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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.

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IProud to be British by gracust’m an Anglophile.  I like repression, I suppose, depth under calm facades.  My favorite writers—Austen, Dickens, Penelope Fitzgerald, Jane Gardam, David Mitchell, Barbara Pym, Andrea Levy to name a few—have always been Brits, and now my favorite education secretary—if one can admit to such pedantic tastes—is English as well.

Michael Gove visits Wellsway School in Keynsham by educationgovuk

 

British education secretary Michael Gove has announced an overhaul of his country’s primary school education that includes the memorization of poems by children starting at age five.  (You can read the rest of his plan here.)  How marvelous, and how much more useful and important than learning techniques to pass standardized tests.  Salon writer Laura Miller writes an excellent essay calling on the U.S. to follow suit.

 

I’ve gone through periods of memorizing poems myself, regretfully none of them as a student, and after reading the benefits listed in Miller’s article and being inspired by Jeffrey of my last post, I’m going to start again.  I usually turn to Yeats for memorizing, but maybe I’ll try Keats for the summer.  Or maybe something long by Wordsworth.

 

 

In an interview many years back the brilliant literary critic Helen Vendler spoke about the importance of memorizing poetry.  And not just the kind of bland, crappy poetry about snowmen and falling leaves that shows up on classroom bulletin boards, but really good poetry.  Preach it, Helen, preach it:

 

2. Czesław Miłosz Festival by Krakow Festival OfficeCole (former National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Bruce Cole): You talked about memorizing poetry. People in the past memorized long patches of poetry, right? This is not happening anymore, is it?

Vendler: There are many things that aren’t happening that would make the study of poetry natural to children. First of all, poetry should be taught from the beginning with good poems, not bad poems, and it should be surrounded by a lot of related language arts—-memorizing and reciting and choral recitation and choral singing and all those things that feed into the appreciation of poetry.

Right now what teachers mostly do is have the children write poems. This is distressing to me, because they don’t write good poems.

Cole: They don’t have many examples, right?

Vendler: No. My colleague, Jorie Graham, insists that her writing class memorize every week. She has added an extra hour for memory and recitation, because, as she tells them, would-be poets can’t possibly write out what they haven’t taken in.

Cole: I wonder if the skills of memorization have slackened. Since that is not a part of most people’s mental furnishings, it’s just much harder.

Vendler: It all depends on cultural values. If you can make schoolchildren in China memorize four thousand characters, you can make schoolchildren memorize anything. Indeed, they memorize on their own all kinds of baseball statistics or popular songs. It’s not as though they don’t have memories and that the memories can’t be activated. It’s just a question of will, whether we want to include that as an important part of the curriculum.

Cole: Right. And value.

Vendler: I’ve been told that in Japan everybody, before leaving high school, memorizes the hundred great poems in the canon. So of course it can be done. Children’s minds are enormously active and retentive.

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