Well, I reached my three score years and ten. 70. Bloody ‘ell, I didn’t think I’d ever be that old! Do you know what’s really weird? I don’t feel any different! When I was a girl, I used to wake up on my birthday and feel taller, as if I’d grown overnight. Today feels just like yesterday. I haven’t grown. I haven’t even grown up. Matthew Arnold’s experience of ageing–‘It is to spend long days/ And not once feel that we were ever young./ It is to add, immured/ In the hot prison of the present, month/ To month with weary pain‘–isn’t mine, thank heaven: No, like Yeats I believe ‘An aged [wo]man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon stick, unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ For every tatter in its mortal dress.’ It’s that ‘unless’ that does it for me. Yes, clap and ‘louder sing’: age is a frame of mind, nothing but a number. That’s why my favourite birthday gifts this year so far have been my first ever tattoo from No. 1 son, Richard; and these wonderful Doc Marten’s from my lovely daughter, Amie:
How fantastic are they? I think my soul can ‘clap…and sing’ in these. I’ll be wearing them later when I go out with Bill to celebrate. Put the champagne in the fridge. Happy birthday to me.
This birthday comes at the end of a good week. Following my annual review with Michael last week, I launched some personal research into ‘quality’ poetry journals. I decided on a deep read of the Poetry Review, the Poetry Society’s own journal. A poetry friend said she found it pretentious and I have to agree with her that some of it was. Why put in oblique strokes (/) instead of line breaks, for instance: what does that add to the poem? Or put in full stops but not follow them with a capital letter? I can understand omitting punctuation altogether, but this seemed arbitrary to me, random, a selective route to rule-breaking. But there was some wonderful work in there too: Andrew MacMillan’s sensuous poetry is always exciting to read; and Moniza Alvi’s ‘A Portrait of the World’: wow. ‘…despite it all–/the carnage, the onslaught/of the centuries–/a gold-green fish still swims,/a pale bird flies.’ The good thing is, I actually think this is a journal I could fit into, I’ll probably give it a go at some stage this year.
I also received my copy of PN Review: a carcanet publication edited by Michael Schmidt. Oh my, how academic is that one? I enjoyed reading it, but it is very deep, very intellectually challenging. Somehow, after this one reading, I don’t see myself in there at all. My sonnet crown, for instance, has the line ‘tits slapping my knees’; I’m not being over-sensitive when I reflect that line would lower the tone by several decibels! That meeting with Michael also sent me back to my poetry to evaluate it for publication and I spent a few happy hours with the red pen looking for improvements. Believe me, I found plenty: we always do, don’t we? I’ve revisited the crown of sonnets, the one that has the above immortal line about knees. It’s a fact that editing your work is a long process of ‘comma in? comma out?’ before you don’t actually care if the comma’s there or not. Perhaps that’s what happened to the capital letters not following all those full stops? It was just an exhausted editing decision.
I’ve been reading Gilbert and Gubar The Madwoman in the Attic this week too. I have never read it before: I’ve read lots of extracts from it, it is after all an icon of feminist literary criticism. But I’ve never actually sat down with the book. I’ve been missing out! It’s such a good read; and so readable. I’m loving it. In the light of my reading of G and G, I also did an edit of the chapter about the sonnet as metaphor for patriarchy. Their question about pen as a metaphor for penis, men wielding the literary power; well, I had to use that.
Finally, on the PhD front, I spent a few hours analysing Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet cycle ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’; a sonnet cycle in which the speaker addresses the man she loves, telling the history of the love affair. It’s a sonnet cycle in the tradition of sonnet cycles then; except the speaker of this cycle is a woman and she still places herself as below her man in worth. He is an emperor, a leader among poets, a laureate; her songs are poor things by comparison, a chirping cricket, a cracked viol. So it’s still a sonnet cycle that holds the mirror up to the excellence of the male; but she was in love at the time, so I suppose she could only see Robert in her mind’s eye. Not that the cycle is autobiographical, of course; not at all. Not really; not much. Oh, alright, it probably is; almost certainly is; but I mustn’t say so!
In other news, I had my eyes tested on Tuesday. Yes, all this reading is taking its toll: a new reading prescription and the distance vision has deteriorated slightly too; and I have the start of cataracts, apparently, not helped by prescription steroids. So, perhaps my coat is getting tattered after all. But my new specs will have my soul singing and clapping: Red or Dead, with changeable arms to suit the mood. Bring it on.
This has been a week of sport too: Wimbledon; and a test match against South Africa. Two of my favourite sports in one week. Two years ago I won tickets to the Lords test against Australia and spent my birthday in London, watching the cricket. On the evening of the 15th we went to see Simon Armitage at The Globe, performing his epic ‘Death of the King’; that was a fantastic night, then my birthday at the cricket. Thankfully, England are doing better against South Africa than they did that year against Australia; although after yesterday, don’t hold your breath on that one! The tennis, though? Fantastic to see Federer in another final, with a very real prospect of winning. What an elegant player he is, a joy to watch. I’ll definitely be in front of the telly this afternoon, whatever else I do today.
Lastly, something that happened in Tesco this week. We went into the cafe there for a cappuccino before tackling the weekly bun-fight that is food shopping. I went to the loo, and there was no soap in there for hand washing, so I told a man who works in the cafe. ‘Oh, you’ll have to find a cleaner’, he said, ‘the toilets are nothing to do with us’! Well, I was shocked! I wanted to go out and catch food poisoning just so I could show him why it’s a good idea to make sure there is soap in the toilets attached to your cafe. Surely they have some system of reporting? I was so incensed, I went to Customer Services and told them; because I wasn’t prepared to go around Tesco looking for someone who might be a cleaner. The words of the woman on Customer Services? ‘Well, I’m shocked!’ she said. Exactly. Good woman. Sort it out for me, will you?
A poem to finish; a poem about getting old. The memory is still sharp, but names are the first victims of forgetting. Names drop out of my brain like dandruff. This poem tries to say that.
Names are the first things to go
Your parents brought you to England as a bambino.
They stowed their language in their Roman tongues
but your English was faultless. We met at college,
you were an engineer, I was a nurse.
We sat beside each other at the year 2 prize-giving
I remember, where we both won first prizes.
You bought me a coffee after, asked me out,
picked me up in your father’s Sunbeam Rapier
the colour of rich Borolo, it’s grey leather seats
smelling new, smelling like money. You took me
to that little pizzeria in Stamford,
where we shared garlic bread and olives,
shared pizza with insalata tricolore, drank
the house wine and coffee with frothed milk.
Oh, you were beautiful, your smiling eyes,
your hair black as granite, your voice honey.
You held my hand and told me your history.
When we drove home you asked had I ever driven
at 100 mph and when I said no you pressed the pedal,
the car sliced the night air
past envious Harriers at Wittering, reached the ton
just before the Alwalton exit. We stopped in a lay-by
near Castor. Decades later the taste of garlic
still brings that kiss to mind.
All this I’ve remembered, but I’ve forgotten your name.