Monday, May 4, 2009

My words echo thus, in your mind. But to what purpose

I discovered T.S. Eliot in the sixth form. I remember opening a book of his poems while I was babysitting for the neighbours, and feeling the immediate painful thrill of words like small darts hitting home here and here and here.

I fell in love with Eliot, dear reader, and bought his Collected Poems 1909 - 1962 the following year. Sometime after that - I don't know when - I lost it. Last week, my friend Whena Owen gave it back to me [picture above] wrapped up in an old dress pattern. Apparently her brother, Dylan, was cleaning out his bookshelves when he found it and found my name in the front, and underneath excerpts from Eliot's poems written in fountain pen with curling daisies instead of full-stops (eek). Whena and I were at school together and flatted together once, too, so somehow the Collected Poems of T.S. had migrated into her shelves and then into Dylan's.

My excitement at getting the book back was partly about the book itself and partly about what it had gone on to become for me in the intervening years. You see, when I wrote The Blue I deliberately wrote several passages which reflected the key literary influences of my life - in style, ideas and/or content. One of them is Eliot. Others are Janet Frame, Katherine Mansfield, Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf and Witi Ihimaera. The connections aren't at all obvious and I don't expect people to make them - and oh, when I read this I think how pretentious it all sounds - my motivation was primarily to slip in a small tribute to each of those authors and poets and partly to satisfy myself. I hoped that some readers might make the links sub-consciously or consciously and that would give them a deeper understanding of the text itself, and some insight into the shady places from which my writing springs.

Okay - if you're still reading - where is Eliot in The Blue? First of all, you need to read the extract at the start of this post which comes from Burnt Norton in The Four Quartets by Eliot, and the one below from the same poem. Then read the extract from The Blue at the end of this post about the wedding of Lilian to Ed. It occurs straight after WWI and 20 years before the story opens, but comes near the end of the novel as a memory. The Blue extract is enhanced by knowing the Eliot link, I believe. The theme of all time being 'eternally present' and therefore there being no point in 'disturbing dust on the bowl of rose leaves' is critical to what unfolds in The Blue. Readers of the Four Quartets will also know the bird is likely to be a deceptive thrush, and will know lines like these: 'Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/cannot stand too much reality', and all the rest....

How marvellous it was to open my old creaking copy of Eliot's Collected Poems and find them there: the garden, the gate, the excitement of the children, the bird calling - all as I remembered them, and as I had written them into The Blue in one way or another [rose bushes become pine trees, the children become silly, trilling Jeannie etc.] There's also a complete change of rhythm in The Blue at this point, and the point of view switches from limited third person to second person, with two possibilities: either Lilian is talking to herself and/or the author is talking to Lilian, or both.

THE BLUE [2007] Extract from Chapter 25

Back a step. Back a step up the path. Back up to the small gate of the small churchyard and make a decision there not to enter. To turn at the sound of the small birds, to turn at the smell of the pine trees, to turn at the first crunch of the gravel, and leave quietly, without fuss or hurt. If you had to go in, you fool, you, Lilian, you should have turned back at the first small gravestone, and if you didn’t turn then, there was a point on that path where you could see him and he couldn’t see you, and you knew with sudden clarity that there was nothing there that was familiar. If it hadn’t been for Jeannie, giggling behind you and running into your back like that, you might have turned at last and, seeing the gate there and the small gravel path, you’d have known what to do. As it was, he’d heard that silly trilling friend of yours, and looked for her and saw you, Lilian, in your borrowed silk georgette and red fox, and come forward, trussed in his uniform, his head dipping bashfully and his large hand out. He’d waited outside to introduce you to his Best Man, the cousin you’d heard so much about, who had even written you a letter or two. And there he was stepping out from behind him, a shorter, stockier man in uniform, too, but filling it differently, with thick black hair and ruddy cheeks, older than Ed by a few years, his eyes an astounding blue. Ed clasped his hands together, and waited to see that you liked him.

You remember how slowly it unfolded, the cousin stepping forward and removing his soldier’s hat and taking your hand in greeting and saying your name in a way you’d have usually thought of as familiar but in fact was less insolent than that. And then he said nothing more, although he looked as if he wanted to. Jeannie came forward, wishing he would smile at her like that, but he didn’t. He took her hand instead and kissed it, and Jeannie chortled, silly girl, and showed her crooked teeth.

‘Come on, Owen,’ said Ed, looking pleased at the way it had gone. And they went inside the church, the two of them, to wait for you.

©Mary McCallum

1 comment:

David Cohen said...

Very cool, Mary. Thanks.