Friends were surprised when I said that my narrowboat wouldn’t prove popular with the ladies. ‘What’, they asked ‘about the shadowy swans hanging in the morning mist? What about the warmth of a solid fuel stove and the romanticism of the Bohemian ideal?’
‘A chemical toilet’, I invariably replied, not needing to mention the two feet of hanging space in the wardrobe, or the wind tunnel draughts which dragged the heavy smell of engine oil into the bedroom.
Unsurprisingly, The New Faber Book of Love Poems includes Christopher Marlowe‘s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love. The gentle insistence of the speaker and the bucolic imagery makes this poem smell of freshly cut grass and sun tan cream, as the shepherd promises the earth for a spot of action between the sheets. ‘Come live with me, and be my love, / And we will all the pleasures prove / That valleys, groves, hills and fields, / Woods, or steeply mountain yields’. Just read Shakespeare’s erotically charged Venus and Adonis if you need Marlowe’s double entendres made more explicit. Yet it’s worth remembering that the probable source for the poem is Theocritus‘s Idyl XI and the original shepherd is the giant and cyclops, Polyphemus, wooing Galatea. Given the presentation of his stinking cave in Homer’s The Odyssey, we’re left speculating about the honesty of Marlowe’s speaker. Surely the best that he can offer are sleepless, frozen nights delivering lambs in the fug of a paraffin lamp?
In the simple act of retitling The Passionate Shepherd to His Love as Come Live with Me, Leontia Flynn debunks the grande passion, as the retitling excises the words passion and love and we hear a metrosexual asking his girlfriend to move in with him because the bills will be more economical and, well, it just makes sense, really. The speaker leaves the bucolic behind, offering ‘a water-ring around your heart. / In the mildewed kitchenette of afternoon / T.V., my cup of coffee / overfloweth’. Even in this tawdry domestic environment, Flynn still manages to find the wiggle room to cheapen it further as the kitchen is reduced to kitchenette and the heart, the ultimate metaphor for ineffable love, is circumscribed by a water-ring. Yet, because the source material is iconic, the references to Neighbours, Ironside, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Flynn’s unromantic colloquial language fail to still the Marlovian pulse at the poem’s core and the audacity of love’s gestures remains.
In Naming It, Flynn gently mocks the certainty of youth, noting that, ‘Five years out of school and preachy / with book learning, it is good to be discovered / as a marauding child’. Her use of the line-break has a satirist’s timing, undermining and mocking pretension. However, the poem is richer than this, as the preachy twenty something is, at the poem’s core, revealed to be gloomy, baffled and prone to misadventure, so much so that being led to a clearing and offered some real education is welcome. A friend takes the speaker ‘to her well-stocked fridge [and] says: / look / this is an avocado and this is an aubergine’. Flynn and I were both born in 1974 and she’s spot on: our generation were reared on Findus Crispy Pancakes and tinned fruit cocktail and could never have conceived of dragon fruit or blueberries. Jumping back to Homer’s Polyphemus for a moment, the ability to name a thing is true power, as the blinded cyclops discovered to his cost when his mother, Thoosa, asked him who had done this and he replied ‘no one’ as Odysseus and his crew sailed away.
In Snow, it’s Flynn sailing away from the end of term and ‘Running like a girl / for the love of a fast-track train / back to the fish-smelling ferry terminal. / The sea raises a glass – rosé – to the sky at Troon’. It’s in moments like these that Flynn reveals her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it wit, as the rosé not only indicates the tastes and intent of the student drinker (see Matthew Stewart’s poem, Zaleo Rosado) but plays with Homer’s epithet ‘the wine dark sea’, indicating the significance and scale of the crossing for a younger person.
As These Days, Flynn’s debut collection, draws to a close, her placement of her final poem, These Days, contextualizes everything that has come before: ‘These days, it seems, I am winding my clock an hour forward / with every second weekend, and the leaves on my Marc Chagall calendar / flip as though they are caught in some covert draught [...] These are the days / of correcting the grammar on library-desk graffiti’. However, ‘these days, like Cleopatra’s Antony, I fancy bestriding the ocean; / these days I am serious’. In unguarded moments of nostalgia, the past might seem romantic but it was always draughty and cold.