In this Understory Conversation, Lorna Dowell chats with Anne Bailey. They look together at a poem Lorna chose from Anne’s new pamphlet.
The problem with magic There was a place on the third step down near the top of the stairs where a child was invisible. This is where the girl stood one afternoon when she was four years old and her father had gone out, leaving her, her brother and her mother alone in the house. There was a knock on the door and it was not a Fox, or a Troll, or a Wolf. It was her grandmother with the news of her father’s death. There was a moment, there on the step, when she knew that special powers were hers if she chose them. She gripped the handrail and turned to go back up the stairs where she made a promise to her baby brother asleep in his cot: I will make sure that evil will not befall us for the rest of our lives. There was the thrill of standing tall and strong, and through the window, the warmth of the rays of the sun. There is a mind in which this girl exists, still holding up the sky. It has never occurred to her that she could have chosen to cry. Anne Bailey, from What the House Taught Us, The Emma Press, 2021
Lorna Dowell: This is such a beautifully constructed and understated poem. In just twenty-one lines, it captures and encapsulates so perfectly the way, as children, we are oblivious of the potential consequences of decisions we don’t even realise that we are making.
Anne Bailey: The poem is based on a memory from when I was four years old. I was standing on the stairs as the front door opened to my grandparents who had come from the hospital to tell my mother that my father had died. I was in my nightie but it was daylight.
I had tried to write about this moment many times before. I had felt as if I knew instantly why they were there and I did go back upstairs to talk to my sleeping brother – but everything I wrote was just telling the story and there were too many things to explain.
LD: What you’re describing sounds very familiar to me – the need to rewrite and to pare back to get to the essence or core of an experience. And I think this poem illustrates how powerful it is when you find the right form. I love the way it’s all held together by the metaphor of the stairs and the structure, the tercets subliminally echoing the treads – the steps that the child takes in every sense.
AB: I think I was conscious of that. The prompt came from a poetry workshop – ‘a moment of sadness’. So, there I was on those stairs again but this time I was thinking about what happened next and the return up the stairs as a decision. In fact, in the workshop, we’d looked at the poem ‘The Deal’ by Annie Fisher. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but I think that idea of a ‘deal’ penetrated and I was also thinking about the magic of not being seen, which linked in to my feelings of omnipotence or ‘special power’.
But I didn’t want to get into that story-telling bind again. I remembered I had tried writing from the idea of ‘fairy story’ before – so I did again and, ironically, found a way around too much story telling by taking on an age-old story format. I had a little girl, a grandmother and a missing father.
LD: That allusion to fairy tale is very effective. Not only does it take us into the psyche of the child, in which fairy-tale characters are as psychologically real as any other, but the ‘Fox, ‘Troll’ and ‘Wolf’ resonate with us all – three loaded and very well-chosen words.
AB: Also, I repeated the words ‘There was’ at the beginning of stanzas. Originally every stanza began like that, so it would build a bit like a list poem. I think those words were there to keep the idea of fairy tale uppermost – it didn’t have to be ‘There was once’. However, the poem flowed more effectively once I took some of them out.
LD: Yes, so there’s still that echo of the storybook, but it doesn’t dominate. Similarly, the way you use direction and movement in the poem – up or down, a pivot, a twist, all these are a subtle part of the subtext. I love the way, at the start, we find the girl near the top of the stairs, then the pivotal moment (the decision) comes exactly at the midway point of the poem, and finally there’s that amazing twist at the end – an almost throwaway comment, devastating in its implications. I see this as the turn at the bottom of the stairs, pulling the rug from under the child’s feet and ours.
AB: Yes, I really like that, Lorna – you have to come down the stairs eventually and there is that rug!
I have been aware that in my life I have taken on more than my fair share of responsibility and suffered the consequences of believing that everything that goes wrong is my fault. I don’t think I realised that this was the moment it all started until I had written the poem.
LD: I can really relate to this experience, so it’s particularly helpful to see it mirrored here. This is just how children accommodate and navigate the complex world in which they find themselves, isn’t it? Unquestioning, instinctive. But in the poem, all this is being overseen, and our reading of it mediated by, the observant and knowing narrator. I think it’s this interplay of child and adult perceptions which makes the piece so psychologically complex and resonant. By the end, we completely understand how the child came to think she is ‘holding up the sky’, so when the adult undercuts this in the final lines with that amazing insight (‘It has never occurred to her / that she could have chosen to cry’) we feel all the more the heaviness of the burden she has borne all her life.
AB: I think children want and need ‘everything to be all right’ so profoundly that they are able, if pushed, to think up any number of magical solutions to even the most perilous situation. The speed and finality of the way this happens takes your breath away. (I am reminded of that other fairy story – the little boy in the story of the Snow Queen – as I say this. He did not choose for his heart to harden but it’s warm tears that eventually save him.) And, yes, because I had thought such a lot about this little girl who was me, I had developed a fondness for her and a sympathy for her plight. Now I can sometimes feel that sympathy for myself but not very often.
LD: This sympathy – I almost want to call it compassion, because that’s what it evokes in me – is one of the great strengths of the poem. That shift from past tense to present in the final stanza seems crucial in this. Words like ‘is’, ‘exists’ and ‘still holding’ say it all: it’s the ongoingness of the consequences. And then, in the very last sentence the perspective shifts back to the past, but this time it’s a conditional one – what she could have done.
AB: I enjoyed playing with the tenses here. I hoped ‘There is a mind’ would carry the meaning of the poem and I think it does. It’s easy to put the emphasis on ‘is’ when you read it aloud. I did agonise over those last two lines. I wanted to keep them but wondered if they were just too sentimental. In the end I let them stand because they felt right.
LD: They feel very right to me too. The loss of a father is not something that any four-year-old child is emotionally equipped to handle alone.
AB: Yes – ‘alone’ is an interesting concept for a child, I think. Maybe it starts off with going to bed alone but we only really understand what it means when we face hardship. This is one of the strongest themes running through fairy tales of course.
LD: And those fairy tales are one way in which children make sense of the world. But, as I read it, this little girl creates her own story: by stepping up to the self-appointed role of heroic protector, she can believe she’s all-powerful. Taking responsibility beyond her years is her way of coping with events that are beyond her control. But it leaves a legacy, a loss of another sort. To me, this is not just relevant to, it is the Understory.
AB: I think your interpretation of the poem is spot on, Lorna. What you say about the little girl creating her own story really hits home to me. I think it takes someone outside of the story or the ‘Understory’ to be able to make a valuable comment like that. That ‘other loss’ now that you mention it – well, that is more than enough material for a few more poems!
LD: I do hope so, Anne. I really look forward to reading them. In the meantime, thank you: it’s been wonderful to have this opportunity to discuss this haunting poem with you.
- What the House Taught Us by Anne Bailey is available from The Emma Press