Sunday, 21 October 2012


A telephone rings in a derelict building – is it the beginning of a thriller?  Or has a techno-savvy squatter moved in? 
That was what I heard last week when I was walking past the boarded up-car showrooms by West Walls in Carlisle.  The place has been empty for years and a proto-forest of scrub has broken through the tarmac and colonised the old car park – but still the telephone rings.  
Meanwhile at home my land-line was out of action for nine days.  Why didn’t I use my mobile?  Well, I did try, but I live in one of those rural Bermuda triangles where mobile calls and texts disappear without trace (“Didn’t you get my text?” ask irritated friends and relatives).  The signal is very patchy but I can get some (intermittent) mobile reception if I perch on the window sill behind the upstairs loo.   
I was finally connected to the outside world at 6pm last night.  That got me started on telephone poems.  That image of a phone ringing in a derelict building reminded me of Gillian Clarke’s “On the train”.  It was written after the Paddington train crash but some readers thought it was about the Madrid train bombings.  Gillian Clarke says the poem has a general application.   I can’t help thinking of 9/11:
                “The Vodaphone you are calling
                  may have been switched off.
                  please call later.  And calling later,
                  calling later their phones ring in the rubble.”
But the poet on her train journey wants to phone home to say she is safe:
                “ ... Today I’m tolerant
                  of mobiles.  Let them say it.  I’ll say it too.
                  Darling, I’m on the train.”
 There's a copy of the poem on Gillian Clarke's website
By contrast Edwin Morgan’s poem “Phoning” is about a telephone call from the city of Glasgow to the snows of Montreux and it is also a love poem: 
                “the back of your head
                  as you bent to catch
                  the distant words
                  caught my heart
                  as the love
                  with which I make
                  this sunset chain
The poem’s long thin form perhaps suggests a telephone line.
Ruth Bidgood’s “New Telephone” describes a house “up the half-mile track” which is finally connected to the phone network.  “The house is alive.  Back and fore/words will dance and stumble, check and flow.”  But at the end of the poem the “fragile wind” is “like ambivalent words / waiting in the wires.”  You know, despite the frustrations of this past nine days, I have enjoyed the quiet in the house without the phone ringing.
If you have responsibility for an aged parent a phone is a must.  In Kathleen Jamie’s “The Buddleia” the poet describes
                “those bumbling, well-meaning bees
                  which remind me again,
                  of my father ... whom, Christ,
                  I’ve forgotten to call.”
Then there are the phone calls one dreads.  Lydia Fulleylove’s “Night Drive” (shortlisted for the Forward prize in 2010) begins “So when the phone call came, saying / that we should go back tonight” - you immediately sense it’s a phone call from a hospital about someone who does not have long to live.
But there are some phone calls you have to ignore.  That’s what the girl in the car park does in Philip Gross’s brilliantly virtuosic crown of sonnets, “Fantasia on a Theme from IKEA”.  She has clearly ditched the boyfriend but still he phones.  She snaps
“her phone shut.  End of story.  She folds him away,
   ... slaps
him in her hipster pocket, snug – which may
be as close as he’ll get (and yet not know)
to what he’s dreamed of ...
... the phone in her pocket chirrs, cheep       
cheep.  Poor lovebird.  She puts it to sleep.”
Incidentally IKEA also gets a mention in Edwin Morgan’s “For the opening of the Scottish Parliament” and Adam Thorpe’s “Panic” and probably elsewhere in contemporary poetry.  Could product placement be a new income stream for poets?
But for sheer celebration there’s Seamus Heaney’s “Midnight Anvil”.   At midnight on the last day of 1999 Barney Devlin, the old blacksmith at Hillhead in Northern Ireland, hammered his anvil twelve times to ring in the millennium.   A “cellular phone / Held high as a horse’s ear” relayed what Seamus Heaney has elsewhere called the anvil’s “sweet and carrying notes” across the Atlantic.  “His nephew heard it / In Edmonton, Alberta.”   “Midnight Anvil” is written in five verses each in the form of a tanka.  Even the name of the poetic form has a metallic ring to it.  Heaney imagines “Barney putting it to me: / ‘You’ll maybe write a poem’”.  He did.
Any more suggestions for telephone poems?

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