When Because We’re Poets asked us to introduce a poet it didn’t take me long to think of a few, but the one I’m introducing today is Michael Ashley. I’ve read and commented on other poems he’s written and posted on Poetry Circle, but it wasn’t until his poem Auntie Doreen where I was truly aware of his talents as a writer (that was also the same day where I discovered Aprille, another excellent poet whose work deserves more attention.) So with Michael’s permission here’s Auntie Doreen:
her laugh is a warm pair of arms
wrapped tight around my waist,
in the waiting room
every face is the shape of a bluebell,
every smile as precious as bright
yellow crocus tips
pushing their way, gently through snow.
there’s a heart as big as any tumour
thumping hard against the cage,
the jangling bones hold everything in,
and then there’s the eyes
fading away with each priceless blink,
slowly retracting to sleep,
to peace, and finally to silence.
at your funeral the children spoke
they said, “she’s in a better place”
light falls softly through the stained glass
across the furrows above the vicar’s eyes,
and I wonder about this better place
what colour the walls would be,
how a window would swing open
a large oak bench in the centre,
the yellow eyes of Lilies scattering their pollen
upon the whiteness of a table cloth.
The first thing that stood out to me was how this poem treats its subject matter. Usually poems about the death of a loved one are rather banal and melodramatic, but Auntie Doreen is far greater than most poems of the same subject matter. This is because the writing never falls into bathos; there are a number of places where the poem could have easily fallen into triteness but not here. The first two lines aren’t exactly cliches but they almost seem common and could have been written by others in other poems. This is the first place where Michael could have turned this into poem into common schlock but instead we get “in the waiting room” and four lines of strong images that are not only memorable but tell you more information about the titular figure of the poem. We get how Auntie Doreen affects everyone including the speaker (who I’m guessing is a child) and how she manages to bring comfort to everyone despite her presumed illness. I’m not one to tout the “show, don’t tell” approach to writing for there are cases where telling can be just as, or even more effective than showing, but in this case we are shown the kind of person Auntie Doreen is in just a few lines that also manage to contain good imagery. Any other poem would have created a list or stuffed description down the throat of the reader, but not here. The flower imagery, also, is not forced here and is not banal.
I think I might have told Michael that the second stanza was the best, but after rereading I realize that it is probably the weakest as it lacks the strong moments and breadth of information we get in the rest of the poem but it still serves as a good transition between the waiting room and funeral scene. The first two lines in S2 are almost a bit trite, but aren’t that bad, just weak compared to the rest of the poem. But we then get: “fading away with each priceless blink, / slowly retracting to sleep, / to peace, and finally to silence.” These lines are fantastic and contain a nice music. Notice how it says to peace instead of to silence. The switching of the words makes it more interesting for the reader and encourages the reader to think more about what is actually being said.
S3 is also great. We get some good lines such as: “light falls softly through the stained glass / across the furrows above the vicar’s eyes,” and the last line is utterly fantastic. Instead of getting pounded over the head we get a nice image and a great scene of what the speaker imagines what the afterlife might be like for Auntie Doreen. I’ve read a number of poems like this one and I’ve probably even read one or two with similar scenes in the same sequence, but none were executed as well as this. Instead, it reminds me more of Robert Frost whose poems contain a nice music and tone that carries you along with the poem.