I knew I was going to feature one particular poem this week. Imagine my delight when this image popped up on my Facebook page, posted by Mary Gauthier. I was especially grateful for what she wrote underneath it:
“Ok, a day late .. but here it is. My #oldheadshot I don’t remember being that person. I don’t even know where we took this picture. But.. there it is. The shoot was for the release of my Drag Queens In Limousines record. 1998.”
I’ll come back to Drag Queens In Limousines later, but what I lit on was the phrase
I don’t remember being that person.
Someone made that image of her. For a split second it stood for her, represented her, said who she was. Or, at least, someone’s idea of who she was. Now she can’t remember where she was, or who the image belongs to. We read that image, whether we acknowledge it or not. I might suppose I’m looking at someone who’s tired, who’s vulnerable and wary. Or maybe at someone who knows exactly who she is, and isn’t about to take shit from anyone. I might read that as a ‘who you looking at look?’. And so on. And I’d be bound to be wrong in one degree or another.
But that’s how it is, isn’t it. We deconstruct and reconstruct, and tell ourselves stories about the people we look at. The moment we see them is a memory instantaneously. Everything shifts. I actually think that that’s a joyous thing, just as it can be dangerous when we make moral judgements and form opinions about who we look at. We can’t help it. It’s the way we’re made. Just so long as we acknowledge this and take responsibility for it. I have another image of Mary G. hanging on the wall in the room where I’m writing.
There she is between one of my grandfathers (about whom I wrote a poem that was spectacularly wrong about him and essential part of his biography), multiple Michael Caines, and one of my great aunts. It’s an image she chose to tour with, so I guess it’s one she was happy with, believing that it told the truth about who she was, or wanted to be seen as. Then.
Maybe you’re not into Americana, and you’ve not heard of her. Well, now you have. Mary Gauthier is one of those who make me optimistic whenever I’m feeling down about where the writing is going, or if it’s worth the effort. I first heard her sing at The Pheasant Inn in Sheffield. It’s a place that in the 90’s used to host many of the Americana musicians like Steve Forbert and the Be Good Tanyas. It wasn’t the most salubrious or glamorous place. I remember queuing outside in late Autumn gloom and drizzle, and then walking through to the concert room via a taproom with a carpet that sucked at your feet, and between young mums who sat with toddlers in prams, and fed them crisps and bright pink drinks. The overall colour scheme was brown in all its variations, the lighting was perfunctory, and the stage was cramped, and too high. And then on comes Mary G. and lights up my night.
One woman with a guitar and a mission. I’ve seen her since in a church in Leeds, in a church hall somewhere in rural Leicestershire with a backdrop painted by the Scouts for a pantomime (where we bought the poster on my wall); above a wine bar in Wakefield. Man, does she work. To my absolute delight she’s battled and battled and worked and worked and now she needn’t work crap bars filled with people who don’t listen.
These days, she’s on radio shows; she plays festivals all over the States and in Europe; she seems to be booked up for every day, forever. And she’s played The Grand Ol’ Opry. Isn’t that something for an artist who’s gay, who’s battled drug addiction, who wrote a song for Karla Faye – executed in Texas to the applause of George Bush, who’s protested that Woody Guthrie never got inducted into the Country Hall Of Fame. She’s brought out a succession of critically acclaimed albums. I guess that helps.
The first album I knew of hers was Drag Queens in Limousines (1999). The first track is the most explicitly autobiographical.
“I stole momma’s car on a Sunday and lit out for good
moved in with some friends in the city in a bad neighbourhood”.
She was born in New Orleans. Born to a mother she never knew, and left in St Vincent’s Women and Infants Asylum, Gauthier was adopted when she was a year old by an Italian Catholic couple from Thibodeaux, Louisiana. At age 15, she ran away from home, and spent the next several years in drug rehab, halfway houses, and living with friends; she spent her 18th birthday in a jail cell. She enrolled in university as a philosophy major, dropping out during her senior year. She opened a Cajun restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay’s neighborhood, Dixie Kitchen, which she ran, and cooked at, for eleven years. She was arrested for drunk driving in July 12, 1990, and has been sober ever since. After achieving sobriety, she was driven to dedicate herself full-time to songwriting, and embarked upon a career in music. She wrote her first song at age 35.She sold her share in the restaurant to finance her second album, Drag Queens in Limousines, in 1998. (thanks to Wikipedia for the summary)
It was at a gig in Wakefield a few years ago when I heard her tell for the first time the story of her search for her birth mother, and how it led her to St Vincent’s Women and Infants Asylum in New Orleans, which was now a brothel. The bit that I could never get out of my mind was her telling us that the year photographs of the orphans were still on the walls of the quadrangle. Sometimes an image will lodge itself and demand, sooner or later, to be dealt with. It’s also important to know that that a strong thread of Roman Catholic imagery runs through her songs; often and often it centres on concepts of grace and of mercy. I finally sat down to write a poem that would end up in a pamphlet which grew out of the urge to find voices for iconic sculptures …the conceit is that they imprison the souls of fallen angels, and of the transgressive. In this case the story is told by Mary Magdalene as imagined by Donatello. As it happens, this Mary is ruefully aware of more sentimental versions of herself. And she has what I imagine to be a Louisiana accent…that is, I think she sounds like Mary Gauthier. I probably get it wrong.
Mary Magdelene and the orphans
Mary, Mary, quite contrary; how does your garden grow?
Right here in this courtyard, there’s a girl
come lookin’ for her childhood. In this house
in New Orleans. May ‘s well be the Rising Sun.
Started out an Orphan Home..St Vincent’ Paul
With silver bells, and cockle shells
It’s a hot-sheet motel now, where girls pull tricks.
And round these courtyard walls –
ain’t no-one thought to have ‘em taken down –
the Orphans’ photos; go back more’n fifty years.
and pretty maids all in row
She’ll be there, in one of ‘em, this troubled child
whose mother give her up, so long ago.
They stare down, the Orphans, all of them
conceived in love that righteous men call sin.
wallflowers, wallflowers, growing up so high
Give a girl a bad name and it sticks.
I weren’t no working girl. No sir. No saint,
neither. Maybe I talked too loud. Only
one man saw me as I truly am. Lord, O lord.
Them cracker preachers hung him up. Called me
a whore. Him, I’d a followed till the end
of time. I washed his wounded feet, his hands,
with tears and spikenard and myrhh,
drew the thorns from out his brow. I closed his eyes.
I dried his lovely body with my hair.
we’re all pretty maidens, we’re all set to die
There’s a magdalena here. A little worse for wear.
Them pretty golden clothes get tarnished. Still.
Won’t hurt to light a candle, say a prayer
for this lost child, for working girls. For me.
For Mary Magdalena everywhere.
U – biq – uit – ous. My lord,
ain’t that a word! I’m stretched so thin. Wore out.
all these fallen souls, these angels, come to me,
lookin’ for the grace from which they fell.
I can’t do nothin’ for them. And it breaks my heart
(From Outlaws and fallen angels. [Calder Valley Poetry 2016. £7.00]
There’s so much going on in my mind, now. The pamphlet’s introduced by a quotation from Mary G’s song Camelot Motel. Cheaters, liars, outlaws and fallen angels /come looking’ for the grace from which they fell. The poem is a thank you for her sharing her story. At the time I thought my motive was simple, but on reflection its a lot more complicated and conflicted. I don’t think I quite acknowledged it at the time, but part of her story is that when she finally found her birth mother, her mother wasn’t willing to meet her. Now, as I’ve written before, I had an adopted son who took his own life when he was 21. The day we met him and took him home was also the day we met his birth mother. What would she feel now if she tried to find out what happened to him. What would it do to her? Here I am, writing about a woman who I can’t be said to know, in the voice of a woman whose story I can only guess at, but who has been dreadfully misrepresented down the centuries. And then appropriating an accent that that I only know by listening to Mary Gauthier telling stories between songs. Do I have the right?
There’s a verse in one of her songs, which happens to be a song of amends and atonement. I fell into the space between us / and that’s a long way to fall
I’ll leave the question hanging, and equally the question: what kind of gaze is this? Maybe someone will tell me.
In the meantime, go and buy Mary Gauthier’s records.
- Dixie Kitchen(1997)
- Drag Queens in Limousines(1999)
- Filth and Fire(2002)
- Mercy Now(2005)
- Between Daylight and Dark(2007)
- Genesis (The Early Years)( 2008) – 15 track compilation from the 1st three albums
- The Foundling(2010)
- The Foundling Alone(2011) Acoustic Demo’s of songs in development, from The Foundling
- Live at Blue Rock(2012) 11 mixed new and old tracks plus a hidden Mercy Now
- Trouble and Love(2014)
- Rifles and rosary beads (2018)