Grandmothers don’t wear red boots,
Tom says. Red boots and long
black skirts are what I wear,
spooning out stinking cat food,
tenderly painting brown into my hair,
swallowing vodka in the baby’s orange juice
while they are not there.
The baby is being jolted along
some minor road in Provence,
and doesn’t care if I wear
red boots or dye my hair.
Like his father before him,
my son is contemplating being unfaithful,
even though the baby will soon be seeing
blue shutters and vine leaves,
and his wife will start weaning
him from the breast at last,
and not a moment too soon.
Their mother is young and witty,
with her one hand clapping
and her creased blue workman’s blouse
and her striped cullottes.
As she goes through the farm house
she tells Tom not to say bugger just
because I do and curses me under her breath,
shifting the baby on her hip,
poised between weaning and the next pregnancy
pouting her bee-sting lips.
I take a train to the city,
abandoning the house, the cats.
I wear my red boots and share
baby juice and vodka from my thermos flask
with you. We are an absurd and ageing pair,
flirting on the District Line,
with only enough money for the fare.
The holiday is almost over,
the baby spits out his seived spinach
and screams his way through the nights;
I make up the cot, the beds, move a
jug of dead flowers, polish up my boots.
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.
I posted this five years ago but am reposting it now because it gives in a nutshell something of my approach to poetry – and poets!
I jotted down these thoughts last year while reading this wonderful collection of poems, then put it aside and … came across it again the other day. They don’t constitute a review as such but they are perhaps worth posting.
Is it perhaps, then, not the poetry – or poetry as such – but the poets?
Wendy Cope – like Elizabeth Bartlett, another very observant and sensistive modern poet herself – seems to thinks so.
I used to think all poets were Byronic – Mad, bad and dangerous to know. And then I met a few. Yes, it’s ironic – I used to think all poets were Byronic. They’re mostly wicked as a ginless tonic And wild as pension plans.
Why would Marilyn Monroe and Wendy Cope say things like that? But notice the adjective Byronic. It wasn’t people like Byron, and Chaucer and Shakespeare, Donne and Blake and Shelley, Browning and Tennyson, who gave poets a bad name. Or Robert Graves or George Barker or Peter Porter. Or Auden, who was gay but had balls. (Those of you who don’t read poetry often or much may recall Switch Off All the Lights in the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.) Or Eliot, who wore a veneer of respectability that could fool all except those who read and love real poetry, yet beneath the surface was seething with the mad, bad and wild. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
Real poetry. So perhaps after all, it is not just the poets but the poetry. Let me be honest. If a poem neither moves nor amuses me – nor even shock or arouses me – what use have I for it? Yawn, yawn – well-crafted – yawn, yawn – lovely alliteration – yawn, yawn – original rhyme scheme – yawn, yawn, yawn, zzzzz …
“A poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman.” Only a eunuch would look at a woman the way many modern poets look at the world!
Elizabeth Bartlett looks at the world the way a woman looks at a man.
No. Come on, Kanti. I’m writing these notes sitting outside a café in Paris – it’s October, and the weather is perfect – and every single male head, young or old, alone or in company, turns to watch every single remotely nubile female body walk past. It’s “a man thing”. Try again.
Elizabeth Bartlett looks at the world the way a real woman looks at the world: amused, aroused, awed, sympathetic, sometimes censorious, sometimes shocked, but always human. Passionately so. And never, ever boring. Apart from Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe (which I must review!) this is the only book of poetry I have ever read on and on into the night and the following day, unable not to turn the page.
I challenge you to yawn while you are reading these poems!
I’ll write a better introduction to this wonderful collection of poems in another post next week.
Prostitutes have clients, wives have husbands,
Poets, you will understand, have editors.
A medieval saint had lice which quietly left him
As his body cooled, their sustenance removed from them.
I have my five gentlemen, one of whom really was
A gentle man, courteous and kind, his rejection slips
Even appeared to be some kind of acceptance,
His face never seen, his care meticulous and honest.
Two was firm and neatly pruned my lines
Like a competent gardener tidying an unwieldy tree.
Faced with mis-spelt, badly typed pages,
He was even provoked into swearing mildly at me.
Three was a witty man, who wrote letters
On a kind of elegant toilet paper, and seen
At a party looked as practised at his social life
As he was at his poetry, though thickening a little.
Four was a shocking surprise. He was not at all
Pretentious. Squinting furtively at him, silent and wary,
I saw this pleasant face, heard a quiet voice, and saw him
Lasting more than a decade or two, a rare animal.
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.