Writing About Poetry, Victoria’s Secret Models, and Dogs

0375503803.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins ★★★★
Source: Municipal Library
Edition: Random House (2001), Hardcover, 192 pages
Awards & Distinctions: ALA Notable Books for Adults
Original publication date: 2001

I’m not a natural to poetry; I really have to make a special effort to make time for it and pay attention to it and work at appreciating it, which is odd, because I have my quiet and unexpressed poetic way of looking at the world, but too often the language of individual poets is obscure to me, the imagery too specific or too filled with references I don’t understand, rhythms I can’t pick up on, moods I’m not in tune with. Billy Collins is new to me, and I decided to give this poetry collection a try after seeing a few of his best poems on one of my LT buddy’s threads. This collection gathers some “new” selections (as of 2001), as well as older ones from collections from The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988), Questions About Angels (1991) The Art of Drowning (1995), and Picnic, Lightning (1998), the latter of which includes one of my absolute favourites poems by Collins, which my buddy Joe transcribed in full on one of his threads, called Victoria’s Secret. It’s rather long, so here are just the first three of nine verses:

Victoria’s Secret

The one in the upper left-hand corner
is giving me a look
that says I know you are here
and I have nothing better to do
for the remainder of human time
than return your persistent but engaging stare.
She is wearing a deeply scalloped
flame-stitch halter top
with padded push-up styling
and easy side-zip tap pants.

The one on the facing page, however,
who looks at me over her bare shoulder,
cannot hide the shadow of annoyance in her brow.
You have interrupted me,
she seems to be saying,
with your coughing and your loud music.
Now please leave me alone;
Let me finish whatever it was I was doing
in my organza-trimmed
whisperweight camisole with
keyhole closure and a point d’esprit mesh back.

I wet my thumb and flip the page.
Here, the one who happens to be reclining
in a satin and lace merry widow
with an inset lace-up front,
decorated underwire cups and bodice with lace ruffles along the bottom
and hook-and-eye closure in the back,
is wearing a slightly contorted expression,
her head thrust back, mouth partially open,
a confusing mixture or pain and surprise
as if she had stepped on a tack
just as I was breaking down
her bedroom door with my shoulder.

What appealed tremendously to me about this particular poem I guess is I heard an inner voice, or was it the voice of my own mother maybe, who has a mean sense of humour and has always liked to put words in the mouths of the models on the glossy magazines we always had laying around the house, so there was something familiar about it, which took nothing away from the humour of it, and just made it all that more engaging in fact. Collins often writes poems about the process of writing poetry which are surprisingly appealing. There’s often a sense of playfulness in his work, though in his “new” work, there is more talk of death, since it seems he lost his mother around 2001 and was quite understandably more focused on themes of death and dying, but not always. My favourite poem from that particular collection is about a dog and like so much of his work, just seems so spot on:


The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.


Thrills and Frissons, Gothic Style

dragonwyckDragonwyck by Anya Seton ★★★★½
Chicago Review Press (2005), Paperback, 352 pages

I kept the lights on till 3 a.m. yesterday (or should I say today?) to finish Dragonwyck by Anya Seton. I’ve written just a handful of reviews this year, though I started on quite a few, but it seems only the ones that get written spontaneously and completely off the cuff get to see the light of day, while those I set to write as ‘proper’ reviews seem to remain in draft limbo forever. I had a phone conversation today with my mum who lives in France, and when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas this year, her request was for more regular blog posts (our family, such as it is, has never gone for Holiday Shopping Madness, as you can see) so I took the hint and decided I might as well start today. Though I don’t promise I’ll be posting every day, I will try my best to do so at the very least once a week or more. In any case, while there are those few other reviews I’ve written and posted on Library Thing recently which I will also post here very soon (not to mention those I really do want to write, or finish writing), here is the catch of the day:

This novel felt like a delightful guilty pleasure. To set the tone, it opens on the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe, Alone:

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone.
Then- in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life- was drawn
From every depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that round me rolled
In its autumn tint of gold,
From the lightning in the sky
As it passed me flying by,
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

This is an unabashedly romantic, creepy story set in the 1840s with overblown characters who are almost parodies of themselves, including a Byronic male anti-hero in the form of Nicholas Van Ryn; a male paragon of dark good looks with disconcertingly piercing cerulean eyes; descendant of a long line of immensely wealthy Dutch landowners, who is the current ‘patroon’ of a large tract of land along the Hudson river and the developing city of New York. Nicholas, the archetypal control freak, fully occupies the role of domineering master and self-contained enigma who keeps all those around him in a state of fear and dread of his ever shifting moods. The innocent and unsophisticated Miranda is the submissive heroine who falls into her distant cousin Nicholas’ clutches when he invites the young maiden to Dragonwyck manor with a view to form the erstwhile farm girl into a proper society lady. She leaves her strictly devout father and hardworking mother and siblings to their small farm and poverty to fully embrace the kind of lifestyle she has so far only read about in novels. She eagerly takes to the life of splendour and luxury and doesn’t too much mind being a nanny to Nicholas’ little girl. She falls under his spell the moment she meets him, with his alluring combination of physical beauty, irreproachable courtly manner, and fabulous wealth, but there is also the not so small matter of keeping in the good favours of his wife, the morbidly obese Joanna, who insists on treating the girl like a servant. There are of course macabre secrets contained in this vast gothic mansion, though (tiny spoiler, which any observing reader will have figured out early on:) Nicholas himself is the novel’s dangerous enigma. Some of the core events which provide the framework for the novel are based on historical facts, such as the anti-rent wars, the Astor Place massacre and a great steamboat race which is closely modelled on a competition undertook by Cornelius Vanderbilt and his eponymous steamship in 1847.

My edition contains an afterword by Philippa Gregory, who claims Anya Seton probably didn’t realize how strongly influenced by Jane Eyre she was in this, her second novel, but I beg to differ. Surely it can’t be an accident that her heroine, just as innocent and meek as Jane Eyre, comes to live in the capacity of governess in a great gothic house complete with what may be a haunted Red Room and a repulsive first wife . There are other parallels with Charlotte Brontë’s novel I cannot mention without revealing spoilers, but while I don’t mean to imply Dragonwyck is in the order of masterpieces such as Jane Eyre is, it definitely makes for a good helping of thrills and frissons, delivering a hearty dose of unabashedly Gothic horror and romance (not to mention a visit to Edgar Allan Poe and his dying wife’s impoverished household). For all these reasons, I count this novel among the most entertaining I’ve read this year.

The Stolen Child

I suppose if I’m going to start somewhere, then W. B. Yeats isn’t a bad place to begin gaining an appreciation for poetry. No thanks to whoever my English and French teachers were in high school (there were lots of schools, lots of teachers), poetry seemed like something mostly technical  which required lots of memorizing, both things I’ve never had an interest in, and which left me unwilling to dwell into verse any longer than was strictly necessary. A shame really, though of course it’s never too late to begin again.

Yeats was unknown to me before, other than by name and reputation, until I picked up a couple of great little audiobooks featuring some of his most beloved poems accompanied with biographical comments putting them into context. Hearing poetry read aloud by talented readers is probably one surefire way to gain a new appreciation for it. Then I found a lovely little book, W. B. Yeats: Poems Selected by Seamus Heaney, part of Faber and Faber’s 80th Anniversary Collection published in 2009. The following poem will no doubt end up on my list of all-time favourite poems one day:

The Stolen Child by W. B. Yeats

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand. Continue reading