She lived in the city of Mozart, so rococo was second nature. She chose a sofa so redolent of Baroque features, it rolled out of the warehouse on its many curves and swirls. It came to rest in our living room, all carved curlecues, easy to bang the back of head against when your laughter pealed out. Not that there was much laughter in that house.
Within days the burnt ochre leather caused heartache and questioning. Too bright? What would the neighbours say about the ripeness of that shade? Would they sit and tug and scratch it whenever they came to visit? But very few people ever entered our house.
Better safe than sorry, though. So she covered it in green velvet, tailor-made cover with frills so rich, it could stand up by itself when you took it off for washing. Those frills swept all the way down to the arched wooden legs, even as they yearned away from under the stifle, all tip-toe. So hard to vacuum underneath.
A few months later she realised the velvet might get worn too quickly, that she might require a new cover …oooh, say every ten years or so. In came the casual throw, loosely draped over the pool-table green. Cheap polyester cream with tassles and shiny stripes, too thin to keep its distance when backsides sunk into it. My mother was fanatic about cotton, but hated ironing, so polyester made do. It clung to clothes, turned static, and we spent most conversations not actually seated on the sofa, but straightening out its multiple covers.
But I digress. After decades of discomfort, my father’s weary bones can no longer keep that horror in our house. But it’s an expensive horror and we want to ensure that we get the best possible price for it. For Sale: Baroque Sofa, Nearly New.
I’ve been experimenting with some new poetic forms recently, because I’ve never been too comfortable about prose poems. What makes it different from experimental prose? I struggle to understand. Also, I’m amused by the marketing patter on some of our electronic devices, so they gave rise to this…
Innovation is advancement but not precursor of success, pervades our daily lives, frustrates us with its complexity and unreliability to the extent that globalisation enables us to embrace new products and services.
Is ‘carriage return’ now obsolete? Has sense-making ceased to matter?
We crave tangible products, satin-coated sensuous curves,
Chick-lit metallic moulding our systems
Augmented realities and playfulness
Passive-aggressive well-modulated female voices
That we can shut up in an instant (unlike our wives)
To understand the music of the should, we need sentiment analysis and emotion management, we need to move past utility to ease of use and access all hours. Oh, and playful surprise! Please entertain me. It’s all about the image, the swoosh of light around the globe in an instant. Encompass, integrate, unify in the twilight glow of sameness. Susceptible like all the others, you reach out to grasp and bind my gaze to ever-recurring shape-shifting values.
It’s Haibun Monday at dVerse Poets’ Pub and this time Mary is asking us to use an image prompt. I’ve rewritten an earlier piece of flash fiction as a haibun (so I’m not sure it fits the description) – and I’m afraid it may be a little longer than ideal.
We reach the park. It doesn’t take long for Mum to get bored: ‘Enough of swings! I’m tired. Run off, do something!’
It’s cold and windy. The monkey-bars are icy, there are too many children on the merry-go-round. I push the boat forlornly, just a little further out, to amuse my baby brother. Our remote has long since run out of batteries and nobody remembers to replace them. The boat shudders lop-sidedly and capsizes.
My brother’s lower lip starts quivering. I show Mum the wet bundle that was once our boat, hoping her longer arms will be able to retrieve it with the stick. But her eyes are elsewhere.
‘Go run around the pool!’ she says, ‘You’ll soon warm up!’
Mum rolls her eyes. ‘First of all, it’s “I don’t want”, not “don’t wanna”. Secondly, tell me clearly what don’t you want? Can’t help you if you don’t talk to me properly! When will you learn to express your thoughts instead of just crying and whingeing all the time? Waa, waa! Is that all you guys ever do?’
She’s off again. No one can say Mum is stuck for words. Press a button, and she goes on forever. I have my pocket remote – one that works without batteries – and zap off her sound like on telly. Only let a few words slip through, just to make sure she isn’t suddenly saying something important, like lunch or time to go home. But no, it’s the usual stuff… How could she have given birth to such lazy children?… Sports are so good for you – unhealthy, stuck indoors all the time – only interested in Xbox… Nobody will be our friend if we behave like this… A burden on her, what has she done to deserve this…
I’ll have to get it myself. I sit on the stone edge of the pond, lean forward waving the stick like a light sabre. My theory is that if the Force is with me, little rays of it will make waves and bring the boat back to me. It nearly works, but I have to dip my hands into the water quite a bit to grab the sail. My fingers are icy around my catch. I hand it over hurriedly to Jake.
Mum folds her arms and sits, muttering, on the bench. Jake stands stiffly beside her, the boat clutched to his chest and dripping all over his shoes. Face all screwed up and snotty. Refusing to have fun. I shrug and start playing Star Wars. I always play this on my own – no one else, not even Jake, may join in. I’m a clone trooper, fighting enemies with my light sabre. I run around with sound effects. Mum hates this game. She says only Jedi knights have light sabres and clone troopers are stupid. But I want to be stupid, I want to look like everyone else. All Mum’s brains, all those college scarves in her sock drawer that we’re not allowed to touch… and she has to go to hospital every month. Feels sick like a slug afterwards.
Besides, Jedi knights are boring, like grown-ups: they talk too much, they’re always right, always winning. Light sabres should belong to everybody. And boats should never be allowed to sink.
Fingers ice over:
Who sees beauty in hoar frost
when hearts need warming?
For every inspirational quote, there is another that yanks us down to the bottom of the murky river bed. For every kind thought from a stranger, there is an sharp thrust of unkindness from a near one, all for your very own good, of course.
The way to hell is paved, crenellated, wallpapered and sandblasted with good intentions couched in cruel terminology. There is often no subtlety involved (‘obese’, ‘bags of fat on two legs’, ‘heart attack waiting to happen’), while at other times a theatrical sigh will underline that another poison arrow is striving to reach its mark: ‘I’ll only stop praying for you when you finally have found a decent job.’
Good old Dobbin, you work horse, you clothes horse. Keep on plodding and don’t take your nose out of your snuffle-bag or wardrobe until you find the right job, that makes them proud rather than you happy, the perfect dress that covers your stumps, denies your belly, turns your liabilities into assets and doesn’t cost a fortune either, into the bargain (bin)!
Then there are all of those black-and-white world views, all tinged with horrific fatality. All children of divorced parents end up drug addicts or lunatics or worse. All men cheat, all women suffer. Women punish by cutting off their noses to spite their faces. They imprison the man into vengeful marriage, piercing snide remarks, alimony payments, guilt, guilt, guilt. No matter how much men might pressure you into having babies, you will end up with the precious bundles and all their messes – they will only take the glory and successes. A boast at the office and nothing too tangly to weigh yourself down.
Meantime, princess, you’re too old, your pink too soiled, far too busy doing the things you should be doing, to waste time on creative nonsense. Life is to be endured, not to be enjoyed. We have no right to expect happiness. To be selfish. To scratch meaningless little words in short lines and call them poetry. Exchange your heels for flip-flops and wait out the ice-cube tinkling cocktail hour. Jump in and drown in the pool of your perfectly content disapproval.
We have every right to expect happiness. We were the apple, the peach, the light of our mother’s eyes. She did all she could to make us happy and was expecting you, quite frankly, to do more of the same. We cannot be happy with someone who is unhappy. What on earth do you think we should do when that happens — we’re not equipped, not trained, not interested… We twiddle our thumbs defensively. We look down, shuffle our feet, speed out the door, no longer want to be seen with this person in public. We do not want to rock the boat… unless it’s us doing the rocking. We’re worth it, but she isn’t because she wants too much, she wants the impossible. Because she is illogical, irrational, all emoting gushingness – so like a woman!
Pipe down, you shrew, your ranting is giving us all headaches! Who wants or needs feminism now anyway, when it’s proven women can have everything they want, but they don’t know how to choose wisely?
Why should we help when she ends up doing it alone anyway? How else can we prove our independence, our maturity, our love for our father, or that she is needed? These moments pass so fast, we grow up so quickly, she’ll cry later, when we leave home. She already feels the loneliness whenever we leave the house for a day, for a week, for a lifetime. She talks too much, she repeats incessantly and what she has to say we have long since stopped believing. What would each member of our family be if we were animals? A koala, a panda, a giraffe – the cuddliest and tallest all sorted. Mother? A bookworm.
Does the worm ever turn?
This piece of prose above has its origin in some family history, the great voices of feminism and the quote below from French writer Virginie Despentes.
Parce que l’idéal de la femme blanche, séduisante mais pas pute, bien mariée mais pas effacée, travaillant mais sans trop réussir, pour ne pas écraser son homme, mince mais pas névrosée par la nourriture, restant indéfiniment jeune sans se faire défigurer par les chirurgiens de l’esthétique, maman épanouie mais pas accaparée par les couches et les devoirs d’école, bonne maîtresse de maison mais pas bonniche traditionnelle, cultivée mais moins qu’un homme, cette femme blanche heureuse qu’on nous brandit tout le temps sous le nez, celle à laquelle on devrait faire l’effort de ressembler, à part qu’elle a l’air de beaucoup s’emmerder pour pas grand-chose, de toutes façons je ne l’ai jamais croisée, nulle part. Je crois bien qu’elle n’existe pas. (Virginie Despentes)
[The ideal of the white woman, seductive but not a slut, well married but not faded, working but without being too successful so as not to crush her husband, slender without becoming obsessed about food, forever young without having to resort to cosmetic surgery, a mother in bloom without being too overcome by nappies and homework, good housekeeper without becoming a traditional housewife, well-read but not quite as much as a man, this happy white woman that they keep brandishing under our noses, that we’re supposed to try and resemble (except when she goes ape-shit about insignificant things), well, I’ve never met her anywhere. I do believe she doesn’t exist.] (my translation, with apologies to the original)
It was the first summer she was allowed to go to the seaside by herself. She was working as a guide, so there were still rules and timetables to conform to, supervision and rebukes to endure. But the clothes were uncensored, the lipstick was hers to wield. She could laugh loudly and often, she could dance as if no one was looking. Her light no longer concealed by the well-meaning protective shade of her parents’ bushel.
One dazzling older man painted her portrait. He sprinkled praise as liberally as his colours.
‘You’re not quite ripe yet. Not yet at the peak of your beauty. Give it another two or three years and you will be truly unforgettable.’
So she waited for her irresistibility to commence. All year she lived in preparation for that delicious delirium, like the lilac bush in her parents’ garden at home. The green leaves so bland to casual onlookers, but she knew it was expectant, ready to burst one day into intoxicating flower.
By the end of the summer, she’d met the sensible young man with a future ahead of him, the kind of man her parents had always craved. By the following summer she’d persuaded herself that this was her dream too. They got married, setting up a tiny home in a capital city that was much too expensive for them. She worked three jobs at once and still their money ran out mid-month, while he pursued studies which would carve out that promising, tantalising future. In her rush from night-time proofreading to early morning classes, from private lessons to the vegetable stalls at the marketplace, from cooking to cleaning to washing to bill paying and housewife-playing, she forgot to check for her bloom in the mirror.
She made a modest name for herself, a tiny bud in a scholastic tree of excellence. Invited to study abroad, she worked even harder: to fit in, to catch up, to keep up, to maintain the respect of those who funded her. There was no more room for housewifely contortions. Her marriage withered on the stalk. She sought refuge in the life of the intellect. She scraped, she scrabbled, scoured and swept, till she rebuilt a small nest fo herself in that new country, new language, new group of friends.
Then, one day, she looked up. She paused just long enough to catch a glimpse of the person in the mirror. The lilac bush had grown blowsy, the flowers curled up with frayed brown edges. The scent was now tinged with the onset of rot.
She’d blinked and the flowering was over.
This was written as an exercise at the Geneva Writers’ Group on Saturday morning. We were discussing metaphors taken from the natural world. Did I tell you what a wonderful bookish Saturday I had? Literary workshop in the morning, going to the theatre with my younger son in the afternoon and then a poetry reading in the evening. Days don’t get much more inspirational than that.
Sort of a prose poem really, which came out of being asked to do a self-portrait for dVerse Poets Pub. Third person, of course, as befits any bio written for the corporate world… although I doubt I’ll be making use of this one in the near future.
There was a young lady of Bucharest
Who was searching for a good place to rest
‘A lot I have seen,
I’m betwixt and between,
There’s no single place I like the best.’
Gawd, what a drama queen! No one has known the trouble she’s seen… because she marched in revolutions, was shot at, moved often. Because she was the precious, unique, rare jewel of an only child. Oh, sure, polished all the rough corners out of recognition by parents who had come so far they’d forgotten. Or feared the past would catch up to embarrass them. Suffocation of eyes attached to one’s shoulder, nose to the grindstone. Musty odour of academic success, sharp sniff of disappointment when early stardom turned to suburbia and monotony of housewifedom. Motherhood still warring inside me. Laziness has now enveloped my muscles, sinews, brain. Skin too thin, patched together to cover the gaps with a rough worsted in attempt to be jolly.
Not allowed to keep cats or sit on toilets for hygienic reasons, she nervously does both today. Do I detect a tendency to blame others for falling short? Dreaded word: expectations. Lofty and absurd. The wrong passport, attitude, husband, career path. Always wiser five steps after the event. Wrong kind of mind, too perpendicular.
She sits in laundry like a queen of discontentment, pontificating about what could have been if she had been … and seen… but never done. Bastard of many cultures, home in all and none. Dreaming in tongues, limber and crafty, mistress in none.
… after we returned from the summer holidays and all through the house… cobwebs and dust bunnies were having a party. The washing-machine was churning at full pitch, the fridge had started humming but was bare and hungry. ‘Twas the weekend before school started, so lists were pinned up, checked and found wanting. Protractors had been bought and lost, felt-tip pens had become separated from their lids and were gasping for rehydration. School clothes and pencil cases begging to be legibly marked with the child’s name. Not for the first time, I wished we had given our children shorter names. Shoes had been miraculously outgrown during the holidays. Haircut appointments needed to be made. Telephone messages listened to, some of them requiring replies. Several bills had floated into our postbox and needed rather urgent payment. Above all, we needed food. But supermarkets on a Saturday are a nightmare. I braced myself for battle with wonky trolleys, careless people chatting in front of the aisles I needed to access, the endless queues at the cashier…
I drag the shopping bags inside the house to find those two bouquets waiting for me. Soundlessly. Shyly. I wonder. I approach them gingerly. I see a little note: ‘Happy anniversary, darling!’ It’s the first time since we got married that I had completely forgotten our wedding anniversary. I thought forgetting was something that men did. Or at least my man. And, just as I call out, blushing, my family rushes downstairs in an avalanche of love. One bouquet, they explain amidst giggles and gurgles, was not enough – they could not agree which one was nicer: romantic or exotic. Finally, they decided that Mama was both.
Samuel Peralta is hosting at the dVerse Poets Pub (sadly, for the last time) and he has asked us for a prose poem. Not quite sure if this qualifies – I fear it’s more prose than poetry. But one celebration I haven’t forgotten is Chinese New Year: Happy Year of the Wooden Horse, everyone!