This is the last poem that made it into my new book, just as the publishers and printers were calling time. It’s a definite Summer of 2013 snapshot.
When I wrote it, all these things were in the air: the David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A; BOWIEOKE (David Bowie karaoke) at The Betsy Trotwood, and the BOWIEVIRUS exhibition by David Sims at the ICA, where a friend challenged me to write a poem about one of the works in the show. I chose this image and wrote the poem quite quickly. There were only one or two handwritten drafts before I typed it up, and just a minor bit of biro twiddling on the typescript after that.
AS THEY PULLED YOU OUT OF THE OXYGEN TENT / YOU ASKED FOR THE LATEST PARTY¹
Of all our friends, he’s the one
most serious about the art of fancy dress.
Every cupboard in his flat is stuffed
with bags of outfits and face-paint,
feathered half-masks and costume diamonds².
Once, before a Monochrome Ball³,
we fed him penny liquorice chews4
to change the red bell5 of his mouth to black;
and if the dress code is drag, our tallest girl
lends him her highest heels6 and he’ll stand
all night at an angle slightly off from true
with the muscles bunching in his back
and fire in the arches of his feet7.
Tonight, the theme is Saints and Sinners8.
Wearing only dark high-waisted trousers,
he is topless and his skin we say
is markedly pale as that of a Charolais calf9.
Ask him who he is. He’s Sebastian10,
a half an hour before the arrows hit11.
In eight places, we can see his heart beat12.
1 – ‘you asked for the latest party’ – A line from Bowie’s Diamond Dogs of course, decontextualised. It seemed to speak a little of the self-sacrificial subject I was after.
2 – ‘Every cupboard in his flat is stuffed / with bags of outfits and face-paint / feathered half-masks and costume diamonds’ – Chain of F sounds which comes to an abrupt, hard halt with the C and D of the ‘costume diamonds.
3 – ‘Monochrome Ball’ – I was thinking of Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball – but I couldn’t use the word ‘black’ as I wanted that for later on, to describe the mouth.
4 – ‘penny liquorice chews’ – I worked in an arts centre where Kaos Theatre’s version of Caligula’s story was performed. The actor playing Caligula ate Black Jacks before every show to turn his mouth black and nasty.
5 – ‘red bell of his mouth to black’ – I wanted a word that described something hollow yet sounding … and ‘bell’ and ‘black’ sounded good together too.
6 – ‘our tallest girl / lends him his highest heel’ – ‘Tallest girl’ and ‘highest heel’ share the same rhythm, on purpose.
7 – ‘fire in the arches of his feet’ – When I was in the 6th form, we all went to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show in costume – that’s where the shoe-provision idea comes from.
8 – ‘Tonight, the theme is Saints and Sinners’ – A short sentence, to vary the pace after a great big long one.
9 – ‘markedly pale as that of a Charolais calf’ – ‘Markedly pale’ and ‘Charolais calf’ share the same odd rhythm, like I’m putting too many notes into a bar. I played around a lot in the drafts with those two phrases to make them match.
10 – ‘He’s Sebastian’ – I remember my brother getting flustered in fancy dress when he was very little, asking the crowds to ask him who he was.
11 – ‘half an hour before the arrows hit’ – Saint Sebastian, usually depicted in art and literature as being martyred in a flight of arrows. At some point he must have known that this was about to happen to him. Is the poem about Saint Sebastian? Sorta. Is the poem about David Bowie? Kinda. Is the poem about the person who pushes their art or existence to extremes, at cost to themselves, so we might all benefit? Well, that’s what I think.
12 – ‘In eight places, we can see his heart beat’ – I did some research about how many places you can take a pulse on a body, and it’s eight. It seems to me that those places are where the soul is closest to the surface, the most vulnerable to attack. ‘Beat’ and ‘hit’ rhyme, pretty much – two words tied together to make a single target.
Julia Bird is the Head of Programmes at the Poetry School, and she also produces touring poetry shows through her own organisation Jaybird Live Literature. ‘As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent …’ is published in her second collection Twenty-four Seven Blossom which came out with Salt in September 2013.
How I Did It invites poets to read carefully through one of their own poems, guiding readers through the drafting and editing process that would otherwise be hidden.