How To Be Old: Poems
The Cuba Press
The first thing that hits me about Rachel McAlpine’s work here – in her new book, a victory lap of poetry! – is the joyousness she feels about being alive; everything, all of it. The good, the bad (is there really any ‘bad’ when you’re up and breathing?) and everything in between, from boredom to drilling down into the minutiae. These poems are sly though, because you read again and see how clever they are. How tight the form is, sharp rhymes that reinforce the humour and remind you that this 80 year old poet of a dozen volumes (and writer of many more things besides) has both wit and wisdom in equal measure. And is not to be fucked with at all.
Erm, to that point – the verse in ‘Lust’:
Round about August 2004
I stopped lusting after men
and men stopped lusting after me.
The end. No more.
I laughed and laughed as I read and re-read that (and the whole poem, and several others in this celebration of life and living – and loving). It’s that deft control that hits me, sucker-punch style actually, deceptive. There’s a candidness to this – even when Rachel is setting up a trick from the outset (‘A family secret’). Here she opens by telling us she will never be honest with us (“my reader”, she charms). She has often talked of her mother, father and sisters but, she tells us, there are daughters sons and grandchildren too. She’ll never mention them to us, she says, as she mentions them to us…
In the last stanza she is all at once fierce and tender as she tells us that if Death (“that bastard”) was ever to eye them up she would jump in the way – right away:
“I will always bellow, ‘Look at me!
I’m old. Pick me. Pick me’.”
Old family homes are referenced with the odd hint of something salty trickling from the eye. The role in life when retired is contemplated. These are poems concerned with mindfulness and meditation, routine and the rhythm of life. They shine in turn as their own examples of meditations, and little wisdoms, there’s two rhythms in these works – the one that binds them from pen to page and the one that still allows them to soar free from breath to the stage.
And I just love the energy that bounds – and abounds…
“I’m 80 and it’s getting late/so I’m rushing at this like a bull at a gate”.
She worries, later in that same poem (‘Foreword’) about how to keep moving forward when feeling like you’re running out of time. Her solution? To stop talking to herself and start talking to you (us, all of us, whoever is reading or listening).
Many of these poems, I reckon, have an added resonance – post-lockdown. And that’s going to happen with a lot of art that we contemplate. We’ll hear even more in some songs, see even more in some films. There’ll be works that were created before any Government officials in any place anywhere stepped in to try to take control, to guide ships, to reassure us as best they could in uncertain times. But they’ll be released into a world that exists (fingers crossed) long after the first attempts to return to anything approaching normal. So they gain resonance just for existing. For surviving.
But Rachel’s words are forever wise – so I believe it’s less a fluke that these words feel and seem so clever, have lashings of extra meaning, have layers of thought. That was folded into this work, with care, with the authority of hospital corners.
And her activism – for aging and against ageism – is thrilling in these pages (‘It’s a thing’). And bloody funny too (‘Getting old is not like getting pregnant’).
Mostly I’m in awe of the outlook – the idea that contemplation and explanation are natural bedfellows; to think and to mull and to chew over and work on is all good, but to voice it, to speak, to share, and to do so with full confidence is the icing. The rest is just cake.
I love this book. It feels like a gift. The way the very best books do. Go buy yourself this gift. Share it with others of course. But give this gift to yourself. Whatever age, whichever stage, you’ll find comfort in these words and inspiration from this writer.
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