Alexander Graham Bell once said of the telephone, some day, every town will have one. I have three, my UK number, a local one, and a work phone, and I have never needed my phone more or wanted it less. I could’ve given up my UK number. Should have, probably. A chance to weed out all the numbers I never call, that never call me. I guess I’m not ready to disconnect. But it makes me forget sometimes that I am here, and not there, where you are. In An Affair To Remember, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr visit his grandmother who lives in a gorgeous little house cut out of the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. Almost entirely isolated, it is where I imagine living one day. I would be completely there and need to be nowhere else. I won’t need or want a telephone (except sometimes).
In The Guardian recently, there was an article about a man who broke into a church to pray: “Here the silence creeps into me, a bit like the cold […] And into that silence I bring all that is not OK with me.” Silence and time. August Kleinzahler said technology, as well as being fabulous, has limited our need (and so maybe our capacity) for thinking, memory, association, that it has created “a culture of distraction”. Sometimes, when I listen to music, it’s because I don’t want to be left alone with what is not OK with me, with thinking and memory. If I’m to get any sleep, I want the distraction. Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours is a good bet. His version of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” is not as painfully beautiful as Nina Simone’s. She has a way of singing and playing piano as though those two elements are only barely holding together, like Virginia Woolf’s spider’s web, and you pay attention, fearing that there’s too much felt for such fragility to endure. You can’t listen to this for any other reason than for its own sake. If you want to sleep, Frank is lovely. And there’s nothing wrong with lovely. Of course, I’m up at 4am comparing these two tracks … because technology.
I like your observation about distance. Distance in time often appears to create a clarity that wasn’t available in the present. The theory goes that our conscious mind, in the moment, is making sense of our actions, rather than determining them. Creating a story of self and the illusion of decision-making. Have you seen the episode of House where a guy’s had his corpus callosum severed, so his right brain hemisphere and left can’t communicate? The guy can’t read the instruction “Stand up” because it’s on the left side, controlled by the right brain, but his language centre is in the left brain. So instead of reading it, he actually stands up. He doesn’t know why, but when asked, he says it’s because he’s cold and wants to fetch a jumper. His brain has told him a story to make sense of his action.
We rely on memory to make sense of the present. You can’t piece together a broken statue head, if it isn’t laid down in your memory what a head looks like. To some extent, what we see is what we’ve seen before.
What we gain from distance, perhaps, temporal and spatial, is the ability to construct a narrative out of the whole mess of crap.
Silence and time and lighting candles. I do this. The Guardian writer talks about sitting with God, but I’m there with myself. On the pew I remember sitting on as a child. In the church where I took my first communion. Or as often, along the creek in Castleton, with the little window selling Bradwell’s rum & raisin. I’m not sure I like rum & raisin, but it sounds dangerous. I think I’d always choose it. And if I don’t believe in a continuous soul, I’m grateful for the illusion. For the story that lets me make sense of myself.
Stood facing the cavern’s black mouth with the last blue rays snagged on limestone, I look up at the crevice-nests, feathers flickering in the wind. I stand a long time, till the light that offered something like courage is snuffed, the moment gone with the fleeing birds.
Melastoma. Purple flowers
if you eat the fruit
turns your tongue black
melas from the Greek for black
stoma the Greek
for mouth. Melastoma.
That’s what it’s like to confess. Have you ever made something up just to say to the priest, walked him through some black-lit story of covet and names in vain? And how long has it been since your last confession? Right there, in the corner of some backstreet cathedral, tealight bidding prayers blowing in the sanctified cross-breeze. There between the Virgin and a copy of Cafod Weekly. But all that forgiveness. Facing the cavern’s black mouth, I flake halfway through the Our Fathers to keep from being absolved.
On what would have been Chopin’s sixtieth birthday, all the major philharmonic orchestras, from the Royal Society to the Musikverein in Vienna, programmed an evening of music, so that each would play the “Minute Waltz” at precisely 7pm GMT. Alexander Graham Bell was in the London audience. In order to play some of Chopin’s most intricate pieces, two pianos were required on stage. As the first pianist warmed up, Bell noticed the second piano vibrate. Struck by the beauty of the two pianos vibrating across space, and less literally, but with equal grace, across Europe, Bell wondered about the human voice, how wonderful it would be …
Almost a century later, the composer and pianist Raymond Scott hoped of a time when there would be no need for musicians, only the composer, sitting on stage, able to think his creation directly into the minds of the listeners, untouched, and therefore, unspoilt, by the mediation of players (Not “a people person”, Kleinzahler says). To have what you wanted to say heard and understood, as you meant it to be heard and understood. That’s the dream. Unless it isn’t. What if we only had Hoagy Carmichael on stage thinking out his perfect, only, unmediated version of “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)”?
In one of my favourite Kleinzahler poems, “A History of Western Music: Chapter 4”, Father Castel develops his “Clavecin Pour Les Yeux”:
and twenty years later, on the 21st of December, 1755, the day of Saint Thomas, patron saint of the Incredulous and Harpsichords, this learned Jesuit, who had out an invitation to fifty persons of rank, some from abroad, lighted not less than one hundred candles […] the Father demonstrated, in a mere half hour of playing, the marvel of his creation: that when C is heard, blue will be seen; when red is seen, E will be heard. And that the chiaroscuro will answer to the grave D
In the second part of the poem “Clavecin Pour Le Voyage”, Migrenne, “not content with the Father’s ‘pretty divagations’”, aspired “to sit down at his instrument and illuminate the entire map of the world”:
Clouds he would color myrrh, sometimes crimson, or for variety an agate or pigeon neck. Smoke, sails, and flags were always blue bice, and castles red-lead. Of trees, some he made grass green, others burnt umber. Rome was pale rose and ocher […] Brazil was pink and blue and red, like parrots. Meadows straw color. The sea a pale celadon.
It’s a visual representation of sound, a temporal invocation of place. Migrenne uses music as Kleinzahler uses words, placing “a prism over this world, in order to color it with his playing, visiting any one place only so long as the reverberation of a single plucked string.” And the listener and the reader are there in this imagined space, mediated by the musician/poet, and by their own longing to be elsewhere.
Yes, I read that St Augustine confessed to stealing pears. His regret was that he’d stolen them without appreciating them, their taste and beauty. That he took them because he could. At least WCW ate the plums. Did you know in China, the word for pear is the same as the word for separation? That for this reason, you should never split a pear with your lover? I confess to spinning a lie. About Chopin and his inspiring A.G. Bell. The truth’s rarely as simple as the stories we tell.
I fly home Friday. Feels weird.
Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection Envies the Birds is out now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book.
Last night, in the middle of a city in the middle of the desert, I was listening to music at my friend’s apartment when Jackson Browne came on. “Late for the Sky” is one of Nick Hornby’s 31 songs, and he says that when the album came out in 1974, he was too punk to have time for “delicate Californian flowers” or “navel-gazing” songs about marital discord. It was a couple of decades later that his own break-up gave him a sense of what shaped these songs. It’s a while since I heard the intro. It’s instantly moving, but now it’s like I’ve never heard the lyrics, how deeply sad they are: “looking hard into your eyes / there was nobody I’d ever known / such an empty surprise to feel so alone.” That’s the thing about endings. The past gets rewritten, you get rewritten (I am no one you’ve ever known). Shared stories no longer match up, so you lose yourself and your past as well as an imagined future. And now it’s dark outside and I’m listening to Jackson Browne in the middle of a city in the middle of the desert.
I write about the desert sometimes. This is the second part of a poem called ‘Fairytale No. 9’:
He said his country had only two seasons,
all or nothing, no spring or fall.
He longed to see snow
but I told him how leaves brittle
and burn up in love for the trees,
sacrifice themselves – little drops of blood –
to lie over exposed roots, warming them
from the early frost.
Autumn, I said.
Outside, sand and sky were all one colour.
He turned back from the still heat
asked me to write
this new word on his hand.
There’s more to the desert, and deserts are various, in their reach, their wildlife, the stories they inspire, but spending a little time in such a different landscape has made me look harder at how home and its hills affect the ways I perceive the world, the stories I tell. I love Yorkshire for its seasons. I have something good to say about them all. The visible changes in spring and autumn are magical, the little drops of blood, and the shoots that are just now turning the garden green in my absence. All that transformation is a good setting for a fairy tale, albeit a specific kind of transformation, tree-covered, cyclical.
In my poem, change comes at a cost, a “sacrifice”, and elsewhere, the speaker’s transformations are quite traumatic:
Heavy with buds, I took to bed, dreamt
of being a woman –
the weight of nesting birds
on my chest was only grief, the body taking
its share of the pain.
I lost my silver bark,
its counter-light reflecting the names
of passersby cut into my ribs.
e.e. cummings’s “Spring is like a perhaps hand” appears to offer transformation without the pain, a gentle placing and arranging – “a perhaps / fraction of flower here placing / an inch of air there) and // without breaking anything.” – but so many carefullys can’t be what they seem … really, we’re only looking through a window, while spring affects how we see the world. Somewhere else days are getting shorter. And somewhere else again, spring and autumn are barely words.
Change as part of a season or cycle only looks like change close up, doesn’t it? So it’s not always obvious that you’re going round in circles. In her short story, “Her Bonxie Boy”, Sara Maitland combines fairy tale, spring and science, using the method of charting seasonal bird migration with microchips that record light intensity; length of day tells latitude, and you can tell longitude according to the hours of sunrise/sunset, so you can work out where a bird was twice a day. Except when it’s equinox because days and nights are the same length across the hemisphere: “The vernal equinox is exactly when migratory sea birds are migrating. So, at the very moment I want to know most what they’re up to, they disappear. Vanish somewhere between winter and summer”. Is that what I’ve done? Have I disappeared? Will this passage really bring transformation or is it just part of a circle too big for me to see? Truth is I’m holding onto more than I’ve let go, and if some days it hurts, I don’t know if it’s change that’s more painful or trying to stay still.
I wrote ‘Fairytale No. 9’ while thinking about Rebecca Solnit on pain and empathy (in The Faraway Nearby), about pain and touch as a boundary of the self: “Those who suffer are considered to be worse off than those who don’t, but those who suffer can care for themselves, protect themselves, seek change […] recover.” It might take a long time to work out where that boundary is, what it means or how to use it. But it is, perhaps, how we break cycles, change course. Hornby describes it as peeling away “yet another layer of skin [which] thus allows us to hear things, chords and solos and harmonies and what have you, properly”. He adds that he wishes he still had those layers of skin, but as my son grows up I realise life is much longer than I’d imagined, and I wonder what it would be like to go through it and never change or be changed.
In Ultimate Classic Rock, Michael Gallucci wrote, “[Browne] sang like someone who had the end of the world in his rear-view mirror and a wide open road in front of him”. In those “chords and solos and harmonies”, in “Late for the Sky”, I hear that potential for transformation, to take the open road more surely for having the end of the world in sight. The lyrics, sad as they are, are about waking up. Once you see “the changing light”, you lose what certainty you thought you had, but what do you gain?
In Hope in the Dark, Solnit says change happens in the imagination first. You have to be able to imagine the possibility of a different future, before you can head towards it. And if you think that’s scary, she’s saying that’s where the hope is. There’s no hope in certainty, only in the dark, and perhaps a little in the desert.
‘Fairytale No. 9’ appears in Envies the Birds, Angelina D’Roza’s debut full-length collection (available now from Longbarrow Press). Visit the Envies the Birds microsite for further extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the book (hardback, 80pp) via the relevant PayPal button below:
I’m watching The Goldbergs, a sort of Wonder Years for the eighties, and who doesn’t yearn for leg warmers, cassette tapes and Cyndi Lauper? Girls do just want to have fun. But if you never stood as a family watching your new microwave and/or soda stream, as though it were a TV, you won’t like it. If you’re too young or too old, you’ll turn over … put Hollyoaks or Take the High Road on … I will forever associate watching eggs inflate inside a magic/radioactive box with Billy Joel, though neither I nor Billy could’ve seen that coming; the memories and connections we carry with us are unforeseen. I saw a friend last week. We were student nurses together, and we spent most of that time listening to music (and studying). But when we spoke recently, he said he always thinks of me when he listens to Space … Except that we watched Shooting Fish together (which uses “Me and You Versus The World” on its soundtrack), I can’t imagine why. But I probably have associations about you that you won’t recognize yourself in. The marks we leave on people are always only versions of ourselves.
“A mark that remains after that which made it has passed by – a footprint for example.” Rebecca Solnit quotes this explanation of the Tibetan word shul in A Field Guide To Getting Lost. “In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night.” That last description connected. Ages ago, someone lent me a book of Jane Kenyon’s. I held onto it for years, and this is one of the images that has stayed with me: “Heavy Summer Rain”:
The grasses in the field have toppled,
and in places it seems that a large, now
absent, animal must have passed the night.
The hay will right itself if the day
turns dry. I miss you steadily, painfully.
I wonder why the impression of an absent animal should move me, so that I’ve been carrying the look of it, more than the words, with me the last few years – but that absence made present through the toppled grass, the shul, makes the other absence tangible. I feel the I missing you. I feel the weight of it in my chest. That it is painful.
There are poems you wish you’d written. I wished to write this poem, but it would be like covering “Town Called Malice” (there are a couple of covers that start like they might be interesting … but then, they’re not). You cannot improve this song. Put the microphone down and step away from the record button. But the poem left its impression, so that however long after returning the Kenyon, when I read Solnit, a couple of months ago, shul sounded more loudly, and I did write a poem – “Marginalia”. It’s in seven parts. This is the first:
It’s a litany of shul. From the stretchmarks, cologne and etymology to the lack of fruit. I carry that MacNeice poem with me, so when the bay window entered the poem, so did the line about snow and tangerines. I guess most people carry “Snow” around, but what about Catholicism? That too? Ok, Prokofiev? Lose Hill? Some impressions are deeper than others. We accumulate them from the people, places, books, etc we encounter, and it’s these marks that influence how we read the world. Viktor Shklovsky said of influence: ”Is it like filling an empty vessel, or is it the rotation of a dynamo rotor in an electric field that, as a result, creates a new kind of electricity?” I’m a one off not because I’m brand spanking new, but because I am the only person with my exact combination of experiences, perceptions, and so what filters through me is made new as a consequence. I am The Avalanches sampling Madonna’s bass line. I’m Dean Stockwell lip-syncing Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet – “In Dreams”, a lovely, melancholic, innocuous song made creepy as hell by a film I definitely didn’t see in the eighties because I was 13 and it’s way too scary.
Shul translates to “track”: “A path is a shul because it is an impression in the ground left by the regular tread of feet”. In Wanderlust, Solnit says “to write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route”. Perhaps sampling and found poetry are like walking an existing path to identify new features or establish new significance. I noticed that “Holiday” bass line because it’s a familiar feature in my head (I also danced to “Vogue” on the City Hall stage, though maybe that’s less relevant …). But The Avalanches do make something new of it. They sample from The Main Attraction to Rose Royce, yet the overall sound is distinctly their own.
Parts III and VII of “Marginalia” use excerpts from Zelda Sayre’s letters to F. Scott Fitzgerald. These letters are brilliant and bright and insistent. They’re looking towards the promise of something that’s still there, if at a distance. “Marginalia” is all about what’s gone and the impression it made, and I wanted to use the energy she gets onto the page for this purpose, to ramp it up until meaning begins to break down, to be so urgent the words burn up with it.
The impression left after whatever made it has passed by – a bit like that Barthes thing of using a text as a container or reflection to make sense of your own experience, I read this at the right time. So much depends. If I’d read the Solnit earlier or later, if whoever hadn’t lent me the Kenyon, I don’t remember how I came by Zelda Sayre’s letters, but if I hadn’t. The rag and bone of the imagination, the shul, connects in unforeseen ways. Is a poem really a path? That suggests you could trace my steps. I might leave an impression on you, but I can’t be sure what that impression will be. You have your own damage to bring on the journey.
Listen to Angelina D’Roza reading ‘Marginalia’:
‘Marginalia’ appears in Envies the Birds, Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection (Longbarrow Press, 2016). She is among the poets taking part in the Longbarrow Press residency at the Pop-Up Ruskin Museum at 381 South Road, Walkley, Sheffield, S6 3TD, from 2 – 30 September 2015, culminating in a collective reading at the Museum at 7pm on Wednesday 30 September, featuring D’Roza and poets Matthew Clegg, Pete Green, Chris Jones and Fay Musselwhite. See the Longbarrow Press Events page for more information.
‘Heavy Summer Rain’ by Jane Kenyon appears in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press 1997). You can read the poem here.
There’s healing power in music. Sometimes it’s the right lyric, or the drumbeat, but it’s usually a combination of the two that does it. In 31 Songs, Nick Hornby mentions his mum’s derision at the T. Rex lyric, “Get it on / bang a gong”, touching on the lyrics v. poetry debate. I mostly think it’s daft; whichever angle you’re coming from, there often seems an unconscious (or conscious) elevation of poetry woven into the parameters of the comparison. Are those lyrics poetry? Who cares? And while we’re here, “More than a woman” is not a man! I couldn’t write a decent lyric if PJ Harvey stood over me with a feathered whip. Glyn Maxwell suggests that music is to lyrics what white space is to poetry. If some lyrics retain their power when you lose the music, does that make them poetry? Does that make them better lyrics? Or worse? We don’t measure the value of a poem by taking away the line breaks and seeing if it holds up. Even so, if I were going to buy into this, and some days I do, I’d offer Leonard Cohen’s lyrics (not his poetry?!) –
Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love
The words hold their own beauty. Does this make them poetry? Maybe. I might listen to them walking Burbage Edge, or sitting on the Cholera Monument behind the house I grew up in, looking out on the city shrunk to a more manageable size. It will gently get you through most days.
But if you really need to feel better, sooner or later you have to get up and dance around like a curiosity. Carly Simon has a song, “Attitude Dancing”: “And it don’t really matter / what steps you choose to do / only one thing matters / that’s your attitude.” This was the power of the Leadmill nightclub. Lyrics still mattered. Look up the words to “99 Red Balloons” or “Baggy Trousers”. They say stuff. But they’d say it to a beat I could throw myself into, and although I’d be barged by all the other vodka-mixer-for-60-pence-fuelled youth of the day, the gratification was in being fiercely yourself, and to hell with everyone else. Listen to the Stone Roses’ “I Am the Resurrection” – that opening drumbeat’s filling your chest with the screw you factor, isn’t it? Then add, “Don’t waste your words, I don’t need anything from you / I don’t care where you’ve been or what you plan to do.” Arms up and singing to the delayed refrain of “I am the resurrection” is about as much pure joy as you can get in life.
The whole being yourself thing is a struggle. Other people aren’t merely mirrors, but we do see ourselves reflected in them. We build relationships with the people in who we see ourselves most clearly. Maybe they show my best side. Or you might choose those who confirm your flaws. But sometimes you spend so long looking at the reflection, you forget that’s all it is. This is when you need the song.
“Silentium”, by Fyodor Tyutchev (trans. Chandler), describes this act of self-reclamation:
Be silent, hide away and let
your thoughts and longings rise and set
in the deep places of your heart.
Let dreams move silently as stars,
in wonder more than you can tell.
Let them fulfill you – and be still.
It ends: “Hear your own singing – and be still.” The poem might work differently to the song, have its own sense of musicality, but it’s an experience as physical as any bass vibrating through you. Here, stillness is made visceral. The simplicity of the language and rhythm, the weight of the rhymes, slow me down and send me into myself. The imperative to step out of the world lends nerve to the poem’s assumption that I am enough. I am. To be still, here, is an act comparable with dancing irreverently. I’m memorising it. It’s wonderful. But Rosemary Tonks’s “Addiction to an Old Mattress” enacts the struggle I’m thinking of:
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
“This is not my life” suggests it’s someone else’s, and thank God she doesn’t have to live it, with its crippling “brain-fag”. Brain-fag! But she is living someone else’s life, and it hardly matters whose. This randomness of who she might fall for is what defines obsession; it’s not them as people that takes her over – it’s dispossession itself. Rebecca Solnit, in The Faraway Nearby, describes us as stories, telling and being told, as threads woven into the fabric of the world. That balance between connection and autonomy is essential to our sense of self, I think. When we lose control of our story, we become dispossessed, but also if our thread winds loose from the pattern. This makes stepping out of the world sound less desirable, though we all want to run away from it sometimes. Maybe it works for a while, as a way to relearn your story, to narrate a new one. At some point, though, we need it to be heard.
Anyone can become dispossessed of self, by society, abuse, love. Solnit says that your suffering doesn’t mark you as special, “though your response to it might”. You might react by being still. I might sing the Stone Roses in my kitchen (but I am special …). For the speaker here, without herself, her personhood, her own story to tell, what else is there but the other, any other. Even the month belongs to them and not to her:
These Februaries, full of draughts and cracks,
they belong to the people in the streets, the others
out there – haberdashers, writers of menus.
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.
I’m excited by how feisty the lines are. The fight in them gives me hope for the speaker. The middle stanza opens, “Salt breezes! Bolsters from Istanbul!” and with its fractured rhythm and exclamations (the line break, the white space), it sounds as full of contempt as the “Barometers […] controlling moody isobars”. Even the “lemonades and matinees” are scorned alongside the “sumptuous tittle-tattle” of the summer crowd they feed. The sheer attitude of the poem makes me want to write, but it’s so strong, so ironically full of identity, I end up writing someone else’s voice: this is not my life …
The violence in the lines confronts the heteronomic forces being imposed on her. She can take it: “… I live on … powerful, disobedient”. I love her for this. But how can she be powerful, when she seemed so overwhelmed by her obsessions? This is the struggle I mean. Her power, I think, is in her disobedience and comes back to notions of dispossession, and being outside societal norms. We think we’re more in control, more separate, than we are. We’re moved by those around us. We want to belong, to be recognised, and this makes us vulnerable, so we toe the line. If you’re isolated, rejected, unseen, it becomes possible (necessary?) to reject, and perhaps there’s strength to be found in that – if you can’t relate to the haberdashers and their climate, screw them!
There’s such violence in the last line, too: “And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down …”, but here her anger seems directed inwards: this is what I do, and what I do is unforgivable. There’s much conflict in the poem: between the self and the other, yes – in one reading the other dominates. In another, the speaker is powerful, more autonomous (or disobedient) for her social death. She’s not merely consumed by the other. In the end, she actively consumes it. But the poem’s perspective is the speaker’s, and I think the real struggle is going on internally. Perhaps her strength is only an act. Or perhaps you have to act as though you’re strong, as though you’re enough, do some “attitude dancing”, before you can feel it, before you can retell the edges of yourself; is she consumed, consuming or rejecting? Is she giving the world the finger or looking for forgiveness? And if forgiveness, then from who? You? No … to hell with you …
Angelina D’Roza’s sequence The Strait appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. D’Roza discusses Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ in ’31 Songs’, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty’ here, and D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Elephant is Slow to Mate’ in ‘Hotel California’ (three earlier posts in this series). Rosemary Tonks’s “Addiction to an Old Mattress” appears in Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2014). Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection, Envies the Birds, is available here.
I lost someone recently. He wasn’t a love or a relative, or even a friend. He wasn’t mine to lose at all. He was a pain. He was stubborn, and he had limited taste in music. I spent one week with him listening to a couple of Eminem songs over and over, maybe an Evanescence, a little Barry Manilow. But then at the end of the week, “Hotel California” came on. This was the sort of thing he’d do, drive you nuts, and then ask you to write down the word autumn, so he can carry it in his pocket. Who wouldn’t miss a man who did that?
The Eagles’ opening chords give away the whole song, like the pre-credit sequence of Columbo. Everyone (everyone!) knows “Hotel California” is a great song, even my guy (let’s call him Kevin), who whistled along to “Can’t Smile Without You”. But I like this song as a friend. I don’t love it. Nick Hornby talks about hearing a song at the right age, in the right year. I maybe heard this song in the seventies, but I suspect I was more about “The Runaway Train” than “the dark desert highway”. There are songs you shouldn’t be listening to without thinking of me. With the Eagles, it’s ok to go ahead and think of someone else, your cousin, or auntie, or Jon Tickle from Big Brother 4.
Kevin wasn’t into poetry. I read some to him – he said “thank you”. I tried to choose something culturally relevant, which is maybe a risk. But I do get a kick out of reading things near where they were written. I read Kafka in Prague, The Odyssey in Faliraki… The right place is probably as important as the right age, and I guess we can all agree 18-30 holidays are a good fit for Homer. One thing I did read on my trip overseas (not to Kevin) was The Poetry of Sex anthology (ed. by Sophie Hannah), and I was so in the wrong place to be reading a book with “SEX” written across the full cover – frowned upon doesn’t cover it. This is what made it the right place…
Finding time to read was hard, and when there was time, my head was so full with the chaos around me, it seemed impossible to rest my focus on the page. What did it was Lawrence’s “The Elephant is Slow to Mate” – “the huge, old beast” I can only say slowly; it steadied my breathing and my brain, so that all the frantic thinking slowed with it. It was like stretching out a cramp. I am currently away again, in the land of Kevin, reading Sagar on Lawrence’s thoughts about nature and landscape, how each locality expresses itself perfectly in its birds, beasts and flowers, its pansies and people. We are different on holiday, we dress differently (except my son, whose summer look is to wear just the one coat), dabble in the language, assume an air of sophistication when taking wine from a carafe, etc. But my Englishness is noticeable and noted wherever I go. Kevin would tell me this: Angelina, you’re so English. I am an expression of the country that raised me, and that I return to, in my turn of phrase and Yorkshire tea, and a thousand other ways I don’t see.
Someone told me that Kraftwerk were influenced by the Beach Boys, that they made music that sounded like California, so Kraftwerk went off to make music that sounded like Germany. I hear a version of California in the Eagles’ chord progressions (unfortunately, I also hear this in Jethro Tull’s “We Used to Know”). Lawrence implies place in his choice of language. I can only imagine the elephants’ “vast […] hearts” and “massive silence” in a landscape enormous enough to hold them. Imagining them dashing “in panic through the brake / of [Sherwood] Forest” won’t do. There’s loads of discussion around anthropomorphism, the conflict between Lawrence’s resolve to present the creature in its own terms and the unknowableness of the other. Its easy to see “shy hearts” as about us, but this courtship seems to keep tension between that and the elephant as an expression of its environment.
“So slowly the great hot elephant hearts / grow full of desire” invokes the heat weighted against them. They loiter along the riverbeds not only in the way that teenagers loiter after hours in Meadowhall, or snogging in gennels (I never did this), but in the hot climate. They are huge and the heat is slowing. Maybe we want to see ourselves in the poem, the heat we speak of in the urgency to touch another, the heart as the metaphorical seat of emotion? But we do feel it literally in our hearts, because adrenaline makes them beat faster. We actually give off heat. Is that mechanism so different for other animals? Being an old romantic, I do want to see myself here. The lines enact what they describe, slowly building desire until the end where “massive blood / moves as the moontides, near, more near…” It’s exciting and beautiful. I feel like that. I feel like an elephant… Wait. No…
Angelina D’Roza’s sequence The Strait appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. You can read ‘The Elephant is Slow to Mate’ by D.H. Lawrence here. D’Roza discusses Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ in ’31 Songs’ and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty’ here (two earlier posts in this series).