Margeaux Walter © 2012 All Rights Reserved

Featured Poet

 

Molly Peacock
 

 

Authors                 [A POEM IN 9 SCREENS]

                                                            1956

[SCREEN 1]


Why match dowdy Louisa May Alcott
with the mirror of herself?
At least suave Nathaniel Hawthorne
sported a blonde mustache.
In the tiny girl-sized deck of Authors
ruins began small: a corner rip
and the sunlight started through
—unlike full-fledged ruins,
grass-encroached castles you could
turn your ankle walking though.
The ruined Authors cards were tiny:
grimy, sticky feminine index fingers,
not crossbows, destroyed the twelve
bearded white men’s faces
and Louisa May. Authors was
what our mother in exasperation
told us to play. After the deck’s
matching halves got lost—only one Herman,
one Walt, or Ralph Waldo—she
tossed a fresh deck in the toy box,
shiny, stiff (the new Charles Dickens’ hair
black as shoes.) I searched the lines
of Alcott’s eyes for clues


{BACKGROUND COLLAGE ILLUSTRATIONS:
Authors Cards, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, 1950’s Jane and Sally figures playing, children’s hands, a toy box, a castle ruin}
 

 

[SCREEN 2]

to the gift I should buy—
everyone in fourth grade was to wrap
a present for the Christmas Grab Box.
Yet everyone was Jewish, except
for two Catholic girls, and Protestant me.
Had Mrs. Calendar forgotten
the numbers on some mothers’ arms?
When my mother took me to the store
to pick out something for fifty cents,
we browsed like tourists wandering
through ruined castles, wondering
what it’s like to dress in velvet and look
down into the moats: we passed
the plastic alligator with a magnet
between its jaws to catch the plastic baby
with a magnet in its back, all ready to be eaten.
The stuffed animals were at least a dollar—
twice what Mrs. Calendar set as our limit.


{BACKGROUND COLLAGE ILLUSTRATIONS:
A Christmas Tree, 1950’s Mother and Jane figures holding hands, an old-fashioned Leave-It-To-Beaver type Main Street toy store, a castle with a drawbridge over a moat, an open-mouthed alligator, a crying baby, arms with concentration camp number tattoos}
 

 

[SCREEN 3]

Even in the pouring rain, something lights a ruin;
castles always seems to gleam,
glory leaking from shadows.
Light filtered from the toy store windows.
The motes struck hanging cardboards
with toys stapled to them.
Something amber glowed:
a bottle of girls’ perfume
in the shape of a miniature glass lamp.
On the label it said, GARDENIA.
Seventy cents. “You could buy
Authors for fifty,” my mother said.
“THAT won’t be easy to wrap,” the toy man said.
He had his hat and coat on. Time to go.
When my mother bought the perfume
with her grocery money,
a selfish stain streaked the joy,
like a trickle-leak cracking a castle wall.


{BACKGROUND COLLAGE ILLUSTRATIONS:
Authors Cards, a ruined castle, a hurricane lamp, a bottle of perfume, a gardenia, seventy cents in American coins (an old fifty cent piece, a mercury dime, and two buffalo nickels), an old-fashioned toy store interior, 1950’s line drawing figures of a woman, a child, and a man with his coat and hat on, a brick wall with a hair-line crack, a water droplet}
 

 

[SCREEN 4]

At home I pried the bottle from the cardboard,
opening the glass top, sniffing—
“Before the War, when I was dating,
a man bought you a gardenia to put on your coat”
—something vague and diluted.
“What’s toilet water?”
TOILET it said on the bottom
in itty bitty letters.
“That’s French for perfume.”
Trying to tape the bottle back to the card,
I ruined the card,
then just wrapped the bottle with
buttresses of candy cane paper.


{BACKGROUND COLLAGE ILLUSTRATIONS:
Candy cane wrapping paper, a perfume bottle (straight on photograph), a perfume bottle bottom with label, or label saying TOILET WATER, a gardenia, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s head superimposed on a World War II soldier’s body and a 1940’s woman, perhaps dancing after the war, ideally wearing a corsage}
 

 

[SCREEN 5]

At the Christmas Grab Bag various
fifty-cent gifts were drawn:
a ball-and-jacks, pick-up sticks,
a piggy penny bank with one cent shaking in it.
Someone got a crummy ten-pack of gum.
I spied my perfume at the bottom.
Should I grab my own gift? A tall girl
from the back of the room (we sat by height)
reached in and unwrapped it,
disgruntled: “My mother
won’t let me wear it.”
“I’ll bet that was over 50 cents,”
Mrs. Calendar admonished.
I was waiting too long, the gifts
diminishing. My hand jumped in
and fished out a small rectangle.
A box for a locket? Something jewel-like
for sure, overlooked toward
the bottom. So neatly
wrapped—obviously by someone’s mother.
Hard to break the tape.


{BACKGROUND COLLAGE ILLUSTRATIONS:
Christmas packages, 1950’s Dick and Jane type figures playing in school, a teacher with a pointing hand, children’s hands, a perfume bottle, a locket, toys: piggy bank, ball-and-jacks, pick-up sticks, gum, a fifty-cent piece}

 


[SCREEN 6]

Sometimes a ruin is just a stone basement
where a house might have stood,
some stray lilacs to tell you
where home must have been.
It was sleeting outside when my mother
picked me up, and the heat smell
rose in the wool upholstery of our Dodge.
“How was the Grab Bag?”
Fine.
“What did you get?”
Authors.
“Oh well, you like Authors.”
Nameless vectors of feelings flew.
I didn’t know a word like “outrage.”
Telling her how I felt was like
having to imagine a whole lost house
from basement rubble.
“It’s only a school Christmas grab bag,”
my mother said. “The real Christmas
is coming up!”


{BACKGROUND COLLAGE ILLUSTRATIONS:
A ruined house, rubble, a 1950 Dodge, a Christmas tree, a woman’s hands on a steering wheel, windshield wipers and sleet, the front seat of a 1950’s-type car, lilacs}
 

 

[SCREEN 7]

Are tears a littler bit warmer than
human body temperature?
They feel so hot on the face. Though
these felt hardened, not quite
like the slush flying from the windshield,
but jelled, crusted as eye-sleep.

I went to bed at four in the afternoon,
and when my mother came to get me,
I wept as inconsolably as I did
when she died, the copiousness of
my tears volubly, feverishly the same.
The amber glass, the lampshade
—not only the disappointment,
but that someone else got it,
and didn’t love it, and that
I had to be satisfied with
Authors.


{BACKGROUND COLLAGE ILLUSTRATIONS:
A weeping girl, a car windshield with wipers and icy rain, a perfume bottle, Louisa May Alcott’s face superimposed on the figure of a mother hovering over a child in bed, a hurricane lamp, Authors cards with tears drawn down the faces}
 

 

[SCREEN 8]

My mother left my sister with my father
and we drove as if she were driving
an ambulance like Gertrude Stein
through the German lines to the French
wounded—Gertrude was not
in the Authors deck—drove
through the sleeted danger to the toy store
where she bought me TWO gardenia
lamp-bottle perfumes, for each side
of the shelf in my room:
vial one for possibility,
vial two for the tears of outrage,
a divided complexity like
the overlapping rows of hair on a doll.


{BACKGROUND COLLAGE ILLUSTRATIONS:
Gertrude Stein, a World War II Red Cross ambulance, two bottles of perfume, a little girl’s bedroom, a doll’s head with parted hair}
 

 

[SCREEN 9]

Two bottles weren’t as good
as the vision of fishing my own gift
from the rubble of the bag.
The beauty of a ruin is born
in the jumble of its stones.

Doubling the present didn’t
make it better, though it stopped
the tears—I would have torn
the Author’s deck in two if I’d been
able to grip the squat rectangle
of cards that withstood both
my hands just because all those
authors stood together
in the game I keep playing.


{BACKGROUND COLLAGE ILLUSTRATIONS:
Authors Cards, sunlit castle ruins, Louisa May Alcott with a mustache, Nathaniel Hawthorne superimposed with the O-mouth of horror from Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” little girls playing cards, women playing cards, cartoon wrestlers, library shelves, flying pages of print cut into the shapes of fists, two bottles of perfume, a scratch-n-sniff computer screen}
 


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Molly Peacock
All Poems Copyright © 2012

Molly Peacock is the author of six volumes of poetry, including The Second Blush and Cornucopia (W.W. Norton and Company.) Widely anthologized, her poems appear in The Oxford Book of American Poetry and The Best of the Best American Poetry. She serves as a Faculty Mentor at the Spalding University Brief Residency MFA Program. A dual citizen of the US and Canada, she edits The Best Canadian Poetry in English. Peacock is also the author of the best-selling nonfiction biography, The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (Bloomsbury) as well as a memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece, How to Read a Poem & Start a Poetry Circle, and a one-woman show in poems, The Shimmering Verge.


 

 

from Poet’s Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets On Books That Shaped Their Art

poet Molly Peacock

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, “Drawers, Chests, and Wardrobes”
Elizabeth Bishop, Collected Poems, “The Waiting Room”
George Herbert, Collected Poems, “The Pulley”
Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, “Church Going,” “Talking in Bed,” and “Days”
Robert Lowell, Collected Poems, “Skunk Hour” and “Epilogue”
Charlotte Mew, Collected Poems, “The Trees Are Down”

        All the books listed above I read in my twenties and still embrace with the joy and anxiety of meeting a trusted friend from whom I’ve been separated by circumstance. Will it be the same? And it always has been, at every meeting, for decades now.
        If you are intrigued by the psychological implications of interior spaces, from tiny spaces such as a toy box to larger enclosed spaces such as attics and basements, then The Poetics of Space by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard will hold you in its capable but whimsical hands. This is a talisman book for me, one I return to again and again, not so much to re-read completely as to thumb through. You can read it the way some people read a Bible, randomly pointing a finger to a page. Wherever you land, you’ll find a curious, illuminating, psychological idea to locate you in a new mansion or hut, or a cottage or a castle of thought.
        “Why not say what happened?” Elizabeth Hardwick asked Robert Lowell as he struggled to write around a personal subject. To answer her, he wrote directly, and began to forge a way of writing that broke open the poetics of the last half of the twentieth century. “Epilogue” is a poem that directly addresses the terrors and pitfalls of saying “what happened.” But “Skunk Hour” is an exercise in consonants, Anglo-Saxon language use updated to our current tongue, trespassing in its vocabulary, and redemptive in its final image of the skunk who “jabs her wedge-head into a cup of sour cream / and will not scare.” It fortifies me every time, and reminds me that whenever an animal suddenly appears in a poem, the true self of the poet has stepped forward, and we meet that poet, soul to soul.
        Isn’t it often the case that the best self of the person who is the poet comes forward in the work? I love many poets whom, I’m sure, I’d hate to sit next to at a dinner party, and Philip Larkin is one of those. But it’s not his social being that inhabits his poetry. Instead, brimming in the poems is the private, lonely, unvarnished, grouchy man struggling to live in opposition to accepted norms, and working with a linguistic muscularity that seems incongruous with the 98-pound-weakling persona he projected. I read “Church Going” for the way Larkin redeems the full power of adjectives in phrases like “this accoutred frowsty barn” and “a tense, musty, unignorable silence” of the church. “Talking in Bed” displays a gloriously negative equation in its finale when Larkin looks for words “not untrue and not unkind” and “Days” tries to answer the unanswerable question “What are days for?” in only ten lines.
        Virginia Woolf called Charlotte Mew “the greatest living poetess”; and Thomas Hardy wrote, “Miss Mew is far and away the best living woman poet who will be read when others are forgotten.” Ironically, Mew is so utterly forgotten that you can’t even buy her Complete Poems in the United States (though it is available in England and Canada, published by Penguin). She’s uneven and didn’t leave us a huge body of work. No American would call her “major.” But I think Mew is the foremother of our current style of lyrical narration, or narrative lyric. I love her poem “The Trees Are Down” because of the “wish” and the “crash” and the “rustle” of the felling and because of the shocking image of a rat beneath them. Mew is utterly conversational but completely rhythmical when she says “I remember thinking: alive or dead, a rat was a God-forsaken thing, / But at least, in May, that even a rat should be alive.” She allows us to enter her consciousness, to share with her the horror at the destruction of the great plane trees at the end of the gardens, and she is even bold enough to invite us to hear the angel of Revelation at the end. Her poem is protean and alive—and tree-like in its look and in its long-limbed construction.
        But my ultimate favorites, then and now, are Elizabeth Bishop and George Herbert, whom Bishop loved as well. I love Herbert for his passion and utterly human attachment to God, so visceral and whimsical, and Bishop, too, for her visceral whimsy. My favorite of Bishop’s is “The Waiting Room” for the child’s eye, knee-level view of the waiting room full of “arctics and overcoats, / lamps and magazines.” I always find Herbert’s “The Pulley” thrilling because of its plays on the word “rest.” In that poem, God has a “glass of blessings” which he pours out for us, but he keeps “rest” away from us, leaving us longing. There is a kind of longing in Bishop’s poetry as well that seems to connect with this, a restlessness, a search I identify with as a poet. It was a longing for something deep, intense, yet made of the ordinary—something I feel in both Herbert and Bishop—that brought me to poetry in the first place.


 

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