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The Butcher Birds

Each morning as we walk the farm’s perimeter,
we find victims of the butcher birds: grasshoppers,

beetles, lizards, frogs, snakes, mice, impaled on cactus
spines, thorns, or barbed wire. Sometimes we see one of the

birds itself, perched on a branch or fence-line, the black
mask around its eyes and hooked beak resembling the

masks of my childhood heroes. My daughter doesn’t
like the look of it, and she doesn’t want it to

shriek: she wants it to sing like other birds. She can’t
understand why I won’t let her take down the bird’s

victims. While I try to explain about nature’s
laws, about marking territory and mating

rituals and survival of the fittest, she
keeps on trying to grab hold of the barbed wire, the

cactus spines, or the thorns, trying to free the dead.
One day, when we come across a grasshopper, still

alive though impaled, his kicking legs frantic, my
daughter becomes hysterical, not believing

there is no chance for him to survive. For the rest
of the day, she is inconsolable. She sobs

over her mashed potatoes at dinner, and then
buries her face against my wife’s neck and shoulder.

In the night, her cries wake us. The murmur of my
wife’s voice, woven with my daughter’s sobs, reaches me

through the walls like the hum of my father’s voice through
the walls of my childhood home in the summer of

1969 when young boys from small towns all
over the country were coming home in boxes.

Others came home without arms, without legs, without
any light in their eyes. We thought the ones who came

home in one piece were the lucky ones, but even
they were broken, pierced by butcher birds on the far

side of the world. That was when my brother came home,
right after I turned thirteen, and we thought the war

was over for us. But my brother was damaged
in ways no one could see, impaled on his jungle

memories.  One rainy morning, he went behind
the barn, put his pistol to his head, and slipped free

of whatever had caught him. I was the one who
found him. My father collapsed under the weight of

his tears, my mother rarely spoke afterward, and I
learned to hold my breath, to feel my way around sharp

corners, to keep watch during all the long dark nights.
When my wife comes back after soothing our daughter,

she says I mustn’t take the child with me when I
walk the farm, I must protect her from the butcher

birds’ atrocities, I must check all the barbed wire
and the thorn bushes around the house, and I must

remove the dead. All the dead. She doesn’t want our
daughter to grow up traumatized, and she thinks that,

somehow, I can protect her. The next morning at
breakfast, our daughter seems herself again, singing

to her doll between bites of oatmeal, twirling her
dark hair into ringlets around her finger. When

I finish my coffee and try to leave without
her, she objects. When my wife tries to explain, our

daughter cries and stomps her foot. My wife urges me
to go on alone. I am halfway across the

yard when the door slams, and I turn to see my wife
on the porch, holding our daughter by the waist. She

is so angry, our five-year-old daughter, caught in
that soft, maternal vise. No words could describe the

desperation of her anger, the helplessness
of her fury, her face contorted with tears and

shrieks, her tiny arms straining toward me, her weightless
legs kick, kick, kicking the heavy and blameless air.

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Read some of my other poems,
and excerpts from Love in the Time of Dinosaurs

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If you don't count the short stories about vampires, shrinking girls, and monsters that I wrote -- and tried to sell as little books -- ...
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The Butcher Birds

The Butcher Birds

Each morning as we walk the farm's perimeter, we find victims of the butcher birds: grasshoppers, beetles, lizards, frogs, snakes, mice, impaled on cactus spines, ...
Continue reading

© 2019 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.
May not be reprinted or excerpted without written permission.
Please do not support piracy of Intellectual Property.
This is a new poem: it does not appear in Love in the Time of Dinosaurs

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Portrait of the Poet as a Woman: The Creative Process

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If you don’t count the short stories about vampires, shrinking girls, and monsters that I wrote — and tried to sell as little books — when I was twelve, then my writing career technically began with poetry. If you’ve never written poetry, you might wonder where the poet gets his ideas. If you have written anything creative, you know that the ideas are always out there. It’s the getting them down on paper so they make sense to other people that’s difficult. Though my poems eventually became so long and contained so much narrative that I eventually switched to fiction, even the reviewers of my first novel said that I wrote like a poet.

Originally, my two poetry collections were much smaller and were part of my Creative Writing dissertation, Survivor: One Who Survives. Eventually, while trying the get the book accepted for publication, the dissertation grew into two books because I continued writing poems. Love in the Time of Dinosaurs included any of my poems that were not on The Holocaust, and Where Lightning Strikes contained all my Holocaust poems.

My earliest successful poems, both in terms of positive reactions from readers and in getting published in university or literary  journals, were those that dealt with family and relationships. They eventually ended up in Love in the Time of Dinosaurs, in the section called “Portrait of the Poet as a Woman” — named after one of the poems. In those poems, though they contained some aspects of my private life, I adopted a persona of an unnamed woman who was struggling  to make sense of relationships, family, marriage, divorce, and children that were not her own.

I was in a relationship when I wrote these poems, and the man had children from a previous marriage, but we weren’t living together. When I wrote it, while living in my one-room apartment, and it won a prize. The judge who awarded the prize thought it was memoir. At the Awards ceremony, he asked exactly how many children I had. I told him I had none.

He asked how long I’d been married.

I told him I was single.

“But you live in a big house, at least, right?” he said.

I told him I lived in a tiny apartment.

With obvious surprise on his face, he told me he would’ve given me an even “bigger prize than the Grand Prize” if he’d known I wasn’t married nor had any children and lived in a tiny apartment when I’d written it, just for “writing a relationship poem that made [him] think it was memoir, albeit a very well-done memoir.”

Later, one of my friends was so moved by the relationship poems in general, and by “Portrait of the Poet as a Woman” in particular, that she painted The Yellow Teapot in its honor and gave me the painting as a gift.

Barbara Walker's artwork of the "yellow teapot", inspired by my poem "Portrait of the Poet as A Woman," from LOVE IN THE TIME OF DINOSAURS_1024

Portrait of the Poet as a Woman

Your second wife calls to say that the children get
ill after you bring them home Sunday night it must

be something they eat what do I feed them something
dreadful? She calls collect when she’s away. If I

ask who’s calling she says, This is his wife. If I
don’t ask, she says, This is his wife. Sometimes she cries.

I want to feel for her pain, but loving a man
is penance enough. In the yellow tea kettle,

the water steams. Holding the phone to my ear, I
sit at the table with this morning’s dishes. At

breakfast, your youngest son decided to hate the
toast, the jam, the world, me. I wanted to hold him —

the hands covering his face seemed so small, but his
older brother’s stare fixed me, as if in a bad

photograph: off-center, one hand reaching out, the
other almost tipping my teacup, mouth open,

staring straight into the camera. Lot’s wife stilled in
faltering. Pinned without wriggling to the wall. One

of the children slams the bathroom door. The water
steams, without whistling, in the yellow tea kettle.

Last night, one of your children cried out in sleep. The
wood of the hall was cool on my bare feet, and

my nightgown brushed my legs. You were already there
in his room. I stood near the open window and

listened to the hum of your deep voice, woven with
your child’s answering sobs. The white lace curtains brushed

against my flattened belly, aching to be child-
swollen, to share you with something of me instead.

The water steams and she reminds me again that
I have moved into her house. I crumple some burnt

toast with my fingers. Outside, two brown sparrows hop
together in the dried leaves, talking bird-somethings.

~~~

Back to Top

Holiday

Sometimes my Poet-persona had two step-children, sometimes three, but she always felt isolated from them, excluded from their world and their love, no matter how much she loved them. Much of that may have been because I never felt loved as a child myself, but it also may have been due to the fact that, since I wasn’t married to the man with whom I was in a relationship, my status was legally undefined.

Is the girlfriend allowed to tell the children what to do? Is she allowed to discipline the children who aren’t hers? Even married couples with children from previous relationships have to consider these things.

I created other poems narrated by this woman Poet, in which she attempted to emotionally connect with the children who were not hers, as well as with the husband who, technically, was hers. “Holiday” was one of the poems that came from my own experiences but which was transmuted into the Poet’s life.

The dream she has was, in fact, a real dream of mine: it was that very same dream that inspired this poem. Even though, at the time, I didn’t consciously realize what the dream was trying to tell me about my own relationship, I was still able to create poetry from the dream. By the time I was finished with the poem, I understood enough about the dream — and my relationship — to find exactly the right epigraph for it.

 

Holiday

 Day followed day, and this and that
Seemed to be happening
As always, but through it all
Already loneliness was seeping.

Anna Ahkmatova

 

I pour myself another glass of wine, then lounge
on the wicker couch of the sun-porch, my bare feet

propped on an old milking stool, surrounded by texts
on the psychology of dreams. Late this morning

your first wife phoned, from where it is not raining: your
three children huddled around, chirping, while the cat

lapped milk from their cereal bowls. Outside the grey
rain shimmers, chanting the glossary of terms I

have yet to memorize. Thirteen-year-old Laura
eases into the Bentwood across from me, rocks

slowly. Her brothers pirouette onto the porch,
warbling ninth-day-of-rain-it-never-rains-when-we’re-

in-school songs. I reward them with cookies, so they
dance away to the kitchen, crooning rain-songs for

each other. Last night the youngest stole two-thirds of
your gin-and-tonic, inquired of your mother:

Barbara, when you get drunk, do things look all different?
Beethoven drifts out from behind the door of the

room she’s sharing with your daughter. Your typewriter
clacks as Laura strokes the cover of one of my

books. Last night I dreamed I was swimming and couldn’t
see land anywhere at all.
When her brothers

bounce onto the porch and propose rain-dancing, I
send them to you. Two minutes later, the back door

thuds, and muted squeals float back to us. Your clacking
chorus resumes. I got real tired and called and

called to some man to save me but he was talking
to this mermaid. He didn’t hear me so I guess

I drowned. I present her one of the dream books; she
snuggles with it in a distant room. I wander

the summer cottage, open a second bottle
of wine, memorize your sons in glittering pools.

Last night I, too, dreamt: I was unrolling faded
oriental carpets onto scuffed wood floors. Three

sparrows fluttered down, whispering among themselves.
Their words swelled, joined hands, became the cars of a train

yanking away from an abandoned platform. My
legs lumbered after. The sparrows darted down,

snared the ticket from my extended hand, raced each
other to giggling clouds. The ticket escaped, spun

itself into a whirling dervish, scattering
the clouds and birds. Then I roamed through some crumbling old

house, breaking open all the curtains, unlatching
windows. You followed around behind, closing them.

~~~

Back to Top

The Toast

I don’t recall exactly when I wrote “The Toast,” but I’m sure I was beginning to suspect that the man in my life was being unfaithful, despite his denials. Later, after I discovered that, for the final year of our eight-year relationship, he’d been having an affair with my best friend, who was married with two young children, I left him, changed my phone number, moved, and never answered his letters begging me to forgive him and to just talk to him and listen to his side of what happened.

His side?

I didn’t need to listen to anyone else’s side.

The pain and the grief had been too much for me to bear: the woman he had been involved with had, metaphorically and emotionally, died.

I was the survivor, and I wanted nothing to do with a man who defined “love” like that.

The Poet persona, however bitter, stayed with her unfaithful husband, and I got a series of good poems out of exploring the betrayal and pain of infidelity. One of the poems dealing with those issues, “The Toast,” later won a prize.

Though I don’t know if I ever would have gained the ironic tone of the poet had I stayed in my own relationship, I know that leaving that unfaithful man after eight years certainly improved my writing.

The Toast

To God,
Who did not save us.

(after a poem by
Anna Ahkmatova)

Let’s drink a toast to this dreadful old house, filled with
lost ghosts who come every night to roam around the

downstairs rooms, their limp ghost-hair straying across their
gloomy ghost-eyes. Let’s drink to all the empty rooms

upstairs, meant for an absolute infestation
of tousle-haired, rosy-cheeked children, but housing

instead only walls of books, empty as our eyes
at the breakfast table when the drinks of the night

before have deserted us, leaving us only
each other. Let’s toast the sons your scorned first wife hid

in Italy: your just and deserved punishment
for requiring someone younger, but for which you

never pardoned the new wife. Or let’s toast that faint
stirring in my flattened belly — only once, long

before you were free to claim it. Let’s raise our glass
to the clacking and clanking of your manual

typewriter in the middle of the night, and to
mine, which has been holding its electric tongue for

weeks, except to murmur the names in your frieze of
discarded women whenever I try to write

about something other than the space in the bed
between us, something other than our excuses

for not touching. And let’s not forget to drink to
nineteen-year-old Seraphina in your fiction

writing class who called the house Saturday morning
and asked for you by first name. Let’s drink to the God

who plucked us from our separate lives that last summer
your second wife visited her family in France,

molded us together in His callused palm, clamped
His heavy fingers like bars around us, and laughed.

~~~

I hope you’ve you enjoyed the poems as well as some of the background information on how I got inspired to write them.

c

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Read excerpts from
Love in the Time of Dinosaurs,
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Give me again all that was there: Starz’s OUTLANDER “The Devil’s Mark”

Warning: Spoilers Galore

Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!

1884 lyrics to
“The Skye Boat Song”

images-2

If you’ve been watching Starz’s adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling Outlander series of books, you know that some of the first season was divided into two parts over two years (2014-2015), with S1 P2 just recently beginning after a long, almost unbearable hiatus for those of us who have never read the books. If you’ve read any of my related blogs on the show, you know that I’m not comparing the books to the show, but am judging the show by its own merit. All adaptations should be judged that way — despite readers’ complaints about how films or series differ from the books on which they’re based — because the two are completely different art forms.

S1 P1 of Outlander was a bit slow-moving — spending far too much time on extended visual displays of historical information, like women’s clothes, hair, jewelry; men’s clan rituals; etc. that the viewers would have gotten instantly despite the fact that book readers may have needed extended descriptions — then speeding up during the last few episodes. S1 P2, however, has been more plot-driven. Ep 11, “The Devil’s Mark,” was the most powerful show the season has produced thus far: harrowing, moving, and poignant.

The Harrowing

UnknownIf you’ve been reading my blogs on S1 P1, you know that I found Geillis (Lotte Verbeek, above L) to be one of the most interesting and intriguing characters of the series. Not only did she become friends with the time-transported Claire (Caitriona Balfe, above R), but Geillis was a healer herself.

She constantly urged Claire to be happy in her life in 1740s Scotland, as Geillis herself was, but she seemed to have secrets of her own that indicated she might have come through the stones from the future herself. In “The Devil’s Mark,” my predictions about Geillis proved true, as she and Claire were arrested and put on trial for witchcraft, and Geillis, indeed, revealed that she had come from the future.

images-4Of course, neither were “witches” — for spiritual, religious, or any other purposes, though Geillis was shown in S1 P2 Ep 10 performing a ceremony in the woods that she hoped would lead to the death of her lover Dougal’s (Gavin McTavish) wife so that she and their unborn child could be with him; and then Geillis poisoned her own husband so the lovers could be together.

Unfortunately, Claire became involved in the witchcraft trial for numerous reasons:

  • because of her own stubborn personality: she ignored Jamie’s warning to stay away from Geillis after her lover Dougal was exiled to his home by his brother Colum (Gary Lewis),
  • her own temper: she slapped Laoghaire MacKenzie (Nell Hudson) over their mutual jealousy concerning Jamie (Sam Heughan),
  • and her own fruitless attempts to save a dying baby left in the woods by parents hoping it would become a “changeling” and have a better, healthy life with the fairies: the infant’s mother saw Claire and accused her, during the witch-trial, of killing the baby instead of permitting the fairies to “change” it. images-1

Laoghaire was one of the principal witnesses against Claire. The love-lorn Laoghaire not only set up the meeting with Geillis and Claire by forging a note, but she may have been responsible for calling the wardens on Geillis for murdering her husband Arthur.

images-5

Clan laird Colum certainly suspected foul-play himself during the public banquet for the Duke of Sandringham (Simon Callow, above), so Colum, as Laird, may have alerted the wardens. In any event, though Geillis may have been the original intended accused, for the murder of her husband, Laoghaire ensured that Claire was included in any witchcraft accusations with her bitter testimony about the love-potions which Laoghaire had requested to make Jamie fall in love with her, and which she claimed Claire had drunk herself to “steal” Jamie away.

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Despite his best attempts to save the two women, lawyer Ned Gowan (Bill Patterson, above) could not combat religious and sexist prejudices against women during that time period, and both were found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death by burning.  As Claire was being flogged, husband Jamie appeared and attempted to save her from the mob. However, only Geillis’ brave and melodramatic self-sacrifice managed to save Claire from the mob’s fury.

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After realizing that her attempts to help return Scotland to independence through the Jacobite cause of returning a Scottish monarch to the throne had been in vain, Geillis whispered “1968” to Claire (which is apparently the year Geillis came through the stones at Craigh na doon).

(The writers of this episode stated in interviews that they did not have Geillis tell Claire that Geillis, too, had come through the stones during the time the two women were imprisoned in the Thieves’ Hole before the trial because they feared such a admission would have taken away from Claire’s later revelation to Jamie. Despite Claire’s reciting, “I only regret that I have but one life to give to my country” — the purported last words of American revolutionary Nathan Hale before being hanged in 1776, with which Geillis would have been familiar only if she had come from the future — and Geillis’ response of “Nice line,” I still wasn’t sure, at that point in the show, whether or not Geillis had, indeed, come through the stones from the future. Even though I’d seen some remarks on forums on Geillis’ smallpox vaccine scar, I’d tried to skip any Spoilers since I haven’t read the books and want to remain excited about the show itself.)

As the mob was flogging Claire as a prelude to burning her for being a witch, Geillis unselfishly helped save Claire. Revealing her small-pox vaccination as “the Devil’s mark” on her body, Geillis screamed to the crowd that she was, indeed, a witch and was, furthermore, carrying the devil’s child after having sexual relations with the Devil himself, ripping open her dress and revealing her rounded abdomen. Hissing at Claire to “run,” Geillis continued her over-the-top performance and melodramatic confession until she was carried out to be burnt.

My congratulations and admiration to Lotte Verbeek for her brilliantly dramatic performance as Geillis trying to save the only friend she had — the friend who did not betray her by saying that Geillis had tricked and misled her, a statement that the lawyer said might have given Claire the chance to save her own life. Realizing that the only way to take the mob’s attention off Claire was to concentrate it totally on herself, Geillis threw herself into her confession with admirable fanaticism. Lotte could have convinced me that she was a witch.

images-6I can only thank Starz for not allowing us to see Geillis’ being burnt at the stake, as it would have been even more gruesome than Jamie’s extended flogging scene from S1 P1 by Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies, in a dual role as BJR and as Claire’s 1945 husband Frank). The trial was harrowing enough as it was, and ended with the (implied) burning of Geillis, and the escape of Claire and Jamie.

The Moving

images-3After Jamie rescued Claire and they’d gotten a sufficient distance from the mob, he asked Claire to tell him the truth about something, promising to be completely honest with her in return. In an unintentionally humorous (from our perspective) scene for such a profoundly disturbing moment, Jamie asked Claire if she was a witch herself. His question was based on her own smallpox vaccination scar, which he claimed to have seen and wondered about many times without asking her what it was.

This brought about Claire’s complete confession about who she was and why/how she came to be in Scotland in that time period. Jamie patiently listened to it all. The audience actually heard some of it, but the rest was muted: we saw only glimpses of Jamie’s quite calm reaction to the story.

After Claire’s “confession,” Jamie surprised me by not only believing her story of having coming through the stones — without questions, mockery, or grimaces —  but by re-evaluating his own behavior in light of her tale. Asking whether she had gone to the stones earlier — endangering the others in the clan, after he’d requested she stay hidden from the British soldiers — for the express purpose of returning to her “husband” in 1945, Claire admitted that she had. Jamie then murmured, “And I beat you for it.”

What a surprise.

Jamie has not only promised, in an earlier episode, never to lay hands on Claire in violence again — though that may have been because she wouldn’t have sex with him after he beat her — but, after hearing Claire’s story, he came very quickly to what must have been a very painful and emotional conclusion for him. That Claire had been going to the stones to return to her husband, and she didn’t mean Jamie by that word.

Because S1 P2 began from Jamie’s perspective, with his Voice-over, we know that he is falling in love with Claire, despite their marriage being one of convenience, so I found it very moving that Jamie did not judge Claire and her story, he believed her “unbelievable” story without question, and he matured emotionally and morally from learning the truth about Claire.

The Poignant

imagesI’ll be the first to admit that I’m not big on Romances. Don’t read ’em; rarely watch ’em. But the premise of Outlander was so intriguing that I wanted to see what had made the books bestsellers. I don’t know about events in any of the books, and I’ve already said that I found S1 P1 a bit slow until the final episodes, but S1 P2 shocked me last night with the poignancy of Jamie’s love for Claire.

After hearing her story, he took her several days’ journey away from where the trial had been held. Claire thought they were going “home.” Actually, after camping one night, Jamie took Claire over some hills to show her that they were at Craigh na doon. Yes, he’d taken her to the area of the stones after hearing her story. Without even asking her, Jamie took her to Craigh na doon in case she needed to go back to them. So that she could go home. And he meant the home that was away from him and his time.

images copyJamie has said, in Voice-over, that he is falling in love with Claire. Jamie has changed his behavior from that of the other men in his clan because of his feelings for Claire. Jamie has promised repeatedly to trust her and to believe what she tells him even if he doesn’t understand why (e.g., about the Duke of Sandringham). Yet he took her to the stones — after hearing her story — for the express purpose of helping her leave him in order to return to her husband Frank.

Yes, there was a last-second moment of hesitation: Jamie grabbed Claire’s hands just as she was about to touch the stones, saying he wasn’t ready to say good-bye yet. But then he left her alone there, telling her that he would stand guard at the campsite until she’d safely made it away, i.e., back through the stones to her own time.

Now that’s love  — unselfishly caring for another person’s happiness and well-being despite any pain it may cause you — and for the first time in the series, I found myself thinking Jamie a wonderful character with great emotional and moral depth.

6565d35e2c7249b8c9a76d54808f5b0bOf course, the decision to go back through the stones wasn’t easy for Claire either. She spent the day at Craigh na doon, looking at and fingering her two wedding rings: the gold one from Frank on her left hand, and the silver-key one from Jamie on her right. It was a poignant scene, uncluttered by any unnecessary Voice-over from Claire. In short, it was film adaptation of a book at its finest.

Cut away to a scene at night, with Jamie sleeping beside his campfire. (I did wonder why he was sleeping when he was supposed to be keeping guard, and why he didn’t wake immediately when someone approached the “camp,” but perhaps grief made him sleep more deeply rather than restlessly.) Then we hear Claire’s voice saying, “On your feet, Soldier.”

Yes, she came back.

To Jamie.

To the man who was willing to give her up — for love — so she could return to her own time as well as to the husband there whom she loves.

Was Jamie happy?

You betcha.

Did Starz ruin it with a sex scene?

They did not.

(And for that, I applaud the writers, the director, the producers, and Starz itself. Love is not always expressed sexually, and, in that instance, I would have found it inappropriate and vulgar. Of course, their tears were touchingly appropriate, as was their affectionate embrace.)

For the first time in any episode, I found myself moved by Claire’s and Jamie’s growing love for each other. Of course, I believe that Jamie loves Claire far more than she presently loves him: he was willing to give her up so she would be happy.

Claire may love Jamie enough to stay with him for the moment, but I know there will be repercussions to her decision to stay in the past, which may affect her feelings for him. (And to those of you who’ve read the books, please don’t send me any more comments telling me what’s going to happen: that’s why I’m not reading the books: I’m watching the show.)

048b0f2112f84e5bcead0a9332de356bThe episode “The Devil’s Mark” was harrowing, moving, and poignant. It was the best of the series to date. I only hope that the writers doing the adaptation of Outlander from the books will continue the fine writing and storytelling — and that the actors will attain the high quality performances — of this episode.

Now Outlander has become a show that’s really worth watching.

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Olivia & Lucy do Poetry

There’s absolutely nothing I can say about this video, where seven-year-old Olivia & Lucy do poetry on Britain’s Got Talent, except to imitate Christopher Walken’s Wowie-Wow-Wow-Wow.

I hope Olivia does get her wish to perform her poem in front of the Queen. I, too, think she might like it. Very much.

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