Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Scottish Poetry Library: Poem of the Week

Tom Leonard: June the Second

it is dawn and my wife is coming to bed
and she has been watching a film about the life of charlie parker

and the air in the bedroom is silent while she undresses
and the light is there at the side of the curtain beyond her head

and she tells me his body gave up of drink and drugs when he was 34
and I decide I am awake and go to the kitchen for a drink of water

and the sky in the north is translucent like a lake
translucent like a lake though it is only 3 am

and when I go back we lightly hold hands as we sometimes do
until the first to be falling asleep begins to twitch and tonight it’s Sonya

and I withdraw my hand and lie back looking at the ceiling
I am aged 51 years and nine months and nine to ten days

This is a short essay I wrote for the Scottish Poetry Library, Poem for the Week.

The tenderness and sincerity of this poem, a remembrance of a moment of love within a lifetime of love, always touched me. Though the details of the interiors are sparse – no Proustian brocade for Tom – it conveys an Objectivist sense of common belonging. The wee journeys from room to room, and sense of a world beyond the curtains, resonates when so many people are cooped up in their homes. For me coronavirus is an illness that torques inside my body at night, exerting a force on the lungs, making my head feel dark with pain, so the dawn is a relief. It will be different for others. 

Tom offers love – his for Sonya – a specific setting we can enter – some of us recalling the address the poet lived at and imagining the very window – just as there is a real window which Sorley MacLean looked to the west from, in ‘Hallaig’. Acts of witness matter in times of crisis. 

The poem recalls Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, which elegises Charlie Parker as a bodhisattava. Here, in a tenement in Glasgow, grace lies in the quotidian modesty which, in turn, comes to rest within elements that change eternally – light, air, water, love – as the poet wanders through to the sink. Isn’t that true of life now: I see the sun on the frosty roofs from my flat in Hawthornvale, same as it ever was, and yet.

That last line, fixing himself and us in time, could easily be the prelude to one of Tom’s poems about the Gulf War. He felt such passionate anger at those mass bombings, the history of suffering. Tom had a democratic sense that the events visited on one body could be the suffering, or love, visited on any. As Elaine Scarry says, if there is pain in the room then that pain is in someone. It is the same with love and those hands touching, which remind me of the hypnic jerks that would pass through my wife’s body as I held her at night. 

The poet sometimes writes their own grave poem without knowing. I don’t read Tom’s poetry often – it’s like holding a pebble freezing cold from the burn – but I depend on it to scour my thoughts from time to time. I read the struggle for clarity and truth as relating, intimately, to the striggle for breath, in Tom’s poems as informed by his asthma. To risk the imitation: prose uses a lot of air, poems get by on a few breaths. My breathing is laboured tonight, as the virus slowly heals. I am 54 years and nine days old.

We will need a poetry that has this kind of sincerity, to witness and navigate this crisis, as it forces itself into our lives, alters everyday behaviour, changes the way we stand in relation to one another, how or whether we hold hands. There are far, far, worse days to come. The anguish of harsh choices, the folly of steps not taken. There will be new heroes, but war imagery is inadequate to this kind of crisis, as anyone with an illness knows. Only the most radical kindness will suffice. And Tom would want it said: the truth is, society already decides who doesn’t get necessary care and protection and it has done so for years – whether and how that changes from now on is something we can all decide.

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