Poetry that really matters: Ann Gray (part one)
Some weeks I despair of knowing how, and where to start. First-line nerves kick in, particularly when I worry that I won’t do justice to the guest poet. I’ve felt it particularly acutely these last few days. So if I seem especially incoherent, bear with me, and we’ll find out together whether justice has been done.
I didn’t know anything about Ann Gray, pictured below, except that her pamphlet I wish I had more mothers was one of the winners of the 2018 Poetry Business pamphlet competition, which was judged by Liz Berry and (there’s synergy) David Constantine. I had no idea what to expect when she was the guest reader at a residential course I was on in St Ives earlier this year. I pricked my ears up when, in her introduction, Kim Moore announced that “John Foggin is going to like this because he’s a big fan of Clive James, and Clive James is a big fan of Ann Gray’s poetry”. It turned out that he’d written an enthusiastic endorsement of one of her collections. Now I know why.
But even that’s not what really reeled me in. There are moments when you hear a poem for the first time, and you know that it’s the real deal, when the hair on the back of your neck stands up, when your heart gives a lurch. Here’s the poem, of which she says
I thought the most difficult collection I put together was after my partner was killed in a road accident. I used 44 of the poems as my final MA dissertation and read every poem or prose that I could lay my hands on that dealt with loss.
I identified your face
and when he said is this, and gave your full name,
it wasn’t enough to say, yes, he said I had to say,
this is, and give your full name.
It seemed to be all about names, but I only saw your face.
I wanted to rip back the sheets and say, yes this is his chest,
his belly, these are his balls and this is the curve of his buttock.
I could have identified your feet, the moons on your nails,
the perfect squash ball of a bruise on your back,
the soft curl of your penis when it sleeps against your thigh.
I wanted to lay my head against your chest, to take your hands,
hold them to your face, but I was afraid your broken arm was hurting.
My fingers fumbled at your shirt, the makeshift sling had trapped it.
Your shirt, your crisp white shirt. The shirt I’d ironed on Friday.
The shirt that grazed my face when you leaned across our bed
to say goodbye. I watched the place where your neck
joins the power of your chest and thought about my head there.
He offered me your clothes. I refused to take your clothes.
Days later I wanted all your clothes. I didn’t know what I wanted,
standing there beside you, asking if I could touch you,
my hands on your cheek. He offered me a lock of your hair.
I took the scissors. I had my fingers in your hair.
I could taste the black silken hair of your sex.
I wanted to wail all the Songs of Solomon.
I wanted to throw myself against the length of you and wail.
I wanted to lay my face against your cheek.
I wanted to take the blood from your temple with my tongue,
I wanted to stay beside you till you woke.
I wanted to gather you up in some impossible way
to take you from this white and sterile place to somewhere
where we could lie and talk of love.
I wanted to tear off my clothes, hold myself against you.
He said take as long as you want, but he watched me
through a window and everything I wanted seemed
undignified and hopeless, so I told him we could go,
we could leave, and I left you
lying on the narrow bed, your arm tied in its sling,
purple deepening the sockets of your eyes.
This poem confronts and unnerves because, unlike the Victorians, we have removed ourselves from physical contact with the dead. Some of their customs persisted into the 1950s. As a child I was shocked when a classmate of mine in primary school died of meningitis (none of us knew what that was; just that it was frightening, that it could visit any of us). More shocked when his mother invited us, his eight- and nine-year-old classmates, to come and see him laid out in his coffin in the single downstairs room of their terrace house. When it came to it, I stayed outside. Some of my friends went in, and when they came out they would say nothing about it. Not then, and not later.
When my dad died, and years later, my mother, they were whisked away before I could see them. They vanished. I wonder what I ever made of Sassoon’s line from ‘The Dugout’:
You are too young to fall asleep forever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.
It was just an idea, a notion. I think we too often persuade ourselves we understand. Unlike Hamlet, we are happy to conflate sleep and death and leave it there.
Which is why I need poems like ‘Your body’, from the collecton At the Gate. One of my sons committed suicide by jumping from a high-rise block of flats. The police told me that I wouldn’t want to see him, and I was too stunned to argue. I have no idea who identified him, or how, but it wasn’t his mother, or me. We couldn’t have a funeral until a long-postponed inquest was over, and his body was released. In his coffin, only his face was visible. His face was like the death mask of a beautiful stranger. It was unmarked, and he really did seem unnaturally asleep. I kissed him, but he didn’t wake.
'This lovely, tender, terrible, astonishing poem'
Years later I had to go with my partner to identify the body of her ex-husband in the morgue in Wakefield. It was so bizarre, so unreal, like a piece of theatrical still life. I thought I would never find words for it and maybe I shouldn’t try. Now I know I was wrong in that, as in so many things, because of this lovely, tender, terrible, astonishing poem.
I’ve made all sorts of notes about the way it barely contains its emotional pressure; it seems to me today that they’re irrelevant. If you need to have it explained you weren’t listening. But also today, by chance, the poet Jane Clarke posted this on her Facebook page, and I knew that it said what I couldn’t.
“That must be among the strangest of poetry’s many paradoxes: that we are driven to write by fire and then must distance ourselves to a cool dispassion in order to make those flames burn for anyone else. That is not a heartless thing, or an opportunistic one, to turn your experience into art. Your life is not diminished - nor changed - by having been the basis for a poem. But poetry does ask the writer to be inside a life and outside it at once, standing in the center and also looking in, through the shaping (and distorting) aperture of a lens.”
Mark Doty in ‘Can Poetry Console a grieving Public?’
I’m not sure about the “cool dispassion”. But the visceral need, the fire, to find the words that will tell you the meaning of the inchoate thing that just wrecked your life….that fire. Yes. Yes, that.
I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a single poem post for a guest before. But it feels right to end here, for the moment. We’ll be back with Ann Gray next week, when I’ll tell you more about her, and share more of her poems about things that matter. I’ll leave you with this
Tell me a story, Pew.
What kind of story, child?
A story with a happy ending.
There’s no such thing in all the world.
As a happy ending?
As an ending.
(from Lighthousekeeping, by Jeanette Winterson)