John Philip Drury
Pine Row No. 1 Spring 2020 - Featured Poet
The Teller’s Love Life
Abby was old enough to be my mother
so that’s why, naturally enough, I thought
maybe she was my mother, not my sister.
She would have been 18 when I was born,
not an adult, but easy to conceal
in a home for wayward girls in another state.
I was nine years old when Daddy killed himself
and Abby married, alone with a so-called mother
and Sarah, the middle sister who broke my nose,
pushing me upstairs to the attic. Visit
the sprawling house, and on the wooden stairs
my blood stains are still there. Mother took cruises,
and while she sipped her high-balls in Bermuda
Sarah took care of me. Some joke! She had
the meanest eyes—oh, she was beautiful
but heartless—even her hands were mean, mean, mean.
The year I went to college, a finishing school
they forced me to attend, Abby was driving
Mother and Mrs. Stafford to the beach,
wearing sunglasses, but they blocked her view.
A Victor Lynn truck smashed into the car,
crushed Abby, killing her and Mrs. Stafford,
whose family sued and won. Mother was saved
by the suitcase she was holding on her lap,
but she was injured badly. I dropped out
to come back home and nurse her back to health.
They took what Abby left me in her will,
not just the money, which was bad enough,
but the huge Persian cat that we adored.
His name was Snooks. The picture in my locket,
even now, is Abby holding Snooks, bouffant
of gray fur, sweet expressions on both their faces.
But Sarah took it upon herself to take him
to the vet, have him put to sleep. She boasted,
“That was the happiest day of my whole life.”
I can’t help crying. Makes me so damned mad.
But I got back at her. She came to dinner,
one Thanksgiving, and when I served the turkey,
I asked her, “Sarah, does it meet your standards?”
“Why yes, indeed,” she said, and so I said,
“I cooked it in the roasting pan we used
for Snooks’s litter box.” She stopped mid-bite,
spit out the morsel, got up, grabbed her husband,
and wouldn’t even speak to me for a year.
It was well worth the silence. But we made up,
at least enough for civilized reunions,
and even spent our holidays together.
Blood is thicker, you know. She must have known
in her devil’s heart that she had done me wrong,
ganging up on me, siding with Mother,
treating me like the orphan that I was.
Growing up in that house, haunted by death,
paying for room and board when I was twelve,
I felt like Cinderella, her evil stepsisters
rolled into Sarah. I didn’t get a prince,
although I married, and so I had to wait
year after year in a tiny Cape Cod cottage
built in the side-yard of the monstrous house
that towered like a yacht above its dinghy,
until I met a glamorous soprano,
sweet as Abby, loving and vivacious,
an opera singer who stepped off the stage
to rescue me—a “pants role” she performed,
playing Siébel to Ezio Pinza’s Faust,
outdoors at night, lions roaring, when the Met
spent summers at the Cincinnati Zoo—
so we could live, love, princesses together.
Interview with John Philip Drury
by Hank Hudepohl, Pine Row Editor
(1) The poem “The Teller's Love Life” covers a wide range of emotion—at turns tragic, then a hilarious and bitter revenge, and finally new hope. What was the greatest challenge, and perhaps the most unexpected discovery, in writing this poem?
When I composed the first draft (in pen on a pad of lined paper), I had recently finished writing a book-length memoir about my mother and her partner, a lyric soprano who had given hundreds of recitals all over the country. So I was immersed in the drama and details of my mother’s life, the many stories she had told me. Whenever I think about her, I always hear her voice, probably because she was a virtuoso of talking. Unconsciously, I think I wanted to compress the many turns her life took, the choices she had made, the circumstances that thwarted much of what she wanted, the essence of her passions. So I channeled her voice and let her speak through a dramatic monologue (as I have done in other poems, acting as a kind of medium).
But I was thinking, in particular, of a picture in a locket: her elder sister Abby holding her cat. The original title of the poem was “Elegy for the Good Sister,” and the first draft, which I wrote in one sitting, already had the arc of the final poem. As usual, though, I felt unsatisfied, bothered by an uneasy sense of something still lacking in the language and imagery. It took me several years to realize that the poem actually moved beyond a lament for my mother’s late sister—merely its “triggering subject,” as Richard Hugo puts it—so I retitled the poem “My Mother and the Women in Her Life.” But that was unsatisfying too, because it encompassed both the women she loved and those she hated. Since the last stanza already began with a volta (or turn, as in a sonnet) where sisterly love metamorphosed into romantic love for a beautiful woman who reminded her of that sister, I wanted to develop the dramatic situation and emphasize the transformation my mother underwent when she met and fell in love with “a glamorous soprano, / sweet as Abby, loving and vivacious, / an opera singer who stepped off the stage / to rescue me.” The cottage where she lived became a “dinghy,” really a lifeboat, next to “the monstrous house / that towered like a yacht,” and that tiny house is where the two women became lovers, “princesses together.” But I thought I also needed to make this rescuer real, not some dreamy figment, so I included a detail about Carolyn Long’s professional singing career: “playing Siébel to Ezio Pinza’s Faust, / outdoors at night, lions roaring, when the Met / spent summers at the Cincinnati Zoo.” It was an intentional bonus that the performance took place in the city where my mother eventually died, a secret link to Carolyn. The poem, I discovered, was really about love, its triumph over all sorts of hatred, so I retitled it one more time, combining my mother’s job as a bank teller (as well as her gift of gab as a story-teller) with her favorite ice-breaker whenever she encountered someone she hadn’t seen in a while: “How’s your love life?” It became the third poem in a series of “Teller” monologues in her voice.
(2) As a full time professor, how do you find time to write? What are your writing habits, good and/or bad?
It’s hard for me to find the free time and the clear mind to write much poetry during any semester, but occasionally I write drafts based on prompts I have given my students, both undergraduate and graduate. Although I’ve kept a daily schedule when writing memoir chapters, staying away from email and websites until I’ve done enough prose for the day, with poems I go in streaks, alert for impulses and sudden clusters of words that lure me into the spell of composition. When that urge comes on, I get out my pen and find a legal pad. Sometimes, though, if I’m driving or walking or taking a shower, I start composing in my head, memorizing as I go, transferring the mental draft to paper or my laptop as soon as I get the chance. But I also file many drafts, often fragments like Turner’s “color beginnings,” into folders, with or without typing them up, and discover them years later, like time capsules, and start revising then.
(3) While it may be impossible to single out a specific style or trait, what do you think are some of the defining qualities of poetry being written in the United States today?
Diversity (in terms of form as well as personal identity) is central to our poetry now—a welcome and overdue development. It’s exhilarating to encounter the full range of people, experiences, backgrounds, and poetic approaches in contemporary poetry. I want my poetic fare to be varied, the menu wide-ranging, but I don’t want any of it generalized, homogenized. I’m attracted to specific details, palpable language, verbal music, and a deep engagement with human concerns. I listen for voices that delight and instruct (without being explicitly didactic), as Horace says they should.
(4) Donald Hall claimed to revise his poems 250 to 300 times. Seamus Heaney said that a few of his most famous poems were “quickies”—written in one brief sitting. How do you approach revision in your writing?
Thomas Hardy said that a poem loses its freshness after a few drafts. Goethe wrote his second “Wanderer’s Night Song” in one burst and scrawled it on the wall of a cabin on Kickelhahn mountain. I usually write fast and repent (in the form of revising) at leisure. It often takes me years to figure out how to change and finish a draft that came to me suddenly.
(5) Anything else you’d like to add in your bio (upcoming or recent book, a link to a personal website, blog, etc)
My mother appears as a character and speaks in “The Ruined Aristocrat” (just published in the Winter 2019 issue of Able Muse). This longish poem has three sections: “All-Night Radio Call-In Show” is a blank-verse dialogue based on my mother’s conversation with film director John Waters on a radio program in the 1980s, during which she suggested they might be related; “The Ballad of Edward Waters” tells the story of a man who might be our common ancestor, a scoundrel who was shipwrecked in Bermuda in 1609 and tried to smuggle a fortune in ambergris which he and two other castaways had discovered; “If My Mother Had Dialed the Director’s Private Number” speculates on how my mother’s life might have changed if she had joined the stock company of actors, the Dreamlanders, who have appeared in his movies, such as Pink Flamingos. The real, unspoken connection between my mother and John Waters was that he was openly gay and she lived with a woman she considered her secret wife, a former opera singer who had become a second mother to me when I was eight years old. They had to deny their relationship and call themselves “cousins” so they could rent apartments together. The final section of the poem refers to them as “roommates, two / women alone, though no one else knew how, / decades ago, they’d traded wedding vows.”
John Philip Drury is the author of four full-length poetry collections: The Disappearing Town and Burning the Aspern Papers (both from Miami University Press), The Refugee Camp (Turning Point Books), and most recently Sea Level Rising (Able Muse Press). He has also written Creating Poetry and The Poetry Dictionary. He teaches at the University of Cincinnati.