Song of the Day: Beirut, “Nantes”

Someday, I suppose, I might get tired of Beirut and this song. But that day isn’t today. I love the picture this band paints, and of course, I’m inexplicably a sucker for the accordion. Don’t ask me to explain; it’s one of the unanalyzed parts of my psyche. Somehow, I need to see this band live, preferably via a time machine so I can go back to last June and see them with Mumford and Sons and Arcade Fire in Hyde Park. Why can’t I just go to London whenever I want? Hmm.

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Sixty years in poems

Carol Ann Duffy, the current British poet laureate and a poet I typically teach in the Brit lit survey, has commissioned a collection called Sixty Years in Poems. Each poems commemorates a different year since Queen Elizabeth II became queen. (Side note: I always find talking about Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne bittersweet, more so since my father’s own death. Here’s a woman who became queen in the midst of grief. After all, you only become queen when the reigning monarch has passed. And by all accounts, she and her father were close. I suppose this is why coronation ceremonies are always a year later. Queen Victoria refused to celebrate her ascension to the throne on the actual day. Her coronation–also a year later–was the day after. She wanted to commemorate her uncle’s death.) If you didn’t know, 2012 marks Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee or sixty years as queen. It’s actually a big year for memorializations in England: it’s the bicentennial year for Dickens and Robert Browning, the 2012 Olympics in London, and the one year anniversary of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding (okay, so this one is more manufactured by People and Hello! magazines)

At any rate, the poetry Duffy has collected participates in this act of cultural memorialization. Jubilee years are odd creations. They mark the passing of time by almost marking the age of a monarch. Inherently they’re tied to the mortality of the reigning sovereign. Queen Victoria is still the longest reigning monarch at 63 years; George III–of American Revolution fame/infamy–is third. Long reigns are rare; they need a confluence of events–health and the monarch to be young when they become king or queen. Thus, Jubilees are moments of cultural celebration and of memorial nostalgia. (And if you can’t tell, the Brit lit survey in the fall is going to be looking at nostalgia, cultural memory, and trauma.) They also oddly celebrate the mundane as much as the large achievements of the age. The work I’m doing on Punch’s Jubilee Almanack focuses just as much on the iconography of Victoria as it does on the small moments of progress–postage stamps, chloroform, Babylonian digs, and the passing of great writers.

Perhaps this focus on the ordinary is why I love the smallness of the poems in Duffy’s collection. In focusing on a year, these poets don’t make sweeping statements about a point in time. In nodding to world events, these poems often turn away to focus on individualized experience. My favorite out the poems excerpted by the Guardian (link here) is the one for my birth year, 1977, incidentally, Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee year. It’s by Imtiaz Dharker.

1977 (I am quite sure of this)

Some Glaswegians still speak of the Silver Jubilee
and the Queen’s cavalcade sailing off
from George Square on a sea of Union Jacks.
Others recall that around the same time
the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen
was black-listed by the BBC

but what I remember is
that one night I danced in spangled
hotpants, with a boy in polyester
flares (I am quite sure of this),
in time, on track, one hand in the air,
one step forward, one step back.

Time is easily tangled. It falls over its own feet.
That year peeled itself as perfectly
as the rings around Uranus.
Smallpox was eradicated, miles of fibre optics
laid, personal computers offered to the masses.
People said it had never been so good

and what I remember is
the popcorn mix at Regal Cinema,
salt over sweet, the triumph of good
over evil, light-sabres slashing the air
in synchronised time, on track,
one step forward, one step back.

People said it had never been so bad,
Bengal hit by a cyclone, snow in Miami,
New York plunged into darkness.
and out of the sky a fireball fell on Innisfree.
People said it was a sign. And that was the year
Steve Biko died.

Other people died in other years, but that year
Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin died.
Jacques Prevert and Robert Lowell died.
In Memphis, Elvis died. Still,
someone called Roy Sullivan was struck
by lightning for the seventh time
and survived

but because of the odd way time unfolds,
what I remember is the last few seconds,
the countdown under a glitterball
(I am quite sure of this),
light flashing in your eyes
and your hair as you moved
in time, on track, one hand in the air,
one step forward, one step back,

and ah, ah, ah, ah,
staying alive. Staying alive.

It’s the double commemoration here–a poem that begins with the Silver Jubilee for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee–that in part makes this poem resonate for me. But it’s also the stanza about watching Star Wars and the last lines about disco. Who would have thought to tie a Jubilee celebration to those cultural moments?

Philip Larkin

A poetry reading with Zadie Smith and Andrew Sullivan? And the poet of choice is Philip Larkin? Sounds like my kind of night. The New Yorker review is here. Audio of Andrew Sullivan reading “The Whitsun Weddings” here and Zadie Smith reading “The Old Fools” here. I think I might be using these clips in my Brit Lit survey in the Fall.