By Peter Austin


The Montréal Review, May 2024


Self Portrait with Cropped Hair - by Frida Kahlo


When she was twenty-one, she met Diego,
Who was double her age; just a year later,
They married. Almost at once, he turned traitor,
Bedding her little sister. ‘Asinego!’
She yelled and, in revenge, had an affair
With Trotsky…. Over time, they split apart,
Reunited, critiqued each other’s art
Sometimes spitefully, but always with care,

While she – doubly damaged, by polio
And a bus crash in which she was run through
By a steel rod – girding herself anew,
Turned to the task of finding ways to show
Her agony on canvas…. When she died,
He, on arthritic knees, was by her side.

[Frida Kahlo died in 1954, from pulmonary embolism. Diego Rivera, heartbroken by her death, died three years later of cancer. Asinego is Spanish for blockhead.]

Ernest Hemingway, by Mathieu Laca


Of Hemingway’s four wives, he loved but one
(Hadley, the first), but even she fell short
Of yielding the emotional support
He craved. When the marriage had come undone
And his mistress morphed into wife the second,
He kept on running to Hadley for succour
(And, as it always had, his frailty struck her)
Whenever mental insurrection beckoned.

Years on, he reached out once again, half hammered,
For help remembering their Paris years;
The phone call ended with Hadley in tears
At the discontinuous way he’d yammered.
Six months later, like an outpursued boar,
He lay dead in a pool of his own gore.

[In 1961, Hemingway shot himself. A psychiatrist later concluded that he’d inherited a tendency toward mental illness made worse during his formative years by a tyrannical mother and an often-absent father who killed himself when Ernest was 21. Even years after Ernest’s death, Hadley refused to blame him for walking out on her.]

Let Him Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone, by Zelda Fitzgerald


She and Scott were the face of the Jazz Age,
Drunk and riotous in post-war Paris,
He scribbling out page on potboiling page
To fund the wastage of two beaux esprits.
When the stock market crashed, in twenty-nine,
He ploughed on, as the now notorious
Gatsby scribe; she tumbled into decline,
Scorned by him who’d once been uxorious.

Institutionalized, she somehow wrote
Save Me the Waltz, whose modest yield repaid
His debts who, even now, could barely float;
She, halfway mad, hair prematurely grayed,
Died in a ferocious hospital fire,
Who’d once been Paris’s liveliest wire.

[Zelda outlived Scott by four years.]

Rachel Donelson, by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl


When Rachel and her folk moved to Nashville,
She married for a brief, unhappy spell
Before retreating home. As such things will,
She and new boarder, Andrew Jackson, fell
In love; ‘Yes,’ she smiled (convinced she was free),
When he asked. Nothing smirched their happiness
Till he ran for the presidency. She,
Never healthy, wilted beneath the stress

Of the mud now dug up and flung her way
(By a quick divorce and marriage unmended),
Till her failing heart, on victory day,
Stilled. Learning His truelove’s life was ended,
He, disconsolate, journeyed on his own
To Congress Hall, where he must reign alone.

[Believing her marriage to Jackson was legal, Rachel Donelson lived happily with the future president for over thirty years but was robbed of her life when he needed her most. Congress Hall is in Philadelphia and was the seat of the U.S. government at the time.]

Sylvia Plath, by Victoria Maxfield


When Sylvia and Ted were three years wedded,
She, hearing he was having an affair,
Scattered his poems around the floor, shredded.
He, coming home, saw them and punched her square
In the stomach, bringing on a miscarriage
While he made off with his mistress to Spain,
Smashing to scat their asymmetric marriage….
Left alone to parent, she tried in vain

Through one drab winter, in a tiny flat,
Slowly engulfed by misery and cold,
Cursing their sunless, draughty habitat,
To nurture a one- and a two-year old,
Till, shattered by their trustful sleeping breath,
She slunk away and gassed herself to death.

[Sylvia Plath was thirty when she died. Six years later, weighed down by bad press and family disapproval of her ongoing affair, Assia Wevill (Hughes’ mistress) died in a copycat suicide.]


Peter Austin is a retired professor of English who spends his time writing plays for young people and poetry for adults. Of his second collection, X. J. Kennedy (winner of the Robert Frost Award for Lifetime Contribution to Poetry) said, "He must be one of the best living exponents of the fine old art of rhyming and scanning in English."




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