Castaway Poet Julia Bird chooses three poems to take to a desert island. She talks about Michael Donaghy’s off-book poetry performances, the joys of Eileen Pun’s chatty whitethroats, and how it’s hard not to harmonise with John Keats and his nightingale
‘Black Ice and Rain’ by Michael Donaghy
“Can I come in? I saw you slip away. / Hors d’oeuvres depress you, don’t they?” begins Michael Donaghy’s Conjure-era tour de force. I used to have this extract as the welcome message on all my 2000s Nokias, its foot-in-the-door-jamb request arriving with a ping when I started up my phone. It’s not a request to me, though every time I received it as a text message it shocked me into thinking it was. Within just two lines, the poem simultaneously sets me up and destabilises me: am I a person being pestered at a party, am I a person watching a person being pestered at a party? The poem’s tale is that of a failed ménage à trois between round and anguished characters of the type more usually found in BBC2 drama. It moves those people through time and space like a play in a beautifully lit black box studio theatre. It’s even sport: the central relationship is a “three-way game of chess”. To read it is to never be quite sure where you stand in relationship to its genres or its implications, and who doesn’t benefit from being kept on your toes like that, every now and then?
Sean O’Brien’s introduction to the Collected gives a better explanation of the poem as a critique of post-modernity than I can, but I can tell you about the first time I heard it performed. I knew Michael from my work at the Poetry Book Society, we hung around many of the same places on cheery terms. This performance was in a back room at the V&A during a weekend afternoon in the very late 90s. I can’t remember who else was there apart from the fella on the scene at the time with a grey stripe in his Hoxton fin – I thought that very dashing. Michael performed from memory as he always did, and when he got to the line “regular as brickwork” my synapses – denied the anticipated clockwork resolution – exploded. One of my next jobs after selling all those poetry books at the PBS was as a live literature producer, working with theatre directors and designers to put poets on stage. Maybe Michael’s look-ma-no-hands approach to poetry performance was one of the things that inspired me to do that. Maybe I owe that part of my career to this poem.
Michael performed from memory as he always did, and when he got to the line ‘regular as brickwork’ my synapses – denied the anticipated clockwork resolution – exploded
Michael died nearly twenty years ago, a time span I can barely credit. I’m taking ‘Black Ice and Rain’ to my desert island because I think it’s an endlessly regenerating masterpiece, and when “the past falls open / anywhere” it sometimes falls open in the V&A and sometimes very far off into the future.
There are bootleggy versions of the poem online, but join the Poetry Archive and you can listen to a recording of Michael reading the poem himself. Alternatively, get a copy of Conjure (Picador, 2000) for ‘Black Ice and Rain’ and all its jostling companions.
‘Some Common Whitethroat Chit-Chat’ by Eileen Pun
What sort of desert island will I be allocated? Somewhere tropical, or a windswept outcrop off the Icelandic coast? Am I there of my own free will or am I exiled; visiting or on a return ticket? While poems #1 and #3 on my list are fixed whatever my island circumstances, the poem in the #2 position will float about depending on the details of my trip. Once the itinerary is confirmed, I’ll pick something fitting from one of my home-made scrapbook anthologies. There are three volumes of these now – notebooks full of poems cut from magazines, photocopied, or printed out from poem-a-day emails, all of them collected because they’ve sent my day off course with some sort of unexpected thrill. ‘Walking Past a Rose This June Morning’ by Alice Oswald is kept safe there, as is Wallace Stevens’ ‘A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts’. I realise for the first time in writing this that Philip Levine’s ‘Belle Isle, 1949’ is Pritt-stuck in there twice.
Eileen Pun’s ‘Some Common Whitethroat Chit-Chat (or, a couple of common whitethroats having a crack)’, would be a good choice for a distant island. If I was homesick for a domestic dawn chorus, the poem could help me recreate it; and the whitethroat – being a migratory bird – could advise me on how best to live simultaneously in the home you occupy and the home you don’t.
Here’s what a whitethroat sounds like. Here’s how Eileen Pun translates or imagines a pair of them conversing in an extract from the poem …
Snow?! Pearl … Ivory, radish flesh, tartare sauce, Pearl.
Painter’s trousers Dove-y. Cricket trousers! Dove-y?!
Chef-hat Q-tip, Dove-y avalanches Pearl’s coconut meat. Blanc?
PEARL FRENCH MANICURED STARS!
Technically, that amazes me: such control of the punctuation, italics, tabs and full caps to lay that toothy song out like a score on the page. And what’s going on with this glorious pile up of imagery? “School glue?” the birds sing to one another, “Maaarsshmaalloow”, “Chalk Blondie”, “BEARD OF GOD!” The poem is all images and whistles, and everything the birds utter is white, from their golfballs to their flags of surrender. Are the birds chit-chatting about themselves, enjoying the effects of their own white-feathered throats? Or are they looking out from their nests and trying to describe examples of prevalent whiteness by comparison – are they like “lima beans” or might they be more like “Knu-ckle-grip”? What might my own whiteness look like to them? Like the birds, in the course of the poem’s craic I’m having a crack at answering that question.
Three poems isn’t very many to pack for a holiday on / banishment to an island, so ‘Some Common Whitethroats’ will also serve to remind me of the connections between all the poems I’ve written and those I’ve read, particularly the ones stuck in my anthology scrapbooks
The poem flings its exclamation marks about, and its whoops and questions. It makes me laugh, and I’m a person deadly serious about jokes. My is, thinks Pearl contains a poem where the titular character, Pearl, visits what amounts to a confessional. The ritualised speech act she participates in there though is not the admission of sin, but the sharing of a joke. However profound the poetry (or the person, come to think of it), I need some element of a humorous, human register for an overall intent to land with me. “Blondie’s wedding dress?” these interrogative warblers double-take. “Blondie’s aspirin?”
My Pearl is no relation to Eileen Pun’s “Sugar crystallin’-‘fleur-de-lis’-cloudy-cloudy Pearl” Or perhaps she is. Pun’s pearls weren’t consciously in my mind when I was writing mine, but hers were published first so perhaps they had lodged there, gleaming, without me knowing. Three poems isn’t very many to pack for a holiday on / banishment to an island, so ‘Some Common Whitethroats’ will also serve to remind me of the connections between all the poems I’ve written and those I’ve read, particularly the ones stuck in my anthology scrapbooks.
Find this fantastic two pager yourself in Ten: the New Wave ed Karen McCarthy Woolf (Bloodaxe, 2014)
‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats
More birdsong. Strictly speaking, I don’t need to take this with me to the island as I’ve memorised it, but maybe I will pin a copy to my palm tree / pine tree trunk to see if I’m remembering all the commas and the unseen flowers in the right order.
Keats has always been there – from the mists and mellow fruitfulness malarkey every time the central heating went on for the first time at home, to the Romantic part of my English studies, to the Keats-themed readings my friend and I have run in Winchester, London and Rome in recent years. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is a poem like a violin case decorated all over with stickers from this orchestra, that festival, that band-camp. I cannot separate it from the places we’ve been together, so all of those locations and their inhabitants will be stowing away with the poem on our journey to the island.
‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is a poem like a violin case decorated all over with stickers from this orchestra, that festival, that band-camp
What a violin at its heart. Spruce and maple, cat gut and horse hair resonate in its vowels. I love its pain, both poet-specific and human-general – the ‘pale, and spectre-thin’ dying Tom Keats and the drowsy ache common to us all. I love sun burn, and stepping on a flower as the sun goes down. I love how its language has misted over the years – I know ‘darkling’ is an adjective, but still read it as a noun, as a form of goth endearment. I love how it ends with a head-shake and an open window.
The nightingale sings, Keats calls back to it, and it’s hard not to harmonise. I once wrote the driest possible prose paragraph describing how I knew this poem by heart, how clinical linguists know that memorised language and speech generation sit in two different parts of the brain (so while a stroke could take away your ability to speak, you might still be able to sing ‘Happy Birthday’), and how I hoped to hang on to the Ode as my own speechless end approached. I then translated the prose using only the words from the poem, and the resulting piece – ‘Lethe Nightingale’ was published first in The Emma Press Anthology of Age and then again in the forthcoming A Joy Forever.
I save the bird rhyme
by Some Fret…
no, by Warm Quite…
O, I save the bird rhyme
by Song Sweet
in my heart,
and I fancy
that I will have this
when my brain
is all full blown.
My time on the island will pass using ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ as a meditative prompt to further new thought. If I write any new poems as a result, I will put them in a bottle, drop them in the sea and hope the current carries them to readers back home.