One Thursday afternoon in May 2014, I left my Poetry School class and headed to Waterloo for the train home. On Lower Marsh, I bumped into my friend Alice, who I had not seen for quite some time. With her was Margot, her small daughter whose father is a close friend of mine, the poet Wayne Holloway-Smith (Egham and Swindon are where they are from).
I had not encountered Margot before. When she was a baby, she had a tendency to rest her head on her fists, as I do in one of my author photos. It became a running joke between Alice and Wayne that she looked a bit like me.
Alice and I talked for a while, as Margot jumped around, as toddlers do. Then I headed back to Blackheath Village where I used to live, found the only piece of paper I had on me (the envelope which the poet Fran Lock’s manuscript had been in, which was in my bag), bought a beer and sat in a local pub and wrote this, pretty much in one draft. I later gave the original hand-written draft to Fran, and it has the end written (with the word END) halfway down one side of the envelope, in the middle of the rest of it, as I had thought about the poem on the train and had the last few lines already in mind.
What am I ‘doing’ in this poem? Well, being sentimental, yes. I liked Margot. I like Wayne and Alice. I had been writing (lots of) strange short poems as part of a 100 poem sequence. As a riposte to these, more straightforward narrative or lyric poems began to appear on the side. It was a period of bustly creativity – I seemed to be writing a poem a day, sometimes more. There is nothing much going on here formally. The length is important – I wanted it to be a certain length which could incorporate the narrative plus my own thoughts on what happened. I wanted to indulge myself a little, to overstay my welcome in the poem – I’ve been long term concussed after a head injury and that condition makes you somewhat selfish and over self-aware.
It’s quite a clipped poem – with a stuttering, clausy style, mirroring thought. And it’s somewhat confessional. What’s it about? Envy, childlessness. Residual love for someone, regret of loving too few, too little. And the protective and heart-pulling feelings a beautiful child can provoke. I made few changes after the first draft. I do remember changing ‘anyone’ to ‘any dog’ – I’m not sure why a dog would be on a ledge threatening to jump, but I guess it’s just about possible.
The poem uses what I might call ‘discursive shifts’ – I’d been reading the wonderful Chicagoan poet Marianne Boruch, who employs that technique a lot and her influence is clear to me in this piece. I’m happy to use familiar diction here – ‘busy day’, ‘each minute’, ‘does very little’. That’s fine in this sort of piece, but is the sort of phrasing I would fuss with and knock out of poems in another style. So it’s sentiment plus shifting. Plus a turn – ‘Luck dances as you dance’ steps out of the narrative into something a little more abstract.
And yes, I am going for the emotional effect at the end, not without heartfelt reason. I was really touched by the moment – shaking Margot’s hand. The phrase ‘To be that’ is a little dip in sense too – to be what? Well, to be in that moment. The poem, as does much of my recent work, uses the practise of repetitions – lots of I’s and you’s, ‘your mother’ and ‘your mother’, the thats at the end. I felt both warm and awkward writing this poem – I worried whether the people involved – Alice, Wayne, and the someone who is mentioned halfway in, would rather be elsewhere than in my poem.
Poets never admit to this, but when a poet writes something they like, they sit and reread it, over and over, not rewriting necessarily, but because the poem feels like a physical part of them that has dropped off and so they stare and stare with terror and longing and a sort of love. I’ve re-read this poem a silly amount. I think it is working. ‘Be careful.’ And yes, Margot, it was a day of remark.
On First Meeting Margot
When you were born, they said
you looked like me – as if – if only –
but now I see your Daddy’s eyes
right away, and think how fond I am
of him, as you twist around
your mother, pranking, having a busy day.
And your mother is still bringing off
the perfection, as she ever has.
Margot, I’m concussed. One day
you’ll know what that means. Each minute,
or so, I tell myself, beneath my breath,
‘be careful’. Today I counted the people
I truly love and didn’t use too many fingers.
I can’t play the classical guitar, have never
slalomed and rum does very little for me.
I’m still in love with someone
who is growing uncomfortable with that.
I have limited patience for theatre,
of the real or metaphorical sorts.
Excuse me, Margot, I am introducing myself
somewhat awkward, but you seem
anyhow to prefer spinning round Mummy,
more than my persuasive interference.
Your shy smile is the best of it.
You will talk any dog off a ledge.
You will shuck both Egham and Swindon,
being the new breed. Luck dances
as you dance. All will be all will be best.
I will mend as you grow, important one.
I shake your hand in stately fashion.
Lady, that was a blessing to meet you.
To be that. It was a day of remark.
First published in Not All Honey by Roddy Lumsden (Bloodaxe Books)