In our first conversation, we talked about re-reading poems. This is of course something we already do, either without thinking much about it, when the same poems crop up in our reading over time, or more intentionally, when studying a poem.
But a friend told me about a podcast, The Worst Idea of All Time, where the hosts watch the same bad films, week in, week out, for a year, and make a podcast discussing the film after every viewing. I loved the extravagance of this concept, the obsessiveness, and the idea that, by coming back to the same work again and again, you might find things you’d never otherwise have noticed. We set out on a kind of advent calendar reading experience – to try reading and responding to the same poem every day for two weeks. The poem we chose was ‘Dear Faye’ from Didicoy by Karen Downs-Barton (with more on this in Chloe’s piece), which won The Poetry Business’ 2022 International Book & Pamphlet Competition.
Dear Faye, ask me about the day we were caught stealing in auntie Barbara’s dining room her posh flat on Streatham Hill ask me about our guilt as horrified faces peered under the lace edged tablecloth and saw an open box of dog biscuits between us ask me about the bone shapes that smelt of Farley’s Rusks arranged in coloured rows on paper doilies the pinks were a disappointment like blown rose petals the blacks etched our teeth and tastebuds with the grit of fire grate ash
The following messages have been copied verbatim from a messenger chat spanning two weeks in May.
Day one of reading this poem! and although I had scanned it before, somehow it is only now that I realise it’s a poem about eating dog food! What a strangely visceral experience! My first impression of this poem is that it’s funny – but also the description of the dog food is quite beautiful, and the whole thing has this intimacy to it – it feels like you are crouched under the table cloth with the two young friends (or maybe sisters?) I like it, but I’m not feeling hugely strongly about it yet. I’m looking forward to reading it again tomorrow!
I don’t know who Faye is or if I’d like her. Maybe she’s stuck on the same delayed service to York as I am. Maybe she heard me talking to the kind man at Piccadilly with the softest hint of a geordie accent, who pronounced vegan veygan; who spoke well about Sydney. It’s okay you’re going back North he said. The more I think about places, it’s less about the weather and more about people, he says.
Where is Streatham hill? All my friends now live in London in posh flats. I stayed with a friend who now lives in South Kensington and he told me to eat the posh Brie for breakfast.
Look, it has this layer of truffle in it, he said.
Day 2 and I feel pretty fond of this poem already. Today I am wondering if there is a kind of desperation to the repeated ‘ask me’s, and what the fear is there. Like, if we don’t tell each other our childhood memories, something will be lost? Or do they need reminding of their relationship to each other? Or is the speaker really fixated on this particular memory of the dog biscuits and needs a reason to put it into words? The ending, with the black from the dog biscuits etched into the children’s ‘teeth and taste buds’ suggests to me that the memory has etched itself into the speaker in the same way, and it doesn’t necessarily taste good (it involves guilt – and potentially shame) but it’s strong and deeply evocative.
Day 4. Today I’m noticing how short some of the lines are – the single word lines of petals and ash mirroring each other – the brightness of the petals giving way to the gritty ash. The ash makes me think of cinderella. I definitely remember the childish urge to eat things you’re not meant to eat. Once I thought a plate of pieces of butter moulded into flower shapes was a plate of white chocolates. Once I tried to eat weetabix without milk. Once my mother, as a child, was drawing and eating an apple and she took a bite of her crayon by mistake. Everything has a taste, I guess, even when it’s not meant to be eaten. And these dog biscuits sound so pretty, colourful, almost deluxe with the doilies!
Day 4. I’ve been really bad with sticking to daily rituals of reading this poem. What strikes me today is the dimensions of ‘open box’ and ‘dog biscuits’. It feels difficult to describe but the two words feel like a mirror image of each other. The rounded ‘o’ sounds have such a strong attendance, extending across the poem. There are so many textures going on, the word ‘peered’ has so many holes in it. Like a flowery doily, the kind that used to sit in the big oak drawers of my parents’ bedside table. I’m thinking of an embroidered tablecloth with holes in it, bits of faces threading through the mesh. And the bone shapes. I didn’t originally think of them as treats, but in a more literal sense, of hollowness and malted statues, like some portion of Galatea mid-build. The whole poem is like a catacomb, splitting out into different rows.
Day 5. The colours today strike me. I bought eight tulips yesterday for 60p and opted for a soggy white, plastic-wrapped bouquet. This morning they have blushed, arisen to a pink-tipped edge as if someone had taken the petals and gently kissed the tops of them, outlining the wrinkles and lipstick pigment they clung to. The porridge I’m eating is also pink, a blown rose in the bowl. Gravelly and stubbled, blobs of raspberry and raisin floating in the bowl. Petals is dedicated its own line which I’m sure I would never be brave enough to do. I don’t know if the word holds itself but I like the forced pause before blown rose. If the poem had to be described only according to colour it would be something like this – light blue, white then brown, brown brown, pink-grey, ash.
Day 5. I’m wondering why the family was gathered that day. Something about the open box, the bone shapes, the blown rose petals, the ash, and also the children having disappeared under the table, temporarily forgotten about, makes me think of going to my grandparents’ funerals as a child. But even if that’s completely off the mark, it feels like there’s something here that the poem isn’t telling us. The anecdote is specific but the relationship with Faye, how it stands today, is unclear. There’s an ache, to me, in the poem being called Dear Faye, and in the repetition of “ask me”. Maybe there’s always grief about the end of childhood. (This is why I cry at Little Women.)
Day 6?? Reading the poem late at night and still slightly high on adrenaline from roller derby, I’m struck by the way that the words “ask” and “ash” mirror each other, almost identical words which frame the poem. The final stanza drops the “ask me” – is this the answer to what’s been asked? Is the lingering disappointment of the pink and black dog biscuits what the speaker has been wanting to express? When the “ask me”s run out, the poem is finished, over – and we are left with the ash of it. Also thinking about the half rhymes / repeated long A sounds of the final stanza: blacks/taste/grate/ash. Something mournful about this sound. Something about the ash that sticks with me, that I can’t pin down.
Day 9. my yesterday entry was
I just want to crawl underneath a tablecloth and not go to work
Day 10. The flat feels hollow and Streathem feels like a long worm climbing into my body from a lake in Greece. I’m at the station on the way to a board meeting (why is it when I’m on a train, about to go somewhere I remember to read the poem?). Today is sunny but you can’t see the sun in the poem – it doesn’t stream through the holes in the tablecloth. Faye’s fires burn in the dark grate. In fact none of the colours are touched by light. I feel bad I didn’t have the discipline to do this properly, it wasn’t even a terrible Adam Sandler movie (although I do think he is a good actor). The scene reminds me of sitting in a women’s clinic. The peeling blue leather chairs. Watching the women who attend with partners, as they show them something on their phones, whilst the rest of us stare at them jealously. Pink and blues like a nurse’s scrubs, those blue paper sheets laid out and then scrunched into paper balls, as if there were no stains to begin with. I’m always a woman on her back waiting for someone to tell me something is finally wrong.
Day who knows? It’s been at least a week since I last read the poem, but coming back to it now, it’s so familiar I’ve almost learnt it by heart without meaning to. The past week or so, sometimes the lines ‘the pinks were a disappointment / like blown rose / petals’ have come into my mind, the rhythm of them, and the feeling that the line evokes in me. The sadness of that disappointment, of things not tasting as good as they looked, as good as you’d hoped. The ruin of the blown rose petals, that can never be put back together again, that will become less and less pink. The melancholy half-rhyme of ‘blown rose’. Reading a poem every day feels a little bit like falling in love. Something to do with the obsessiveness, the deepening understanding. There’s the idea that our brains can become addicted to people, and I wonder if there’s a version of that with poetry, if you read a poem enough times, then reading it releases certain good chemicals in our bodies. That’s what it feels like, anyway. The poem feels sadder than when I first read it, the horrified faces and the shame and the bitter, gritty aftertaste have come to take up more space in my reading of it. But the address of ‘Dear Faye’ and the repeated ‘ask me’ still speak to me of love. I think I love this poem now, so reading it (in a disorganised, unstructured way) feels like something ‘between us’, something shared.
KAREN IS ON THIS RETREAT
AS IN KAREN DIDICOY