Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Bludgeoning myself with poetry

I'm reading one of the earlier books by Sue Miller, and while I like her writing very much, it's not painless.  Every now and then, her characters will make an observation, or have something happen to them that is just a little too close for comfort.

In this book, For Love, the protagonist is waiting for her twenty-something son at the airport and is ruminating over the changes in their relationship now he is grown:  She was, on the whole, glad for this. But she missed the other too.  She missed him, the person he had been and wasn't anymore.  The younger Ryan, the little Ryan -- all the little Ryans -- who might as well have died, really.  Sometimes she dreamed of him as he was at three, or six; and woke with a mixture of gratitude and bottomless sorrow, the same feeling she had when she dreamed of one of the few close friends she'd had who'd died.

Oh ouch. And yet, like a glutton for punishment, I find myself rooting around in my anthology of Phyllis McGinley poems for this one, which has similar (but not quite) sentiments:

Ballade of Lost Objects
Where are the ribbons I tie my hair with?
Where is my lipstick? Where are my hose -
The sheer ones hoarded these weeks to wear with
Frocks the closets do not disclose?
Perfumes, petticoats, sports chapeaus,
The blouse Parisian, the earrings Spanish -
Everything suddenly up and goes.
And where in the world did the children vanish?

This is the house I used to share with
Girls in pinafores, shier than does.
I can recall how they climbed my stairs with
Gales of giggles on their tiptoes.
Last seen wearing both braids and bows
(And looking rather Raggedy-Annish),
When they departed nobody knows -
Where in the world did the children vanish?

Two tall strangers, now I must bear with,
Decked in my personal furbelows,
Raiding the larder, rending the air with
Gossip and terrible radios.
Neither my friends nor quite my foes,
Alien, beautiful, stern and clannish,
Here they dwell, while the wonder grows:
Where in the world did the children vanish?

Prince, I warn you, under the rose,
Time is the thief you cannot banish.
These are my daughters, I suppose.
But where in the world did the children vanish? 

Not that my children borrow my stuff much, since I am, after all, a fashion disaster.  Elder daughter has been known to make off with my pumps from time to time.  But the "neither my friends nor quite my foes", and the "alien, beautiful, stern and clannish" -- yes, I can attest.  And I find myself, from time to time, laid low with a pang of grief, for the little girls who will come no more.

Phyllis McGinley won a Pulitzer Prize for Times Three, the very book of selected verse through which I'm rummaging.  Since she specialized in light and often humourous verse on life in the suburbs, some of her stuff is very dated, and some is timeless.

Here's one she probably thought would not date, but she could not have foreseen the coming of video games and computers.  My childhood just predates the advent of both, so I do remember the wordless change of activities in the school yard.  One week, it would be Chinese jump-rope, only to change, with no one having actually said anything, to marbles.  These are the last two verses of The Tom-Tom:

If you ask them, they are perplext.
The calendar gives no warning.
One does not tell the next,
Yet they wake and know in the morning
(As a swallow knows the time
For quitting a rainy land), 
When the rope should whirl to the skipping-rhyme
Or the baseball thud in the hand,
Or the multitudinous din
Of the roller skates begin.

It is something the tom-toms say.
You cannot explain it away,
Though reason or judgment reels.
For yesterday was a swimming day
And today is the same as yesterday,
Yet now they are all on wheels.

(When exactly did this stop?  Probably about the same time when the kids stopped passing on skipping rhymes.)

On the other hand, this poem, about l'esprit de l'escalier, has always applied to me and always will:

Melancholy Reflections After a Lost Argument
I always pay the verbal score
With wit, concise, selective.
I have an apt and ample store
Of ladylike invective.

My mots, retorts, and quips of speech,
Hilarious or solemn,
Placed end to end, no doubt, would reach
To any gossip column.

But what avails the epigram,
The clever and the clear shot,
Invented chiefly when I am
The only one in earshot?

And where's the good of repartee 
To quell a hostile laughter,
That tardily occurs to me
A half an hour after?

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Who nastily have caught
The art of always striking when
The irony is hot.

So there. But here's the wistful, short, and bittersweet observation she left about the relationship between mother and child (especially mothers and their not-so-supposed daughters).  I have it committed to memory and frequently bludgeon myself with it:

The Adversary
A mother's hardest to forgive.
Life is the fruit she longs to hand you,
Ripe on a plate. And while you live,
Relentlessly she understands you.

Oh, ouch.  The Resident Fan Boy and I had a Susan McGinley poem read at our wedding.  But since it was a June wedding, I'll save it for later in the month.  I may need the post.

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