Last week I went to a poetry-reading by the Scottish Makar, Liz Lochhead. She is a great poet, and a great talker! Every question from the audience was answered with an amusing and informative anecdote. My question was about writing autobiographical poetry. Many novice poets write in first-person, and the ‘I’ of the poem is usually them. I’d heard Liz say before that most of her early poems were like this. It takes bravery and technique to adopt a persona and move from abstract to universal.
Liz Lochhead’s advice to new poets is, ‘Use feelings, but don’t name them – let the descriptions evoke them; be daring and write from someone else’s experience.’ There seems to be a trend in performance poetry to use ‘tell, not show’ technique, the very opposite of what creative writing manuals advise. The use of 2nd-person narrative verges on condescension. Perhaps it’s meant to “draw the audience in,” but as soon as I hear a line beginning, ‘You see…’ Or even, ‘See…’ I know I’m about to be told some personal platitude. “Confessional” poetry is not a string of rhyming clichés.
I’m also ambivalent about having poetry shouted at me, as if the words are worthless unless voiced fortissimo and at double-speed. As Liz Lochhead also said, ‘It’s the voice of the poem that’s speaking, not the poet.’ I admit (but this is not a confession) that I used a lot of 2nd-person narrative in my poem-sequence, The Olive Box, because it was the poet addressing his love, Olivia. And that person was a fictitious character, though based on various people from personal history.
A year ago, however, I found myself writing poetry from a far more personal point of view.
This time last year I found myself falling in love with someone I shouldn’t have fallen in love with. I let a young, attractive and, so it turned out, highly manipulative woman burgle my heart. Having been hurt and abused by several women before, I vowed I would never allow this to happen again. But Love has a different agenda – as did this woman (who shall remain nameless.) She too, so she claimed, had never allowed the perils and dangers of partnership to interfere with her busy, single-minded life. And so, one of my poems reflected this by using 2nd-person narrative.
You left a window open in the living room.Didn’t think it dangerous or risky.
Besides, only a small child could gain entry,
and it’s been some time since
adults had unscrupulous kids
climb chimneys, burgle houses,
or pick a pocket or two.
You left a window open in the living room.
You’d double-locked the front door;
all other entrances (or exits) were blocked;
you’d be back soon. You’d only popped
out for a pint of milk or something
equally mundane. All the same,
that open window bothered you.
A person of precaution,
you were not the sort to leave to chance
an open goal for any passing opportunist.
You double-locked your life:
never left your bag unguarded;
covered the keypad when entering your pin;
never gave your password out to anyone.
But then – but then – you left a window open.
And someone – or something – got in.
It was around 3pm in the afternoon,
you returned without any surprises,
and there in your room a creature stirred,
although you couldn’t see or touch it.
You stopped because you heard –
or thought so – no: could sense
a spirit that you couldn’t put your finger on.
Nor taste, nor smell, nor any other instinct
could explain its presence.
Should you leave the window
open for this strange beast to escape?
You paused, since
that would surely be a waste.
Should you close the window?
To fathom this position, newly-poised,
you had to make a choice.
Only then – only then – you heard a voice.
If only I had listened to that voice which was perhaps, in retrospect, a voice of warning. That’s what poets do, after all. In my last post I wrote about hangovers; not from alcohol, but the day after a life-changing experience. For a soppy romantic, the day after that first kiss is bound to be a dizzy one. A running theme of many poems I wrote during this period of misplaced ecstasy was about repeating the same mistake. How many times have I woken up to say: never again? One too many, it seems.
There are three types of illness that plague us –not on this day but the next. That is,
in those initial hours before a certainty
kicks in. I’m talking the dawning reality,
the morning-after when the day before
vomits an empty book on the bathroom floor.
I’ll spell them out, in case you’re not sure.
The stagnant ache of alcohol that, having coursed
its merry way around your veins,
becomes a stuck thud in your brain.
Or the bitter blow of death, that leaves
a void so visceral and deep inside
it cannot be catharticised.
And then there is that sweetest of hangovers:
I’m talking Love – or Lust, if you will –
the feather in the stomach
that flutters up through heart into mouth,
tempting a kiss from her tongue –
assuming there will be another one.
As I say, there are three types of ill –
Love and Death and Alcohol –
and all require a bitter pill…
Better swallow it soon,
before the honest afternoon
empties into evening and you
repeat the whole damn cycle again.
Eating featured heavily in our relationship. She, the un-named, had had a difficult relationship with food. When we met, however, her appetite was healthy. One of our early ‘dates’ was a picnic (and poetry) in Musselburgh. We spent evenings eating salsa with tortilla chips and drinking red wine on Bruntsfield Links. We ate, and kissed, in Princes Street Gardens in the shadow of St Cuthbert’s Church (I asked if she’d been inside. She said ‘no’ but now I know she lied.) Once, we drank tea from a flask by St Antony’s Chapel. But we never made it to the top of Arthur’s seat, as this poem implies.
We only made it half way up beforeyou spread your cloth and opened your flask.
Even so, by then the coffee was cold
and the sandwiches, limp, but we laughed.
You didn’t need to tell me that you
loved me, and I didn’t need to ask.
Above us, those who’d gone to the top
of the hill; above them, ravens karked,
while we tumbled into each other,
crowns intact; remained until the dark
convinced us that, despite that black bird’s
ominous threat, we thought our love would last.
When I sent that poem to her, she said there were so many layers. It seems there were also many layers to her duplicity. She claimed there were many types of food she had not eaten, due to a highly restrictive up-bringing, which may have been partly true. I took pleasure in sharing my gastronomical passions with her, and didn’t suspect that, in fact, she was far more familiar with forbidden fruit that she made out. I wrote the following poem after the first time we… oh hell, the romantic in me wants to say, ‘made love.’ Sadly, “had sex” would be more accurate.
The Second Breakfast
I will give my love an apple without e'er a core
I will give my love a house without e'er a door
I will give my love a house without e'er a door
Your naïveté astonished me.I fed you flavours many think as ordinary,
although my maverick culinary tricks
threw exotic pairings into the mix.
Introducing you to pan-fried gnocchi
with smoked salmon (yes: you eat it raw) –
you devoured it greedily, asked for more.
And beetroot with ricotta – not a
combination many would think of –
turned the cheese, and our fingers, pink.
You nibbled nervously at mussels,dragging them tentatively from their shell,
stretching their sinews, holding your nose
against the stench of the sea
(which I’d disguised with fennel, cumin,
citruses: heaping random botanicals in
as if I were distilling an artisan gin.)
Against the grain we drank red wine,
and tins of Guinness for pudding.
Bloated but engorged, our mouths
met… and hungered yet for more.
Next day we continued our tantric banquet,
still wet with passion or hunger or both.
There was no need to whet your appetite,
but you rejected the fruit I’d prepared
(was it Galia, Canteloupe or Honeydew?)
and confessed you’d never eaten a pear.
I said: you eat it like an apple without any core.
Its ripeness dribbled down your chin as you sank in.
Later, keen to complete your repertoire
of cuisine that was (to you) nouveaux,
you found another pear: an avocado.
I made a simple mustard vinaigrette,
but you took my hand and, smiling, replied,
I’d rather have it, you know, undressed.
I feared, as I cut around its cold stone
heart and held apart the separated halves,
this would conclude our feast.
But no: the soft exotic flesh became
for us a secondary break of fast.
There was nothing, at this stage, to make me think that I had been duped by her. My only regret was that we didn’t spend more time together. She was a busy person, with a rich mixture of studying, tutoring, and socialising. She claimed she had, in her spare time, a business to run, and was doing a high-level ballet exam – although I now doubt that either of these were true. They were merely ‘holding devices.’ When not with me, we retained strong communication through email and text. Once, I texted her a list of adjectives, which I later turned into a poem. Oh, poor deluded fool.
Funny like that bone that when hit juddersAdorable as a juggernaut when it shudders
Crazy like a pavement covered with cobbles
Wild as an elephant with the collywobbles
Sensitive as a finely ground lens
Talented like a show that never ends
Sexy – or should I call it sensuous
Ridiculous – your laughter is hilarious
Serious as a classical music station
Beautiful beyond temptation
Spirited like an alcoholic liquor
Soft (and strong) as tissue yet far thicker
Exquisite like every taste upon your skin
Tough as a creature that cannot sink nor swim
Melting as the sea that swallows me in
Vulnerable as the little bird within
More than this and wanting less
You are much more than this
Yet so much less
This list-poem, although as defrauded as she was fake, reminded me of several songs in which the same harmonic pattern returns in a cycle. For the next poem I included classical songs (from Purcell to Faure) popular classics (‘All The Things You Are’, and ‘Laura’) and pop-song references because, it seemed, this person was equally familiar with a wide range of music. I’m not sure this was true: her claim that she was giving violin-lessons to youngsters charging 60 quid a pop was way off the mark.
Repeat ad lib ’til fade
In music, they call it the circleof fifths, where one chord drops
onto another, related, then onto
the next; an endless cycle repeated
as if in perpetuum mobile
until you return to the home key,
the ‘tonic’ – back to the beginning.
It is a familiar progressionof well-tempered, equal temperament,
from Pachelbel’s Canon to Dido’s Lament;
it rises up through increased sharps
to a Total Eclipse of the Heart,
then flats decrease, like deflated ego:
I Will Survive completes the cycle.
There are, naturally, complications
as relative keys progress sequential:
we think of music’s relationships –
whether major, or minor – consequential
and hear in the Just the Way You Are,
Aprés un Rêve, or even, Laura,
the same chords over and over.
I’ll say it again: I had no idea I was in the same situation of falling for someone who wasn’t what they seemed. I constantly edited and re-drafted the poetry I wrote at the time, trying different voices, tenses, and narratives. The next poem I decided to leave in first-person, since I felt it carried a universal message of embryonic love; that tricky stage of commitment-versus-reticence. But here’s a confession: the ‘I’ is all about me. As I said last month, you can put your sorrows into a story. Poems, on the other hand, can’t help but be personal.
In Her Shell
I picked up a snail from the path.Daft, I know, but as it squeezed
itself deeper into its shell, I held it,
observing its underneath, thinking
it would show a fleshy, softly beating
reality of what pulsated in its heart.
But no. After a time I thought, oh well,
perhaps it wasn’t meant to be.
I replaced it, knowing my fantasy
was more about what I saw in the shell
than the knowledge of that vulnerability
which prevented her (I assumed a gender)
from sharing her home, her life, her love.
Was I cruel, or naïve, to up-end her?
I’ll end with that question.
It seemed there was much more to this story than met my eye.