Illustration: Polly Crossman
Illustration: Polly Crossman

MY LIFE IN POEMS

A poem for the end of summer and the start of whatever comes next

September brings the promise of new things and the big unknown. With the help of the poem Peanut Butter, Ella Risbridger has resolved to embrace it 

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By Ella Risbridger on

Somehow, autumn came in right on time to London this year.

1 September, and the streets are suddenly scudded with leaves the colour of watered-down ochre, and faded yellowing arsenic green. The sky is the mottled, whitish grey of old mould; and there’s a lingering, thick humidity in the air: the kind that makes getting dressed into a complicated set of questions and compromises. Too clammy for a cardigan; too damp to go coatless; too breezy for bare arms.

I love it: that new term, new pencils, back-to-school feeling. Even now, I buy new notebooks; sharpen my pencils; deep clean the house. I do this, or something like it, every year: all the things I embrace as new are in fact old things, re-released. I love the idea of getting to do it over; to start again with an empty ruled page and a sharp striped pencil and no mistakes made yet.

This is partly a hangover from school, of course, but partly I think it’s that September is my birthday: I always think that this year will be the year. The year that I get organised; get it together. The year I make a plan, and stick to it. This year, though? This year I have no idea.

My birthday is on Tuesday; before then, John will have left London, I will have left the country, and so many things will be different. This new column. John’s new rehab unit. My new freedoms. I’ve fought for these changes, just as hard as I could. I’ve fought for them, and yet there’s this bit of a poem that’s repeating in my head: And I am an enemy of change, as you know…

It’s from a poem called Peanut Butter, by Eileen Myles. I love Eileen Myles: I love their straightforward frankness. I love that they wrote once: there is an argument/ for poetry being deep but I am not that argument. I love that they write in a way that makes what they’re writing about real: there’s no haze of “literariness” standing in between you and the thing Myles is writing.

This one is such a real poem; in the short short lines you can practically smell the tinny, processed scent of the peanut butter, the algae on the pond, the sweat and suncream and curls of steam off the mug of tea. It’s a summer poem: about love and wanting and maybe nostalgia, about sex, about peanut butter and
swimming,
the sensation of
being dirty in
body and mind
summer as a
time to do
nothing and make
no money.

It’s weird to me that the poem that I’m thinking about as the summer fades is a poem about the joys of summer, but maybe that’s the point.

I’m no good at letting the future unroll as it will. I want to know now, everything; I want to write it all out without mistakes, as if by writing I can make things stay.

Sometimes I think that poems about summer – especially the kind of kid-summer, peanut-butter-summer, swim-naked-in-ponds summer – are always nostalgic, and nostalgia is always about change. Change that’s happening, change that’s going to happen.

Maybe in time I’ll be nostalgic about these last terrible months in London; I doubt it. But you never know. I’ll let you know in a few years, when this summer has faded like all summers do.

Maybe that’s why I’m thinking of this poem now: you can hate change as much as you want but it’s going to come anyway. Nature/ is out of control/ you tell me &/ that’s what’s so/ good about/ it…

I have to confess: I’m no good at being out of control. I’m no good at letting the future unroll as it will. I want to know now, everything; I want to write it all out without mistakes, as if by writing I can make things stay. (I/ write because/ I would like/ to be used for/ years after/ my death…)

But then, here’s a thing: Myles says all these thoughts – and maybe the poem they’re writing?– are like a playground
where I play
with my reflection
of you until
you come back
and into the
real you I
get to sink
my teeth.

You can’t live inside a poem. I can’t live inside my head: we need something as real as that dirty-water-peanut-butter-compost-body feeling Myles is telling you over and over again is what matters. I can’t keep writing the same things forever. You’ve got to have something true to sink your teeth into, like:
constant
love, a sand-
wich in the
middle of
day,
a tiny step
in the vastly
conventional
path of
the Sun.

This poem doesn’t stop with being an enemy of change: it goes on, through the summer, and into accidental Proust, and cups of tea, and being immoderately/in love. It goes on even though you don’t quite know where you’re going. You can’t plan it: I have/ no desire to know/ where this, anything,/ is getting me…

Where am I going with this? Where’s this column going to take us, where’s John’s new rehab unit going to take him, what’s going to happen while I’m away?

I have absolutely no idea, and although I’ve always been an enemy of change, I can’t keep trying to make it stop. That’s not how life works. I don’t think this is really what Eileen Myles meant this poem to mean to me. I don’t know how to figure out what Eileen Myles meant.

But a friend sends me a line from a letter Myles wrote to their younger self:

You know those drums you saw one day gleaming in the basement of one of those boys in Lexington. You wanted to sit down and play even though you don't know how. You should do it.

And here’s the last line of this poem:

I
squint. I
wink. I
take the
ride.

It suddenly seems pretty clear cut to me. I should do it anyway. We should do it. A new season, new lives, new world to get our teeth into.

Let’s take the ride.

@missellabell

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Illustration: Polly Crossman
Tagged in:
Poetry
new season
My life in poems

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