Monday, 9 March 2015

Poems for Spring

Every year, some time in February or March, depending on the vagaries of the English weather, there comes a sunny day when I walk through the Castle Grounds and smell flowery perfume on a warm breeze, and every year I think ‘how wonderful, spring is on the way’.

Doubtlessly there’s a very logical explanation, because strongly perfumed flowers are already in bloom, like this mahonia, which smells rather honeyish, like oilseed rape perhaps:

Or this little creamy white bloom that I think is sweet box – to start with, because of the perfume, I thought it might be some strange kind of jasmine, even though the flower is not right for that. But, like jasmine, it seems to perfume the air for a good distance around:
Anyway, I’m always reminded 0f Carl Sandburg’s poem Blossom Themes, which encapsulates that moment when the first flowers begin to appear and you realise winter is on the wane…

Late in the winter came one day
When there was a whiff on the wind,
a suspicion, a cry not to be heard
of perhaps blossoms, perhaps green
 grass and clean hills lifting rolling shoulders.
Does the nose get the cry of spring
first of all? is the nose thankful
and thrilled first of all?
If the blossoms come down
so they must fall on snow
because spring comes this year
before winter is gone,
then both snow and blossoms look sad:
peaches, cherries, the red summer apples,
all say it is a hard year.
The wind has its own way of picking off
the smell of peach blossoms and then
carrying that smell miles and miles.
Women washing dishes in lonely, farmhouses
stand at the door and say, “Something is
A little foam of the summer sea
of blossoms,
a foam finger of white leaves,
shut these away—
high into the summer wind runners.
Let the wind be white too.

I love that first stanza, with the ‘whiff on the wind’ and the ‘perhaps blossoms’ and the thought that of all the senses it’s smell that recognises spring first, rather than sight, or sound.
And this year I discovered Kathleen Jamie’s poem, The Dash, which also seems to capture the magic of that moment when the year turns, though for her the arrival of spring is heralded by a pair of birds returning to Scotland after wintering somewhere warmer. But the sense of joy is the same, and the feeling of exhilaration that a longed-for event has finally arrived, and I think it’s interesting that Sandburg and Jamie both have the wind blowing spring in quite suddenly – there’s no gradual creeping-in of a new season.

Every mid-February
those first days arrive
when the sun rises
higher than the Black
Hill at last. Brightness
and a crazy breeze
course from the same airt -
turned clods gleam, the trees’
topmost branches bend
shivering downwind.
They chase, this lithe pair
out of the far south
west, and though scalding
to our wintered eyes
look; we cry, it’s here

This poem comes from her collection The Overhaul, which I finally got round to buying because I enjoyed ‘Findings’ and ‘Sightlines’ so much – these two books both contain essays, or reflections, mainly on nature and wild things, and Jamie’s prose is beautifully lyrical, as she uses animals, birds, found objects as a kind of focus to comment on life. I thought they were wonderful, but Jamie is primarily a poet, and I have been meaning to explore her poetry for quite a while, but was wary, because I’d read reviews complaining that her use of Scottish dialect words made her work difficult to understand.

I admit some kind of glossary would be useful, but even if you don’t appreciates the fine  nuances in her choice of words it’s not that difficult to grasp her meaning, and there’s always Google – I know lots of people don’t like it, but I found airt without any trouble, and now know it has to do with direction, as in the compass.

She’s very much a nature poet, who observes creatures and landscapes, and she has a wonderful and unusual way with words and language, that makes you look afresh at the world around you, and think about it in a different fashion. ‘Wintered eyes’, for example, is such an unlikely pairing, yet it’s absolutely right, describing how tired and jaded we feel after a long, hard winter, and how different the world (and our view of it) becomes when spring arrives, bringing the hope of better things ahead. 

The poems need to be read slowly, and thought about, one at a time, so that’s what I’m doing, and so far I’m enjoying them very much, and looking forward to reading more of her work in the future.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Dud Avocado

I had high hopes of The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy, which I bought because it is a Virago Modern Classic, and because the blurb on the back made it sound so enticing:
Sally Jay Gorce, is a woman with a mission. It’s the 1950s, she’s young, she’s in Paris, she’s dyed her hair pink, she’s wearing an evening dress at eleven o’clock in the morning, and she’s seldom had more fun. Having made a vow to go native in a way the natives never had the stamina for, she’s busy getting drunk, having affairs, losing money, losing jewellery, and losing God knows what.
And the opening was promising…
It was a hot, peaceful optimistic sort of day in September. It was about eleven in the morning I remember and I was drifting down the Boulevard St. Michel thoughts rising in my head like little puffs of smoke when suddenly a voice bellowed into my ear …
But thereafter I was disappointed: the book failed to please me, and I’m not quite sure why. It’s well written, the characters are well drawn, and I didn’t hate it. To be honest I don’t think I could even say I disliked it – it didn’t evoke any strong emotions in me. It’s just not my sort of book I guess, and I wouldn’t read it again.
It is, as I’m sure most people know, a classic rites of passage book written by Elaine Dundy, an American actress who married British theatre critic Ken Tynan. It is supposed to be based on Dundy’s own experiences living in Paris (before she met Tynan), but she said: “When I got stuck, I would say to myself, 'What would I not do?' and then I would have Sally Jay do it, and I would be off again."
Sally Jay (generally known as Gorce) is a serial runaway, who is in Paris thanks to her Uncle Roger. When she was 13 he promised her two years of freedom once she has graduated from college – providing she doesn’t run away again. He’ll pay her a monthly allowance, and she can go anywhere she likes, and do anything she likes.
At that point what she wants is to stay out as late as she likes, and eat whatever she likes any time she wants. And she doesn’t want to be introduced to all the mothers and fathers and brothers of the girls at school. She doesn’t want to meet anyone she’s been introduced to.   She wants to meet all the other people and do exciting things and sharpen her wits…
So now Sally Jay, an actress, is in Paris, grabbing every new experience she can. She has a lover, an Italian diplomat named Teddy (they met when she stepped out in front of his car) who takes her to the Ritz, and a circle of oddball acquaintances, who all seem to be outsiders, on the edge of society. They’re not exactly down and outs, but they live a hand to mouth existence. Then there’s Larry Keevil, who was on a drama course with Sally Jay back home in America, and she meets him again and falls in love. But Larry turns out to be very nasty indeed…
The novel rushes along from one episode to another, and there’s a host of entertaining characters to accompany our zany heroine, and on the surface everything is very light and frothy, and often very funny. But there are darker undertones, and some scenes are quite disturbing.
At times the book, written in 1958, reminded me of JD Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, which was published seven years earlier – something to do with the tone perhaps, or the style, or the portrayal of disaffected youth with its hatred of anything phony. For all her outrageous behaviour Sally Jay, like Holden Caulfield, is something of innocent and, like him, she doesn’t really grow or learn from her experiences. She has no thought for the future, and lives for the moment. She’s very bright, and despite the kooky, confident, cynical persona she’s created for herself she’s oddly passive – things happen to her, and she accepts the situation, and goes with the flow, rarely making decisions or initiating action.
The period is wrong, but she could almost be a younger version of a Jean Rhys heroine, before life has saddened her and the promise of good times ahead has disappeared: think of Sasha in 'Good Morning', Midnight. Rhys is far bleaker and grittier, but Dundy’s Paris carries the same sense of seediness and failure, despite the lightness and humour.
And although the ending ought to be described as happy, I can’t for a moment imagine it will be. Sally Jay doesn’t strike me as being a happy-after-person. Each time she meets a new man, or a new situation, she thinks ‘this is it’. But it never lasts. Whatever she does, she never quite fits in, and things never quite work out. There’s a passage early on the book where Sally Jay says:
I was still wearing the evening dress I had in when I’d met Larry that morning, and the funny thing about was that, even though twelve hours had elapsed since then, it still wasn’t particularly appropriate. I mean, I really felt I could expect it to be correct attire at some point of the day – like a watch that has stopped, eventually just happening to have its hands at the right time.
Somehow I felt that symbolised her life, and she’s never going to be correct, or happy, or satisfied.
Jim McDermott's portrait of Elaine Dundy.