Sometimes poems are time bombs.
You read them, and read them. You think you’ve ‘got’ them, whatever they are. Meaning extracted. Method noted. They’re compressed and filed somewhere in your brain with the rest, making whatever tiny difference they make.Sometimes you even read them a couple of times before discarding them as ‘useless’. They can sit there for decades before they explode.
Maybe an event in your life lights the fuse. Or a chance phrase that takes you back. Or they’ve always been there because you knew, somehow, you’d need them.
When I’m working on a poetry publication, I know the texts inside it well. Not off by heart or anything, but I’ll have read them many times. I may well have typed and re-typed them. I’ve probably tried formatting them in different ways. I’ll have talked to the author, too, especially about specific lines. During this process, my relationship with those poems is intense.
And then I forget. You wouldn’t think I could forget but I do. Sometimes I even forget the name of the publication. This is very annoying. I will read a poem in a magazine that reminds me of a poem I once published – where was it, where was it? I will find it in the end, but it’s far from instant. What must this be like for Neil Astley, who has published so many booksful?
Sometimes people take out a HappenStance subscription and they say, ‘Choose a pamphlet for me. One you’d really recommend.’ This is like saying, ‘Which of your children do you love best?’ I recommend them all. Obviously. Why else would I have spent all this time and money on the wee souls? But they’re all different. Some are easier to get on with than others. Some are hyper, especially if you read them at night. Others are quiet, but right under your nose they’re up to mischief.
This metaphor of children doesn’t match the one about the time bomb, which I’m coming back to. But the child metaphor is relevant to the way I feel about the poems I’ve published. The time bomb relates to the effect they can have on me – to the effect all poems can have.
My mother has Alzheimer’s Dementia. I knew something about this illness before it developed in her, or thought I did. But now I (and my sister) are learning about it from the inside. When I visit, the impaired chemical connections that affect her brain have an effect on my brain too. (In communication, if the signals on one side are wrong, the responses from the other side start to founder.)
Anyway, my mother’s brain now struggles to manage words. Sometimes they do what they’re supposed to. At other times, they escape and fly off in all sorts of directions. She’s resourceful. She finds other words to replace those that won’t comply. But conversations quickly become surreal. It’s comical too, though not for her, because irony only works if you can hold in your head what’s not said, as well as what is.
She gets angry about leaves (I mean those messy little things that fall off trees). When we go out, she’ll scoop up a handful and put them in her pocket when she thinks I’m not looking. ‘You can’t pick them all up,’ I say. ‘I know,’ she says. ‘But I can make a start.’ And then she looks hard at the leaves on the ground, blackening into winter. ‘It’s not the leaves I don’t like really,’ she says. ‘It’s the stalks. I hate those stalks.’
I wonder what the stalks represent to her. I have no idea. But I think the impulse to clear things up – odd things, like the stalks of leaves – must connect with the brain’s need to make order at the same time as order is de-forming and re-forming.
The time-bomb poem is by Lorna Dowell from Crossing the Ellipsis. It’s about the red rubber bands the Royal Mail uses to group the letters. The postmen and women drop them. They drop them on paths and pavements and outside your door. Some people pick them up. Most people don’t even notice they’re there.
No, the poem isn’t really about the red rubber bands, but it starts with them, and the agitation of the person who's collecting them, wrapping them round a pencil neatly. The 'collector' is collecting things she needs, and her need is urgent. The red bands build up till they look like a microphone, which she holds out to the person who arrives to see her.
So the poem comes back and explodes in my head and the visitor at the start of the poem is me, and the person collecting the troublesome bands is my mother. Her voice is my mother’s: urgent, demanding, sharing despair over the utter unreasonableness of things.
But as she tells me about the messy red bands, words escape her. It’s like a play but the script has gone wrong. She has to improvise and find words for words, though the supply is diminishing, and my puzzled expression isn’t helping.
She’s scared of being thought stupid. I’m scared of making her feel stupid.
It is awful. The bands round the pencil that were a microphone held out to me for comment, morph into a big red lollipop. No, not a lollipop. It’s a round red ball. It’s a gobstopper.
Gobstopper. It’s a funny word, isn’t it? The name for that enormous candy confection that’s half delicious and half frightening because you can’t talk when you’re eating it. Shut your gob, that’s the playground taunt, the nasty silencer. As you hold it in your mouth, it shrinks until it becomes manageable.
But in this poem, the gobstopper is growing, and it’s not sweet. It is a nightmare.
In search of . . .
red rubber bands, the collector
wraps them over and over the end
of a blunted lead pencil, creating
a lollipop mic she’s holding up
to capture my comments,
should they slip out
as she delivers her protest:
These I have found all over . . .
in the path, down my garden, drip/drip
by the—you know, the one
in the red van—that man who de . . .
deceivers the letters.
You should see inside where he leaves—
all over this. . . .
SMOOTHING FLAT, FEELING ALONG
AN INVISIBLE DASH
In such a hurry
he just row/rope . . .
RIPPING OFF BANDS
I know. I’m not stupid. I know
why they use them—to hold
them—what are they? These things—
DRAWS A BLANK PAGE
IN THE SPACE BETWEEN US
We stare at a red rubber rattle
erased of all sound. I
reflect on the end held up
before me—a gobstopper