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Poem of the Day: Ted Hughes – “Pike”

Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.

Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.

In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads-
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds

The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date:
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: red fry to them-
Suddenly there were two. Finally one

With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb-

One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks-
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them-

Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly toward me, watching.

Filed under: Books, Culture, Poetry, ,

Billie Holiday – Lady Sings the Blues (1956)

Published in 1956 and ghost-written by William Dufty, Billie Holiday’s autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues” was later made into an Oscar-nominated film and has perpetuated some of the myths surrounding Holiday’s eventful life. But while Dufty may be ghost-writer, make no mistake that this is Billie in her own words. The streetwise phrases, the patois, the slang, it’s all there. What emerges is a distinctive narrative voice. It is perhaps a cliche to say it reads like a diary, but more than any other autobiography I have read there’s a real closeness, intimacy, and a complete lack of holding back.

So what, if these are Holiday’s words, was Dufty’s role? A writer and editor at the New York Post, Dufty was married to Billie’s friend Maely and the book was written from conversations with the singer at the Duftys’ New York apartment (as well as from previous interviews.) But it’s so clearly Billie that you almost forget Dufty’s involvement beyond editing and fashioning it into a presentable, readable state (but Dufty does deserve major credit for bringing the book to life.)

Billie comes across as tough and streetwise but with a heart of gold. There may be factual inaccuracies along the way (her mother and father are not believed to have married, and were a little older than the book states) but the voice is so vivid and absorbing. “Lady Sings the Blues” takes us from the poverty of her Baltimore childhood through her spell in a Catholic reformatory institution after she was molested as a child to the bright lights but harsh realities of Harlem, where Billie found herself in jail for prostitution and then became a surprise star on the Harlem club scene.

We learn all about the advent of her singing career, tempered by episodes of horrifying racism, ill-fated relationships, and heroin addiction that, after her one-year jail term in 1947-48, cost her lucrative spots in New York night clubs. In between there are numerous delightful episodes with a surprise cast of characters including Clark Gable, Sarah Vaughan, and Lana Turner, and asides about her views on drug addiction and the healthcare system of America compared to Europe. The chapter about her European tour in 1954 is one of the book’s most heart-warming and heart-breaking at once; here is a woman filled with joy and excitement about going to Europe and finding herself genuinely surprised and delighted by the positive reception she gets, the warm-hearted fans, the knowledgeable critics, and the newspapers that do not skew her words.

It’s a book I couldn’t put down. Vivid and full of life to the last, it seems to echo Billie’s policy of dusting herself off and carrying on. There’s no preaching or self-pitying, and while the story is often unbearably tragic, Billie herself never comes across as a tragic figure. She’s tough, she’s smart, she’s funny, but she’s never tragic or miserable. In the end, it’s a pretty inspirational story. The fact that she died only three years after its publication adds an extra poignant note to proceedings. It’s difficult to get cold hard facts about a life as tangled and shrouded in mystery and myth as Billie Holiday’s, but “Lady Sings the Blues” is a wonderful companion to her music and, with an enlightening introduction and short essay on the picks of her discography by critic David Ritz, this 50th anniversary edition is the way to go.

Filed under: Books, Culture, Music, , , ,