Isn’t sarcasm great? It’s not a tone we see often in poetry, beyond the genre of satire. Here, Mary Coll blends it into her poem in just the right measure, I think. It’s one of those snapshot poems that fling a bunch of images and ideas in front of the reader like old photographs, and yet it doesn’t rely heavily on these, but more on the general sense of the relationship between the two characters.
What’s also interesting here is the use of historical/background detail, playing on the reader’s knowledge of Marie Antoinette in a comical way. So playful is the speaker in this poem that I’m wondering if “Just Desserts” is ambiguous – also implying a sense of “they’re only desserts – chill out”.
Maybe the Parisian setting has something to do with it, but I get a whiff of Oscar Wilde in this poem. There’s a lot of irony at play, a lot of neat logic tied with the ribbon of wit. I could imagine him describing pastry as “impeccable”, too. Of course, Wilde got his just desserts, in some people’s eyes. And he, too, wallowed in the sensual, just as this poem invites us to do. He highlighted the ridiculous. And so do these lines. Who needs three cakes? Indeed.
In the café around the corner from where Marie Antoinette lost her head,
you also lose yours over a cake.
At home, you inform me, we could have three for the price of a slice here.
But we are not at home now, my dear,
we are in Paris,
at least, one of us is,
and besides, who needs three cakes anyway.
You flick through the guidebook, eager to narrate us on our way again, determined not to miss a trick, but then you do.
At the next table the man in the pale grey suit with the mauve silk tie,
lifts a forkful of impeccable pastry towards the lips of a girl half his age,
his hand perfectly poised before them,
and they open to him, for the umpteenth time that day,
while he smiles the smile of one who knows the real pleasure
of having his cake, and eating it.
I’m a writer from Limerick city, who has worked in the arts most of my professional life. As well as poetry I write plays which have been produced on stage and on the radio, and essays which have mainly been broadcast on a variety of Irish radio programmes. I’ve also worked as a freelance theatre and visual arts critic for radio, televison and some Irish national newspapers, and I’ve contributed to a variety of radio programmes as a panellist, and also as a presenter. I like to talk, and I like to write, and I think my voice is the same in all formats, that is, I hope I remain true to myself across all of my work. Salmon Poetry published my first collection of poems, called All Things Considered, and Arlen House is going to publish my next collection, entitled Silver, in 2016. I also have a commission for a new play which I’m working on, when I’m not on Facebook or randomly Googling things to distract me from what I should be doing. You can probably Google everything you need to know about me. I know the photos of my last really dodgy short haircut are out there, and my obituary (if you get the wrong Mary Coll) but it won’t tell you really important things like my dog’s name (Arlo) or my favourite poets (Elaine Feinstein, Billy Collins and Louise Gluck) or that I sing in a really serious choir but can’t play an instrument or sight-read music, and that my secret ambition is to win The Great British Bake Off, although I don’t bake, and that I am afraid of flying. These things are revealed only through my writing…..
Your poem seems to depict a relationship gone sour, or at least a sour moment from a relationship. (The wit with which you deal with it is what makes the poem, I think.) In terms of writing about relationships, would you say it’s easier to write about the negative or the positive?
I write in the moment, I think that my poems are like snapshots of moments in my life. “Just Deserts” tries to capture how I was feeling on a day when I was walking around Paris with my husband, his eagerness to see everything in the guide book, whereas I just wanted to sit at a table in a café and watch the world go by. The relationship was anything but sour, then or now. We are just very different people, and different people can be in the same moment in very different ways. He experiences the world in a very immediate way, whereas I’m always processing things in my head and narrating stories about what is going on around me. I like to observe, he likes to engage, and it is out of that contradiction that I write. I don’t see it as negative or positive, it is just two people coming at the same thing in very different ways. Paris in my head is and was an entirely different place to his Paris, and out of recognising that came a poem.
It’s interesting how you’ve weaved common knowledge of Marie Antoinette into this poem. It’s almost a kind of intertextuality, but the text referenced here is one we’ve encountered through our memory of history books and the like. How do you think such referencing/intertextuality can help in the writing/enjoyment of poetry (or writing in general)?
I honestly didn’t give it that level of deep thought or consideration, I wasn’t trying that hard, the reference just fell into place for me in the first draft that I wrote. We were sitting outside a café near where Marie Antoinette was executed when the discussion about the price of the pastry took place, and the link in my head to her infamous comment “Let them eat cake” was inevitable in that context. Perhaps references like that make poems more accessible, but I don’t think what I write is inaccessible in the first place, at least I hope its not.
Can you tell us about any differences between writing at home and writing in foreign places?
Air conditioning and excellent local wine, these certainly help a great deal, and of course there is more time for pondering and gazing! I write at my desk at home, and I keep a notebook with me when I’m away, so in the end all of my writing, as in the completion of work, happens in the same place, the rest is note taking and observation and jotting things down.
Above all, this is a witty poem. It made me laugh at several points. Do you think wit/humour has much of a role to play in poetry, and should it be used more often?
I find it hard to stay serious for too long about anything, as you’ve noticed, and as I said earlier I like to stay true to myself, to my voice, in my work, so my sense of humour and of the absurd comes through, because that is how I am in the world.
Why do you write?
I have always been writing, as long as I can remember, poems, letters, essays, notes, texts, emails, status updates, that is who and how I am. I am writing my way through my life and I have no idea why, but then musicians have to play music and artists have to paint, and I don’t think they can explain it either, it is just how I was hardwired. I make sense of things for myself by writing and I can trace my path back through my life in my own words, and words are the stepping stones I use to move forward.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Find your voice, it takes a long time to hear it, and you have to listen very carefully. Don’t be distracted by other voices, and don’t take this sort of advice too seriously!