No 9 - 2009
Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld
It’s a cheek for me to say it, but this is no place for you.
‘A cheek’. Not our native usage. I know. After all these years, I pick, I choose. I imagine you did the same. And wasn’t it sweet to see Ted, in Birthday Letters, celebrating, not your 1956 Veronica Lake ‘fringe’, but your Veronica Lake ‘bangs’, or, if I’m being honest, your ‘bang’. A fond concession to our North American vernacular – even if he got it endearingly wrong. More than once. Couldn’t you just swat him with a dish towel and a newlywed’s grin. My what?
I see you smooth your apron and its scattering of tiny red hearts. He winks at you over The Observer, and you turn away, playing hard to get, knowing how grab-able your waist looks from behind. You concentrate on your Tomato-Soup Cake recipe. Two cups sifted flour. One tablespoon baking powder… You long for the reliability of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup. You feel almost wistful at the memory of those bright red-and-white cans that you skated on as a child across your mother’s kitchen floor.
In the distance, near the entrance to the cemetery, three elderly women in dark woollen coats look my way – and yours – their jaws as square as millstone. (Don’t ever let anyone tell you there aren’t some advantages to not making it past the menopause.) Above them, above us all, in the strumpety June sunshine, St Thomas’ dark tower rises like the admonishing finger of a rector at his pulpit.
There’s no denying it. You were a handful. It seems there were times when you could have worn out life itself, but the stony digit of that tower disapproves too much.
Sorry. Of course. The view from the Underworld must be limited; like the view round a pillar in a back row of the stalls. Only – yes – your pillar is big, broad and everlasting.
Through the dandelion spores of the centuries and across the buttercupped lane, the most ancient graves nestle closer to the church than yours, as no doubt you recall from Sunday afternoon strolls with Ted, and Christmas Day trudges through the snow and the mud with the in-laws.
How wrong you must have looked here.
When I arrived in 1987, I discarded every bright, flowery skirt and top I’d packed. I was afraid of blotting the streetscapes of England with my suspect brand of North American cheer. Like you, I learned fast how to be less... vivid. But I knew my limitations. The black, anarchist’s wardrobe of my university peers was beyond me; I wasn’t blessed with sufficient cool or, for that matter, with hollow enough cheeks. The only style option left to me seemed to be ‘demure’. I found Top Shop, a hounds-tooth skirt with box pleats and an over-sized, scholastic cardigan.
Ahead of us, a mother and her two young daughters, both in pink crocs, are running in a careless hopscotch across the slabs of the dead. I want to cheer at the twenty-first century triumph of those crocs, here of all places, but – sorry – again. You’re right. The living are thoughtless. We take liberties in cemeteries, running across graves, canoodling at kissing-gates, making brass rubbings, and yes, even vandalising the odd resting place.
Today, a rock balances on top of your headstone. Beneath it lies a crushed daisy. Under the daisy are words in blue biro on a torn scrap.
I make Cakes too.
Life is a Dream.
Death is the reallity (sic).
You wouldn’t have bargained on this downturn in circumstances: on the ghetto of Deadland, on your relegation to a second-class citizenship, and now, on misspelled poetic offerings. You couldn’t have imagined it – not really, not you, not after Mademoiselle and Cambridge and vol-au-vents with the Eliots.
Let’s change the subject.
Down the church path and through the gate, this bit of the village greets modernity with unexpectedly wide, right-angled streets. Lawnmowers drone and dog-walkers genuflect, their hands ritually sheathed in plastic waste bags. Somewhere a mobile incants ‘The Birdie Song’. Wild roses blow. The foxgloves rise, their pink mouths electric with bees. In suburban-esque gardens, clumps of forget-me-nots insist as delicately – and as forgettably – as they do every year. (They are pale things compared with the wild alkanet that has colonised your grave.) Near the start of the footpath, ferns uncurl, tentative as new foetuses, while a man in long shorts and socks is, even here, washing and waxing his Ford.
But this is only a tableau on the blunt edge of a hilltop. If you watch carefully, you’ll see the scenery shake when the wind blows too hard. The symmetry of the newer streets is a hard-won make-believe. At the village’s heart, the soot-dark ginnels and archways still remember an emptiness – a wind-shot summit, the strange glow of moorland – while at the edge, the trees won’t grow upright. They know the truth, as do the spines of the dry-stone walls that tremble at the lure of gravity. Down the sheer wall of woodland, among the wych elm and oak, an odd shoe, a glinting wine bottle and a baby’s rusting pushchair are only the most recent sacrifices. The giddy swoop of the valley, the mesmerism of the river, and the lush, leafy-green darkness can’t help but draw everything down, down, down.
It must take a collective act of the villagers’ will not to give in, not to be seduced, not to wobble too far in their mad, stoical perch high on this hilltop.
No, this is not the place for you. You like sea-level. You need sea-level. You’re a long way from the trance of Nauset’s crashing rollers. There’s no imagining you – wishing you – up to your elbows in rock pools, your hands rising with sand dollars, starfish, bearded mussels and fiddler crabs. At night, you won’t don your red bikini for a swim in the flashing phosphorescent surf. The sand dunes and their long, come-hither grasses won’t be moved by the shaking of your body beneath the hulk of your beloved.
To your right, your neighbour is Horace Draper, the dearly loved husband of Emily, who lived his span of eighty-five years. To your left is Francis Joseph Carr, who left this world in November 1960, just days before Kennedy was elected to office. As Francis breathed his last, you squinted at a flickering black-and-white set in a shop window on Regent’s Park Road, transfixed by the sight of the President-Elect and Jackie standing on the brink of the decade outside their Hyannis Port home. You’d never say it, you’d only hope it, but weren’t you and Ted almost as winsome in literary London? Your first collection was just out with Heinemann. The BBC was paying Ted well. Your kitchen calendar at Chalcot Square was punctuated by plans for apple-seed cake, banana loaf and home-made waffles. In little over a week, you’d record ‘Candles’ and ‘Leaving Early’ for the Poet’s Voice. You’d done the undo-able: you were the American sweater girl who’d become a British poet. England had let you moult your gung-ho, grade-A self.
On Regent’s Park Road, you strain to read Kennedy’s lips through the glass, to hear the New England burr of his words. Jackie smiles up at you, squinting into the Cape Cod sun. You can almost feel the sea-spangled light on your face. You can almost smell the salt marshes off the Nantucket Sound. JFK lifts Caroline into his arms. You jiggle Frieda in her pram and raise the hood against the drizzle. The parcel of pork loin is a reassuring weight in the shopping bag that dangles from your arm.
Did you know then? Did Ted? Already, he writes, your marriage had failed.
Alkanet grows on disturbed ground. It can sting like nettles. Though classified as a weed, it is not so coarse that it lacks a Latin designation. Pentaglottis – ‘five-tongued’ – sempevirens – ‘always alive’. The only bouquet at your grave today is a spray of red-and-white carnations, but their blooms have withered in the bushy, two-foot-high shadow of the alkanet.
I bend, though I do not touch. Its tiny flowers have the dark plutonic brilliance of blue LED Christmas bulbs. Once upon a time, its huge tap-root was cultivated by monks for cloth the colour of Christ’s wounds, and, earlier still, by Egyptian priestesses to henna their hair. Red is of course your signature colour, the trademark hue of your tulips and poppies; of the bleeding cheeks, sliced thumbs and pulpy hearts you made your own. But today, thankfully, neither you nor Lady L. rises out of the ash with red hair. You do not haul yourself up by that sturdy tap-root as if it were a swinging rope in gym class. Truth be told, it’s just as well. The three Fates of Heptonstall have trained their eyes on us. You’re a foreigner, and I’m writing things down in a notebook.
I don’t see it at first amid the stalks of alkanet: a neat willow basket propped on your grave and packed with solid earth. My guess? Soil and mulch from someone’s New England garden. UK Customs wouldn’t be any the wiser, your devotee assured herself.
I resolve not to look in the basket; not to intrude on your privacy and hers.
Except I do. When the dark woollen backs of the Fates are turned, I hunker down and reach inside. And behold! It’s as if the Welcome Wagon ladies have been.
First, a few silver coins – for the ferryman naturally. Foreign. From I don’t know where. Will you need them now? I wonder. You’re no longer that new soul waiting for the ferry, mistaking it for the 11am from Hyannis to Nantucket. I imagine you used to enjoy that journey simply for the to-and-fro of the ride itself. It would have offered you a rare release from purpose, from sight-seeing ambitions, from the need to get somewhere in life. Your basket-toting acolyte might have been right. Coins. The toll. Perhaps you like to ride the ferry, even now.
Next, a plastic ballpoint pen, red as a hot poker.
A pencil sharpener – for your drawing pencils.
A chunk of pink rock. No, pink glass. Sea glass, if I’m not mistaken. Worn so smooth.
A string of beads, white against the dark earth.
A string of black beads looped around the basket’s handle.
A key ring with a pendant of tarnished silver. No key.
A three-inch female nude in red clay. She’s big-breasted, big-bottomed, and flagrantly fertile.
Two red gummy children, sticky with the warmth of June.
An overturned red wine glass. Not for a glass of rioja, I suspect. Because when you’re in post-dinner doubt about the distance between this world and the next, the only thing for it, of course, is to clear the table and flip over a wine glass. You and Ted never were the types to reach for Hasbro’s plastic planchette.
I wish I could say the same. Our childhood Ouija Board sat on a basement shelf beneath the Monopoly, the Scrabble and my Lite-Brite. I still remember the injunctions the kids down the street breathed into my ear. If the planchette falls from the board, a spirit will get loose. If you try to burn the board, it will scream. Never ask it when you’re going to get rich or when you’re going to die. Never, never use the planchette alone.
I lift the glass from the basket. I dispense with formalities: with the ring of paper letters, the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’, and a partner’s fingertips on the base of the glass. I need to improvise. Time isn’t on my side. The Fates are coming my way, bearing garden spades and plastic floral features. Perhaps they are the sisters of Horace Draper, aged eighty-five. And of course they have every right to be Horace’s sisters, while I – I on the other hand – am disturbing a grave. Or at least a basket.
I hold the rim of the glass to my ear, as if it were a pink whelk’s shell I’d found on the beach at Nauset; as if I were listening for our crashing Atlantic three thousand miles away.
At first I hear nothing but the buzzing of the tinnitus I’ve had since dinner at Carluccio’s the other week. Mercifully, the stalwart Fates trudge past, eyeballing me but saying nothing. Knitting needles and grey yarn poke from the pocket of the eldest. Overhead, swallows scissor the reams of sky, and something in the atmosphere opens.
Your voice comes at last, as crackly as an early BBC recording.
‘Love… life,’ you intone.
The two syllables zip and burn like supernovas through the stem of the glass, and tears surprise my eyes. The first and last words of Ariel.
But I’m trespassing, and my determination doesn’t overcome my embarrassment.‘How,’ I murmur at the ground, ‘shall I end this story?’
Across worlds and dimensions, you clear your throat. ‘Short stories…’ you begin, but there is a long pause, ‘were never my forté.’
I cringe. Of course. The New Yorker never obliged. The Ladies’ Home Journal was immune to your efforts. Move swiftly on, I tell myself. ‘May I ask where you are?’
‘Oh… you know. On the river. The two of us.’
‘The river.’ So casual. So brave – there on the smoking water of the Styx under the bitumen-light.
But no, it seems I’ve got it wrong.
‘We’re gliding under an ornamental bridge with not a – ’ I lose your voice for a moment. ‘We’ve commandeered a Swan Boat!’
I recall the oversized fibre-glass wings and the lurid plastic beaks.
Ted in a Swan Boat?
‘It’s been years,’ you continue, and your voice is now glass-ringingly clear.‘Why, it’s practically the Boston Public Garden.’ If you try, you say, you can imagine your newlywed apartment on Willow Street, as if it’s just a walk away. Even your white-and-gold Samsonite luggage is piled high on the bank. And today you are wearing the eponymous Pink Wool Knitted Dress that Ted tells us you were married in. Fashion in the Underworld, you note, tends toward the drab, but what do you care? ‘Damn them,’ you laugh.
I refrain from pointing out the obvious.
At my ear, the rim is as hot as an ancient fire cup. The base of the glass is vibrating against my palm. The line is breaking up. It hasn’t rained in days but suddenly the air around me is charged with the metallic sweetness of ions. ‘And Ted?’ I venture.
It’s as if you’re fiddling with an earpiece.‘Could you repeat the question?’
‘And Ted?’ I hesitate to say more.
‘Yes,’ you echo, ‘Ted.’
‘He’s enjoying the… the cruise?’ Somewhere to my left, the Fates are clattering at the rock and soil with their spade.
‘That’s – right,’ you say.‘He’s –’
But there’s a delay in the transmission, and a hairline crack is zigzagging up the bowl of the glass.‘Are you –’
‘– baiting a line. The fishing up ahead is good we’re told –’
‘In fact the ferryman says –’
‘I wouldn’t have guessed.’
‘– we’re nearly there.’
Your voice can’t contain the thrill. It rises like a girl’s. Somewhere up ahead, fish flash for you, iridescent with promise, as the glass shatters in my hand.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The