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Homage to Greta GarboJohn Burnside
Vol. 26 No. 17 · 2 September 2004

Homage to Greta Garbo

John Burnside

224 words

I have a dream I wake from, now and then,
mostly in summer, the swallows etching my walls
with shadow, eider drowsing on the firth,
the gold light in the street trees
thick with gnats:

surprised, as I slip from my bed, to see
my neighbours’ cars, their bedroom windows
curtained, someone
moving on the street – a paper boy,
the milkman on his rounds –

when, only a moment before, I’d walked through town
on just such a morning as this, the swallows
hatching the walls in my head, the street trees
clouded with sunlight and gnats, but
nothing else:

no paper boy, no curtains drawn on lives
that I had always thought
too much like theatre;
no one moving in the world
but me, so I could pass through any door
and wander easily from room to room,

unhindered and unobtrusive, nobody home
to be offended when I opened drawers
and cupboards for the drama of a world
left unpossessed, the objects in themselves,
that no one else had ever touched or seen,

props for a play that no one was there to perform,
their reason for being unknown, till the angel descended
to set things in motion, with one final link in the puzzle:
a bread knife, a needle, a hairbrush, an unwound clock,
a fairytale apple, dusted with shadows and venom.

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London Review of Books,
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Vol. 26 No. 18 · 23 September 2004

I know poems are not arguments, but John Burnside’s poem (LRB, 2 September) in homage to Greta Garbo was lovely enough to count as a good argument. The speaker wakes up to find swallows etching his walls with shadow, and captures a big thing or two about solitariness, if that’s not too juicy a word for loneliness. Garbo, of course, very much wanted to be alone, but there are some quite specific things to be said about her walls too, the ones of the Sutton Place apartment she occupied for years in New York. In one of his ditties, Truman Capote swears (I know, I know, but when it comes to good stories I think it’s a case of any port in a storm) that Garbo’s walls were hung with Picassos. ‘The only problem was,’ he said, ‘they were upside down.’ When pressed, Capote recalled they were pictures from the funny period, two faces and so on, a detail which suits Capote rather well when you think of it. Anyhow, he was backed up. A few other people have sworn that Garbo’s Picassos were upside down. This adds nothing at all to Burnside’s poem, but it might occasionally help him (and the rest of us) out of our blue period.

Hamilton Scott

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London Review of Books
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London, WC1A 2HN

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