Open it, push back its hinged lid. It’s easy, so much easier
than you thought. All you have to do is line up its sides
with your middle fingers then lift it, lightly. You’ll hear
the wood unsettle itself around the joint and you might see
its knots and whirls loosen and unwind into the grain. Look inside
and there he is turning towards you, because you’re in there too,
you’re about to put your hand on the side of his face and when you do,
he’ll kiss you. And life is arching its back to where it should be,
where it wants to be – but that’s only half of it. Stay with this.
Don’t pick up your phone to scroll through all the messages
and read them to the end. Stay with what it felt like to have him,
balance that on the apex of an arch somewhere inside you,
to have him, and how afterwards he sat next to you in the back
of someone else’s car, the line of him, the side of him, right up against you.
From So Many Rooms (Carcanet, 2019).
Last week’s poem (Laura Scott’s ‘Box’) opens literally, with the opening of a box. It’s you who opens it. The first few stanzas take us carefully through the process, encourage us to focus on its minute details: the hinged lid, the grained wood, its knots and whirls. You only find out what’s inside in the third stanza: a photo of you and an ex.
How do you respond to it? Looking at photos from past relationships is fertile ground for nostalgia, for imagining things as other than they were, for slipping back into the past. That’s the risk the voice of this poem faces, and we can feel it succumbing to that risk. Spiralling away from the moment captured in the photo, it fantasises about what happens afterwards: ‘you’re about to put your hand on the side of his face and when you do, / he’ll kiss you.’ But the poem changes its tune in the fifth stanza to sharply remind us, ‘that’s only half of it’. Now the lyrical fantasies of intimate details are replaced with firm commands not to spiral back into the past, one of them depicting a particularly torturous feature of modern love: ‘stay with this’, ‘don’t pick up your phone to scroll through all the messages.’ This is a significant transition, and encapsulates the driving tension of the poem: how should you respond to the photo? Should you allow yourself to slip back to the past with the hope of resurrecting what might have been there, or should you move on?
The final sentence of the poem offers no clear answer, urging us instead to ‘balance’ somewhere in between. The imperative, ‘stay with what it felt like’, gives way again to those lyrical descriptions, and we’re not ever told what it actually did feel like: the poem expects us to supply our own memories and reimaginings. My own feeling is that the voice of this poem is more likely to move to the past than forwards. With the reference to ‘the line of him’ in that final line, there’s the suggestion that the poem itself, like the physical objects of the photo and box, serves to memorialise and replay what has passed. It’s a poignant expression of something that many of us will recognise: being afraid of approaching the past, and afraid of leaving it behind.
All my love,