This essay first appeared in the original Mentor & Muse. We reprint it here in homage to our friend and colleague, Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan, who passed away in 2016. It was our great privilege to include her piece in our anthology and an honor to share her words and insights here.
August 30, 2010
Dante had Beatrice; Petrarch coveted the fair, chaste, and unattainable Laura; and Shakespeare bred difference into the life of his Dark Lady. As Beauty’s opposite, his darkly complected beloved, with wiry strands of black hair, epitomized the antithesis of qualities Laura possessed. The Dark Lady became, as some critics have suggested, a reinvention of idealized Renaissance conceits. While the point is nothing new, the poems seemed new to me then, when I first read them. During my first semester in college, I discovered Shakespeare’s use of conceits, or Petrarchan inversions. To this day, I still hold deep affection for Sonnet 127 and Sonnet 130, poems that speak more to me now, as a poet in my late thirties, writing my own poems and working through themes of affectation and affliction, beauty and the Protean attainment of it. Shakespeare taught me to use hyperbole, oxymoron, metaphor, influence, and paradox. But more important, he convinced me of the Dark Lady’s beauty, of an aesthetic to weave into the fabric of my own writing.
Sonnet 127 invokes a history of illegitimacy and adoption and attempted erasure. Nature conceived the face of natural beauty; human beings took hold and distorted it, so that natural became unnatural. The face of Nature evolved for a time as masquerade and artifice, a bastardized version of ill-effected beauty, when Elizabethan-style makeup and accessories hid the beloved, making it impossible to distinguish between the beloved’s natural and made-up features:
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame;
For since each hand hath put on nature’s pow’r
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bow’r,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Historically, a dark lady wasn’t ideal, neither equated nor associated with the aesthetics of beauty. Her lineage was one of omission (her emergence starting with Sir Philip Sidney’s dark-eyed Stella). The old way of looking at beauty succumbs completely to a different possibility with the debuting of the dark Shakespearean beloved and a speaker who channels our gaze, with iambs and rhyme, to the lady’s blackened hair and eyes, darker bosom, questionable ethos: a tanner and blacker beloved, neither chaste nor free of bodily odors and earthy accoutrements. The turn away from blonde beloved is merely suggested, never explicit, with the succession of the darker “heir” finalized in the last quatrain:
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem.
The sonnet ends with closure and acceptance of the changed standard in the couplet:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.1
The consensus (“they”) agrees with the oxymoron: the blacker beauty, though she is beautiful to the speaker, is homely. The relinquishment of the previous “fair” beauty leads to suggestions of bereavement and complicity to embrace the paradigm shift.
The adoption of the dark beloved at the end of Sonnet 127 has primed her to be anything but ideal in Sonnet 130. Once more, the Dark Lady is the antithesis of graceful, refined, gracious, melodious, and lithe. She possesses neither Greek symmetry nor balanced architecture nor Aristotelian beauty of utility.2 She is quite the opposite of the Petrarchan beloved or the ones that other English sonneteers exalted and exaggerated in their poems. She resembles all that the other beloveds are not:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun—
Coral is far more red, than her lips’ red—
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun—
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet by heav’n, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.3
Neither dreamy and ethereal, nor gorgeously bejeweled with sapphire or emerald eyes, without hair falling in scintillating tendrils, the Dark Lady has arrived. The absence of a Petrarchan prototype means the blonde goddess has surrendered her velvet gown and relinquished her pearlescent teeth, rosy cheeks, and voluptuous, cherry-skinned lips. Into the closet she goes with her much sought-after wig.
And in my own work, the Dark Lady has turned into “The Denver Lady”:
I remember the Denver Lady well.
She sewed me
a cushion out of terry cloth
and autumn-colored yarn.
I remember her hair—
beneath her cage of bones.
I remember a blue spot on
her face, her wrinkled cheeks smoothed
when she smiled her
She sang to me one night,
Go ne ne, go ne ne.
When she turned senile,
she still had lids,
lavender like mother-of-pearl.
The Denver Lady
is the woman standing
in the middle of Sawtelle
clutching a twisted maple stick,
a purple chrysanthemum
tucked in the waist
of her butterfly kimono.
She doesn’t remember
the child I was.
She doesn’t know
the woman I’ve become.
Neither young nor beautiful in the standard Western sense, nor “black,” the aged beloved is Issei, or a Japanese immigrant, situated in West Los Angeles. A caregiver, possibly a grandmother, great-aunt, or friend who is like a grandmother, the Denver Lady has “lavender” epicanthic lids and “ginger-stained teeth” rotting and falling out. Her flaws are markers the child remembers her by, with repetitive phrasing (“I remember . . .”). The child’s voice merges with the adult’s, and the result is a more mature individual who knows grief because she has felt it. Matrilineal and maternal legacy are both unrequited love, Beauty and its opposite. The child’s affection for the woman cannot be reciprocated. The old woman who once cared for the child has succumbed to old age, senility, the disease of Alzheimer’s. Despite this, the child turned adult still recognizes the Denver Lady’s remarkable interior and exterior beauty. What’s more, she knows the Denver Lady doesn’t possess the kind of beauty that society warmly embraces. The Denver Lady was never the epitome of what society considered beautiful. The Dark Lady–turned–Denver Lady is now a woman of color whose tan and wrinkled skin bears “a blue spot,” gradations of discoloration, hair that reminds the speaker of the wavy patterns of Damascus steel. Then again, wasn’t the Dark Lady always a woman of color, a muse who inspired us to create our own fictions?4
It’s time we all stepped out of the closet, in this age of lasers, hair extensions, Restylane, virtual reality, and digital enhancement. It’s time to seize the natural beauty in our lives. Here I invite poets to observe and explore their natural surroundings. Write a poem of any size and length. Consider the following question: What do you find beautiful in your life that others don’t? To start, you might look closely at a tree, insect, animal, or landscape. Or you might consider how a person you know is beautiful in an unusual and unexpected way. In the early stages of writing rough drafts, you can jot down images of what you encounter with your eyes and imagination. For instance, Shakespeare’s speaker tells us how the Dark Lady looks, smells, sounds, and walks. In my own poem, my speaker celebrates the Denver Lady’s flawed facial features, suggesting through a series of stanzas why the old woman is worth remembering. Whatever you choose to write about, you should convince your reader that what you are describing is beautiful to you although it may be ugly to someone else.
1. Sonnet 127, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ed. Stephen Booth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 110.
2. I am indebted to Denea Stewart-Shaheed for drawing my attention to the Greek perspective of beauty.
3. Sonnet 130, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 112.
4. My English 1302 students, especially Reginald LeDoux, felt that the Dark Lady was black—a black person with black hair—despite Stephen Booth’s note that Shakespeare used black to describe her “brunette” hair. In his notes to Sonnet 127, Booth writes, “[T]he speaker’s relationship is to a brunette, who is, therefore, not ‘fair’ in that she is not blonde, and who is also not ‘fair’ in that she is morally foul” (Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 434).
Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan, “The Denver Lady” from Shadow Mountain: Poems ©2008. Appears with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
An original contributor to the print version of Mentor & Muse, Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan is the author of Shadow Mountain and Bear, Diamond Crane (published by Four Way Books). Born in Santa Monica and raised in Los Angeles, she earned a B.A. in English from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Virginia, an M.A. in literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. A Professor of English at Houston Community College, she lived in Houston with her husband, Raj, a scientist in HIV/AIDS research, who manages a research lab in the Obstetrics & Gynecology Department at Baylor College of Medicine, and their daughter Vidya. The editors wish to honor and memorialize Claire here, with her words, her brilliance.