A Present-Minded Lover: UA Fanthorpe

It’s been a good and bad week for female (and lesbian) poets, with the appointment of Carol Ann Duffy as the UK’s first female Poet Laureate, and the death of UA Fanthorpe – who Duffy acclaims in today’s Guardian as “an unofficial, deeply loved laureate for so many people for so many years”.

We’ve already featured Duffy’s poem Steam as one of our Dirty Monday poems, but Fanthorpe was the opposite of a dirty poet: a former English teacher, a hospital clerk, a Quaker, a late poet in both senses, her first verse not published until her 40s. It is a poetry full of quiet observations, of people in waiting rooms, in photographs and paintings, and, too, of religion. But its quietness is often its strength, as she reveals in one of her most loving poems, ‘Atlas’, from her collection Safe as Houses:

There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it

Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;

Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes; which deals with dentists

And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds

The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living, which is Atlas.

And maintenance is the sensible side of love,
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air,
As Atlas did the sky.

Her earliest poems, written while working in a hospital, have titles like ‘Julie (encephalitis)’ and ‘Alison (head injury)’ and initiated a kind of ventriloquism that was to become her trademark. Even when approaching weightier subjects, as in ‘BC:AD’, a Christmas favourite, she was capable of writing in a calm and very accessible voice:

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect.
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.

My favourite poem however, is probably her most popular one: ‘Not my Best Side’, her cheeky and subversive retelling of Paolo Uccello’s painting Saint George and the Dragon (reproduced above):

I

Not my best side, I’m afraid.
The artist didn’t give me a chance to
Pose properly, and as you can see,
Poor chap, he had this obsession with
Triangles, so he left off two of my
Feet. I didn’t comment at the time
(What, after all, are two feet
To a monster?) but afterwards
I was sorry for the bad publicity.
Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror
Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride
A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?
Why should my victim be so
Unattractive as to be inedible,
And why should she have me literally
On a string? I don’t mind dying
Ritually, since I always rise again,
But I should have liked a little more blood
To show they were taking me seriously.

II

It’s hard for a girl to be sure if
She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite
Took to the dragon. It’s nice to be
Liked, if you know what I mean. He was
So nicely physical, with his claws
And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail,
And the way he looked at me,
He made me feel he was all ready to
Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.
So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,
On a really dangerous horse, to be honest
I didn’t much fancy him. I mean,
What was he like underneath the hardware?
He might have acne, blackheads or even
Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon–
Well, you could see all his equipment
At a glance. Still, what could I do?
The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,
And a girl’s got to think of her future.

III

I have diplomas in Dragon
Management and Virgin Reclamation.
My horse is the latest model, with
Automatic transmission and built-in
Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,
And my prototype armour
Still on the secret list. You can’t
Do better than me at the moment.
I’m qualified and equipped to the
Eyebrow. So why be difficult?
Don’t you want to be killed and/or rescued
In the most contemporary way? Don’t
You want to carry out the roles
That sociology and myth have designed for you?
Don’t you realize that, by being choosy,
You are endangering job prospects
In the spear- and horse-building industries?
What, in any case, does it matter what
You want? You’re in my way.

UA Fanthorpe’s works are all available from Peterloo Poets. The title of this post is taken from The Absent-Minded Lover’s Apology (1995).

Posted May 2, 2009 | Comments Off on A Present-Minded Lover: UA Fanthorpe.
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