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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