On Writing London (Guest Blog)
In celebration of National Poetry Month, Maxwell and I reached out to fellow poets about writing guest blogs for April. Maxwell connected with his friend, professor Benjamin Grossberg, who several days ago wrote a blog about how to become a poet. As for me, I reached out to my fellow poet friend, Richard Jones, from Chicago. I came to know Richard from a book edited by Billy Collins, titled Poetry 180. From the minute I read Jones’s poem, “White Towels,” I immediately connected with him. The connection was not based on similar interests, such as a connection about sports or television shows that many of us have with our friends. Instead, the connection was much deeper. The way that Jones wrote intrigued me. It quenched a level of higher poetic thought within me, and it compelled me with an overwhelming feeling to write. Similar to the way a good conversation provokes— you know, like when a conversation makes you want to interrupt, because what the other person is saying, and how they are saying it, gives you epiphany, after epiphany, after epiphany. This is the kind of connection I felt when I read the poetry of Richard Jones. Now, I introduce him to you through this blog, where he discusses his new book London. As a treat, I have included poems “Help” and “The Biscuit Tin” from this book.
—Ahrend Torrey, Door is a Jar Magazine, Editor
I was born in London in 1953, the year of Elizabeth’s coronation. My father, an American pilot stationed in England after the war, found us a little house on the west side of London in Eastcote. Times were difficult: there was food-rationing; parts of the bombed city lay in rubble; and the day could suddenly vanish into the deadly “yellow fog” that Eliot wrote about in “Prufrock.” Yet in London there was hope: in our family photos, my mother and father are young and happy. When we left England, our family survived a peripatetic existence. We crossed the Atlantic by ship in seven days during a season of ocean storms; like gypsies we traveled the highways in the States in our big DeSoto, staying with various relatives, a month here, a month there. We moved to Cape Cod, Savannah, and Nova Scotia, where we lived in a remote cottage on a cliff overlooking the Bay of Funday, world famous for its eighty foot tides and where, as a boy, I watched the sea appear and disappear and reappear each day, an early lesson in the transitory nature of life and beauty. After a lifetime, England is with me still: the desk on which I wrote my first poems—and may some day write my last—came home with us from London. Back then in England, no one, including my family, had any money, so my father traded a second-hand shop owner a bottle of American bourbon for the old desk. When I sit at the desk now, I remember all the storms and joys of childhood’s journey, and to this day the mention of London will stir a lifetime of memories that make me take up my pen and write. The prose poems of London gather those almost-lost bits and pieces of the past, and preserves them in the only timeless vessel I know: poetry.
Two prose poems from London:
My father found a tiny house in Eastcote. Mother did not know how to cook, so Mrs. Bucket the housekeeper left father’s supper on the stove before catching the evening bus. I never knew Mrs. Bucket, though I’ve always pictured Mrs. Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit. The pages turned, Mrs. Bucket died, and in summer I was born. A German nurse, who to this day must drift like a dark cloud over my first winter, was hired to watch over me during the day. When mother and father went to a show or to one of the many squadron parties, the nurse stayed through the evening and put me to bed. I keep pictures in a biscuit tin of my parents and their friends—laughing, diverted, their hearts gladdened in English rooms with patterned wallpaper and thick, heavy curtains. My parents look like movie stars, their tailored clothes extraordinarily fine and elegant. My father often has a five-o’clock shadow that makes him seem dark and mysterious. My mother is always made up, her hair perfect, her lips bright red, her skin white as milk. As an adult looking back, I’d always thought we needed the nurse’s help because of mother’s vertigo, which could cripple her at any moment. “No,” she corrected me one evening at toddies. “It was just that there was much to do.” I waited for her to elaborate. “The American wives would play bridge.” I poured another drink. “One afternoon,” she said, “the dark had come early. I came home and the German nurse—I’ve long since banished her name—fixed us tea.” The nurse confessed to my mother that I had cried all day without rest and would not stop crying, even when she had shook me and shook me to make me stop crying. Mother stood and opened the door to our tiny house. Her voice turned to iron—the voice I know. She said to the nurse only, “You need not return tomorrow.”
The Biscuit Tin
My father preferred Kodachrome slides to prints. In the late fifties in Savannah I remember him sitting in the dark behind the projector, the beam of light shooting across the room, the white screen filling with image after image. I remember piling pillows on the floor and lying propped on my elbows, enraptured, as if I were seeing into my father’s mind. I can’t say what audience of ghosts joined us in the dark for my father’s slide shows, yet my father addressed them, explaining where and when he took each photo and offering elaborate back stories to the picture of an ocean liner docked at Southampton or the family building sand castles on the French Riviera or his DeSoto, lost on winding roads in the Black Forest. Over the years my father held fewer and fewer shows; eventually he put away the projector and screen and stored the slides in slide trays in the attic. After his retirement to the ocean cottage, he kept the slides in metal boxes in the back of his closet, keeping the slides dry from the ocean air and out of the strong light. When I finally thought to have prints made—the Kodachrome slides must have been fifty years old—I was stunned at their clarity and vivid color. I made copies for my father and me, the photos as pristine as if they were taken only yesterday. I mailed the photographs to him in an old English biscuit tin, so he could regard their intricacies, each moment so fresh and delicate. When I look at my copies, time collapses into a darkened room pierced by swords of light.
Richard Jones is a poet, editor, and critic who received an MA from the University of Virginia and an MFA from Vermont College. Jones’s first collection of poetry, Country of Air(1986), won the Posner Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers. He has since published several additional collections, including The Correct Spelling & Exact Meaning (2009), Apropos of Nothing (2006), and The Blessing: New and Selected Poems (2000), which won the Midland Authors Award. Jones’s poems are spare yet meditative; the Village Voice, reviewing Apropos of Nothing, observed, “Jones can be stunning, effortlessly finding the right tone. This is instinctive poetry, combining bluntness with reserve.”
Jones has received the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines’ Editors Award for his work editing the literary journal Poetry East. He has also edited the anthologies Poetry and Politics (1985) and Of Solitude and Silence: Writings on Robert Bly (1981), which he co-edited with Kate Daniels. His own poetry appears in the anthologies Poetry 180 (2003, ed. Billy Collins) and Good Poems (2003, ed. Garrison Keillor). Jones has also produced a CD on the art of poetry, entitled Body and Soul.
Jones teaches at DePaul University and lives in Chicago.