TWO WOMEN DANCING by Elizabeth Bartlett (Book Review)

As promised in my post of 27 Dec, here is a slightly fuller look at Elizabeth Bartlett’s Two Women Dancing.

I consider it one of the best books of poetry published in the last fifty years, yet on the first page, in the second poem, we read:

People need contemporary poetry like a hole in the head.

That depends on the poet. They certainly need these poems. We’ll come back to that later though, because the next poem is one of my favourites.
“My Five Gentlemen”

Prostitutes have clients, wives have husbands,
Poets, you will understand, have editors …

She describes the five editors whose hands she has been in, finishing up with:

Five is dead, of course. His failing health
Was a comfort to me, though not to him,
Naturally. His death removed one more market
For battered goods, and proved a welcome release.

Rest in peace, I thought (for I always think kindly
Of the gentlemen who direct me to the pages
I am to sit in). I can only hope to be recycled
And end up more useful than I would appear to be.

She frequently reminds me of Dorothy Nimmo or Sylvia Platt. Consider for example “Guitars as Women”, and “With My Body”:

With your hand, like that, he said …

and “There Is a Desert Here”:

Come, little creatures, walk on me,
Come, little worms, slide on me,
For no man ever will again.
I watched beetles and ladybirds
Long before you gathered birch twigs
To beat me in a field – in fun, of course,
And I will watch them again,
And grow old ungracefully, barefoot
And sluttish in my ways.

And she is always so human. Read “Ian, Dead of Polio” and “Farewell, Gibson Square“. Unforgettable pictures of people she has known and will never forget. Nor now shall we. “Farewell, Gibson Square”, for instance, is dedicated to Dr Susan Heath who, if this poem is anything to go by, you would probably fall in love with but certainly wouldn’t want anywhere near you if you were ill. She eventually left, and now, Elizabeth tells us:

Professional boredom has settled in
Again, and patients go home whole.

Or “Government Health Warning”, or “A Plea for Mercy”:

For all the poor little sods who shoot themselves off
in boarding schools and dormitories, jerking into sleep,
and all the prissy girls who ride their horses bareback
or wet their knickers and seats at noisy pop concerts …

Or “A Straw Mat”:

I am guilty, she said to me. I didn’t know what to say.
We are all guilty, I said, of something, if it’s only living
when turf rests heavy on all the people cut off in their prime,
or buying this old cardigan from Oxfam instead of doing
something real. She said, Like what? I didn’t know.
I saw my tears fall on the leper’s foot. What a nonsense.
Africa is thirsty for blood and yet more blood, and we
wander round the Oxfam shop …

With poems like this around, why would anybody not be reading, not be needing, contemporary poetry?

And “Consumers”, another of my very favourites – but you need to read the whole thing. (In fact, you need to read the whole book.)

Ask me if I ever liked
small talk, chit-chat,
the smell of a new car,
the fat freezers lingering
like overweight virgins
in shadowy garages.
I have to say no.

Ask me if I ever liked
the long silence, full
of thoughtful emptiness,
the bruised smell
of geranium leaves,
the thin edges of poverty
like sides to middle sheets,
thin and anorexic.
I have to say yes.

Standing in Trafalgar Square
I was pleased the skin-heads
ate our iron rations.
Shouting into the dark
I felt at home, the candles
in jam jars, the small group
of word-spinners
sheltering from rain,
not ashes.

Ask me if I ever think
the nuclear winter
will be like a giant freezer
full of damaged goodies.
Lord, Lord, I have to say yes.
After the feast of flesh
and red gravy,
there will be ice cream
for afters, and then,
we shall wish we’d said no.
Lord, Lord, I tried to say no.

Do people need poems like this? I have to say yes.

Elizabeth Bartlett

 

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DANSE MACABRE by Aubrey Burl (Review)

The world into which François Villon was born in 1431 was one of extreme contrasts. On 30 May Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the market square of Rouen. In the same year the newly crowned French king, Louis VII, was hiding from his enemies, shifting from castle to penniless castle. In December the nine-year-old English king, Henry VI, in cloth of gold on a white charger, rode triumphantly into Paris with his gorgeously apparelled retinue, the boy ‘staring for a long time’ at three lovely, naked girls representing mermaids in the fountain of St Dennis. Probably in the same year, but on the other side of the city, François Villon was born in the slums and alleys near the rue St Jacques.

The city was packed because the passage of army after army had left the countryside bare, anything that could be eaten eaten, anything that could be burnt burnt (and anyone who could be raped raped). One of the families taking refuge in the city was that of François Villon, but his father died leaving the family in extreme poverty when the poet was still only a child. That he received an education at all seems to have been due to the lucky chance that he would accompany his devout mother to church and in that way came to the attention of the priest, Guillaume de Villon, who later, probably in 1438, adopted the boy.

But, as Aubrey Burl comments, “there is a wise observation that an urchin can be taken out of the slums but the slums cannot be taken out of the urchin.” And Villon remained all his life a child of – and the poet of – the slums.

Burl is good on everything, but he is particularly good on the poetry. He begins by pointing out that it is much easier to write about Villon now than it used to be. “Censorship has relaxed. Earlier any faithful tranlation was unprintable.” As evidence, he translates for us, in a way that Swinburne was quite unable to in the late nineteenth century, some stanzas from La Vieille Regrettant le Temps de sa Jeunesse (the regret for her lost youth by the ageing but once beautiful mistress of a nobleman), and notes that “François Villon was never mealy-mouthed and he wrote as his old woman, the former courtesan, might have spoken.”

Long arms and groping fingers sly,
Fine shapely shoulders, and the round
Full breasts and heaving hips that fly
Smooth, slick and firm in thrust and pound
Against the place where we were bound.
Above spread loins my pulsing cunt
Between its gripping thighs was crowned
With gardened curls across its front.
[…]
But this is where our beauty’s sent,
Scrawny arms, hands weak and sick,
Crooked back and shoulders bent.
My flabby tits? Won’t stir a prick.
My arse the same. To tempt a dick,
My cunt? No hope! As for my thighs
Each one just skin, dry bone, a stick,
A pock-marked sausage. Beauty dies.

Yes, beauty dies – a favourite theme of Villon’s and one he frequently returns to, as in the quite different and very beautiful Ballades des Temps Jadis, in which he asks where all the fair women of the past are and concludes each stanza with the line, “But where are the snows of yesteryear?”

Villon lived and died surrounded by death, in a world in which “for the penniless, the only affordable entertainment was a public execution”. “He had elegiac eyes,” says Burl, in a memorable phrase. Villon recorded, like any great poet – or painter – the world he knew.

By the time you finish this book, that world, the Paris of the late Middle Ages and the danse macabre, is home, and François Villon is family. 

GOOD GIFTS (by Dorothy Nimmo)

He gives her a black lace bra:
her heart swells. She fills the C-cup.

He gives her a bottle of champagne
costing £24.50. He has got a bargain.

He gives her a basket of strawberries.
Open wide! he says, gently. She opens.

He gives her a smooth round bloodstone
to wear round her neck. So cold.

He gives her a little house. All day long
she cleans his fingerprints from the paintwork.

He gives her five gold rings, one in her ear,
one in her nose, one in her nipple,

one in her navel, one in her finger. He takes
a fine gold wire and threads it between

ear, nose, nipple, navel and finger.
He twitches the end. She dances.

SWEENEY (by Matthew Sweeney)

 

Even when I said my head was shrinking
he didn’t believe me. Change doctors, I thought,
but why bother? We’re all hypochondriacs,
and those feathers pushing through my pores
were psychosomatic. My wife was the same
till I pecked her, trying to kiss her, one morning,
scratching her feet with my claws, cawing
good morning till she left the bed with a scream.

I moved out, onto a branch of the oak
behind the house. That way I could see her
as she opened the car, on her way to work.
Being a crow didn’t stop me fancying her,
especially when she wore that short black number
I’d bought her in Berlin. I don’t know if she
noticed me. I never saw her look up.
I did see boxes of my books going out.

The nest was a problem. My wife had cursed me
for being useless at DIY, and it was no better now.
I wasn’t a natural flier, either, so I sat
in that tree, soaking, shivering, all day.
Everytime I saw someone carrying a bottle of wine
I cawed. A takeaway curry was worse.
And the day I saw my wife come home
with a man, I flew finally into our wall.

LOVE AND HATE (by Elizabeth Siddal)

Lizzie Siddel was the model for such painters as John William Waterhouse and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She was also a poet in her own right.

Ope not thy lips, thou foolish one,
Nor turn to me thy face;
The blasts of heaven shall strike thee down
Ere I will give thee grace.

Take thou thy shadow from my path,
Nor turn to me and pray;
The wild wild winds thy dirge may sing
Ere I will bid thee stay.

Turn thou away thy false dark eyes,
Nor gaze upon my face;
Great love I bore thee: now great hate
Sits grimly in its place.

All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

THE NEW BRIDE (by Catherine Smith)

Dying, darling, is the easy bit. Fifty paracetamol,
bride-white and sticking in the throat, ten shots
of Johnny Walker, and the deed is done.
A twilight day of drowsing, then the breathing
slows to a whisper, like a sinner in Confession.

Death is dead easy. No, what happens next
is the difficulty. You bastard, howling in public,
snivelling over photos, ringing round for consolation.
And you have me burnt, like a dinner gone wrong,
you keep the charred remains of me on show.

at the wake, inviting everyone I hate. Oh God,
they come in packs, sleek as rats with platitudes
and an eye on my half of the bed, hoping to find
leftover skin, a hint of fetid breath. I leave them
no hairs on the pillow; there are none to leave.

And a year to the day since I shrug off the yoke
of life, you meet the new bride. In group therapy.
You head straight for a weeper and wailer,
telling strangers all her little tragedies. You love
the way she languishes, her tears sliming your neck,

you give in to her on vile pink Austrian blinds.
The Wedding is a riot of white nylon. Everybody
drinks your health and hers, the simpering bitch.
She and Delia Smith keep you fat and happy
as a pig in shit. I want her cells to go berserk.

Some nights I slip between you. The new bride
sleeps buttoned up, slug-smug in polyester. You,
my faithless husband, turn over in your dreams,
and I’m there, ice-cold and seeking out your eyes
and for a moment you brush my lips and freeze.

TO PHIL (IF HE WAKES UP) (by Kath Mckay)

Anger
Anger drove me to it
I killed him at last
one night when we were alone in the house
And the stage was set for sex
and romance
and he fell asleep
smelling of creosote and beer.
So I killed him. It was simple really
with a knife I had from the Guides.
It was sharp and strong.
So I found his heart and looked at him sleeping and unaware
He’d always said he wanted to die in his sleep
the irony was good
I smiled at him once and the knife slid in,
meeting resistance at first
and then something that felt like gristle
under my butcher’s knife in the kitchen
He looked up once
and his eyes had that wide open
slightly surprised look
just before he came
and his tongue hung out like it always did.

(from ANYONE LEFT STANDING)