I always feel a sense of excitement when I have a new featured poet to share, and there’s always so much to learn from them too. As you’ll see from Wendy’s biography, below, her life is exciting, never mind the poems! She’s also been incredibly successful at getting her work placed in competitons. She’s had a string of first prizes recently which shows just how talented she is. Competitions are much on my mind at the moment, as I’m just about to start judging the entries for the Red Shed open poetry competition. I love reading poems, so I’m looking forward to the process, although I know it’s going to be tough deciding on a winner. In the meantime, enjoy Wendy’s poems, and her thoughts on Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds.
Wendy was born in New York and brought up in California. She studied drama and English at the University of Utah and San Francisco State University before leaving the U.S. in 1964. With her 3-year old daughter in tow she gypsied around Europe for a year or two living in Sweden, France and Germany, working as a secretary when she was hungry, thanks to her sensible stepmother who frogmarched her off to summer school at 16 to learn to type. In 1971 she came to England and has lived mainly in Oxfordshire and Berkshire, currently in the countryside near Pangbourne between Oxford and Reading. She now has 4 grown-up daughters, 12 grandchildren and is a retired family psychotherapist with a weirdly eclectic background in drama, literature and social work/psychotherapy. A passionate believer in the curative powers of dogs, dancing, and reading poetry out loud, she hopes someone will humanely destroy her if she ceases to be able to enjoy these pleasures.
Publications include magazines, e-magazines anthologies and competition anthologies including Magma, Mslexia, Smiths Knoll, The French Literary Review, Paris Lit-up, The Jewish Quarterly, Jewish Renaissance, The Frogmore Papers, Oxford Poetry, The North, Envoi, Roundyhouse, Blood Sweat and Tears, and The London Grip. 2015 has been a particularly good year with first prize wins in The Buxton Poetry Competition, the Havant Literary Festival Competition, The Cannon Poets’ ‘Sonnet or Not’ Competition, and the Cinnamon Press Single Poem Competition.
Red Wedding Dress 1963
We’d got six red dresses to try, flouncing
on their hangers – so many shades
of red, but all loose-fitting
to conceal your just-rising bump.
I was zipping you up the back when a tannoy
crackled on and the sales girls started
to shriek as a breathless voice announced,
‘the president’s been shot…’
You were not listening – too busy pulling in
your tummy as hard as you could, frowning
at your silhouette in the mirror, shaking your head.
Hey, I shouted, the President –he’s been shot –
in Dallas! You gave me this dopey look, repeated
like a question, in Dallas?I wanted to shake you,
but the tannoy went on, They’re taking him to hospital,
and you still weren’t listening. This one won’t do, you said,
grabbingt he next –floaty, with a dropped waist.J ust as
the world you’d signed up for juddered and changed
course, you smiled at yourself in the mirror, gave
a little twirl of your skirt– blood red and swishy.
Sharon Olds, Stag’s Leap by Wendy Klein
Meeting and falling in love with her:
My love affair with Sharon Olds began when I was handed what I now know to be one of her most well-known poems. This was in a poetry writing class taught by Susan Utting at Reading University. The poem was I Go Back to May 1937, written by Olds about her parents. My response was total empathy with her subject before I had even begun to think about how it was written. I loved her unashamed use of the first person, and the way she steps in at the end with the urge to warn them of what might lie ahead for them and for her: ‘…I want to go up to them and say Stop, / don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman, / he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things / you cannot imagine you would ever do.’
Naturally, I bought the collection, The Gold Cell, and my admiration was rewarded. This poet was so daring she could write a seven-line poem about the Pope’s penis, for heaven’s sake: how when he sleeps, ‘it stands up / in praise of God.’ I knew wanted to write like that, not to be intimidated by line-endings, held hostage to form or forms. An interview with Sharon indicates she does everything purely on instinct and that would include line-breaks; that the sense of art ‘sort of happened’ rather than having been achieved through studied design. When I let myself go, sometimes I do write in her mode, more or less, but I can’t quite stop myself from trying not to break a line on a pronoun, or a definite or indefinite article, whereas her right hand margins are splashed with “a’s” and “the’s” and every possible preposition. I can’t help myself falling into tercets or couplet — tidying up.
I heard Sharon Olds read from Stag’s Leap, at the T.S. Eliot Prize readings in 2012 before she knew she had won the prize. I had attended a workshop led by her at the Troubadour studio in London prior to that. The experience of the workshop was so profound that I even wrote a little poem about it! I include it below, not because it is a piece I am really proud of, but because it says something about being in her presence.
We arrive like supplicants with the poems
we have been instructed to bring clutched tight
in prayer wraps; the studio in Brompton Road
turned into a cathedral, its windows
opalescent in hazy autumn light —
no defence against the drone of traffic.
Once we are seated she floats in, her long
silver hair framing the perfect oval of her face;
she almost seems to levitate. Plimsolls
inches off the ground; she proposes, somewhat
dreamily, an alternative programme.
She’ll not read, our brought poems; we’ll just write
new ones, and though irate at the change, we’re bewitched;
we each write something unlike anything
we’ve written before, will ever write again.
The book is structured according to the passage of time, telling of a protracted but successful grieving process. Olds’ quirky line-endings lend themselves to describing the instability of a break up. Punctuation helps to indicate the wife’s tentative hold on her former partner: in “Unspeakable” He is her ‘almost-no-longer husband.’ Her imagery is characteristically audacious: in Running into you the narrator describes her ex: ‘you seemed/covered with her, like a child working with glue/who’s young to be working with glue/. Surely nobody writes about relationships splits like Olds “Sometimes now I think of the back / of his head as a physiognomy / blunt, rich, as if with facial hair, ‘ the convex stonewall shapes of the skill/ like brow nose cheeks, as hard to read / as surfaces of the earth.” (Frontis nulla Fides, from the Latin proverb meaning appearances deceive. This book is an examination and confirmation of Olds’ stunning confessional, much as I dislike that label, art.
Based on the end of her marriage of 30 years when her husband left her for another woman, Stag’s Leap is unflinchingly autobiographical. Written 14 years after the split, some of the poems are as emotionally raw as if it had occurred last week, but rich with metaphor and imagery, they illustrate pain and recovery in fantastic poetry. It is very difficult indeed for me to single out three poems which represent the author at her best, because each of them does so in its own particular way, starting with the way they sprawl across the pages like a woman or a child throwing herself about in fury, frustration and anguish. Maybe a start would be the perfect opening poem (see 1 attached).
1) WHILE HE TOLD ME
This poem is poignant in the way it is under-stated, a precise actualisation of the way in which bad news is processed through a focus on the most insignificant details: “While he told me, I looked from small thing / to small thing, in our room,…” The blow by blow description of the ‘telling’ and the evening that followed is told with exquisite simplicity, the precise physical description of the husband undressed and later when “…he got / up to go in and read on the couch, as he often did, /” Although the narrator is describing the beginning of the end of her marriage, she focuses on the ordinariness of his leaving their matrimonial bed on this particular evening. Then, almost unexpectedly she opens her eyes to the perfectly apt image of two tulips stretched away from each other in an old vase, and more importantly, to the picture on the vase of a person in a grotto underground: “Praying, my imagined shepherd in make-believe paradise.” A long line, the longest in the poem, long as the future stretching forward – the impossibility of sustaining the make-believe paradise.
2) THE HEALERS
This poem appears in the second section of the book, and it is evident from tone and text that the narrator has moved on slightly. The errant husband is a doctor, and she chooses the familiar moment in travel when an announcement comes over the intercom asking if there are any doctors aboard, would they make themselves known. The poem is a realisation that she will no longer be the person from whom he will rise to answer the call. She speculates on why this might be: “…They say now / that it does not work, unless you are equal.” It is revealed that the new woman is a doctor, too, and Olds chooses the marvellous image of the two doctors as storks: “lifting side by side, on wide, / medical, wading-bird wings –like storks with the / doctor bags of like-loves-lie / dangling from their beaks.” The image comes across as wry humour, and the ending is quietly rueful: “… he did not feel happy when words were called for, and I stood.
3) SLEEKIT COWRIN’
This poem appears in the 4th section of the book, ‘Summer,’ and its entire treatment, the choice of metaphor, indeed, reveals how the poet has moved on in her recovery from grief. For her title she steals judiciously from Robert Burns, subverting the image of his field mouse to that of a dead mouse which comes to represent the ‘dead’ marriage. Having found a dead mouse, hidden for a week and decaying, she sets out with carefully chosen details to set new traps “…on a few of our wedding china / floral salad plates…” and forgets what she has done. The desecration of the wedding china is so neat, and the salad plates, with their Blue Willow pattern, now the resting place of a dead mouse, expand into history becoming “…like a charnel roof / in Persia when the bodies of the dead were put for the (‘the’ justifying itself as a line-break to keep suspense) ; scholar vultures to pick the text / of matter and the text of spirit apart.”
Mastress of physicality/anatomy, human and mammalian, she goes into full-blown detail of the decay of the mouse which has become “…a furry barrow / burrowed into by a beetle striped / in stripes of cold coal (lovely alliteration and bold repetition of striped/stripes). She is not finished: the burying beetle, Nicrophorus, eats its way into the stomach, the mouse-bowels, the small intestinal channels, etc, “as if the rodent / were food rejoicing…” humorous and yucky at once, it “…/ cuts and thrusts, in rocks and rolls / its tomentose (how long did it take her to find that marvellous word for covered with densely matted filaments?) muzzle, and its wide shoulders, / in… And with one bold swoop she takes the metaphor by the throat, declaring: “And I know, I know, I should put my dead marriage out on the porch / in the sun, and let who can, come and nourish of it …” until it is changed, carried back to what it was assembled from which leads to a rhymed couplet end : assembled from, / light whereby it shone, taking it back to its beginning with Burnsian rhyme to link with the Robert Burns’ title. It makes me want to leap with joy at her audacity, her knowledge, her skill. Go Sharon!