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Monday, 10 October 2011

Evan Jones on Helen Tookey's 'America'

America by Helen Tookey

Broad and smiling as a Sunday
rivermouth, impossible word

between us: america. Wide
and easy speech, argument smooth

and seamless as an egg. Half-tongued
I stumble through the station at

Stephansplatz, past memorials
to lost wars, and to the playground

in the beautiful gardens, where
I watch my children disappear

undisturbed: macht nichts, sie kommen
wieder zurück. America

is where we can never meet, though
we lived there together for years.
from New Poetries V © Helen Tookey

I like Tables of Contents. A lot. Question one of the four Auden asks in his test for a critic is ‘Do you like, and by like I really mean like, not approve of on principle: 1) Long lists of proper names … ?’[1] It’s like he picked me first for his crab-soccer team in gym class. But I’ll admit it’s not just the names: I’m after the titles. Titles function, it’s true, but they’re a big part of whether I’ll stick with a poem or not. What I’m looking for is specific: I want something that tells what the poem is about and yet has to it a shake – by which I mean that it both sets up and defies expectations, turning function on its head while simultaneously starting to press down on the kick. There was a band awhile back called The Dentists, and they had some great titles (and some great songs to go with them): ‘One of Our Psychedelic Beakers Is Missing’, ‘Strawberries Are Growing In Our Garden (And It’s Wintertime)’, ‘I Had An Excellent Dream’ (this last probably their best). Too few poets pick up on the bracketed title of the pop song.

The ToC in New Poetries V has some real gems: ’You Could Show a Horse’, ‘Aunt Jane and the Scholar’, ‘Kamasutra (the subsidiary arts)’ to list a few. At each title that interests me, I swim into the book and read the poem. You should see me with a new CD, flipping from track to track, following not the play order but the titles that sound interesting. Maybe this isn’t how everybody gets into a book,but maybe too it’s more common than I think. Anyway, when I get to ‘America’, a funny thing happens. I start to hum, even before I get to the page the poem is on, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’, its ‘Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together’ the only line I can fully remember, and then, maybe, some la-la-las, before arriving at ‘Michigan seems like a dream to me now’.

Helen Tookey’s poem has both little and everything to do with that song. Her place is not ‘America’, but instead an alternate universe, a world that never happened and never will. The poem is also a start and another start: there is firstly the point where the reader meets an ‘us’ with a word between (a word we don’t get until the end of the sentence): america. The French and the Germans spell national adjectives lower-case: américain, amerikanische, only proper nouns need capitals. Gertrude Stein tried to pull this into English usage in The Autobiography Alice B. Toklas, but nothing-doing, it seems. Yet this word is a proper noun, so it’s mispelled here, italicised, equal on either side, even as it separates.

Then there is the second start: the poet in Vienna, at the U-Bahn station in Stephansplatz, through which an ‘I’, ‘half-tongued’ (does this refer to the language barrier or that she’s been kissed, awkwardly, partingly?) and stumbling, breaks from the ‘us’ to a public garden where her children are playing – her own and not ‘ours’. Is this a consequence of the first start or its own separate event? There’s an argument, there is impossibility, but none of that tells us that this moment follows the last. This is another beginning, and we begin to sense the alternatives that are taking place. For this is not america, but touristic Vienna, where the Wienfluss flows into the Donaukanal. But ‘nevermind, they’ll return’, those children – who and how many will they be when they do? – real or unreal, whether they too have travelled to america, or simply come here to look for it.

Finally, there it is, ‘America’, bolder and more certain of itself as we reach the end, on a line that begins in German. Can it separate itself further? It can. For the ‘we’ return here twice, and America leads the way: it’s not in-between this time and not at the end, even as the poem comes to its end. ‘All come to look for America’: Paul Simon’s song aimed to capture youthful curiosity about national identity – but does in the end little more than reinforce clichés. At best, that song is about setting-out, beginning. Helen Tookey’s ‘America’ is both an end and a beginning. For Vienna, too, is a dream, and curiosity flourishes, wherein both Americas – in one a lover waits and in another he has never had to wait – exist.

[1] I also devour acknowledgements like they were written for snacking on during a film. I go looking for the fine print. The Canadian poet, Jay Macpherson, in her Poems Twice Told (1981), composed her ‘Notes & Acknowledgements’ in rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets. With this, she fills in the blanks between the poems and author. She’s more alive.

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