Issue 27: Robert Sheppard

from Tabitha and Thunderer: Interventions in Mary Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon

                           There is a dead female poet

                           in my pants

                                              – Prudence Bussey-Chamberlain

Why when my stare turns Thunderer

into sugar does he melt desire back

into himself why his shadow stains

the warshipped streets blood flowing over

the hot pillow of my tongue Teams

on mute the liar tosses his head was

I just a melting lay a body abused

songbird strung with passion shoes off

downtime gin special advisors tip

soft vibrations smooth my silent lips with

hum and moan unmute he speechifies

another mock enquiry on the matter of

barbary (I keep slipping centuries triumphal

statues slide headstrong into my wet dock

Why not in aching caresses I used to start

while my tangle of curls entangled him

in tangles of desire for these very curls

bare back shameful blush in vain pushes

through veins veiled in my vale no more

a lyric professor of subjectivity I

narrate my self bathed in sprinkled

scorched source of song-thrill

Go my Mamas with no papas shiver

your shoulders why must Thunderer’s stunted

slaves slice through viral Liverpool streets vile

African Trade banners swaying while I

miraculate angles my heels force on him he’ll

melt like Bo kicking fit on his office floor

You who from dark alleys across

pleasure gardens romping rude-

girls to Bo’s ‘fantastic’ taproom

you glide with nutrients flaunt

fallen tresses from fresh hairdos

you worship her Lord of Lust

his Tarleton crop as he thumps

out thunder like Boozy Bo bashes

the podium-truth he re-opens his

war wounds his meat cleaver

moment shares his Instagram war

crimes and they shower his vagabond

shoes how can she salve this slaver as

she tweaks her strings her throbbing muff  

Bring feathery fascinator from

furloughed Ascot tickle a studied

look in domino mask my trim

weather girls sweep your slender arms

across the cyclone of my breast circle

the purple advance of his tropical

thunder Woodbines outside the bookie he

checks his phone bring me cheap bling

my thin red bra-straps tingle his fingers

pull corset stays tight make him stay

push me into new shapes shoot him

off spill him limp into my braided wheat-

ear lap so I may shut the book of

his arousal and begin to narrate my own

Now my sunflower greets my girls

like Rishi beaming with vouchers

droop your heads over Thunderer’s

thighs aroused by cash-bells my un-

furloughed shop-girls spill laxative seed

upon his sweaty vest sink him in my fragrant

hollow (nostrils flaring) to taste me finger me

with phantom tips in his haunting breakfast

glow now tease him out of lockdown track

him trace him test him for a fortnight

necking nectar flatter his flattened heart

blind him with steaming towels now

open him up like a Turkish barbershop

flash his steel and steal his thunder 

Why plunderer love is a virus flips

mouth to mouth Perdita’s lost the

lottery again promised to the shady bank

that milks you through silk breeches

half a plantation in one Faro afternoon

I keep my royal jewels in place

hold abandonment in check as

you cover me vagrant on the fragrant bank

of your negative income-stream I promise to

bare one creamy breast you trace its generous

vein I’ll slip out of pure lust’s chemise chilled

by your levelling up burning for your

stamping down numb as you fail Bo’s

‘sure-bet nomination’ to his privy council

Farewell dead-drops farewell my registry

girls cracking codes farewell

Russian babes longing in golden coves

swapping cases by royal benches at Kew

strings broken across leopard-skin thighs

uncrossed crossing Bo mesmerised by

oligarchs waving ash-tipped cigarettes

Thunderer sinks to the carpet liars spout

schoolboy Greek couched in conch he

licks his stubby fingers tongue fresh

from salty crevices of caviar-devils

pleasured with cocaine their cupped

palms pour his excess off while

Tabitha helps out by eating out

On Brighton beach he thunders

lightning darts around his darkening

eyes in the surge pleading I tear

my spume-drenched limbs

sea foams over my bleeding

breasts the tide-sucked pebbles

seethe withdrawal as he flees

to Parisian salad-pickers with

Marie Antoinette necklines

waiting in line for his flinty

pork chopper while Little Bo

Pop barks that Covid fatties

cost their own bleak lives the

only pounds worth losing…

Note: Sappho and Phaon by Mary Robinson was published in 1796. ‘Tabitha and Thunderer’: Tabitha Bramble was one of Robinson’s pen names, the ‘English Sappho’ another, to add to her many disreputable nicknames, such as ‘Perdita’, after the role she played on stage (with her lover, Prince George, becoming ‘Florizel’ in the celebrity media of the times).

‘The Thunderer’ was a print by James Gillray that features Robinson and her lover, Banastre Tarleton, the Liverpudlian gambler, warrior and Member of Parliament (or debtor, war criminal and slave owner). His family have streets named after it in Liverpool, a sudden live issue with the Black Lives Matter movement of Summer 2020, when I was writing the poem, and the world was coming out of the first Coronavirus lockdown.

Mary was an abolitionist at the year she died (1800), by which time she had stopped moving in louche company, becoming first a Foxian Whig (and lover of Charles Fox) and eventually mixing in radical and literary circles, knowing both William Godwin and Coleridge, for example. Sappho and Phaon - 44 sonnets - was the first narrative sonnet sequence since the Renaissance. It tells of a heterosexual relationship in Sappho’s life, one that led to her anguished suicide.

Robert Sheppard’s two most recent poetry volumes are The English Strain (Shearsman, 2021) and Bad Idea (Knives Forks and Spoons, 2021), the first two parts of ‘The English Strain’ project, the third unpublished part of which is called British Standards and features the ‘transpositions’ of Mary Robinson published here, along with sonnets by Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and others.

His blog ( documents the project. The Robert Sheppard Companion edited by James Byrne and Christopher Madden, contains essays on Sheppard’s work. His The Meaning of Form is published by Macmillan. He lives in Liverpool.

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