Recently I was chatting with two poet friends, and we remarked on how we did enjoy rain in a poem.
Well, I feel the same way – actually, more so – about telephones.
Often, mentions of phones in poems can be immensely lonely and forlorn. There are of course famous examples. Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ draws towards its wonderful close via:
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
Selima Hill’s ‘Cow’ has, in passing,
who stumble, pink-eyed, from stale beds
into a world of lobsters and warm telephones
I never seem to forget these insomniac glimpses / images. Both also feature (almost horribly) real, physical telephones – in work spaces left empty and dark at night. Phones ringing in our lonelier lives.
In Sarah Jackson’s poem ‘The Red Telephone’ a small boy’s enormous impulse to get through to his mother almost overcomes the insurmountable obstacle – that he has only a toy phone, ‘red plastic with a curly white cord’, with which to do so.
Other telephones in poems can be (even more) symbolic. WS Graham has this, for instance, in ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’:
I heard the telephone ringing deep
Down in a blue crevasse.
I did not answer it and could
Hardly bear to pass.
At least here that phone is ringing, and someone is registering (though not answering) the call. (Sometimes a communication can be too much?)
I love and attend to that ‘I did not answer it and could / Hardly bear to pass.’ The ‘and’ says so much: that both these things are true, painfully. This in itself is a complicated, difficult to read, communication.
Perhaps a telephone in a poem is always symbolic – representing some bid to communicate something, by someone? Or, our failure to. Our poor connections.
I don’t only like stumbling on phones when reading poems: they also arrive when I’m writing.
In Noir, I have a series of dream poems. The first is a recurring theme in my bad dreams. The not-being-able-to-even-dial (in the days of dialling) let alone get through to someone:
She has to ring someone
but can’t read the number.
Type melts into itself, dripping
from the directory’s thin pages.
Later there’s a nightmarish poem, for me, about getting through but it being all wrong – getting through, essentially, to the wrong person. (Maybe the first, dream poem masks this fear: we can be more ‘comfortable’ yearning than facing reality?)
Every evening I call.
I’m with you, you say. When
the pips go, the dark wave inside me
(Of course, these are all telephones from the old days – pre-mobile phone. Mobiles seem to operate somewhat differently, in my poems. As in life.)
In The Girl Who Cried – which is all about trying to get through – sometimes phones hinder, sometimes they help.
There are a number of occasions where phone calls do occur. One, for instance, where two people are failing to see eye to eye – but at least they’re communicating:
When I heard your voice on the line,
and you said ‘Look, at least let me tell you
how it seemed to me,’ frankly I felt relieved –
here was someone else alive inside these
looping telephone wires.
The collection also ends with a short poem that starts:
Love. The word I said
into the telephone.
I shut the book not knowing if that word has been caught – heard, received – but I guess at least the ‘Girl’ has formed it…
- I’m currently working towards a project called The Understory Conversation. The idea is that we all have stuff that causes us difficulties in life – stop press! – and acknowledging that might help before we start trying to talk. It can be a relief to do so, and ironically free us to leave some of that weight at the door.