Archive for February, 2019

James Shapiro: 1606 Shakespeare and the Year of Lear

February 28, 2019

51b-1ngINUL._AC_US218_This is obviously a follow-up to the author’s earlier 1599, which dealt with the context to another significant year in Shakespeare’s dramatic output. Here the focus is on a different reign – that of James 1 – and a different social context, with the background to three significant tragedies, Macbeth, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. There is also the fall-out from the Gunpowder Plot of the previous autumn, and James’ ongoing drive for the union of the crowns of Scotland and England.

The anxieties of the final years of Elizabeth’s reign may have passed, but life was no more settled, and events showed that James’ hold on the throne and his acceptance by the people was not completely secure. The status of the theatres was just as parlous, what with recurrent plague and the growing Puritan dislike of people enjoying themselves. I had been aware of the fact that a law was passed to eliminate profanity, which had eliminated most of the oaths and swearing from Shakespeare’s and other dramatists’ plays but hadn’t quite realised the implications of this, as, in the spirit of the law every existing text had to be amended, 1984-style, to remove all objectionable matter: the penalties were too severe for theatres and publishers not to do this. And of course this meant that the great First Folio of 1623 is in fact a bowdlerised edition of Shakespeare’s plays…

King Lear is set against the backdrop of Britishness which the new kind propounded: Englishness is out with the king imported from Scotland. We are shown the structural complexity of the play – it’s the only tragedy with a fully-developed subplot – and there is interesting exploration of the use of negative language in the play. Context in terms of equivocation, and references the the Gunpowder Plot are all fully detailed, too, as are the many significant differences between the Quarto and First Folio texts.

Similarly, James’ obsession with witches and witchcraft, and how this is explored in Macbeth, is very interesting, and again the phenomenon of equivocation is embedded. You will need to read the relevant chapters to get to the bottom of this Jesuitical device for justifying being economical with the truth and how outrageous everyone was supposed to find it at the time. And we realise just how Shakespeare was treading on eggshells writing the Scottish play, during the reign of a Scottish king, depicting two kings of Scotland being killed: both of those deaths take place off-stage, understandably, but not in the spirit of the onstage gore of the times. And this in the immediate aftermath of the plot to blow the king up with gunpowder.

There is good depth and detail in Shapiro’s exploration of all three plays he treats in this volume: the context is very enlightening, and surprising amounts of new insights and interpretations, even for me as a long-time student of Shakespeare. There was also a good deal of fairly tiresome and tedious stuff about court masques and entertainments, and despite the title, Shapiro actually spreads his net quite widely, going back at times to the 1580s as well as looking at Shakespeare’s final years. Overall, though, a book I’d very much recommend to any serious reader of Shakespeare.

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Philip K Dick: Now Wait For Last Year

February 19, 2019

41SF83b2GSL._AC_US218_We really are fully into Dick’s hallucinatory drug period with this novel, and it seems to be leading up to the masterpiece which is The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which is the next but one novel in the time sequence of writing. Readers who are expecting a brief plot summary with my reviews will need to be a tad patient and understanding, as it’s pretty difficult.

The world of 2055 is at war with the reegs – we never really find out exactly what this race of creatures is – and in alliance with the Starmen of Proxima Centauri, who are far more powerful than we are and keen to exploit us. Or are we? Because in parallel time sequences the reegs are our allies… and there is a new, powerful hallucinogen which can mess with time as well as perceptions of reality, which is where it starts to get complicated: not all of the alternate realities, or time-tracks, are compatible with the real one… if you see what I mean.

We have to remember we are reading a novel written in 1966, from the hippy era and time of experimentation with all sorts of hallucinogenic substances; a lot of what Dick presents in his stories resembles the effects of LSD, but with added excitement or confusion. He’s clearly extremely knowledgeable about drug effects and side-effects, both physical and psychological, and how they can change an individual’s perceptions of reality.

And so we come back to what is an ongoing Dickian theme, the nature of reality itself. In the ‘reality’ of this novel, nothing is fixed, nothing secure: the evil new drug, which is quickly lethal, gives access to alternative time-tracks, and to the future – but which future? – for some, so it’s also easy enough to get the antidote from the future; then you can play all sorts of games. And the characters of the novel all do seem like pawns in some cosmic game. The plot, and truth itself, are continually collapsed in on themselves until there is no clear frame of reference from which we can speak of a plot in the way we usually expect to follow one.

In the end, you have to take it as a sort of psychedelic romp in a weird future world. And through it all does shine another of Dick’s preoccupations: that of being a decent human being, motivated ultimately by the urge to do what is good, what is right..

The novel’s ending is open, unsatisfactory even, certainly inconclusive, but the only one possible, given what has gone before. The war exists forever, the hero’s mentally-ill wife remains drug-scarred, but he remains a good man, although trapped in an endless series of hallucinations from which he must try to escape…

On intelligence

February 17, 2019

I know I’m not the only person deeply concerned by the growing evidence that human activity is irreversibly altering the planet’s climate, and not in a good way. Similarly, the growing evidence of the extinction of species, particularly of insects, is very worrying. Fairly well on in years myself, I perhaps have little to worry about in my lifetime, but I have children and grandchildren, as well as having friends and acquaintances among those who I used to teach not that long ago, and who in theory have the best part of a lifetime ahead of them: the future may not be very kind to them.

In my thinking about what is wrong with the world, I reached the conclusion long ago that a combination of greed and scarcity was at the root of most of our problems: greed on the part of relatively few, and scarcity, or many different kinds, for far more of the planet’s inhabitants, short of food, water, shelter, freedom, affection…

I’ve read widely in the literature of utopias, and have encountered many visions of how humans might do it all differently. Some of these visions are more attractive than others, but what the writers have in common is daring to dream of humanity living more harmoniously, as a species and with the rest of creation. Unfortunately – or inevitably? – the writers mostly fail to tell how we get there, and that’s the biggest problem. The visitor from our world to the utopia represents us and our collective failings, and is wowed by the alternative future s/he encounters. About thirty-five years ago, Ernest Callenbach, in two novels, Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging, attempted to show how the California of his own time gradually separated itself and seceded from the United States, and founded a nation based on true ecological principles. I remember thinking what a brave and wild idea it was, and almost plausible too, way back then when I read it. It hasn’t happened.

So here is the real issue: there are many possible maps out there. We can have the anarcho-syndicalist utopia of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the rural idyll of William MorrisNews From Nowhere or W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, we can have the feminist utopias of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time – if someone can show us how we get there.

Back in the real world, the forces of wealth and greed are firmly embedded, and are not about to give up without a struggle. Logically, one might argue that nobody needs an income of, say, more than £100k per year; anything in excess could be taxed away at 99%. Nobody needs more than a single residence, or a single vehicle. The Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of the world will never spend all those shedloads of money, but they aren’t going to give them up either. And don’t kid yourself about their being philanthropic: they still retain power and control.

When the Bolsheviks seized power after the Russian revolution, they eliminated the wealthy and the aristocracy and commandeered their assets: that was one way of tackling the forces of wealth and power decisively. And yet, we see that ultimately what happened was that one wealthy and powerful group was replaced by another… and so it goes on. However hard I try to visualise the transition to a better world, I cannot see beyond the powerful digging in their heels and using their power and wealth brutally to hang on to it, at horrendous cost to everyone else, or else another group replacing them. Can you visualise anything different?

Is there something deeply rooted in the human psyche which drives us to seek power over our fellows and to accumulate surplus just in case we ever go short? And can we never forego this desire, or educate ourselves out of it? Is there time? We live on a very bountiful planet, capable of supporting large numbers in comfort and sufficiency. Digging more deeply, when, in the millennia of our development and progress as a species, was the tipping point? Clearly, hunting and foraging was not enough: we craved more and had the brainpower to pursue more, with the results we see today. Are we a highly intelligent species that is unable to use that intelligence in our own best interests? So many questions, so little time.

My father used to say, ‘you can’t learn everything from books!’ He was right: sixty years of reading have not shown me the answers to the questions above. I would be very interested to know if any of my readers can cast any light on them for me…

Poems for Valentine’s Day #8

February 14, 2019

Elizabeth Jennings: One Flesh

Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere – it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.

Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,
Or if they do, it is like a confession
Of having little feeling – or too much.
Chastity faces them, a destination
For which their whole lives were a preparation.

Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself’s a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they’re old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?

I find this a very sad poem; I can’t decide why: is it because it’s a truthful picture of what the speaker sees as her parents falling out of love, or because the speaker cannot see beyond the superficial?

It’s a strange and difficult situation to put oneself in, thinking of one’s parents as lovers. I used to ask my students to do this, when we were studying a range of love poetry, and the initial reaction was always ‘eeeuw!’ Understandable, of course, but one of the things I wanted them to visualise was the idea that love inevitably changes and evolves over time, and that’s not something easily perceived by teenagers in the first flush of exploring their own emotions and sexuality. Youth can only, and probably should only, understand youthful passion. And depending on your age, reader, you will understand some of this or not…

Lying: in bed, untruth, or both? separate beds = single beds = no sex = no love. One sleeps, the other reads, together yet apart. What a sad picture. Yet, from the third line of the poem, if we read carefully, the poet is no longer merely seeing, but interpreting, fantasising: because they are in separate beds, they are emotionally separated.

It is a slow and reflective poem, the effect created by the line length, stanza length and rhyme scheme as well as the occasional enjambment.

The second stanza seems to start positively cruelly, I feel, with the alliteration of flotsam – suggesting wreckage, debris, rubbish, and former, and the lapidary monosyllables of How cool they lie. This reading of a deeper meaning and significance into something that is only superficial comes to an abrupt halt, however, with the idea that it may not be lack of feeling but too much. We are again faced with something that the poet cannot confirm, but at least she does entertain it, and we are looking at love changing over time, no longer perhaps so reliant on physical and sexual contact to affirm itself, the sense of connection coming more from the years of intimacy on so many different levels: one of those things that it was hard to get teenagers to imagine…

The idea of chastity will horrify a generation just beginning to enjoy the world of sex; one’s whole life is not necessarily just a preparation for that, but for the end of everything… another perhaps gloomy thought that rarely occurs to the immortals.

The poet works slowly and thoughtfully to a resolution in the final stanza, the repeated strangely acknowledging her inability to comprehend. The sounds of the stanza soften, calm, and the image of time itself’s a feather | Touching them gently is a very effective one, recognising the bond and the vulnerability of the couple. The sobering effect of the final old/ cold rhyme perhaps brings us up short, but I think the idea here is as much for the poet herself and her own future, as about her ageing parents. The image of Whose fire from which I came I find peculiarly touching. Here is a poem to make us all think about the nature of love and time.

Philip K Dick: The Crack in Space

February 13, 2019

51WZTVM2SSL._AC_US218_This one was a bit more fun that the last one, although no more credible in any sense of the word. It’s a crazy futuristic thriller focused around a US presidential election campaign in which the first back man is about to become president… except that unlike Obama’s campaign, it involves futuristic weapons, time travel and a murder, linked to businessmen who own a satellite-based brothel…

What is interesting, gripping even, in this weird tale, is the discovery of a parallel universe where homo sapiens does not exist: here is the answer to overpopulation problems and without so much as a thought, people are being shipped over into that world before it’s realised that although homo sapiens may not exist, in that parallel track Peking Man became the human species.

Now it becomes fascinating: here is speculation, real SF, and the unexpected: what if that had happened? How different would the world be? And then there are the moral issues: could and should homo sapiens attempt to colonise, or even share such a world: the whole of white US history is under the microscope here. And true to what we know, the political and capitalist jungle takes over without a thought. This may be almost a throwaway novel, but you do end up thinking about a lot of real ideas along the way.

Philip K Dick: The Simulacra

February 13, 2019

61e66jMA2ZL._AC_US218_Dick very skilfully takes us into a completely different world in only a couple of pages or so through carefully-chosen details; psi powers, his love of classical music and alien life-forms are immediately part of the future USA which is a matriarchal one-party state, which has just outlawed psychoanalysis and replaced it by drug therapy…whew!

I started to lose the plot literally and metaphorically when a time-travel strand was introduced, in which the government was scheming to go back and seek to alter history using figures from the Third Reich! It’s wild and fantastical, outside the bounds of SF as I recognise it (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms in itself) yet Dick does demonstrate a deep understanding of the nature of history and historical forces. There is also an immediacy to the future in that he posits a world where big business is far more powerful than government and politicians, and calls the shots.

It’s another unsummarisable story, which had me feeling that some of this Dick re-read that I took on is becoming a bit of a chore. The ending of this novel made little sense, really, and I found myself back with what I suppose is Dick’s meta-question: what is reality? But this isn’t one I shall be reading again…

Poems for Valentine’s Day #7

February 13, 2019

Warning: explicit content in this post

e e cummings: i like my body

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh….And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new

 

In my reading experience, erotic is difficult to do well: witness the Bad Sex Awards every year for toe-curling writing about sex. I happen to think e e cummings succeeds in this poem; you’ll either agree with me or not.

There is a certain childishness – in choice of vocabulary, as well as in phrasing – that works well, and is arresting, given that he’s clearly writing about an adult subject. The repetition of i like, for instance, and again and again and again.

Is the poem about the poet’s discovery of sexual pleasure per se, or the special pleasure with this partner? Reflecting, I think it is the way the words and ideas jar so often that I find particularly effective, particularly convincing: It is so quite new a thing… that so quite new is repeated in the final line of the poem, and it’s not the way one would phrase an idea in normal (?) English: we stop, or slow down and wonder, what exactly does he mean by this? Muscles better and nerves more what? i like its hows.

I have always considered that one of the things that mars attempts at erotic writing is over-explicitness: a certain amount needs to be said, but there has to be scope for the imagination to work, for our own fantasy to come into play. Perhaps this is why I have always found the sexual passages in D H Lawrence novels so unutterably creepy: he overdoes the description. So here, for example, the kissing this and that of you is rightly unspecific.

If you look carefully, the poem has fourteen lines, so it could be described as a (very informal) sonnet, that archetypal love poem form; Shakespearean perhaps, with the separate final two lines, although they aren’t a couplet… maybe that’s stretching it too far! But there is rhyme – your/ more, and part-rhyme – comes/ crumbs. And there is internal rhyme in the last line – you/ new, as well as the me/ you opposition. I particularly like the images of the shocking fuzz of your electric fur, and the eyes big love-crumbs.

I think e e cummings here is trying to convey the excitement of a new relationship, a new body being discovered, the pleasure in the unfamiliar. The lower case ‘i’, and absence of any capitalisation, is an e e cummings characteristic, as it were, and the ‘i’ here helps suggest a certain innocence, a total involvement in the pleasure of the moment to the exclusion of anything else.

Poems for Valentine’s Day #6

February 12, 2019

Philip Larkin: An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd— 
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn, the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

This poem, one of Larkin’s finest, I think, was inspired by this tomb; in it, he reflects on the nature of love and the nature of how we perceive reality, as well as how time changes us.

The rhyme scheme is a complex one: ABBCAC, and it’s not always scrupulously observed: if a half-rhyme suits his meaning, he uses one. That, and the six-line stanzas, together with frequent use of enjambment, sometimes from one stanza to the next, create a slow and meditative feel and pace to the poem; you can experience this clearly if you try reading it aloud. So he definitely wants his readers in a reflective mood.

The first stanza describes the ancient tomb: blurred faces and vague habits. We cannot see them particularly clearly, and they appear strange to a modern visitor. (Incidentally, anyone wondering why the husband of a countess is not a count should think about what obscene English word it closely resembles and remember that vowel sounds have shifted in English pronunciation over the centuries…)

We follow the poet’s eye through the slow second stanza, noting, via alliteration, how plain he finds it all, until the sharp, tender shock – what an astonishingly apt example of oxymoron that is – of seeing his hand clasping her hand. His response to the statues, and ours, changes: they have been lying there affectionately holding hands for centuries… or have they?

They would not think to lie so long. To lie there, as statues, or to lie, as in, give a false impression of their affection for each other? The joined hands might just have been a sculptor’s detail thrown off, no reflection of any truth. We cannot know. Is this Larkin the cynic revealing his attitude here?

We are shifted into travel through time in the fourth stanza. Observe how, although the names of the couple are inscribed on the base of the tomb, we are never told them: the couple are always they, for their names can mean nothing to us now, hundreds of years later. I love the image of their supine stationary voyage through time; again the oxymoron can almost pass unnoticed; time flows and people begin to look at the image rather than know or care who the images represent. Alliteration of sibilants, supine stationary, soon succeeding, helps the effect.

Look at the way that carefully-wrought fifth stanza makes the centuries pass: an enjambment leads into it, and another one out of it; brief phrases and lengthy sentences alternate, making the stanza itself seem longer. The endless altered people is effective as we picture centuries of churchgoers making their way to the building, and the way they are altered by time and fashion. The sixth stanza continues the effect through alliteration: helpless, hollow, and the sibilants a couple of lines later: as we reach the present day, it’s the attitude that strikes us, the pose, the couple hand-in-hand and what we read into that in our own time: tenderness, closeness, lovers happily together. And it could well have been nothing like that, way back when.

A lapidary final stanza suggests the poet’s take on his experience, his reflections on love. Time – first word of the line, sentence, stanza: what the poem is all about. Alliteration emphasises: transfigured, untruth. What is the effect of the oxymoron – for I think it is one – of stone fidelity? For Larkin, our interpretation is not what they wanted, and yet it bears a message for us nevertheless: the power of love to transcend time. But he hedges his bets with that superb double almost in the previous line, ever the cynic.

It’s a lovely poem and one of my all-time favourites. And although the tomb exists in Arundel, for me, on a personal note, it always takes me back to the village of my birth, Easton-on-the-Hill in Northamptonshire (but now Cambridgeshire) where in the village church the very well-worn stone paving of the aisle leads to the tomb of a Norman knight and his wife to the right of the sanctuary, set into the wall and labelled in fading Norman French.

Poems for Valentine’s Day #5

February 9, 2019

Warning: explicit content in this post

Donne Elegy XX

TO HIS MISTRESS GOING TO BED.

COME, madam, come, all rest my powers defy;
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe ofttimes, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glittering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear,
That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopp’d there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed-time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’ hill’s shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet, and show
The hairy diadems which on you do grow.
Off with your hose and shoes; then softly tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
Revealed to men; thou, angel, bring’st with thee
A heaven-like Mahomet’s paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite;
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America, my Newfoundland,
My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d,
My mine of precious stones, my empery;
How am I blest in thus discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then, where my hand is set, my soul shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee;
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s ball cast in men’s views;
That, when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul might court that, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus array’d.
Themselves are only mystic books, which we
—Whom their imputed grace will dignify—
Must see reveal’d. Then, since that I may know,
As liberally as to thy midwife show
Thyself; cast all, yea, this white linen hence;
There is no penance due to innocence:
To teach thee, I am naked first; why then,
What needst thou have more covering than a man?

Writing about this poem is a challenge; teaching it was always one, but I did not like to shy away from it, for it is Donne at his finest, his wittiest, his sexiest, too. I would like to know what he made of it if he ever looked back at it, much later in his life, when he was Dean of St Paul’s…

Structurally, it’s a single piece, in rhyming couplets: none of the inventiveness of some of his love lyrics in this elegy. And we have to remember, as we read, that although in our twenty-first century reading, the poet appears to be actually addressing a woman as she undresses, for Donne this may not have been the case: the poem may merely have been a poetic exercise, an extended piece of wit (not humour, but cleverness, a show-casing of knowledge) of the kind that educated young men of the time might be expected to turn out, a poem about a woman undressing. The mistress may be real or imagined.

I’m afraid it can help our understanding of poems like this to read with the smuttier mind of a teenager, deliberately looking for the double-entendres, and I’ll urge you to do that: consider at least the words which I’ve underlined in the text of the poem…

Clearly women wore far more clothes, and far more complex clothes in those days! Almost the first half of the poem is a catalogue of the different garments he watches her remove, and his description of what is then revealed. The reference to Mahomet’s paradise is interesting one: clearly even in Donne’s time people were familiar with the nowadays hackneyed (and perhaps inaccurate) trope of the hordes of beautiful virgins awaiting the blessed in paradise.

We can sense the poet’s eagerness, impatience even, in Licence my roving hands and the line that follows, understandable perhaps, after how long the disrobing must have lasted. O, my America, my Newfoundland: I love this line, so clever, with its topical references to the newly-discovered world across the Atlantic; this is what I mean when I write about ‘wit’. And then follow the slightly less original comparisons with mines of precious stones and empires; jewellery is clearly a distraction to him, as we see from the classical reference to Atlanta’s balls. Pleased that she is finally undressed, he points out how much quicker he was in removing his clothes, as if to set the example and reassure her: if he is naked, why should she be afraid to be? The last line says it all.

Does the poem work, as a piece of erotic fantasy? Or is it pornography? Those are not throwaway questions, but serious considerations, and started off lively discussions in some of my classes with sixth-formers. I don’t see it as pornographic because in the end I can see no exploitation of the woman here; nonetheless I’m not totally comfortable that, as in some other of his love lyrics, only the man gets to speak: the woman’s voice is imagined and her consent therefore assumed.

Valentine’s Day poems #4

February 8, 2019

Andrei Voznesensky: First Ice

A girl freezes in a telephone booth.
In her draughty overcoat she hides
A face all smeared
In tears and lipstick.

She breathes on her thin palms.
Her fingers are icy. She wears earrings.

She’ll have to go home alone, alone,
Along the icy street.

First ice. It is the first time.
The first ice of telephone phrases.

Frozen tears glitter on her cheeks —
The first ice of human hurt.

The telephone booth dates this poem just a bit, in the days of ghosting and dumping by text…

Pathetic fallacy goes a long way to making this an effective poem: to be told you are not wanted in the depths of winter feels so much harsher than if it were a sunny summer’s day. It’s another translated poem, and I’ve no idea where I first came across it, although I do know of a different translation, which I don’t find as effective as this one. I first found it many years ago when putting together an anthology of love poetry for a GCSE class, in the days when teachers were allowed to do that sort of thing.

Bald statements, all of them, in this poem, almost dispassionately reported: filmic in the way the picture gradually builds up for the reader. And reinforced by the use of the present tense: it unfolds before us, we are there as it happens: we see the hurt.

Images of cold, outside and within: she freezes, in a draughty coat, her fingers icy; the street is icy, too. She weeps, and it’s so cold her tears are frozen tears. Through the bald words shine the feelings: she hides, she must go home alone – note the effect of the repetition.

Relationships end, someone ‘finishes with’ or ‘dumps’ someone: get over it, some may say. But there’s always the shock of the first time this happens, and that is what the poet wants to share with the reader, to have us experience, or re-live. In the fourth stanza, first occurs three times.

Carefully chosen phrases: she wears earrings. Why tell us this, at this particular point? Is it perhaps a slight hint that she has made an effort to look right, prepared herself for going out on a date? The first ice of telephone phrases: the insincerity behind the awkward words used when someone says they no longer want to see you. Telephone phrases is good: there’s the clumsiness of foreign phrasebook language hinted at here.

Feelings come through in that last line, where emotion is verbalised for the first time: human hurt, emphasised through the alliteration, too.

I like the way the poet crams in so much when you slow down enough and think fully through what he’s saying, and I like how cleverly the translator has given us it in English.

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