January 12, 2011

A Letter to Paul Yandle about my poem 'A Small Unit of Time'.

The poet Paul Yandle wrote to me recently, asking me about my poem ‘A Small Unit of Time’ which was published in The Secret in 2007.

A Small Unit of Time [1]

For that which is born, death is certain…Therefore grieve not over that which is unavoidable.
—The Bhagavad-Gita

Some nights he’d make a mug of hot chocolate
before we went to his room: the kitchen
that always smelled of roast beef, milk in a mug
and the microwave timer ticking down.

I stared at the digits, dismantled them with my eyes,
numbers that emerged and vanished in the flash of lines.
Milk bubbling, the mug on the table where I sat,
the jar of chocolate and stacked ladle.

I stirred it slowly until the milk turned brown
and the steam was coated with that chalked smell.
Trying to drink it slowly, I ran my tongue
round the mug’s rim, placed it on the mantel.

‘Haven’t you finished it yet?’ He waited
lounging in front of the TV, legs straddling.
I read the TV guide, filled the time with my voice;
by then it was too late and he had to drive me home.

[1] This poem does not contain the letter ‘P’.

‘A Small Unit of Time’ is a poem about avoidance – doing things to fill up the time when you should be doing something else or to avoid doing what someone else wants. It’s a poem about sexual tension too, and the epigraph from the Hindu holy book the Bhagavad-Gita emphasizes that, though the narrator has a reprieve at the end, things have to be faced eventually.

Many people have asked me about the missing letter ‘P’. My mother even asked me if it stood for penis!! That wasn’t quite what I had in mind. You never know how people are going to interpret things though.

In a way, I was thinking of ‘poem’ and ‘poetry’, but strangely enough P is also the first letter of the name of a person on which this poem was based. The poem was really a way to write this particular person away/out of myself, while the lack of the letter P dictates a kind of avoidance – not wanting to confront something or someone.

I don’t quite succeed though. There is P in the poem. I wonder whether you can spot it? There is a kind of bleak humour in this, as when Magritte titles his painting of a pipe with ‘This is not a pipe’:

There is an inability too to keep the P out of the poem, not being able to avoid the painful relationship absolutely. This reminds me of the way in which disturbing things filter through in dreams and slips of the tongue. They are impossible to hide in the end, although the poem approaches the story of sexual tension and fear obliquely rather than directly.

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