Poetry, Please

Pottering about online, I came across a new poet I’d never heard of but whose work I instantly admired. His name is Kevin Prufer and he has several collections of poetry published, his latest in 2008 entitled National Anthem. Here’s a couple of his poems:


We are not equal to our criminals.  A raftful floats by every day,
dainty blue canopies flaring in the breeze.  Cigarettes dangling

from downturned mouths, eyes screwed to the shore—
the criminals are slim and beautiful, draped

in their lawnchairs so their fingers leave trails in the river water.
They are sentimental and lean, shirtless and droop-eyed.

Oh to dig my tired toes into the soft mud of the bank,
the pickpocket says.  To drop coins in the river and retrieve them,

to retrieve all the coins that have ever been dropped in the river.
The others are silent, smoke leaking from their mouths.  Wishes

are everything to criminals, and the burl of black clouds over the trees
is unimportant.    My father was buried with a mouthful

of stolen gems, the con-man replies, swiping his guitar.  I dug
one hundred holes in the yard before I found them.   The black clouds

curl into mouths that rustle the trees.  Around their feet,
fifteen bags of coins.  The hacker picks his golden teeth, the falsely accused

stares hungrily to our shore.  Our women are in love with criminals.
They have the soft glow of lamplight on pavement on clear nights after rain.

How we envy criminal ambition.  We are strung like pearls
on the weedy shore, white-faced and furious as they pass.

Our dinner burns, our children cry, and the wind cools
as the storm sweep over.  Justice, justice, we call to them.

But the long-fingered criminals in their gorgeous swimsuits,
the lawless with their guns draped over their chairs, the shifty-eyed

and doomed with bare chests, the exciting—they’ll never notice us.


The sky fell into the telescope—a tumble, then a dying
gasp. I sighed and scraped my toe on the observatory floor,

twisted the straps that held my glasses on, smiled.
The sky was a zero, an empty shell. When the data

stopped, the computer was a wreckage
of frozen points of light, confounded. The printer died

so I heard my breaths now loud as the whirr
of wheels that turned when I set the telescope

on a new and empty quadrant. Freedom, I thought,
my fingers at the soft focus. Simple and quiet.

All my life the stars were angry little sighs,
needle-pricks of breath. The sky coughed their light over me

so I’d grown accustomed and set my nights by them.
What more was there to say? I screwed the lens caps back

to bottle the starlight in. I shut the lamps
and closed the door behind me. The night was a wonder

of shadowless trees, a giant thrall—a wheeze from the dome
where the sky now was, then nothing at all.

More From The Writing Course

I haven’t posted any of my assignments lately, but here’s the latest. It was a very open assignment – 1,200 words of a story, however I wanted to do it and a choice of prompts. I picked the one ‘Where’s The Baby?’ and returned to my non-fiction interests. I’m a little uncertain about this one as I don’t think it is what the tutor has in mind, but well, we’ll see. Your thoughts extremely welcome, as ever!

The problem with biography is that there is never a way of uncovering the truth of a person’s life; instead, all we ever have are partial stories; well-lit official versions and candle-lit private versions, and in between them, glimpses of dark shapes under dustsheets in the shadows of a person’s life.

So here’s an official version of an intriguing story: Tamara Gorski, spoiled and cosseted daughter of a wealthy Polish family living in Moscow, marries Tadeusz de Lempicke, playboy lawyer. They live in St Petersburg in luxury appropriate to their class, but the Bolshevik revolution is coming to change their lives forever. Tamara’s family flee, in good time, but the Lempickes stay on because Tadeusz is wrapped up in politics. The secret police arrive in the middle of the night and take him away, a common story this one, although no less terrifying for that. But Tamara shows her mettle. Nourished on a rich diet of entitlement, she has the conviction of her family that everything can be bought, somehow, and she finds herself a corrupt official whom she pays with sexual favours. Tadeusz’s release is agreed, but there’s a delay. Tamara is packed off on the train to her extended family, awaiting her in Finnish exile. They move on to Denmark and finally France, where they settle in Paris. At some point, Tadeusz joins them, but he is a broken man, depressed and apathetic after his incarceration. From the depths of dislocation and genteel poverty, Tamara saves them again. In 1919, she begins art studies, by 1922 she is exhibiting and selling her work, by 1925 her style is refined, and by 1927 she is winning awards and painting the pictures that will sell to collectors like Madonna and Jack Nicholson by the end of the century for over a million dollars. It is a meteoric rise to fame and fortune by anyone’s standards.

But this is by no means the whole story. If we only heard this story, Tamara de Lempicke would be straightforwardly a heroine, a romantic hybrid between a female savior, a proto-feminist and an artistic genius. What complicates this admirable image is the presence of a small daughter, clinging cheerfully to her mother’s arm in a series of black and white photographs, as the two stroll down the promenade in Nice, a few months after the family’s arrival in France. There is nothing secret about these pictures; family history has opened up and found a place for little Kizette de Lempicke, who must be all of three years old. But Kizette would always be problematic when it came to Tamara creating her own legend. When Kizette was grown up, she was instructed to pass as Tamara’s sister, when she was little she was shunted around between relations and boarding schools. Kizette was ostensibly the sacrifice Tamara made to art. There was no place for a small child in her studio where she worked, or in the Parisian cafés where she smoked and drank the afternoons away, or at the wild socializing in the evenings, the crazy parties of les années folles that competed in outrageousness. When Tamara threw them, her trademark was to have naked serving girls acting as plates for the food. The bohemian life was not sympathetic to childcare, and if Tamara was going to be a famous artist, it was then, as now, not simply a question of painting pictures. Art was a lifestyle choice, not just something you did.

So, the official line of the unofficial history, is that Kizette was neglected in a good cause, while her mother took on the role of the family breadwinner and made art history on the side. But there’s still the problem of those photographs. If Kizette was a small child when they arrived in France, when was she born? Tamara de Lempicke made several adjustments to her age as she grew older, and with admirable foresight kept Kizette’s birth date a well-guarded secret. One possible version of Tamara’s story is that she fell pregnant in order to ensure marriage to Tadeusz. She had chased him since her mid-teens, turning up at a ball in a peasant girl’s costume with a flock of live geese in order to get his attention. There was no great incentive for the families on either side to marry them off, and we know for sure that Tamara was ruthless where her own desires were concerned. A potentially embarrassing pregnancy could certainly account for the abrupt haste with which they were married.

But where, then, was Kizette as a baby? Was she in the flat that night, when the secret police broke in and arrested her father? Was she starving alongside her mother as they tried to track him down in the conflict-torn city? Did she accompany her mother on the train ride that took them away from their homeland forever? If she was there, it is a very different story we would need to tell ourselves about Tamara’s battles in revolutionary St Petersburg, and one that might give her an air of nobility, one that might justify more convincingly her intense need to restore the family fortunes on the profits of her art. And yet there is not a single mention of Kizette during this period, and it seems much likelier that shortly after her birth, she was handed over to Tamara’s extended family, and cared for by her grandmother and a battalion of aunts. It seems much likelier that she escaped with them in the first wave of refugees; a sensible move that protected the little girl, but which makes a nonsense of Tamara’s later desertion of motherhood in the cause of art. If Tamara never really brought up Kizette until poverty and exile in Paris obliged her to do so, then her escape from domesticity into the decadent art world is not the act of a dedicated, unexpectedly talented mother, but the work of a selfish and self-preserving bohemian who ought never to have become a mother at all.

And yet those black and white photos from Nice celebrate this strange, unconventional mother-daughter relationship as much as they damn it. In the pictures, Tamara and Kizette are clearly swinging hands, the little girl skips and on their faces are genuine, carefree smiles. This is loving connection. The absence of baby Kizette in Tamara’s life history, or at least in the one that she fabricated for public consumption, is awkward because it works to unravel the other stories that she built up about herself. But when it comes to understanding mothers, I wonder to what extent we allow certain acceptable stories to take precedence over the improvisations of reality. Perhaps one of the most tenacious stories in our culture is that women must put motherhood first, above all other demands and concerns; that no woman is sympathetic unless she can be humbled by love for a child. Is the story that we need to tell here one about Tamara de Lempicke’s selfishness and dishonesty, or does it really concern culture’s stubborn inflexibility in its beliefs as to what a mother should be? Perhaps little Kizette’s smile tells us all we need to know.

Change Is Going To Come

Quite a while ago now, I read a very interesting book entitled The Mind Gym: Give Me Time. For years I’d been a classic rushaholic, with never enough hours in the day, always too many projects stacked up in front of me and a feeling, not of pleasure at the prospect, but oppressive claustrophobia. It seems obvious to me it’s one of the reasons I ended up with chronic fatigue. Anyhow, the exercise that made quite an impact on me was called Pathfinder, and it suggested you imagine yourself in a year’s time in the life you would like to be living. And you consider it from the following points of view: physical (how you look and feel), mental (learning skills and state of mind), social (friendships), occupational, financial, familial and intimate (close relationships). The book offers a whole series of questions designed to make you think clearly about what you would most like to have happen in those key areas of your life. When I filled it in there was only one answer across the board – I wanted space and I wanted time.

When I filled in this questionnaire, I felt somewhat distressed as I didn’t see then how I could possibly change my life to that extent. It took me months to come around to the idea of implementing real, definitive change, and many more months after that to accept that I could actually alter my life and still, somehow, be myself. The biggest decision I have made, perhaps ever in my life, bigger than getting married, or having a child – both of which were culturally acceptable things to do and so felt like natural progressions rather than decisions – was the choice I made to downsize my job, to give up a flashy position as a lecturer and to enter the far more humble and unobtrusive (and part-time) field of study support. And now I can look at the year I’ve had and remember that questionnaire I answered, and feel sort of astounded at the changes that have come.

I do feel more spacious now, better rested, less hassled and harried all the time. I have a chance to look at myself and see who I am, rather than spend my time constantly trying to whip myself into the right shape for who I thought I ought to be. I’m not always trying to live up to an ideal, and so I have the opportunity just to live, and though this still feels strange and I take that opportunity only tentatively at present, uncertain whether I really am entitled to it, I do feel sure that this is the right way forward. Then, there’s this unwieldy, awkward-shaped thought that I may be able to write. I feel very uncomfortable with romantic notions of writing as something I am utterly compelled to do; it’s not true, although it’s something that comforts me, and really I like better just doing it than reflecting on it. I’m incoherent on this subject: it’s very new, and a treat that I am not sure I have earned, but one that I might just be greedy about anyhow.

But I will also confess that change has odd, unpredictable side effects, too. I don’t feel as intelligent as I used to, when I spent my life in fifth gear, mentally. The title of the book, the mind gym is very appropriate here – I don’t spend my working days in one any more and so am conscious of my brain muscles getting flabby. I’ve relaxed mentally all round, and so my memory is shot to pieces. I used to keep tracks on everything, have tight control over all the details of the lives of family and friends, and I was always ready with the right thing to say in any situation. Not any more, alas. Now I feel I wander round in a daze, information goes in one ear and out the other, I can’t remember my itemized to-do list any more and when I can remember it, I can’t always be bothered to check those items off. It’s certainly a more peaceful way to live, but I am quietly appalled at myself sometimes.

And some things still haven’t changed enough. Last week I had to give a presentation to my colleagues at work on my past year in study support. Because I am not easy to fit into any particular category for round robin emails, I hadn’t actually been told the meeting would be this week until a day or so in advance, when I found out by chance. In the old modus vivendi I would have quickly ordered a tank of vital life force fuel and dropped a burning match into it; that got me through most performative situations. But I can’t do that any more, and I gave a low-key, probably rather dull chat about my work. It’s a difficult situation; my job still represents a territorial threat to many of my colleagues, who fear I am there to point out their shortcomings with the students. I cannot deny that I do hear a great deal about their shortcomings (in some cases) from the students, although I am very good at being confidential for all concerned and quite clear that my mission here is one of diplomacy. Still, I find myself disproportionately upset that one colleague in particular, and someone who used to be a friend, clearly has a particular issue with what I’m doing. He hasn’t replied to any of the emails I’ve sent round over the course of the year, and he was the only person to raise a complaint about my work at the meeting (I happened to see one of his students for a session and he complained he hadn’t known about it). He avoids me carefully but emanates those huffy, hostile vibes that no one, not even people who have recently switched off their most sensitive receptors, can ignore.

Now, I think I make too much fuss if someone doesn’t like me; I’d rather be one of those people who do what they need to do and maintain their own integrity and don’t give a fig for crowd-pleasing compliance. I admire people like that, but I have yet to join their ranks. I did send him an email after the meeting, apologizing and inviting him for tea and a chat. Naturally, he hasn’t replied, which leaves me feeling foolish and awkward, like I conceded a point I could have kept. I’ll keep out of his way from now on, but I’d like to find a good attitude that I can maintain towards the dislike that will inevitably be my lot in this job from time to time. It’s a good piece of growing up, I think, to be able to handle other people’s negativity and not let it get to you. I hope it’s a change that will come my way soon.