set me free.

to fire I bequeath my final breath.

My hair begins to flicker bright and hot.

I’d rather die than be someone I’m not.

In her afterword to the chapbook, Dr. Lillian Faderman writes, “Mary Meriam’s poems are queer and quirky, funny and poignant, bold and brave.” Dr. Faderman concludes, “We can’t help but admire the considerable wit and acute perceptions that emerge from … difficult knowledge.” The Countess of Flatbroke is a welcome contribution to the world of lesbian literature with its humor and fantasy for contemporary lesbian life and its imaginative historical framework.


Julie R. Enszer is a writer and lesbian activist living in Maryland. She has previously been published in Iris: A Journal About Women, Room of One’s Own, Long Shot, the Web Del Sol Review, and the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual. You can learn more about her work at


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