Poetic tribute to Paul Newman
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.