Castaway Poet Suzannah Evans chooses three poems to take to a desert island. She picks one for laughter by Ian McMillan, one by Marie Howe for cathartic, bittersweet reading and, for empathy, bravery and hope, a poem by Tony Hoagland
What do you most need on a desert island, apart from a ride home and a Morrisons delivery? I started out on this exercise thinking about the poems that have been events in my life; the ones that taught me something. I glanced off Keats’ ‘Ode on Melancholy’, which we studied at school. After the lesson I had grumbled in a teenage way that it was “a bit depressing” and my significant English teacher (every poet has one) suggested that at the very least, it had made me feel something. That was a hook that’s been in my flesh ever since, but I don’t want to read the poem every day. I thought about including part of Roy Fisher’s sequence ‘City’, which was notable in my English undergraduate studies for being the moment I realised contemporary poetry was able to embrace urban environments as well as rural ones. There’s Richard Price’s ‘A Spelthorne Bird List’, which is one of my favourite sequences of poems, but I don’t think I could pick just one bird for the trip.
I am going to want to read poems that will make me feel; to laugh, cry, and feel brave
However, my priority on the desert island will probably not be to look back on all the things I’ve learned about poetry. Sitting in my deckchair (I assume I get a deckchair) I am going to want to read poems that will make me feel; to laugh, cry, and feel brave. They are as follows:
For laughter: ‘Me and Geoff Stables and the Can of Beans’ by Ian McMillan. This is a surreal and brilliant poem about time travel, which also happens to have a hilarious and mind-bending final twist. There are a lot of things I love about this poem – “stained-glass August” and the “thin socks of time” are particular favourites. The can of beans, the summer holiday games, the disappointment and a world full of “let’s call ‘em / possibilities” feel so familiar and give a powerful tug of childhood nostalgia. And of course there’s that magical thing McMillan does to ensure that it’s somehow always the same time in a poem, even when it’s the past, and even as it travels into the future. If that’s not discovering time travel, I don’t know what is.
Me and Geoff Stables and the Can of Beans
Sudden crashing noise as Geoff hurls the can.
Sudden crashing noise as I hurl the can. Dust
Clears. Geoff shakes his head. ‘Still there,’
He says, disappointment rusting his voice.
Sudden crashing noise as I hurl the can. Sudden
Crashing noise as Geoff hurls the can into the
Sand. Our summer plan, in 1966’s stained glass
August, to chuck a can of beans so hard, so very hard,
Into a pile of sand that it burst the thin socks
Of time and flew into the future. Or the past.
We were fans of science fiction and we were ten.
The world seemed full to the brim of, let’s call ‘em,
Possibilities. Sudden crashing noise as Geoff hurls
The can. Sudden crashing noise as I hurl the can.
And of course, the beans never slipped into last week
Or next year. Except, reader, this morning I found
A tin of beans on the shelf WHERE NO BEANS WERE
BEFORE. WHERE NO BEANS WERE BEFORE. Put that
In your memory and spin it. Sudden crashing noise.
(from That’s not a Fishing Boat, it’s a Giraffe: Response to Austerity (Smith|Doorstop, 2019))
For cathartic, bittersweet reading, I would choose Marie Howe’s ‘What The Living Do’, from the collection of the same title, which is another poem that negotiates the difficulties of time – the time of all living people, and the timeline of those they have lost, and the separation of these worlds.
It is a poem that reminds me of the uniqueness of being alive, and makes me feel lucky to be so
Although this is one of the saddest poems I can think of, written in remembrance of the poet’s brother, it is also a poem that reminds me of the uniqueness of being alive, and makes me feel lucky to be so, even when the sink is clogged. I connect so greatly with the idea that: “We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want / whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss – we want more and more and then more of it.” It is a poem that reminds me to slow down and be present. I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life trying to mend my anxiety and every discipline I’ve tried tells me the answer is to be more present. I can imagine this might be easier on a desert island.
What The Living Do
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss – we want more and more and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
(from What The Living Do: Poems (W.W. Norton, 1999))
My third and final poem is one I discovered only a couple of months ago. This is a risky choice I suppose, because maybe I’ll go off it over time. But I think that’s unlikely. It’s by Tony Hoagland.
Now that you need your prescription glasses to see the stars
and now the telemarketers know your preference in sexual positions.
Now that corporations run the government
and move over the land like giant cloud formations.
Now that the human family has turned out to be a conspiracy against
Now that it’s hard to cast stones
without hitting a cell-phone tower,
which will show up later on your bill.
Now that you know you are neither innocent nor powerful
nor a character in a book.
You have arrived at the edge of the world
where the information wind howls incessantly
and you stand in your armor made of irony
with your sword of good intentions raised –
The world is a Gorgon.
It presents its thousand ugly heads.
Death or madness to look at it too long
but your job
is not to conquer it;
not to provide entertaining repartee,
nor to revile yourself in shame.
Your job is to stay calm.
Your job is to watch and take notes,
to go on looking.
Your job is to not be turned into stone.
(from Turn Up The Ocean (Bloodaxe, 2022))
On some readings I feel like it’s a bit ‘on the nose’. But it was written by Hoagland towards the end of his life, when he knew he was dying, and if there’s a time to speak plainly, then that’s it. I love the line “Now that you know you are neither innocent nor powerful / nor a character in a book” because this feels such a fundamental message of ageing, or even growing up. It’s good to be reminded that as individuals we’re not that special after all, that it can’t be everyone’s destiny to change the world, that this might be something we can only do collectively.
It was written by Hoagland towards the end of his life, when he knew he was dying, and if there’s a time to speak plainly, then that’s it
The poem’s message is an urgent one, and to me it feels galvanising, emboldening. It’s very difficult to go on looking at the world at the moment, as the planet melts and those in charge fail, yet again, to apply the measures they could. But if we can remain empathetic as things get darker, then perhaps that is enough. Perhaps there is a shred of hope in that.
My one book, as permitted by the guardians of the island, is a non-fiction one, Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record by Carl Sagan. This details the images, music, sounds and greetings included on the gold discs of the Voyager One and Two, sent into space to travel long distance and potentially be found by intelligent life elsewhere in our universe. The chapters discuss at length the decisions made in trying to communicate with the ‘recipients’ of the space craft (including future humans – we may find it again ourselves some day) about what life on Earth and humanity are like. The philosophical implications of every one of these decisions are great; the choice not to show famine, or warfare. The languages included and not included. Legislative information that would have been obsolete before the spacecraft neared Saturn. I can spend hours with this book, expanding my thoughts into the far reaches of space and the weird corners of human thinking. My copy is an ex-library one, much creased and full of page markers, given to me by my partner as a gift, which gives it a bit of added sentimental value to cling to as the waves crash on the shore.
Buy That’s not a Fishing Boat, it’s a Giraffe: Response to Austerity by Ian McMillan (Smith|Doorstop, 2019)
Read What The Living Do and more poems by Marie Howe on poets.org