Found in Translation
i.m. Nora Newton (1929–2015)
A grandam’s name is little less in love
than is the doting title of a mother;
they are as children but one step below...
Of course I should have realised you'd come back
as a book. It was in Hatchards on Piccadilly, in the Classics
section; the shelves were out of alphabetical order –
Galsworthy, Trollope, Austen, Eliot side-by-side.
Just as I was thinking I wonder, I heard
your laugh, and there you were – a slender, sparkling volume,
looking quite at home in such illustrious company,
your handwritten name running down the spine. Evelyn Waugh
was serving at the till. There’s no charge, he said.
She’s been waiting for you. I took you home and put you
next to Dickens and Gaskell, hoping you'd find some people there
you could get on with. In the evenings I'd sit cross-legged on the carpet
with a glass of wine, listening, enthralled, to you in your element:
on the poetry shelf, Milton's pages ruffled with pride to hear
that you'd learnt Lycidas by heart at seventeen; Wordsworth acknowledged
that your annotations on "The Prelude" had deepened his understanding.
Best of all was the intellectually superior drinking game
with Shakespeare: he'd call out the number of a sonnet,
you'd recite it, word-perfect, your reward a shot of apricot brandy.
You read my childhood favourites to me again, your drama-school voice
(not a trace of Manchester left in it) still just right, somehow, for
The Famous Five and Malory Towers, but I liked your New Jersey drawl
for Judy Blume's Freckle Juice best, which brought you to the attention
of George Gershwin and Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra
sleeping off champagne hangovers in Biography; the four of you sang
"Embraceable You" and "Someone to Watch Over Me" late into the night.
How sad, I thought, that only in death can one keep this kind of company.
And then it struck me: I moved you to Plays. And oh, you were away.
Word spread quickly, and critics queued at my door, squeezed
into every square inch in my small study, climbed lampposts
and garden fences to listen through the open window
to your Lady Bracknell, your Rosalind, your Beatrice –
but also, of course, to your lead role in Coronation Street, and even
the brief stint as first woman pundit on Match of the Day
(you always had the range). I realised then I'd put you in my library
without reading your words, thought I knew your story, that I might
have written bits of it myself. But when I turned your pages
there was your life translated: how you'd skipped rep altogether,
were plucked straight from training into your debut at the Old Vic;
I saw the RSC, the National, the moody black-and-white photographs
backstage with Olivier, the sofa with Terry Wogan and Parkinson,
the BAFTA red carpet, the BBC Four retrospective,
you refusing a ghostwriter and writing the bestselling memoirs yourself,
Maggie Smith and Judi Dench taking calls from their agents –
Sorry, they’ve cast her again. I went back to Hatchards,
and Evelyn Waugh. How might we make this real?
I asked. He lit his pipe, and smiled,
and gestured at the sky. No returns, he said.
This poem is from Rosalind's award-winning pamphlet, Black Mascara (Waterproof), published by The Poetry Business in February 2021. You can find it here.