Dusting the Phone (1993) Jackie Kay
I am spending my time imagining the worst that could happen.
I know this is not a good idea, and that being in love, I could be
spending my time going over the best that has been happening.
The phone rings heralding some disaster. Sirens.
Or it doesn’t ring which also means disaster. Sirens.
In which case, who would ring me to tell? Nobody knows.
The future is a long gloved hand. An empty cup.
A marriage. A full house. One night per week
in stranger’s white sheets. Forget tomorrow,
You say, don’t mention love. I try. It doesn’t work.
I assault the postman for a letter. I look for flowers.
I go over and over our times together, re-read them.
This very second I am waiting on the phone.
Silver service. I polish it. I dress for it.
I’ll give it extra in return for your call.
Infuriatingly, it sends me hoaxes, wrong numbers;
or worse, calls from boring people. Your voice
disappears into my lonely cotton sheets.
I am trapped in it. I can’t move. I want you.
All the time. This is awful – only a photo.
Come on, damn you, ring me. Or else. What?
I don’t know what.
The first thing I want you to do is read the following paragraph.
“I am spending my time imagining the worst that could happen. I know this is not a good idea, and that being in love, I could be spending my time going over the best that has been happening. The phone rings heralding some disaster. Sirens. Or it doesn’t ring which also means disaster. Sirens. In which case, who would ring me to tell? Nobody knows. The future is a long gloved hand. An empty cup. A marriage. A full house. One night per week in stranger’s white sheets. Forget tomorrow, you say, don’t mention love. I try. It doesn’t work. I assault the postman for a letter. I look for flowers. I go over and over our times together, re-read them. This very second I am waiting on the phone. Silver service. I polish it. I dress for it. I’ll give it extra in return for your call. Infuriatingly, it sends me hoaxes, wrong numbers; or worse, calls from boring people. Your voice disappears into my lonely cotton sheets. I am trapped in it. I can’t move. I want you. All the time. This is awful – only a photo. Come on, damn you, ring me. Or else. What? I don’t know what.”
One of the things I love teaching is Free Verse poetry, where you have no rules like punctuation to bother you, especially when you may have difficulty with commas and semi colons and the like. But many students say to me they cannot write poetry, so I ask them to think of a certain theme, like this one of love and simply write the first thing that comes to mind in their heads about love. I ask them to write a paragraph in as much detail as possible and then, I show them a technique shown to me by my teacher trainer at university, whereby you add one of these [/] between words where you want a line to end in your poem and where you want one or two words to have so much impact on the reader. You know the sort of thing, where you maybe are making a point.
So, consider these words for a moment……
“love is the sort of thing that confuses some people it gets under their skin it allows them to feel pain and it turns them into something incomprehensible and makes it possible that they can hurt others love is something that is beautiful and glorious it is the sort of thing that enriches the heart blesses the soul and makes a person glow with pride love is many things it is wonderful and glorious desperate and saddening beautiful to behold and painful to experience”
Notice the lack of punctuation? Now consider where the lines would end and you get this….
“love is the sort of thing/ that confuses some people/ it gets under their skin/ it allows them to feel pain/ and it turns them/ into something incomprehensible/ and makes it possible/ that they can hurt others/ love is something/ that is beautiful and glorious/ it is the sort of thing /that enriches the heart/ blesses the soul/ and/ makes a person glow/ with pride/ love is many things/ it is wonderful/ and glorious/ desperate and saddening/ beautiful to behold/ and/ painful to experience”
So when we split it up and add some capital letters at the beginning of each line, what we get is something that resembles a poem. You give it a title.
Love is the sort of thing
That confuses some people
It gets under their skin
It allows them to feel pain
And it turns them
Into something incomprehensible
And makes it possible
That they can hurt others
Love is something
That is beautiful and glorious
It is the sort of thing
That enriches the heart
Blesses the soul
Makes a person glow
Love is many things
It is wonderful
Desperate and saddening
Beautiful to behold
Painful to experience.
It is such an easy thing to do because there is no need to use rhyme, so when I see a poem like the last one in the OCR Anthology Love and Relationships section, I rejoice because such as this is easy to understand if you think of it as just the thoughts of someone who has decided to write down her thoughts.
So what is this last poem about then? Well, with immediate effect, we see and hear a speaker who is wasting time again, as in at least one other poem from the section. She says “I am spending my time imagining the worst that could happen.” What possible reason does she have to do such a thing as this if she is in love? Does it show a personality that finds it difficult to trust? If you are deeply in love, then one could argue that trust should come a little bit easier. But what do we mean by being “in love?” She adds “I know this is not a good idea, and that being in love, I could be spending my time going over the best that has been happening,” but there is still an element of distrust here in the words. We use a phrase in English where we ask students to “read between the lines,” which in one sense is idiotic because between the lines there is nothing but silence, but what we mean is from your perspective as a reader, what do you think is missing between words or lines of poetry or prose? In other words, given this first three line verse, what do you think she is really saying about love, or even, about herself? If anything, ten students can have ten different answers to that question, all of them valid ones.
A person with a lack of trust sees things that are maybe not there. Such a person reacts to life rather than being the sort of person who is ‘proactive’ in their relationships and this speaker is no different to the former sort of person for when the “phone rings heralding some disaster” she reacts thinking of “sirens.” But then she sees reality and thinks that when it does not ring, it “also means disaster.” There is nothing like being sure eh? In either case there are the expected “sirens” whether it be good or bad news or no news at all. Her argument, to herself, as if she is mulling over something possibly terrible, is that “who would ring me to tell? Nobody knows.” Remember I said that love can confuse a person in my five minute poem earlier [that’s how long it took to write]? Well, here in this verse is clear and incontrovertible proof that this is the case. One could argue, therefore, that love as a concept has not got any kind of future, that it is a waste of time [does this make you think of a poem in the section you can link this one to?] or that the effort of love brings nothing but chaos.
But, according to this poet, “the future is a long gloved hand.” Now what a fantastic image that really is. It makes me think of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or any film where someone gorgeous wears those long, arm length gloves with the ball gown and makes us all fall in love with the character. The future [of love?] she says, is an “empty cup” as well, or a “marriage.” Clearly, she is trying to think positively about this thing called love, trying to think in positive terms of a “full house” or even the possibility of “one night per week in stranger’s white sheets” and what is emerging is someone who is being successful at diminishing the negative aspects of love and someone who is able to “forget tomorrow” and all that it brings, both positive and negative.
The poet refers to advice given to her by her lover when she says “you say, don’t mention love” and even shares the fact that as much as she tries to be positive about love, she still finds that “it doesn’t work” because each time the mail comes she is at the door to “assault the postman for a letter.” This is someone for whom love is an obsession, linking looking “for flowers” and all the usual, traditional gifts. Can you remember another poem in the anthology where the poet hates the idea of gifts on a certain day? Well what we have here is the entire opposite, where she is ready for the postman to give her whatever it is that her lover has sent. It is therefore a poem to contrast with the other, should the need arise in the exam.
She says “I go over and over our times together, re-read them,” in her mind as if doing so is important to her, to remember the good times. For most people, who are in love, this does not happen. Yes, you remember the times when there is a need to remember the good times and you remember the bad ones less often so as to diminish the pain that love can bring. But this person is obsessive about love, needing its embrace as often as she can. She states that “this very second I am waiting on the phone” as if she is expecting a call, like a “silver service” waitress waiting for someone to raise their hand. While she does so, she cleans the phone and prepares herself for the arrival of that one wonderful voice, promising to “give it extra in return” for the call. But it gets her nowhere because what comes is a sense of irritation. “Infuriatingly” is a fantastic word to use because it fully epitomises the sense of utter desolation she feels when she does not receive the call, like the maid in the Duffy poem who does not receive the love back from her mistress.
In this instance, the phone she is holding, cleaning, willing to ring “sends [her] hoaxes, wrong numbers; or worse, calls from boring people.” What an annoyance that would be if you was in the same situation. Imagine for a moment waiting for an important call and then, the phone rings. You jump and squeal with anticipation, answering the phone, only to find that it is a business call, a scam call, a random call from nowhere and you begin talking as if it is to the lover you are waiting for. Now that would be horrendous indeed. It is also something that happens to us all at times as we wait for that “voice” that we want only to hear. In the end, in this poem, that voice “disappears into [her] lonely cotton sheets,” giving us [the reader] a sense of desolation again as something so expected drifts away into nothingness. Love, in this instance, is futile. She is “trapped in it” and “can’t move,” but in the end, with all this pain and heartache, all she can say is “I want you.” It is something so “awful” to endure when all she wants is “a photo.”
Have you ever been there and experienced such a thing as this, where you so badly want something to happen and it doesn’t? Well that level of frustration is something that is being shared here as she expresses the complete angst that love brings when she says “come on, damn you, ring me.” Now we see despair and annoyance after the beginning of irritation. She issues the usual threat of “or else” as we all do from time to time and then, as if someone has responded with a sarcastic comment, we hear her say “what?” But the truth is that she has no answer to this lack of contact, this lack of love. When she says “I don’t know what,” she is referring back to the very notion of love itself, never being able to understand fully the complexities of love itself.
So, here is a poem that shows the duality of love, the obsession and the desire, the beauty and the agony and attempts to share the experience of someone in love but for whom love has taken control of her senses, making her into something distrusting, someone who cannot love purely and someone who finds love extremely difficult to deal with. This is why it is such a good poem.