Well, here we are. A new term and bright with resolution. You’re all looking lovely in your fresh pressed uniforms. You’ve got your brand new felt-tip pens in every colour of the rainbow; the tips are crisp and the colours bright. And yes, we know that it’ll wear off, and your pens will shortly be stipple brushes and the only colours that still work will be pink, pale brown and yellow, and the homework will start to pile up…all that.
(And because we’re not quite st up and sorted as we like to be, you’ll find that some bits of this I’ve had to copy and paste as jpeg images, so they don’t look quite as crisp as they should. Forgive me)
But right now anything can happen and we can do anything, and be anything we want. So let’s make the most of it. You may be wondering what the picture’s all about. I’ll tell you. It’s an analogy. There’s an Alice-like girl in a Victorian dress, a baby in a sun hat. There’s a neat picket fence and sunflowers. There’s something that looks like a euphonium, and a ladder. And very small monks or friars whose faces you can’t see. You can read every item, but you can’t understand the message. The bits don’t mean what you expect them to mean, and they don’t fit together. It’s unfamiliar and unsettling. It’s an anology for poetry that other people are enthusiastic about but which I don’t get. I’ll come back to this. Right. Another picture.
As a teenager in the 1950s, growing up in a small mill town in the monochrome industrial North of England, ‘outside, over there’ came courtesy of Radio Luxemburg, the cinema, and 78s played in church youth clubs, and, better, in fairgrounds on cinder bits of wasteland in Batley and Dewsbury. It was rock n’ roll. And oh, the glamour of America! And its language. It was recognisably English, but it was wonderfully baffling, like Sendak’s baby and his faceless midget monks.
You could move it, you could groove it at the hop. What was a hop? Clearly not something involving chalk and pavements. A hay ride. A homecoming queen. A zip code,jelly donuts, sidewalks, gas stations, pizza pie, a union hall, a blacktop, an interstate. Ah, the glamour of the cars, of blue jeans. a Tony Curtis hair cut, bobbysox, and girls who would wear your ring around their neck, hound-dogs and bird-dogs and drive-ins, writing lovey-dovey message in year books on graduation day (were they all at university?). Who were these magic kids my age who had cars? Two people down our street owned a car. And High School proms. White sportscoats and pink carnations. Clearly not Henry Wood.
Our special guest today spoke that language fluently. Still does. Which is why I loved this poem when I first heard it earlier last year. This is the first section of ‘Pretending to be Queen’
It’s a poem that segues beautifully between the 1950’s ,and 1990’s Freddie Mercury in his tight white satin, his hare’s teeth and his moustache, and it riffs on the idea of pretence and pretenders great and small. For me, it has the extra edge and glamour of being written by someone who was there, in the world ‘outside, over there’ that was the soundtrack to my adolescence. I’m going to come back to that notion of ‘glamour’. Bear with me. I’ve been remiss; I’ve not let my guest introduce herself, so here she is. Please welcome Wendy Klein.
Let me add that along with many commended and short-listed poems, Wendy has won significant 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes in the Ver Poets, the Torriano ,Ware, Buxton, Havant, Cannon and Cinnamon Poetry competitions, between 2003 and 2014.
Her work is published in journals and magazines including Mslexia, The Jewish Quarterly, Magma, Smiths Knoll, Poetry Nottingham, The Interpreter’s House and The River Thames in Verse and will appear in Envoi (Autumn 2007).
Her first poetry collection, Cuba in the Blood, was published by Cinnamon Press in February 2009. Her second, Anything in Turquoise , was published in 2013, also by Cinnamon. She has had many commended poems in competition anthologies including Blinking Eye, Cinnamon Press and Vision On 2003. She is a Troubadour regular and featured in a New Voices event (May 2005) along with being a monthly reader at ‘Poets’ Café’, Reading and a member for 6 years of Susan Utting’s weekly poetry group in Reading.
I first met her at a writing residential where we discovered we had a shared liking of a whole lot of music that included Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, and I discovered this next poem of hers.
South from Bakersfield
Town after town, farther and farther apart; you’re looking
for differences, no matter how small, haunted and baffled
by their alikeness: the filling stations with their dirty rags, tied
to the handles of tin buckets that hold grey water to swill
the desert dust from your windscreen. You know you’ll leave
streaks and tracks–the definition of clean seems different here.
There’s a half-grown boy to fill up your tank if you’re able
to rouse him, and if he likes you, he’ll wipe your windscreen
with fresh paper towels and he’ll grin, display a front tooth
missing, lost in a brawl at night on a rickety porch, over
a mousy girl who could be his best friend’s sister. Now
you’re ready to drive a hundred desert miles or more
to the next one, its twin, you guess, as you pass
the Baptist church, its pink neon cross blinking.
I was immediately a fan. I loved the landscape, the imagery…..that pink neon cross, a half-grown boy, the echoes of countless road movies, the feeling of strangeness and distance, the ghosts of half-remembered movies, and a Rolling Stones track from ‘Some girls’. ‘Driving thru Bakersfield, listening to music on the coloured radio station….’. I was taken, too by its ambivalence, the fact that here’s an American ‘baffled’ by the country, and by the way the poem reminds you that America is vast, that it’s many countries, that Americans don’t know it. It has the glamour of the unknown, which is different from the glamour of movies and General Motors adverts, which is the glamour that John Berger defined as ‘a state of being envied’. And so I wanted to read more of Wendy’s work, and discovered that its range is wider, and its textures richer than I imagined. Because it’s not ‘American’ but cosmopolitan. It grows out of her Jewish heritage. It grows out of the way that she’s widely travelled (unlike about 50% of Americans who don’t have passports, and about 90% of whom never go abroad) and widely read. You have to understand that I never went on an aeroplane till I was 32 (from Manchester to Belfast) and then not again till I was 65. Though I did go on ferries and drive around Europe. Bits of it anyway. But poetry like Wendy’s makes me feel parochial and inexperienced. In a good way. I don’t tune in to a lot of contemporary American poetry (Sharon Olds, for instance) but I reckon that Wendy is as much cosmoplitan/European as she is American, and I like the poise and formal arrangement of her verse and its lexis. She’s sent me more poems to share with you. I hope I do them justice. Try this one, first.
A Short Manhattan Lullaby, 1939
after S. Olds
I see them tarting themselves up for the party where they’ll meet;
she post-divorce from her approved-of Jewish ex,
and all set to become a successful playwright. I see her pucker up
for the brightest lipstick, slip her feet into lethal stilettos,
bat blackened eyelashes in the gilded mirror,
see it return her appreciative glance. He’s more nervous;
primed with Dutch courage – Bourbon, because
he can’t afford Scotch — tweaks a pre-formed bowtie,
covers a less-than-fresh shirt with a Harris tweed jacket –
herringbone. I see them arrive separately on the steps
of an East-Village Brownstone, pause a moment
before climbing the dim-lit stairs, gauging the level
of booziness; assessing the volume of laughter,
of music. He’s the wrong man for her; literary, unreliable,
full of unattainable aspirations — the sort of stray she finds
irresistible. She’s spiky, too smart for him,
but she’s yet to find out. He can’t resist her green eyes,
made brighter with kohl, alcohol, artifice, her sassy chat;
can’t take his eyes off her carmine lips,
the flash of white teeth, bared by her brassy laugh,
and she can’t resist his smoky gaze.
They go through the pick-up in cliché Technicolor,
and every warning she’s heard about weak, irresponsible
gentile men wafts out the window of the ninth floor,
gains speed over the Hudson, the East,
as she whispers shut up Mother,
and I want to say stop; you’ll destroy each other,
but I bite my tongue, just watch them walk away,
clinging to each other so tight that I flinch.
I like the quality in this that Clive James values, because here’s writing that declares itself to be a poem, that knows just what its line breaks are doing, that’s memorable for its rootedness ‘in the moment’. It’s beautifully filmic, and placed in its time, every camera shot is clean and crisp: she putting on her glossy make-up, he tugging at his not-quite-debonair bowtie, and coming in close for her carmine lips and his smoky gaze. Poetry as film noir. Lovely. Simultaneously it’s in the here-and-now, in the narrator’s helplessness in knowing how the narrative will end, and inability to change the script that makes her ‘flinch’. How nailed-down right that final word is, how exact. And notice: I think I understand it or know how to read it because I’ve seen a lot of movies.
A different kind of feel in in the next poem that won the Havant Poetry Competition in 2014 ( I hope that’s right. I can edit later. Mea culpa. It’s just that I’ve left this post a bit late.) The background is that one million children suffering from severe malnutrition will be treated this year by governments and aid organizations across the Sahel.
It’s a poem to read aloud like an incantation or supplication, a prayer for rain which becomes, for me, memorable through the cumulative effect of repetition. the lack of it/ the memory of it/ stories of it/ to drum it and dance it/ the way it would feel. There a real power in the repetition of that little no-word ‘it’ in a poem for a land and a people where rain has no substance, is reduced to a nameless pronoun. I found it incredibly moving.
But let me finish with a poem that incorporates the kind of glamour that Berger wrote about in Ways of seeing. I’d like to finish up where I began, I suppose to give the illusion of shapeliness and structure in my ventures, to end with a world that is foreign and enchanting. If you don’t actually have to live through it. Vicarious living. I’ve done a lot of that.
When I am too old to tickle, your fathering falters
and at a loss for what to do next, you tell me tales
about your dancing days: soft-shoe, tap – waiting
for your turn to audition, hanging out
with other chorus boys back-stage Broadway, your face
flushed as you explain how your bottom got pinched
once or twice by guys you guessed might be too young
to shave. You take me to wild parties in Greenwich Village,
fuggy dance halls in Harlem, your sheepish grin at the near scandal –
the sexy black woman you said once, in your cups, might
have been my mother, which sent a jolt through our kitchen
at suppertime. You drop the names of the sultry singers:
Ivy Anderson, Lena Horne, Billy Holiday — her white gardenia –
the scent of it filling our living room. You pull out
a scratched 78 of the Duke; put on Mood Indigo, and start
to gentle me around in time, say you’ll teach me the Fox Trot –
hands down, the easiest dance of my generation, to teach,
to learn. Talking about the Duke lights you up, makes you forget
your sad remedial English class. You take me round the waist,
count out the beats, hum the tune in my ear, your aftershave
still strong despite the five o’clock shadow on your cheeks,
your chin, as we move around the floor avoiding chairs,
throw rugs, the coffee table, the glass with your second
or third Jim Beam on the rocks, waiting nearby.
Ah, those scratched 78s. Wendy Klein, thank you for being our guest and sharing your poems and expanding our horizons. Maybe I’ll get the hang of Sharon Olds after all.
Next week I’m going to tell you how to do stuff. One of those poetry posts.