Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The death of poetry?

After directing a friend to the pomo-generator, I noticed that its author has recently constructed a poetry machine generated with samples of adolescent poetry (shudder). My late wife, Carin Perron (Carrie to her friends) was a great poet. Now, of course, every spouse or parent says such things, but I do not exaggerate: she placed in the top three in the Bournemouth International Festival three years in a row in blind judging. The last year she won top place and all three of the prominent British poets who judged the entries then sent her copies of their books in appreciation. She decided that would be a good time to stop entering. She submitted far fewer poems for publication than most poets, but some of her poems appeared in prestigious journals of English literature. Her poem about Anne Morrow Lindbergh was read to its subject by a close friend when Anne was lying on her death bed (it was one of the winning poems). I intend to publish her complete works someday, even though her MS for the same was left unfinished.

 fantasy preparatory drawing
by Carin Perron
I will tell you how we first met, as it is pertinent to the topic. I had been acting in an experimental theatre piece produced by Charles Porlier called The Black Castle. It combined Gothic horror with audience participation and a set which was like a carnival haunted house on steroids. The audience were taken by the castle's tour-guide through a state of the art set with special effects and a number of professional actors. It was immensely popular and was held over for a second month. Charles is a prosthetic makeup genius and later worked on Robin Williams' Jumanjii. After helping to build sets and a few days in a minor role, I was promoted to one of the two actors playing the tour guide. The other tour guide was Scott McClelland  who is the epitome of the traditional carny and showman. I did quite well and one night Charles came to the dressing room to tell me to go outside and greet my fans who were waiting to see just me. The line-up stretched down the block. Scott and I had very different styles, competed with each other, but became great friends. I modeled my own character "Trelawney" after a combination of Robert Newton's Long John Silver and Gregory Peck's Ahab. I was a method actor and often found it difficult to get out of the role after the performance.

It was Scott's birthday party. As Scott was rather younger, most of the guests were quite young too, but his parents were also there. I kept noticing this girl who kept smiling at me but said nothing. She was younger than me, but older than Scott. I found it rather strange. I imagined that she was a younger friend of Scott's parents but she looked European and I thought that perhaps she did not speak English. After a while, she did approach me when I was in the kitchen to apologize for staring at me. She said "I thought you were a person whom I had been writing poems about for a few years". Sometimes, you make an involuntary movement. I took a sudden step backwards and bumped into the fridge. Desperate to show that she was not some sort of lunatic, Carrie then started talking about the technicalities of writing poetry and told me that she had been a teacher at Scott's high school. After the party, we went to an all night coffee shop and talked until dawn.

She wrote little about our family life, or herself for that matter, always wanting to look externally, but here's the poem she did write about our family. As per her wishes, I read it at her memorial service. She passed away after a three year battle with terminal breast cancer:

Domestic Epiphanies

It just doesn't get any better than this,
this slice of heavenly pie-in-the-sky, neatly cut
and lowered on noiseless and well-oiled wheels,

and I feel luckier than I deserve, relishing these homey times,
some quiet, some full of bustle, when the ordinary slips smoothly,
imperceptibly, into transcendent, crystalline moments—
in the twinkling of an eye,

and I sit quietly and watch from a distance,
and relive, in these wondrous tableaux, my childhood—
the way I always wanted it to be,

and I marvel at how little it takes
to set each perfect scene:

Three spoons in their communal plate,
three girls at the table, eagerly stand, hungrily
waiting for the first smooth hot mounds
of freshly-made pease porridge...

Or, my daughter, calling me to come and feel
her loose tooth, almost-but-not-quite ready to come out;

Later, after secret bustlings,
she ushers us to a low table set for two:
on a square of black felt, white coral ribbed like mushroom-gills,
a dried rose, two brandy glasses of milk—and in the dazzling sun,
a candle, just for show.

Or, going to bed, and Daisy, a kitten now half-grown,
curls up beside me, warm and soft and purring low,
looking up with lucid, intelligent eyes...

Or, with old friends in winter-time, among the comfort
of mulled wine, laughter, and slow conversation;

Or, just sitting sleepily, Saturday morning, at the smooth white
kitchen table, eating oatmeal, warm and sweet and milky,
and my husband turns on the radio,
and we listen to old songs on Max Ferguson,

eating the porridge, so wonderfully haunting and warm,
as it lies quietly in pools of cool milk,
and my daughter pronounces it delicious,
which it is, and I want it all to last,

and it does. The leftover dribble of milk on a saucer
is converged on by cats, sleek and gray and black and white,

and I float back to my own warm bowl,
wondering when this is all going to end,

but it doesn't end;

and I wonder if it's all this simple,
if Mona Lisa was simply happy at home,
with a good man, good children,
a lovely bright kitchen, and in back,
a quiet garden waiting for her;

Was she just happy to sit in the slanting, golden afternoon light,
and be painted, her plump hands shiny and smooth from making bread
and scrubbing tiles and folding sheets, fully content to just exist,
like a lovely thing, resting palm upon wrist, doing nothing
but sitting and not-quite smiling?

Did she feel lucky, too; was she glad of this special golden quiet,
knowing that nothing out there was any less happy than this;
knowing she had only to get up, and smooth out the folds
of her dark, simple dress, and walk down the long, sunny streets
towards home?

No matter; for there she sits, with that look of confounding content—
and I am she, a woman as pleased in her skin as a cat,
just happy to be where I sit, or happy to get up and smooth down my skirt
and walk the bright road towards home—

and it doesn't much matter which.


  1. Hi John, Always sad to remember things past, but a beautiful poem that reflects an understanding of how women can be happy in their world, contentment is often forgotten in the lexicon of our lives....

  2. Hi Thelma, Sadness is transient, but beauty remains. It has been more than ten years since her death. I thought that I was over the grief after three years, but I found that I was doing much better in the fourth year. Of course, this is just one perspective and I think of Queen Victoria mourning the loss of Albert (forever?).

    The key line and part of the reason, I think, that she wanted the poem read at her memorial service was:

    the way I always wanted it to be

    Her mother was a classic narcissist. Carrie's stories of her childhood reminded me of Dickens. Her cleverness and skills were something her parents brought out for visitors to impress them as if Carrie was a trained monkey. They frequently even forgot her birthday. Her mother always hated me but liked Carrie's former, abusive and controlling , husband.

    My own childhood was far better but it had its moments. I think the best of us raises our children with a mind of not repeating the wrongs we had experienced, while those devastated by their past say "if it was good enough for me..." and the cycle of abuse continues. Our daughter is a happy, talented and successful woman with a good husband, a happy home and two great kids. We must have done something right.

    Men can sometimes reach that state of contentment, but not always, and most often later in life. I feel that way quite often and actively reject that which tries to destroy it.

    I'll post a few more of her poems from time to time.

    Sometimes I think that my life was written by Robertson Davies -- like the Deptford trilogy: