Wednesday, May 30, 2007


By Selima Hill

She wanted fun.
What she gets is tartan,

the classics, and a little wholesome food;
what she gets is toothpaste,

and the lodger,
who thanks You for inventing thighs, O Lord.

This is taken from Selima Hill’s 2001 Whitbread Poetry Award-winning collection Bunny.

Read by itself, without reading the rest of the collection, Fun won’t make much of an impact, yet. All the poems are connected to each other, by the thread of a tale about a little girl moving around in a house. The cover of Bunny has a cute little rabbit. But it’s not that kind of a book, so you don’t really want to read the stories inside to any other little girl during bed-time, or to any little boy. That’s because there is an undertone of sexuality throughout the collection, as we later see the girl in sometimes weird and intriguing situations; how she reacts to them, and how they change her as she grows up.

In this poem the little girl, like all little girls, just wants some fun. But the people taking care of her, her aunts, for example, probably have no idea that tartan, the classics, wholesome food and toothpaste, do not constitute fun.

The last stanza introduces the reader to a rather sinister lodger. He has an eye for the little girl, for his own kind of fun. The assonance of lodger and Lord, and their positioning at the end of lines, gives the reader a frisson of creepiness. Reading who, You and O rounds your lips – sensuous enough for you?

Before this, in the second stanza, the long “oo” rhyming of food and toothpaste, also at end of lines, gives us an adumbration of sensuality – eating, nibbling, mouths, teeth – albeit those two words are not in the strictly fun category. In later pieces within the collection you’d come across images of food as you have never seen in those lights, and of nibbling on, erm, some body parts. Read Bunny if you want to know what.

Talking of what, the second line of the first two stanzas starts with this word. In the last stanza, it is who. As if we could also be asking what is happening? and who is he?

The overriding rhythm of this piece is a regular fall-rise in the first lines, and a rise-fall in the second, in both the first two stanzas. This scheme breaks in the last stanza, when the lodger comes into the picture, with quite a rush.

The ends of the lines in both the first two stanzas are mostly end-stops, accentuated further by punctuations. I say mostly because "toothpaste," may also be a run-on, when the line extends down towards a new stanza, with new information, about the lodger. The last line of the piece, with further information about this lodger, follows a weak run-on of "lodger,".

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"Words, Wide Night"

Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us. I am thinking of you.
The room is turning slowly away from the moon.

This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say

it is sad? In one of the tenses I singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.

La lala la. See? I close my eyes and imagine

the dark hills I would have to cross
to reach you. For I am in love with you and this

is what it is like or what it is like in words.

by Carol Ann Duffy (The Other Country)


This is a popular poem on the net – it comes up a lot when you google it and people post it on their blogs from missing other people in the dark of night, lying awake thinking of them. Needless to say I’ve probably done this a lot too!

I am a big fan of this poet – I like it that she is frank and truthful and pursues truth actively. I like it that her poetry is strong and unsentimental, clear but complex, and has a bite to it. I like it that her writing is about the journey, the process. I haven’t yet read her latest collection, Rapture, which won the TS Eliot prize recently.

The first line has a few inside rhymes, these are my favourite. First the “o” sounds, then the “ai” sounds:
Somewhere on the other side of this wide night

Then the alliteration: Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
Nice, huh? The ‘s’ consonent and ‘o’ sounds remind me of words of desire and longing. The ‘w’ consonant and ‘ai’ sound stretch out the spaces making everything feel unattainable.

The “ah” sounds in the second line sound like sleepy yawning and the “ih” sound like the REM of eyelids and thought spikes, then a half rhyme of ‘you’ and ‘moon’ making their connection “you are as available to me as the moon”:
and the distance between us. I am thinking of you.

The room is turning slowly away from the moon.
The last line of the first stanza has that inside rhyme again ‘room/moon’ maybe there’s a more technical term for it but I simply can’t remember anymore. Despite myself this line makes me imagine the room, a square white box in space slowly rotating away in a lonely manner towards empty black space, away from the grey, glowing, pitted surface of the moon. But I also know it means, these lovers anchored in their rooms in different locations, spinning away day after day, never getting any closer to the other. And I also think it is a play on the cliché that people who miss each other imagine the other looking at the moon too and missing them.

Phew, I think I’ll only do that for the first stanza. Let’s get on with the meaning of the next stanzas.
This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say
it is sad? In one of the tenses I singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.
I think this is an elegant way to say bitter sweet, it is pleasurable – a sensual word and it is sad, a true and simple word – nice juxtaposition. The next bit is the hardest for me to get a hold of: there’s a deliberate (I think – hope it is not a typo! Did check several versions online.) strange blip in the tense – like a word missing…in one of the tenses (past, present, future). The reader wants to substitute it – I am singing, I was singing, I will be singing…it is questioning where the lover fits into her life, like a daydream of possibilities we all have of our lovers.

By this time I am beginning to think it is not just physical distance but emotional distance which separates the lovers. (yes I am a bit slowww) – it is:
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.

La lala la.
Two people who should be together but aren’t create a (haha pun) ‘tense’ situation, an impossible song that not only is impossible physically to reach the ears of the lover – but also sounds like gibberish. She is almost saying, words are not enough and yet proving herself wrong:
See? I close my eyes and imagine
the dark hills I would have to cross
to reach you. For I am in love with you and this
is what it is like or what it is like in words.

I really identify with this, I used to try and imagine the journey between my lover and I, from one city round the world to another. Though ‘dark hills’ makes me think sex and intimacy, the secret psyche of another person we all want to know and connect with, in a lover.

I just love that last line in its simple statement which offers itself up with such vulnerability, somehow so irrevocable. The poem is an offering in itself. It is aware that it is a poem if you want to speak deconstructively! The lovely ‘w’ sounds are like spread hands offering up this person’s trust. If I were to offer someone words, it would be a very high compliment – so I take what she has said this way. She’s so unselfconscious. In her love poetry, I see the influence of Adrienne Rich, who is also gay, a pioneer in simple, beautiful (also physical and radical) expression of her love for her lovers.

Part of the reason why this poem is so well known, is that it was on the Circle Line on the Tube in London. That is where I saw it for the first time – and it led me to seek out and continue reading Carol Ann Duffy’s work. I met her at a Cheltenham Litfest reading and she signed this poem in my copy of the book.

(Guest blogged by Msiagirl)

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

"Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes"

At the stoplight waiting for the light
nine a.m. downtown San Francisco
a bright yellow garbage truck
with two garbagemen in red plastic blazers
standing on the back stoop
one on each side hanging on
and looking down into
an elegant open Mercedes
with an elegant couple in it
The man
in a hip three-piece linen suit
with shoulder-length blond hair and sunglassed
The young blond woman so casually coifed
with short skirt and coloured stockings
on the way to his architect's office

And the two scavengers up since four a.m.
grungy from their route
on the way home
The older of the two with grey iron hair
and hunched back
looking down like some
gargoyle Quasimodo
And the younger of the two
also with sunglasses and long hair
about the same age as the Mercedes driver

And both scavengers gazing down
as from a great distance
at the cool couple
as if they were watching some odourless TV ad
in which everything is always possible

And the very red light for an instant
holding all four close together
as if anything at all were possible
between them
across that small gulf
in the high sea
of this democracy.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I discovered this poem through the blog of Gabriela Sellart who left a comment on this blog last week. Gabriela is an English teacher in Buenos Aires and taught this poem to her students, who were then assigned to write a short response essay on it. She put up some of the different and interesting responses from her students, which I can’t but marvel for the creativity and thoughtfulness shown.

Personally, I too like this poem very much, though it may seem just a little bland. Perhaps, some of you may have guessed by now my taking to social issues, through the choices of some of the poems I share, or more likely, the nature of my comments I leave behind here and there.

In this poem, two garbage collectors in their truck are waiting at the traffic lights along with a hip, young couple in a Mercedes. A descriptive contrast is set up between the two, as is suggested by the title of the poem. The couple are in fashionable clothes; the man in his “hip three-piece linen suit”, the woman all dolled up in probably the latest trend for the season.

As Leon (one of our puisi-poesy contributors) would say, the long phrase “hip three-piece linen suit” when read is an emphasis that sharply distinguishes from the plain (one piece) plastic blazers of the garbage collectors. Moreover, note how the young architect is also similar in appearance to the younger garbageman – both with long hair and sunglasses; the difference: the Mercedes and the clothes. This highlights the “gulf” between them, just as one is standing over, looking down (ironically enough), while the other sits comfortably in his open topped Mercedes.

The subtle handling of these little details of similarities and differences marks the craft of this poem, which leads on to the final stanza where all four individuals are held together “for an instant” at the red traffic light, equal and yet not quite equal; “as if anything at all were possible” (for the two garbage collectors), and where “everything is always possible” (for the young couple), just before they go / zoom off to different destinations.

PS. One could off course read the poem differently from this socially inflected light

Side reflections

While all are subjected equally to traffic laws, there are the unspoken ‘laws’ of class and social differences that separate people. Indeed, I would honestly acknowledge my own privileged position, having enjoyed the many benefits of a good university education, for whom there are those both in my country and other parts of the world are deprived. It is then through poetry such as these (which I learn to appreciate through the education I received) that reminds me of the necessary ‘sympathy’ with one’s fellow men, according them the same dignity and the humanity both they and I share (whether rich or poor, highly paid professional or a garbage collector).

In Malaysia and Singapore, or at least from what I heard, some parents warn their children to study hard least they end up becoming garbage collectors. Undoubtedly, a kind of social stigma exist in the perception of the 'dirtiness' or 'unfit' nature of such jobs [which is not easy to shake off]. But, where we would we be, if it were not for these people who help clear the trash and decomposing waste. Could we imagine having a mountain of rotting rubbish whose stench stink to vomit-inducing proportions near our homes? [some areas in Malaysia suffer from a lack of an efficient waste collection system]. Indeed, garbage collectors are integral to society, and should be accorded the necessary respect they deserve; more so now that we become more conscious of the importance of environmentally safe waste disposal [sadly, Malaysia still doesn't exactly practice it well enough], and the need to recycle some of the endless resources we humans consume [I think, sanitary engineer will become a vital profession in the future ;)]

PS. I won't be able to reply to any comments as fast as I would like to, as I am without a fixed internet access.

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