Our house shuddered with bass lines
as my brother burst into his teens
like a skinhead emerging from a chrysalis.
dialogue drowned out as his filled with sound,
thick as the smoke from my father's non-stop cigarettes.
No-one dared knock on his locked door
we just turned the volume up
until it became a duel and when each record stopped
we'd rush for the set, ashamed to be caught out.
It could go on for hours until he went for a bath,
every towel left wet as a flannel on the floor.
When he came out, his face had been picked
into a mess of blotches and blood.
But he was the only one of us who knew the Latin names
of plants at ten, who'd asked for a patch of his own
in the garden, where he planted lettuce alongside daffodils
and night scented stock. He buried japonica apples
all along the fence one day because the pink flowers
were my mother's favourites. He took the dog
on a five mile walk across the common
the day it was put down and he knew why my father
had spent so many months at home
but never let on – just punched more holes
in each cheap plywood door.
- Jackie Wills
Jackie Wills (photo right of poem) is a Brit, which you probably figured out from the spelling of "favourite". I believe she lives in Brighton where she is a free-lance writer and teacher. This is the opening salvo in her first published book of poetry "Powder Tower". She just launched her fifth book "Woman's Head as Jug" this month. She has won awards and critical plaudits and tries to make ends meet on the salary of a poet and poetry teacher, which means she economizes as a way of life. I could launch into my rant about how poets should make CEO money and vice-versa but I will restrain this preaching to the choir. You can thank me later.
How many of us can relate to this brother with his booming bass-cranked records shattering the quiet of the house and shaking the pictures on the walls? That angry, acne-plagued, hostile brother, mad at the world for a variety of reasons in addition to his "bursting" into the hormone-ridden teens. It's both amusing and frightening– that ferocious brother. I had one and his sensitivity and high intelligence made his anger even more frustrated. I don't think I know many people who had a brother who did NOT punch holes in the walls and doors. (Actually, I punched a hole in a door once (I used a rock), in my late teens but that's another story for another day, and I add it only so my brothers, who read this blog, will not mention it to me in a frustrated/sarcastic facebook missive. And it was a "cheap plywood door", too, anyway.)
I love the family rushing to turn down the TV, ashamed of their sound-jousting with the brother's music. One does feel shameful after being so childish. I used to blast Fudge Tunnel's "Tweezer" to get back at my very noisy neighbors and one does feel foolish and ashamed after doing it.
I suppose you know that a flannel is the British way of saying wash cloth. I remember hearing the term in Squeeze's "Tempted"– remember ? " I bought a toothbrush, some toothpaste A flannel for my face/Pajamas, a hairbrush new shoes and a case /I said to my reflection /Let's get out of this place..." Whenever I managed to think of it, I asked everyone what a "flannel" was in the song– this was before Google, of course.
Back to the poem. Of course the top half of this poem illustrates the teen-aged brother and the last half shows you the boy underneath. A sweet lad who planted flowers for his mother (japonica flowers are in the masthead today) and gave a doomed family pet one last jaunt. It always makes me tear up to read this part.
But there's more. Why do you think the father spent so many months at home? Unemployment? Illness? The father was most certainly a nervous smoker, yes? What is the significance of a locked door on her brother's room– what is being locked out and locked in? One could ask similar questions with all locked doors but we get a brief glimpse, in the second part of the poem of what is behind that door.
This is "confessional" style poetry at its best– it tells part of a story, leaves us with
And, let's not forget that the title of this poem is "Japonica"– why do you think that is?
Jackie Wills has a lovely blog here which is well worth a read and includes a selection of her poetry. I highly recommend it.
Here's a good Wills quotation:
"For years I've been aware of the different way my mind works when I'm handwriting and typing, particularly on a computer keyboard (rather than a manual typewriter).
There's a different connection between my hand and brain, when I'm holding something. Well, that's what I thought it was about. As if the rounder, more organic action of writing, the different pressure I put the pen under, the way it feels on the page, even its taste and texture, the smell of ink, might have something to do with this. So I tell anyone who'll listen - use paper, a pen or pencil when you want to come up with ideas. A keyboard's brilliant for transferring them, for editing, but the best ideas come in lead or ink."
And another which illustrates the "training" one goes into to writer:
"Over Easter I've been reading Rumer Godden's autobiographies - A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep and A House With Four Rooms. Godden, famous for her novels Black Narcissus and Greengage Summer as well as her work with Jean Renoir on The River was an utterly focused writer. She sent her children to boarding school so she could write. But one of the points she makes that has been in my mind too, is to live on less to allow more time to write. She was single minded.
And it is too easy to be distracted - not by tidying and sorting which are part of the process, or the allotment and dog walking which are sanity channels. But I mean clothes, gadgets, socialising, anything that involves spending money, or phone calls from friends.
So the answerphone's on. I will not answer emails, texts, bbms or go on Facebook.
I'm in training for a summer of writing."