Lucy Tunstall: Miss Behavin’

A 'volcano' flaming cocktail
A ‘volcano’ flaming cocktail.

I wrote ‘Torch Song’ after managing no poems at all in the three years following my first collection. I had been reading about the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Norse funeral rites and (just for fun) the Christian sacrament of extreme unction. These are thrown in here, I think, along with a dash of suburban kitsch. I was struck by the fact that the one unpardonable sin for the ancient Egyptians was regret – a heavy heart – rather than anything ‘we’ would understand as sinful. I remember reading in Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye (Virago, 2011) that the derivation of ‘grief’ is ‘burden’ and I like the idea (at least in a poem) of immolation as a radical act of liberation.

I tried to make the boat sail broodingly amongst Egyptian reeds, but it would not. I imagine it in a marina where all the boats have women’s names or names that are terrible puns like Miss Behavin’ or Aquaholic, the sort of heavy joke which is everything a poem should not be. From there it is a small step to cocktails on deck and a raging inferno.

‘Kaftan’ began as an exercise in recording visual stimuli unclouded by emotional or narrative content – the architecture of a station, the design of a bedspread, a ‘clown’s bouquet’ of wires hanging out of a wall. In my experience, there is both a stickiness (they hang around) and a randomness to these kinds of crisp visual memories, and they are not necessarily associated with moments of heightened psychological states or narrative significance. There is a sense of circling catastrophe in the poem, but I don’t want this to coalesce into a story.

Joyce Carol Oates has said that Sylvia Plath’s poems “become pictorial without any intermediate stage, so that we discover ourselves  ‘in una selva oscura’ [a dark forest] where associations multiply themselves endlessly, but where each tree looks like every other one.”1   Flat, pictorial (rather than nuanced or naturalistic) scenes and images are exactly what I am aiming for in ‘Kaftan’. It is an aesthetic I see not only in Plath, but also in Chloe Stopa-Hunt’s mesmerising tableaux, and those unnerving “trees [that] move backwards into the dark” in Kate Kilalea’s ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’.

‘The Patient’ puts a probably female speaker who is sort of alive into a kind of domestic situation. Various stories cluster and suggest themselves, but make little sense and are missed by the speaker. Picasso’s Blue Period paintings of fallen women, circus people and other outcasts are somewhere in the background. As a young child, I lived in a house full of adults (my parents, an older sibling, various friends and lodgers) almost all of whom were jobbing or out-of-work actors. Dramas happened, of which I was entirely unaware. I want the house to feel like a fun house, in both senses: parties, people, intriguing snatches of conversations; but also treacherous – figures appear and disappear abruptly, furnishings threaten to move and change of their own volition, walls are permeable and unreliable.

A poem is still a risky place for a woman to inhabit. Being inside a poem remains, for a woman, dangerously close to being on, or in, an urn. Angela Leighton writes that “the subject of [Plath’s] poems cannot withstand the assumption from the ‘antique’ that a woman belongs on a vase, or in a poem”.2  That final phrase is truly terrifying. It is necessary for a woman poet to build a structure that will ‘hold’, and also essential that she does not – an anxiety-inducing situation. I think this explains the women who speak from the tomb in Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, and the foregrounding of both architecture and dissolution in Plath and Kilalea. The tendency of a poem to petrify – to convert organic matter into stone – can also be something from which to kick off, or to kick against.

Lucy Tunstall’s poems ‘Torch Song’, ‘Kaftan’ and ‘The Patient’ are published in the Spring 2017 issue of The Poetry Review, Vol. 107, No. 1.

1. “The Death Throes of Romanticism: the Poems of Sylvia Plath.” Southern Review IX (July 1973) 501-22 (518).
2. On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism and the Legacy of a Word. OUP, 2007. (49).