Stiff Upper Lip (Series)

by Wendy Barker

STIFF UPPER LIP (1)

Headlines in The Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph, The Observer, The Daily Mirror, Sunday News, Daily Mail, even The Times: “FIRE DESTROYS BATTLE ABBEY, 120 GIRLS AWAKENED BY ROAR OF FLAMES.” And following: “Mrs. Jacoby, the headmistress, tells how, with splendid discipline, they tested new fire drill.” Some young as eight, the oldest seventeen. January 1931. Mom would have been thirteen. The girls had practiced over and over. One girl would be tapped to wake the others, they’d all walk single-file downstairs and out the great front doors. Four in the morning. “Clad in their nightclothes.” “Not one of them became hysterical.” “The flames leapt to a height of a hundred feet.” The fire burned on into the next day and the Abbot’s Hall was reduced to a ruin. Built in 1066, Battle of Hastings. At six a.m., Mrs. Jacoby sent a telegraph to the parents of every girl: “All well.”

 

STIFF UPPER LIP (2)

One hundred twenty girls in flannel dressing gowns crowding the courtyard, a January pre-dawn. One hundred nineteen girls’ mummies and daddies coming for them the next day. Or the next—it would never do to leave Gladys (or Cynthia or Gwendolyn, or Edith, or Violet) in the midst of that horrid smell of cinders, of course we’ll bring the car to take the poor dear home, she must be dreadfully frightened, no matter what the papers say, what do they know, really, about a girl’s nerves after such a nasty shock.

But no one came for my mother. Because Granny was in Paris visiting a friend? Because Grandfather believed the telegram from Mrs. Jacoby saying “all” was “well”? No cell phones, no texting, no email, no way even to phone her daddy, ask him to please, please come. The tower fallen. Even the mistresses returned home, even the one who taught French crossed the Channel back to Amiens. Alone with the housekeeper, the cook, and the gardener—the only girl left.

 

STIFF UPPER LIP (3)

How do you get back to the place above the staircase where the floor boards hold? Where the wallpaper swirled with primroses, delphiniums, and petunias like the petals in your granny’s garden? How do you return to a night of dreams when you thought it was a drill but it wasn’t, it was the Abbey, where you’d slept for three years, in flames, the staircase collapsing onto the ground floor as the last girl reached the doorway. It was Wendy Flith, ten years old, who woke at four thirty, hot and thirsty, slipped to the bathroom for a drink of water, and smelled smoke. Thoroughly drilled, she blew her whistle, led the girls in her dorm room down the tower. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hyndman had waked from the smoke, roused the rest. Timbers like bones, ribs protruding, the entire hall blazing.

 

STIFF UPPER LIP (4)

The few times Mom mentioned it, her accounts didn’t vary, mirrored the newspapers’ exactly. Always, it was the girls’ discipline she stressed, how they faced forward, eyes on the girl leading them down the stairs.

No mention of huddling with her favorite friends, no details of the nightclothes she was wearing (a red plaid robe? one with blue piping?), or the blouses, gone to cinders, she’d never wear again. Or how cold it was, so suddenly awake in the courtyard, waiting for the firemen. Watching flames pierce the Abbey’s ceiling. Ushered into the warm gymnasium. The mistresses’ names, which ones were kind, which brusque. Did she watch the whole staircase crash to the stone floor as the last girl approached the open door? The papers’ details were enough.

 

STIFF UPPER LIP (5)

Twenty years after Battle Abbey burned, the chair. Smoke in the night, my mother and father lifting the square wooden legs, tilting its bulk through the kitchen door. A cigarette dropped during the day, an ember bubbling through cloth and horse hair down to the metal springs. Out into the night. Her nylon nightgown, his seersucker pajamas, bare feet.

The smell lasted. They carried the chair back into the house, set it down in the living room, its blackened stuffing surrounding a ragged hole to stare down into—the sturdy padded arm a tangled chasm, its wiry innards coiled.

 

STIFF UPPER LIP (6)

After the chair caught fire, no one said a word. I never heard my parents mention it. Mom made a new slipcover. But from then on, every night I’d decide what to save first, just in case. My diary and my doll. Later, my journals and the photo albums of my son. Now, it’s my flash drive, my iPhone, and photos of my son.

Underground fires smolder. They burn ten times more mass than fires above-ground. Destroy tree roots. Seemingly healthy trees will crash without warning.

Wendy Barker’s sixth collection of poetry, winner of the John Ciardi Prize, is One Blackbird at a Time (BkMk Press, 2015). Her fourth chapbook of poems is From the Moon, Earth is Blue (Wings Press, 2015). An anthology of poems about the 1960s, Far Out: Poems of the ’60s, co-edited with Dave Parsons, was released by Wings Press in 2016. Among her other books are Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002), and a selection of co-translations, Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (Braziller, 2001). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 2013. Recipient of NEA and Rockefeller fellowships, she is Poet-in-Residence and the Pearl LeWinn Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of this poetry series?

    Well, actually, the poems tell the story—Mom referred to the Battle Abbey maybe a half-dozen times in her life, but always in this distant sort of way—her wording really followed the newspapers’ reports, stressing he discipline of the girls, etc. Clearly it was a traumatic experience for her, especially given that neither of her parents came to bring her home. And then that fire with chair when I was seven or eight was a frightening experience. Much of what I hope I’m setting up in this sequence is the damage that can be done when “fires” are pushed underground.

    These are among the first of the poems I began writing about my mother’s unusual—even, I might say, bizarre—British background. I have a new manuscript in progress, titled Privilege, that traces much of her history and the effects of her experiences on the family.

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