Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tuesday Poem: About

About four in the afternoon they said,
which could be wrong, but my boys,
both men, were in the kitchen then,
helping themselves to slabs of bread

and ham, laughing at something they’d
seen on Family Guy, their bodies filling
the whole of the space between bench
and stove, fridge and dishwasher. And I

was complaining from the family room
(it was nearly time for a glass of wine)
about how I’d worked all day to fill
their well-fed stomachs, and they, well,

what had they done? How they’d laughed
at that, laughed and eaten of the bread
and the ham, and drunk of the milk
(straight from the bottle), and talked

about the episode of Family Guy with
Jesus dancing – funny, this Jesus, not
miraculous – talked in the cartoon voices
of Pete, Stewie, Brian the dog. Outside

in the thickening day in the thickening
water, the young man, really a boy, had

probably already fallen from the kayak, 
and was struggling to keep his head up,

the salt water thicker with each pull of his 
arms, the ragged bulk of the island dragging
him down, and back at the beach he’d left 
behind – houses with windows flaring,   

kitchens with people eating bread
and cake and pouring wine and frying
onions and thinking dully about taking
in the last of the light walking the dog. 

What did they do, my breathing boys,
my chewing men? They couldn’t have
heard the splash or cry, but saw perhaps
through the open window the failing

sun shining, as it had to, on white legs
in green water. Thought it a boy falling
out of the sky.  Something amazing. But
the sun shining on water can be anything

when you’re tipped back swallowing milk
in an untidy corner  with stacked  dishes
and an empty cornflake packet, waiting for
your brother to recall the irreverent dance

moves of a cartoon Jesus.   They’ve  sailed
now, the young masters, vessels navigating
choppy waters with a calm that belies their
private concerns about disaster. When I ask,

they don’t recall the sunlight catching on
anything that day or if the exact time they
inhabited the holy space  between  bench
and dishwasher was the same as the time

of the drowning, or even why they hung
around longer than usual when they
nearly always had somewhere to get to.

                                                             Mary McCallum

This poem. It's finished at last. It began with the death of a young man by drowning - in the part of the harbour we look out onto from our house. That day, my sons were in the kitchen. I was there, too. We weren't aware what was happening until later in the week, but that evening, we remember the helicopters and wondered if someone was stuck in the bush up behind us. They were looking for him. We didn't know. 

The poem is closely tied to Auden's Poem Musee des Beaux Arts - one of those poems that is never far from the place in my head where I start to write. It begins:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
The rest of it here with the Brueghel painting that inspired the poem. Worth checking out. 

Do go to the Tuesday Poem hub this week for a deliciously playful poem by Joan Fleming posted by Helen Heath. 


Ben Hur said...

Stunning poem, Mary. Bears reading and re-reading. I'd forgotten about that Auden poem.

Kathleen Jones said...

Lovely Mary - yes, the Auden poem is kind of seminal isn't it?

AJ Ponder said...

yes, absolutely stunning Mary. Very provocative.

maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

A very beautiful poem - I still think of that young man whenever I walk the bays on Saturday mornings.

Penelope said...

I feel both pummeled and consoled by this powerful poem. Thank you, Mary.

Helen Lowe said...


Jennifer Compton said...

excellent - just wondered about the fracturing on line length but ... is it about the fracturing?

susan t. landry said...

i leap from my computer chair and give you a standing ovation, without even thinking whether you can see/hear me or whether the men working outside on the water pipes will think it is for them, or not.

kudos to you, mary.


Meliors Simms said...

oh my, this is powerful. and what a shock when I realised who was drowning, the young man, a friend of a friend, who saw perform Shakespeare summer before last

Mary McCallum said...

Thank you everyone. So lovely to get this feedback. And I am sorry, Meliors, for the shock realisation about who the boy is who drowned - that's the difficult thing with a poem like this and made me hesitate in posting it - that there is real grief here, real loss, that I have taken and, no other word for it, used --

Jen, the fractured lines - do you mean the stanzas where the boy is drowning - I wanted the tidy lines on the domestic to shift into the untidiness of the tragedy - but do wonder if that shift is too self-conscious - and it would be better to keep with the same form throughout - the language alone evoking the horrors of the drowning - the more horrible because it's contained rather than released - your thoughts would be helpful.

Mary x

Catherine said...

This is very powerful - it is a problem, isn't it, writing about other people's tragedies which is why I am reluctant to write earthquake poems, but in the end, I think we do have to write about what touches us, from our own viewpoint, and it is OK if we are honest about it and don't try to take on the grief ourselves in a fake sort of way.

susan t. landry said...

mary, i woke up this morning thinking of your choice of the word "used." i don't think it's applicable here; i think you honored the death, acknowledged the profound tragedy of it.
rest easy on that account.

Mary McCallum said...

Thank you, Susan. Yes, 'honoured' is a much better way to see it. X

Jennifer Compton said...

my first thought on reading the poem was you had cut and pasted and then line length had gone loopy, like it sometimes does - for me as the poem has a regular shape i would put all the verses in the same shape - or you could rethink and put the poem in slabs across the page or something liek that

against the left margin for before
in the middle for the shock
and across against the right margin for the aftershock when everything is different

lots of choices of course

TK Roxborogh said...

what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed.