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She had me at Rosemary

poem is by the door

poem is by the door

Addiction to an Old Mattress

by Rosemary Tonks

 

No, this is not my life, thank God …
… worn out like this, and crippled by brain-fag;
Obsessed first by one person, and then
(Almost at once) most horribly besotted by another;
These Februaries, full of draughts and cracks,
They belong to the people in the streets, the others
Out there – haberdashers, writers of menus.

Salt breezes! Bolsters from Istanbul!
Barometers, full of contempt, controlling moody isobars.
Sumptuous tittle-tattle from a summer crowd
That’s fed on lemonades and matinées. And seas
That float themselves about from place to place, and then
Spend hours – just moving some clear sleets across glass stones.
Yalta: deck-chairs in Asia’s gold cake; thrones.

Meanwhile … I live on … powerful, disobedient,
Inside their draughty haberdasher’s climate,
With these people … who are going to obsess me,
Potatoes, dentists, people I hardly know, it’s unforgivable
For this is not my life
But theirs, that I am living.
And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down, day after day.

 

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Usually I’ll fall in love with a poem first, the poet second.

 

But this time I first fell in love with a name. Rosemary Tonks. Can’t you just see Rosemary Tonks in her wellies and Liberty scarf, finding the dead body face down in her English village garden?

 

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 1.46Then I saw her picture. She looks like Doris Day, if Doris Day had a hangover and a dissertation to finish. Dress a beauty like that in tweeds and an oversized sweater and I’ve found my style icon.

 

Her biography drew me in further. Tragedy, glamour, a single black glove, a mysterious disappearance. Throw in malaria and a manuscript burning in the garden incinerator and you’ve got a poet whose life story is as oversized as any of the male writers we revere for their exploits.

 

Then came the poems. There’s not many on line, and all the English references can make them tough going—but three poems in and I had ordered a copy of her collection, Bedouin of the London Evening. These are poems crammed with cities and love affairs and cocktails, poems that make you want to live a big, big life and at the same time escape from the cynicism and darkness you find there. Reading them is like listening to a depressed Auntie Mame hold court in a seedy Turkish café or Sally Bowles in a college philosophy class.

 

Not that I fully understand a single one of them. When I have trouble with a poem, as I did with “Addiction to an Old Mattress,” I turn to the nouns, working my way step by step on the concrete parts till I’ve paved some sort of path through a poem.

 

The nouns in the title are a depressing pair, linked by an unlikely preposition. Maybe it’s her other poems speaking to me, but I picture her smoking in a run-down hotel room after yet another disappointing love affair.

 

Dreary nouns populate the first and third stanzas. Here in a cold English February are potatoes, brain-fag, draughts, dentists, haberdashers. I thought haberdasher meant a person who sells men’s clothing, but when I looked it up I discovered that for Brits, a haberdasher is a dealer in sewing notions, small things. What could be duller, less ambitious, less imaginative than being a dealer in sewing notions? Maybe being a writer of menus.

 

The nouns in the middle stanza, which is set in resorts and luxury liners on the Black Sea, are lovelier and softer sounding than those in the others: lemonade and matinees, Istanbul, salt breezes and this beautiful image of leisure:

 

And seas

That float themselves about from place to place, and then

Spend hours – just moving some clear sleets across glass stones.

 

I’m not sure what she means by Bolsters from Istanbul! except that it instantly puts me on a ship. Bolsters can be oblong pillows on deck chairs or a technical nautical term for a particular beam on a ship.

 

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 10.47.59 AMWithout knowing what Asia’s gold cake is (speak up if you do), its placement next to thrones speaks of affluence. As Jimmy Stewart said in Philadelphia Story, “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”

 

The line that follows that belongs to Katherine Hepburn: “You’re a snob, Connor.”

 

Tonks is a snob too, but I don’t dislike her for it. There’s so much desperation and yearning in lines like these:

 

For this is not my life

But theirs, that I am living.

 

At some point we all want to get the hell out of our small lives and escape to some place or time grander, more beautiful, more exciting. Or just warmer. Which is why I left the poem outside a travel agency. The temperature that day barely reached six degrees outside, and inside my house, sixty-two.

 

Rosemary Tonks was born in 1928 in southeast England, an only child. Her father died of malaria before she was born, after which her mother fell apart and was unable to raise her for a time. She was sent off to children’s homes and boarding schools.

 

At 18 she moved to London and wrote and illustrated a children’s book. She married an engineer named Lightband (she didn’t use his name until after they divorced) whose job took the couple to India and Pakistan. There she contracted typhoid and polio and had to return to England. The polio withered her right hand, so she covered it with a black glove. It takes a lot of confidence to walk about with a single black glove.

 

She moved to Paris briefly on her own and then settled back in London. She became a fashionable literary hostess. Through the sixties and early seventies she published six satirical novels and two collections of poems. After her mother died in an accident and her marriage ended, Tonks dropped out of literary and social circles. She disappeared—people thought she might be dead, or in Cuba or a convent. But she had changed her name to Rosemary Lightband and spent eight years searching for a spiritual practice. She tried Sufiism, Chinese healing arts, yoga, Taoist meditation. Eventually she found fundamentalist Christianity to the exclusion of everything else—writing, literature, relatives, friends. She was baptized in the River Jordan in Jerusalem the day before her 53rd birthday.

 

Throughout her life Tonks had eye problems, and during her later years had an operation that made her blind in one eye. She lived by the sea and read only the Bible. She burned the novel she had been working on as well as all the pieces in her Asian art collection, which she believed were “graven images.” For a fascinating recounting of her life as a recluse, link here.

 

She died just last year at age 85.

Every Valentine’s Day I brainstorm for places that romantically-inclined or romantically-averse folks might congregate as they prepare for the holiday or prepare to avoid it. In the past I’ve left love poems in a chocolate store, post office, senior citizen’s home, a food court, a lonely-looking motel, the floral department of a grocery store. Now in my fourth year of Valentine’s Day poem-elfing, I think I need a location scout.

Here’s where this year’s crop of love poems landed:

 

At Victoria’s Secret, nestled in between the pink thongs and the pink brassieres, I left Pablo Neruda’s “Sonnet XVII,” a poem which speaks of loving someone “in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”

 

poem is on white shelf with the pale pink underwear

poem is on white shelf with the pale pink underwear

 

Funny that we used to call ladies’ underwear “intimates.” Victoria’s Secret intimates, however sexy, are no match for Neruda’s brand. The intimacy he’s after can’t be manufactured or marketed or purchased. He writes of a passionate love

so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand

so intimate that when I fall asleep it is your eyes that close.

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I left Carl Sandberg’s “At a Window” on a stranger’s window at a transportation center.

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poem is on white car’s windshield

 

 

Presumably the stranger will return to the car after work, and I hope this universal wish for companionship and love is a balm and not an irritant:

…leave me a little love,

A voice to speak to me in the day end,

A hand to touch me in the dark room

Breaking the long loneliness.

 

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A Greyhound bus station seemed like a fine place for the decidedly unsentimental “First Love” by one of my favorites, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska.

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poem is on white wall in foreground

 

 

First love, says Szymborska,

does what all the others still can’t manage:

unremembered,

not even seen in dreams,

it introduces me to death.

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Valentine’s Day is a great day to celebrate the love of friends. I taped Robert Frost’s “A Time to Talk” to the sign outside a neighborhood bar, always a good place for friends to gather.

 

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poem is on oval sign just under the small red oval on the right-hand side

 

 

In this age of distraction and shortened attention spans, what better way to show affection than setting aside your hoe, whatever your hoe may be (no naughty jokes, please) and taking time “for a friendly visit“?

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For anyone sadder but wiser who might need retail therapy on Valentine’s Day, I left “I Have Come to the Conclusion” by Nelle Fertig in the Macy’s purse department:

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poem is on the mirror

 

 

 

(Excuse the typos in the poem I left–too late for corrections.)

Fertig’s version of love is more cynical than my own. But I guess I’ve been fortunate not to have “broken a few/ very fine mirrors.”

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Finally, I left an excerpt from Roy Croft’s “Love” near my husband’s office outside a restaurant he likes. But he was out of town, so he’ll only see the poem here.

 

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poem is on lamp post

 

 

The restaurant is frequented by middle-aged couples and singles looking to be coupled, people old enough to appreciate what’s under the surface, who can understand the beauty of what Fertig expresses here.

 

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If none of these poems suit your mood or situation, take a look past Valentine poem-elfing in 2014, 2013, and 2012.

 

And spread love! Everyone has it, everyone needs it.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

 

 

poem is on second shelf from the top

poem is on second shelf from the top

 

In Mind

 

There’s in my mind a woman

of innocence, unadorned but

 

fair-featured and smelling of

apples or grass. She wears

 

a utopian smock or shift, her hair

is light brown and smooth, and she

 

is kind and very clean without

ostentation–

 

but she has

no imagination

 

And there’s a

turbulent moon-ridden girl

 

or old woman, or both,

dressed in opals and rags, feathers

 

and torn taffeta,

who knows strange songs

 

but she is not kind.

 

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Years ago when I raising little children, I spent very little time writing but a lot of time reading books about writing. One by novelist Rita Mae Brown made a particular impression. As I remember, Brown asserted that you can have children or you can have a writing career but not both. A writer needs to be selfish, focused and dedicated only to her work. Motherhood wasn’t compatible with an artistic career.

 

What I got out of that book, besides the inevitable overdue fine at the library, was that either you could be a very good writer or a very good person. This idea was discouraging, to say the least, but also a useful excuse for not writing. I’d rather be a good person, a good mother than a good writer.

 

My exposure to writers up to that point reinforced this dichotomy. For Pete’s sake I had been through an MFA program. MFA programs, for those who didn’t watch the most recent episode of Girls, tend to bring out the worst in everyone. At workshop tables I sat elbow to elbow with people who were competitive, needy, emotionally unstable, snarky, smarmy and sometimes downright nasty. With a few notable exceptions, they were people I may have admired but didn’t want to hang around.

 

In her poem “In Mind,” Denise Levertov sets up similar opposing forces: imagination and kindness seem to be mutually exclusive. The two sides are represented by three women. The “woman /of innocence” is a single being, a fully integrated person whose attention to hygiene alone would preclude her from being a writer. Levertov describes her with details that highlight her less-than-riveting personality. Her hair—light brown—is neither dark nor light; she’s dressed simply in a “utopian smock” like some vacant-headed worker from a collective or commune or organic apple farm; she wears no jewelry or presumably makeup. Dependable. Sweet. Angelic but dull.

 

The second persona, on the other hand, is bewitching and witch-like. She’s not even one person but two, and made up of contradictions: both old and young, bejeweled and in rags, interesting but not nice. I imagine her to be the opposite of the woman of innocence in every way: her hair dark, curly and unwashed, her air experienced.

 

So I’m back to this idea that good person equals bad writer. And also good writer equals bad person. But I wonder if an idea so reductionist is what Levertov had in mind. I don’t think so. And what she has in mind is important in a literal way, since the poem is titled such and begins the same. In her mind are these three women. Multiple personas in one mind. That’s a good start on a description of a writer, of any artist. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said (and I quote from a tweet by @JonWinokur), “There was never a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people if he’s any good.”

 

I chose to read the poem in reference to writers, but “In Mind” can refer to any artistic person, anyone whose imagination is her stock-in-trade, anyone who feels pulled this way by art and that way by the people in her life, anyone who feels her dark creative leanings at odds with civilized society and her kinder nature.

 

 

I left the poem in the writing section of the library. Just as the coast was clear and I was about to tape the poem to some writing guides and take the picture, a young woman plopped herself on a library stool beside me. I didn’t want to wait for her to leave, so I explained what I was doing and asked if she’d be in the picture. She agreed as if my request was perfectly normal. Library Girl, if you ever read this, thank you for your openness to the abnormal.

 

 

Here’s a short bio of Levertov from a past post.

 

Screenshot 2015-01-08 18.04.30Denise Levertov was born in a suburb of London in 1923 to politically active parents.  Her mother was Welsh and her father was from a Russian Hassidic Jewish family. Levertov was homeschooled and she began writing early.  From age five she had a strong sense of her destiny to be an artist, and when she was 12 she sent T.S. Eliot some of her poems.  He responded with two pages of encouragement and advice.

 

During the London Blitz, she served as a civilian nurse.  She married an American writer and eventually became an American citizen.  She was poetry editor of The Nation and Mother Jones and taught at Stanford, among other universities.

 

Later in life she converted to Catholicism and became a political poet, speaking out against Vietnam War, nuclear arms, the U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and the Gulf War.

 

Levertov died in 1997 at age 75.

 

In light of the poem and my earlier musings, it seems important to add that Levertov had a son, Nikolai. From whom she was sometimes estranged. And then reconciled with on her deathbed. And that she is often described as “complicated” (read “difficult”). For those truly interested, link here for a good summary of two recent biographies on Levertov.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So about my last post . . .

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 11.27.28 AMI’m thinking about Miss Emily Litella today. For those too young to remember the Saturday Night Live character created by Gilda Radner, Emily Litella was a commentator on Weekend Update back when Jane Curtain anchored. Miss Litella was a daffy little lady with a high voice and a hearing impairment. She was invited on the show to respond to issues of the day, but she always misheard what the issue was. To her ears, “presidential elections” was “presidential erections,” and “endangered species” was, well I’m sure you can guess. It’s certainly not endangered.

 

Miss Litella would get more and more upset in her commentary until eventually Jane Curtain would cut her off with a correction—it’s “make Puerto Rico a state,” not “make Puerto Rico a steak, “Miss Litella. And then Gilda Radner would look at the camera and say sweetly, Never mind.

 

And so, regarding my last post, in which I got into a lather about Lawrence Raab’s poem “Marriage, “ I say this:

 

Never mind.

 

I got it all wrong. And I have it on good authority, from Lawrence Raab himself.

 

I had posited that the man in the poem was deflated by his wife’s revelation about their early courtship. I compared his reaction to Gabriel Conroy’s come-down at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” I went on about how real marriage begins when you let go of the image you’ve created of a person who doesn’t exist and accept the one who does.

 

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

 

Mr. Raab responded when I sent him the link to my post. (I always send poets a link if he or she is still alive. At least half the time I get a response.)

 

He wrote, I’m glad you like the poem, although I have never thought that he would be deflated by her story; it’s too good a story, and her reason for not initially answering relates directly to him. 

 

In a subsequent email he told me that he’s heard the poem is often used at weddings.

 

I’m sure there’s a reason I interpreted the poem as I did, but I don’t want to know it. I tend to be cynical and let’s leave it at that.

 

So here’s my question: if you hadn’t read my post, how would you have read the poem?

 

poem is under left-hand concrete urn

poem is under left-hand concrete urn

 

Marriage

By Lawrence Raab

 

Years later they find themselves talking

about chances, moments when their lives

might have swerved off

for the smallest reason.

What if

I hadn’t phoned, he says, that morning?

What if you’d been out,

as you were when I tried three times

the night before?

Then she tells him a secret.

She’d been there all evening, and she knew

he was the one calling, which was why

she hadn’t answered.

Because she felt—

because she was certain—her life would change

if she picked up the phone, said hello,

said, I was just thinking

of you.

I was afraid,

she tells him. And in the morning

I also knew it was you, but I just

answered the phone

the way anyone

answers a phone when it starts to ring,

not thinking you have a choice.

 

 

(I’m having trouble formatting this poem in WordPress, and formatting is so important here. Apologies. Please see the proper formatting in the photograph below.)

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Here’s a poem possible only once upon a time when everyone had a landline and the one way to know for sure who was calling was to answer the phone.

 

If the couple in this poem had courted more recently, he would have called her cellphone, then texted, emailed and left a voicemail. There would be no we-almost-lost-each-other-forever. Either he would have tracked her down or he would have known she was ignoring his calls.

 

But even with the outdated technology of the poem, his version is overly-romanticized. We don’t know the whole story, of course, but surely he would have kept trying to reach her after she didn’t answer. Surely there would have been another opportunity to connect before their lives/might have swerved off/for the smallest reason.

 

Years later, happy years it would seem, she demolishes his version of their love story. It turns out that the single moment when their lives might swerve off course is not the missed phone calls so many years ago, but the telling of her secret this late in their relationship. It wasn’t kismet, she tells him, it was a choice, at first a conscious one formed in fear, and then an unconscious one formed out of habit.

 

You can just see the poor fellow’s face fall. It’s not devastating news—nowhere close to I’m in love with your brother and I’ll let the IRS agent in on my way out–but it’s deflating. He doesn’t know her as well as he thought. His treasured romantic-comedy relationship is going to have to be re-cast.

 

It reminds me of the last beautiful scene in James’ Joyce’s The Dead. Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta are in their hotel room after his aunts’ annual holiday party. Just before they had left the party he had watched her listening at the top of the stairs to a song played in a distant room. He couldn’t decipher her strange expression but it excited him, made him look forward to a night of intimacy. As he takes her in his arms in the hotel, he asks what she’s thinking about. The song, she says, “The Lass of Aughrim.” Then she throws herself on the bed, sobbing. Blue balls to follow.

 

She tells him what he’d not known before. When she was a young girl, a sickly boy named Michael Furey had fallen in love with her and used to sing “The Lass of Aughrim” to her. The night before she was leaving for school, he came outside her window in the rain and told her he did not want to live if she left. He died a week later.

 

After this revelation she falls asleep, and Gabriel is left alone, humiliated, angry, then by turns tender and wistful. Just before the story ends with the immortal lines about the snow falling faintly and faintly falling upon all the living and the dead, there’s this:

 

He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love

 

That’s marriage, right there, that bittersweet understanding. Maybe I’m putting a more hopeful spin on Joyce’s story than it merits, but understanding that your spouse is not you, and that your spouse is not the person you thought they were early in your romance, can be the beginning of real love and a real union.

 

Years ago when my husband and I were moving to Michigan and arguing about every house we looked at, our 80-year old realtor, now long dead but at the time long-married, told us that married people are like two trees. She used her forearms to show us the trees side by side. Separate trees, Millie said, but always growing beside each other. She was so right, that Millie. Any happily married person will tell you it takes years of marriage for the old idea of who you married to make room for the actual person who shares your bed and sometimes farts in it.

 

The title of Raab’s poem covers not just this little vignette of a married couple’s life, but what happens after the poem ends. Yes, marriage can be the bliss of shared memories, but it’s also the negotiation of differing memories. Romance is a construct; marriage is what happens after deconstruction. Or doesn’t. We don’t know where this marriage is headed.

 

I love how the structure works with the content of “Marriage.” The poem begins with the stanzas going back and forth between the speakers, like dialogue in a story. But after the first exchange, the poem is all hers, the conversation taken over by her secret. As his dream deflates, so do the stanzas, shrinking from four lines to three to a mere two at the end.

 

I left the poem outside a hoity-toity bridal salon, the kind of store that you don’t step inside unless you’re convinced it’s a good idea to spend half a year’s rent on a dress you wear for a few hours. I didn’t leave it there just to be snarky. The poem sheds light on the reality of marriage, and that’s a better place than fantasy weddings for any bride to begin preparations.

 

Screenshot 2014-12-04 12.08.34Lawrence Raab was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1946. He went to Middlebury College and earned his masters from Syracuse. He’s taught at University of Michigan, American University, and these days at Williams College. He’s one numerous awards and grants and has published seven collections of poetry. This poem, “Marriage,” comes from his 1993 collection What We Don’t Know About Each Other.

 

Raab has also written screenplays and adapted Aristophanes’ The Birds for theater.

 

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