Ursula (Film-Poem Online)

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Ursula

Black hair. Red claws. That’s all
you need to know. She left
the cubs a long time ago,
and now all she wants is a man
to drink gin and play snooker.
She keeps a gun in her purse
and two ex lovers in jail,
signs her letters with a kiss
and a dab of cheap perfume.
She knows how to use a letter opener,
walk upright like a lady,
forage berries in the forest,
bandage a gunshot wound,
claw her way out of the trunk
of a speeding car, and roll away.
She’s on the hunt when hunted,
growls obscenities when hit
by a tranquillizer dart.
In this city full of garbage,
she knows you by your smell.

Behind the Poem

The BearPaul Stephenson and I have been sending each other postcards with the implicit dare to try to write a poem about whatever is depicted — the stranger, the better. When I received this postcard advertising some kind of noir West End stage production called “The Bear”, it set my head spinning.

I wrote a very different kind of poem about a bear several years ago, a lament that became part of my first short collection Human Shade. But the more I stared at this “dame” with a pistol in her hands, the more she and the bloody-clawed bear behind her seemed to fuse in my mind.

Valerie and I found some old excess footage, now in the public domain, from a Los Angeles film studio in the 1950s, and we put this together with road, wind, and bear noises as accompaniment. So this new film-poem was born.


Citizen of Poetry

Cactus BlossomI spent fourteen months in England, working hard to make the odd feel normal. When what is foreign feels odd, it is understandable. But when what was formerly normal now feels odd, that is perhaps the oddest feeling of all.

I now find myself, back in the US for a brief visit, ambling through coastal California towns taking snapshots — both mentally and with my iPhone — that a British tourist might take: cactus blossom, stars and stripes, the shimmering coastline. The very scenery of my childhood and early adulthood has become an archaeological dig.

The “shock” in the phenomenon of reverse culture shock occurs while driving, when I turn at an empty intersection and there is a momentary flash, in that between-lanes space, where I have to think hard to remember which side of the road I should be turning into.

Yet I always make the turn. There is a way in which intersection has become more the norm, and made the counter-shock less shocking than I feared. Sucking on a chili-covered lollipop from Jalisco, Mexico while sipping a mug of English tea, it occurs to me that I have always lived in the interstices of cultures — first on the US-Mexico border, and now as an American in England.

More and more, I feel both “at home” and “on vacation” wherever I go. Although my formative experiences will always make me an American, the context through which I relate to the world has expanded beyond my sun-drenched beginnings. For me, this is the place where poems come from — in fascinated relation to the world at large, through moments of specificity.

Perhaps, in this sense, my travels have made me a citizen of Poetry — that state governed by aesthetic appreciation of human affairs, where the tax is repaid on one’s attention by the ability to abide in liminal mysteries, living deeply, line by line.


An American Werewolf in London

“Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.”

-Allen Ginsberg

The train that galloped up to the platform this morning, normally crammed with humanity, was empty but for the discarded newspapers lining the window ledges. I thought I had missed the memo about the start of the zombie apocalypse. Turns out the kids have gone back to school, and the tourists have gone home. So I spent some time on my morning commute thinking about the similarities between poets and werewolves.

Culture, like poetry, is so often about what gets transmitted between the lines. It is not, I decided, the bankers and CEOs who normally sit across from me on the train who hold the most cultural power. What we learn on our mothers’ laps goes deep, to a visceral level. What gets passed down, mother to child through generations, forms the culture of a people. Mothers, therefore, are also “unacknowledged legislators” creating and replicating the very “operating system” of a society — its culture.

Moving from California to London certainly feels like I have switched operating systems. Apart from the obvious fumbling as I seek to find where they’ve moved the new buttons and menus, this shake-up gives me the opportunity to discover what is universal among computers — er — people. Contrast is one powerful way to heighten perception and uncover commonality in the quest for what is essentially human.

I have also discovered, however, that poets are not entirely human. Continue reading…


Poetry as Anthropology

We come in peace

I curled open the first pages of The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry expecting to find an introduction like so many others to this type of book — full of generic exuberance for the editors’ generation. Instead, Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion (I assume the introduction was written by both) made the following observations in 1982, which still seem directionally interesting nearly thirty years on. They wrote that, “…as a way of making the familiar strange again, they [contemporary British poets] have exchanged the received idea of poet as the-person-next-door, or knowing insider, for the attitude of the anthropologist or alien invader or remembering exile.”

While the enthusiasm for Martian persona poetry by Craig Raine and Christopher Reid seems like a hyperbolic extension of this principle, the idea of poet-as-anthropologist I find not only fascinating, but useful in understanding contemporary poetry on both sides of the Atlantic. In particular, it seems to answer “what comes next?” after a glut of confessional writing. They address this, as well, directly:

This development has been antipathetic to the production of a candidly personal poetry. Most of the devices developed by young poets are designed to emphasize the gap between themselves and their subjects. The poets are — to borrow a phrase from Seamus Heaney’s ‘Exposure’ — ‘inner emigrés’: not inhabitants of their own live so much as intrigued observers, not victims but onlookers, not poets working in a confessional white heat but dramatists and story-tellers.

Continue reading…