‘Wardrobe of Selves’ Peter Bakowski
Recent Work Press recentworkpress.com
‘Wardrobe of Selves’ is an apt title. These poems feel as if the writer was putting on someone else’s shoes and writing a snippet of their life, as if trying on different lives and getting a handle on someone else’s viewpoint. The skill lies in convincing readers that writer is immersing himself in the different roles and creating credible voices. This is explored in the title poem,
“Some selves are secret, take themselves to the grave—their
Existence exposed in a diary, a bundle of letters—angers and
Loves, visions and regrets—not torn in half, not rewritten.
Versions of ourselves, face half in shadow under a hat brim,
Elude conclusive portraiture. Brush the lint from your cautious
Shoulders. Your true self may be in the vicinity awaiting your arrival.”
Understanding others is a mirror to understanding yourself. There may be very good reasons for not revealing our whole selves to someone else but hiding a facet of who we are to ourselves is to remain incomplete and misunderstood.
The voices in the poems aren’t just contemporary, although some issues are timeless. In ‘Isolated Cottage, Skopelos, 16 October 1972’ a teenager beaten by their father for the discovery of ‘Ink split on the best tablecloth’ after guests have left, where who actually split the ink is irrelevant and unlikely to have been the teenager,
‘Each cut, each plea, each fleck of blood on the bedroom wallpaper
Prepares me for what I must thieve from this
Now this dawning hour I’ll pay, with
Every drachma stolen, for passage to the mainland where I’ll
Sing in concert and dancehall louder than the roar of any father.’
The voice of defiance from someone punished despite not being at fault is recognisable and understandable. Their determination to roar back is sustaining. Although stealing money to pay for escape is wrong, it is justifiable in the circumstances. There’s a hint that things won’t be easy once the teenager has fled but the internal rhyme of “louder” with “father” suggests the teenager is equal to the father’s rage and the part-rhyme of “roar” suggests the odds are slightly in the teenager’s favour.
Some selves are based in concentration camps, e.g. in ‘Norillag Labour Camp, Krasnoyarsk, Krai, Russia March 1943’,
‘Your body’s pauper’s sack – nothing in it except
blood-clot coughs, a crumpled map to the precipice of a fever.
Mercy exists, bestowed by the snow, the electrified fence,
the guards’ efficient bullets.’
The consonance gives the poem a frame and reflects the relentlessness of the situation. To provide a contrast and lighten the mood, there short humorous poems grouped throughout the collection.
In ‘Portrait of Lester Gambell, musician and songwriter, Middledgeville, Georgia, 10 July 1969’, a musician’s life is examined,
‘I tried to leave New Orleans
via my open wrists
but a musician friend found me,
upon the bathroom floor.
After coming out of hospital,
I caught a Greyhound to Memphis,
rented a room
above a secondhand furniture store.
In that room I thought about my Pa,
how one night,
reading To Kill a Mockingbird in his armchair,
he had a heart attack.
strikes our family tree
I want to be its sturdiest branch,
I want to live beyond its tainting reach.’
So far, so blues, but It’s the details that allow readers to draw the portrait so it becomes more than an outline of a troubled man finding solace in music. The ‘secondhand furniture store’ shows poverty, the specific detail of the book the father was reading gives a sense of injustice and the tree image shows a man wanting to survive but feeling like a failure. A stage outfit is ‘made out of hubcaps, chewing gum,/ bison teeth and shoeshine rags,’ a working class cowboy grounded by his roots. It’s notable that Peter Bakowski dates this 10 July, ten days before the moon landing, and avoids metaphors drawn from the space race. This is a personal, internal portrait.
‘Wardrobe of Selves’ explores private versus public selves and goes deeper than merely trying on a costume of someone else’s life. They might explore the famous such as Man Ray or fictional, private individuals. Each poem is written with integrity and respect.