Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Poems of Love and Hate

Is it possible to be really affected by a poetic device and yet really hate the message said technique is helping to put across?

This is how I feel about "Unto us..." a 1972 Spike Milligan poem. In his poetry, Milligan has moments of whiny, sickly, self-indulgent, pseudo-philosophical guff (indulged by the editors, I imagine, because hell, you're publishing Spike Milligan and he sells), but he has excellent, very poignant poems too, such as "My Daughter's Horse" and "2B or not 2B".

"Unto us..." is, for me at least, a reminder that Spike Milligan was of a different generation and definitely a different ideology. They say as you get older, you get more conservative, and this poem is horrendously damning of abortion in a very generalised sense. Spoken from the point of view of the foetus (you can tell where it's going from that alone), it's strikingly ill-informed. I don't pretend to have an encyclopaedic medical knowledge of abortion practice in the 70s, but I can't imagine it involved chucking the unborn child into a pedal bin. It's almost ludicrously didactic. The parents are seen as happy - nay, celebratory - that they, having initially "committed themselves" to the child, have easily ditched it. Perhaps a termination could bring relief, but it's flippant to suggest that the parents would be casual, even joyous, about it.

Where's the redemption here? Why is this not a clear case of "fuck me - that's just a poor poem all over, and sick to boot"? The thing is, I find myself conflicted by the final lines: 
"My death was celebrated/with two tickets to see Danny la Rue/who was pretending to be a woman/like my mother was."

First off, yes, the blame has been unambiguously dumped onto the mother. Secondly, the attack on her womanhood for having the abortion is appalling. And yet, the juxtaposition of the comic, loveable and most importantly, safe, Danny la Rue with the situation is weirdly appealing. I want to rescue that idea and transplant it into less morally dubious surroundings. The kind of gendered damnation in "Unto us..." is hard to salvage. Regardless of whether the poem was written thirty-odd years ago, or fifty, this kind of passive-aggressive blame-dishing and blatant misrepresentation of the facts still happens today, fueling pro-life arguments, fear, and infringements of women's choices, and so I'd like to turn this poem on its blinkered head.

Here's my effort:

Out on a Saturday, shouting at girls

Somewhere at sometime
she committed herself to them.
her lined parka and placards
bright against the trees
that lined the clinic walkway.

I was small and had been well-timed,
trotting round in Thomas jimjams
till she came home to my father's roast.
She would be hoarse, would say
to Dad: "fifteen of them today.
I think they're starting to listen.
It's horrific. One was sixteen.
I woke up six times
last night, thinking about them."

At eight, I wanted
to know why certain comics
were banned, why the mermaid died
in the other Little Mermaid.
Where Mum went. She went
to the shops. To the shops.
To more shops, the other shops.

We bailed her out one time,
after the police caught her
following a crying girl home,
quoting and raving like a saint.
The officer gave me
a strawberry Panda Pop
as my father filled out forms and forms.

My mother was jubilant, glowing
that someone was taking notice
kissing my father
and her lovely daughter.

We celebrated her release
with two tickets to see Danny la Rue
who was pretending to be a woman.

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