Sunday, September 28, 2008

Poetic tribute to Paul Newman


(In memory of Paul Newman, who died in 2008, at 83)


This Is Not an Elegy
by Catherine Pierce

At sixteen, I was illegal and brilliant,
my fingernails chewed to half-moons.
I took off my clothes in a late March
field. I had secret car wrecks,
secret hysteria. I opened my mouth
to swallow stars. In backseats
I learned the alchemy of guilt, lust,
and distance. I was unformed and total.
I swore like a sailor. But slowly the cops
stopped coming around. The heat lifted
its palms. The radio lost some teeth.

Now I see the landscape behind me
as through a Claude glass—
tinted deeper, framed just so, bits
of gilt edging the best parts.
I see my unlined face, a thousand
film stars behind the eyes. I was
every murderess, every whip-
thin alcoholic, every heroine
with the silver tongue. Always young
Paul Newman’s best girl. Always
a lightning sky behind each kiss.

Some days I watch myself
in the third person, speak to her
in the second. I say: I will
meet you in sleep. I will know you
by your stillness and your shaking.
By your second-hand gown.
By your bruises left by mouths
since forgotten. This is not
an elegy because I cannot bear
for it to be. It is only a tree branch
against the window. It is only a cherry
tomato slowly reddening in the garden.
I will put it in my mouth. It will
be sweet, and you will swallow.

from Blackbird 5.1 (Spring 2006).


This poem, written in 2006, is not really an elegy for Paul Newman.  It mentions his name, and with his recent demise from cancer this year, we at Puisi-Poesy feel it is so apropos to remembering him; because it is about being young, about growing old, and not regretting life lived.

This elegy – or not – starts off as about being young (“at sixteen”), at a period in life when the poet had gone past pubescence and was reaching adulthood. That’s when she rebelled against authority (“the cops”). Then she’d act recklessly (“took off my clothes in a late March/field”). She’d wish she could wreck cars and have hysterics. But the extent is having sex – or near sex – at the back of cars. She’d act with bravado and “swore like a sailor” till the adults saw fit to leave her alone. She’d get jaded easily, by music (“The radio lost some teeth.”)

For all this, the poet realises she is not sixteen anymore. She only sees the world though tinted glass, paying attention only to the view she prefers (“framed just so, bits/of gilt edging the best parts.”). In this mirror she only sees her “unlined face”. The wrinkles are just “a thousand/film stars behind the eyes.” She’s an adult now, so she wants to become “every murderess, every whip-/thin alcoholic, every heroine/with the silver tongue. Always young/Paul Newman’s best girl.”

She now stands back and takes stock of herself, as a much older person, with lots of real, not imagined experiences, which leave behind scars, emotional or otherwise (“By your bruises left by mouths/since forgotten”).

Despite any pain, from experiences and ageing (“your stillness and your shaking”), she is not beaten yet nor fazed; because her life lived is not a lament, “not/an elegy because I cannot bear/for it to be.”

In the end she celebrates life, as the last five lines of the poem attest. In the end, too, life is like “cherry/tomato”, “which “will/be sweet”, and which “you will swallow”, just like she will open her “mouth/to swallow stars.”, as when she was young.

Catherine Pierce’s poetry collection Famous Last Words came out earlier this year in January. It won the 2007 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Back in 2004 her chapbook Animals of Habit (Kent State 2004) won the Wick Chapbook competition.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Yusuf said...

Good grief this poem is seriously brilliant!

4:36 PM, September 28, 2008  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Thanks Leon. Enjoyed this very much.

The first line "At sixteen, I was illegal and brilliant" already announces its brilliance, capturing so well the exciting, dangerous possibilities of youth. Then, as you noted, the poem moves on in time and age...

I read the lines "a thousand
film stars behind the eyes", as a metaphor for the many roles and 'fantasy' roles the speaker has played out in her life, the star (the actor) of those 'moving pictures' of life. The phrase "behind the eyes" also wonderfully captures both the the sense of having s/been through those experiences, and the the present 'seeing' them now as behind, in the past.

I really love the line "By your bruises left by mouths
since forgotten" - those former lovers whose lips that have been kissed, and the pain that they have left behind. Both the tactile and emotional bruising comes to bear.

The last seven to five lines also 'wow'. I agree that there's a celebration of life, a life that has been lived, that of the red cherry ripening and it being sweet, but it is juxtaposed by her addressing herself in the second person, and the starkness of swallowing, instead of savouring its sweetness, is a bittersweetness at the end. Also, considering the image of the tree branch against the window, suggestive of something broken off, fallen, ot stuck that partially blocks the clear view through the window. Together, the images and the ideas conjure up a mixed feeling that is for me, a bit sad and beautiful at the same time, close to an elegy, of the poem's title.

Thanks again, Leon, for such a timely and astute choice. I will be hard pressed to find something nice next to share. :)

5:56 PM, September 28, 2008  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Thanks, Yusuf, for coming in here to read us. Glad you like the poem.

Yes, DI, it was timely - I got the poem in my post the next morning, after hearing about Newman the previous night. The poem got to me, so I tot I had to put it in PP. So, this time I didn't go into too much of the technicalities and went straight into showing you what the poem is trying to convey.

8:13 AM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Yup, I know, to put it quickly to mark the occasion. :) ... and that Paul Newman should be immortalized as an image of an ideal guy.

Anyway, as you might have noted, I read the poem slightly differently though.

4:13 PM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Yes, noted, good on you. There are always layers upon layers of interpretation in a good poem, so that it is often a good idea not to read into anything too literally.

Dig deep, to unearth the meanings.

8:37 AM, September 30, 2008  

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