Evocation: Billy Collins’ “Embrace”

Last week I came across Billy Collins’ poem “Embrace” — and I learned the rules* have changed, so I can offer it in totality, which is a good thing because you need it all. 

Embrace

You know the parlor trick.
wrap your arms around your own body
and from the back it looks like
someone is embracing you
her hands grasping your shirt
her fingernails teasing your neck
from the front it is another story
you never looked so alone
your crossed elbows and screwy grin
you could be waiting for a tailor
to fit you with a straight jacket
one that would hold you really tight.

@Billy Collins. From the collection, The Apple That Astonished Paris: Poems. First published 2006; rptd. 2014 by the University of Arkansas Press

It’s a stunning 12-line poem, and immediately I thought of Bowie, and will likely never again watch Bowie do the “parlor trick” without thinking of “Embrace.”

There’s absolutely no reason as far as I know why Bowie would have inspired any of Billy Collins’ work — the connection is in my head. Collins is an American poet, born 1941 in Manhattan, and was America’s poet laureate for 2001 to 2003. I’d describe him as an imagist, with a small i.

I hunted without success for a portrait by Andrew Kent, the photographer who did the black-and-white studies of the Thin White Duke. Maybe there is a Kent still of the “parlor trick,” or perhaps I was just mingling what we know of Bowie in the TWD era and the last six lines of “Embrace.”

I then asked for help from a particularly welcoming FB group of Bowie devotees (not all are) and got dozens of response, but this one of “Heroes,” from the same broadcast as the Bing Crosby and Bowie duet of the “Little Drummer Boy” is in in tone and choreography perfect. The video starts 15 seconds in.

heroes

*Quoting more than a few lines of a poem used to amount to academic or professional suicide. But the Poetry Foundation has concluded that a non-commercial blog may do so, if the poem is accompanied by “critique or commentary.” Many other conditions apply and are listed on page 13 of the guide. If a poet objects, then his or her wishes are to be respected. My reasoning is that since 52 of Collins’ poems are on PoemHunter, and the Foundation and PoemHunter are frequently mentioned in tandem on educational sites, Collins would probably not object.

Echoes of Cocteau

I was flipping through Jean Cocteau by Patrick Mauries recently and came across this photo of the character Death in his film, Orphée, based on the myth of Orpheus, a poet so in love with Death he follows her into the underworld.

orphee_4116152

Here we have Death (María Casarès) [photo by Roger Corbeau/Ministère de la Culture/AFDPP].

I was reminded of Thomas Jerome Newton in his homeland costume, and applied a black and white filter:

man-wfte

Not exact by any means, and I don’t know whether Nic Roeg or Bowie had any ideas about Newton’s alien garb. Costume designer May Routh says she wanted the water tubes but conceived them as more like lace; the special effects team interpreted the design differently, making the tubing more substantial.

We know that Bowie was interested in Cocteau’s surrealistic imagery. Heroes‘s “Beauty and the Beast” is a nod to the Cocteau  film La Belle et la Bête, starring Jean Marais, who also played the lead role in Orphée.

Cocteau and Marais were lovers; Cocteau said of his young man: 

“It does not depend only on sensual grace. It flows from the child still at the heart of the mature man. That is the true source of the expressive beauty of his eye, of the way he looks at you, imposes his physical presence.”

Cocteau could as well be describing Bowie.

Cocteau was a sensualist, a painter of murals for churches, and fascinated by angels, who typically were modelled as beautiful boys, like this one, the Angel of the Annunciation at Notre Dame de France in London, England, photographed by Victoria Emily Jones. See her essay and photographic tour of  Notre Dame de France in London, England by clicking the link.

The Annunciation.
©Victoria Emily Jones

What came to mind: the “Look Back in Anger” video.

It goes beyond angels, however. One minute into the video, Bowie rises quickly from his bed,  in much the same way that the poet’s wife is commanded to rise from hers at the minute mark  in this snippet from Cocteau’s Orphée.

When Bowie rubs his hand across the painting, his skin takes on a grotesque appearance as if his face is now a painted facade disturbed. Now, in another film of Cocteau’s, La sang d’un Poète (The Blood of the Poet), a sculptor has a similar fright.  First he does some sketches, but the mouth starts to move. He tries to rub it out, but it transfers itself to his hand. He tries to rid himself of it by pressing it to the mouth of a statue (movie stills).

The statue entices him to break through a mirror to a different dimension and gives him a gun to kill himself. Instead he returns to his reality, and smashes the sculpture.

Smashing through mirrors is common to several Cocteau’s films. Go back to the Orphée  snip and view the last frames.

Tormented Bowie places his angel painting in front of a mirror so he will not have to see what has become of his face, but can’t resist studying his new ugliness. He doesn’t manage to break his mirror or spell and ends up crawling under his bed, instead.

When the artist of Blood of a Poet is on the other side of the mirror, he encounters some strange scenes (movie stills , like this one, featuring a transvestite, Barbette, who Cocteau later wrote about:

barbettesang

That oppish bullseye and strange haired figure is vaguely reminiscent of the set and weird woman of “Strangers When We Meet.”

strangers

Here’s another image from Orphée. Flanked by two biker angels, the Poet and Death stroll through the Underworld:underworld

Could this have been an inspiration for the Village of Ormen of “Blackstar”?village-of-orman

Finally there is one more odd Cocteauian echo for today:the similarity to this photograph of Jean Marais dressed by Chanel for Cocteau’s Oedipe Roi:

marais

to this one from Outside: fishman

 

I don’t know what to make of this.

 

Lazarus’s Pajamas and the Return of the Thin White Duke

The video of “Lazarus” isn’t the first recent Bowie video to allude to the Station to Station era. That would be “Love is Lost [Halloween Version]”  from 2013, the one Bowie made himself with help from Coco Schwab and Jimmy King, using images from previous or planned videos. Remember the sad projected face of “Where Are We Now?” It’s back, with a witch’s hat stuck on it. As creepy as that face is (and how foreboding the line “Walking the Dead” seems now), the scariest thing in this video is the presence of a marionette Thin White Duke splattered with blood. The marionette Duke was going to be used in a video for “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.”

The lyrics of “Love is Lost” seem made for the Halloween  version (“Say goodbye to the thrills of life/Where love was good, no love was bad/Wave goodbye to the life without pain”). The world has become a scary place.

When future Bowies were asked about the Thin White Duke, he consistently declared that this persona was an ogre, very threatening, and one he was glad to be rid of. The Thin White Duke [TWD] came to represent what had been — at that point — the worst time of his life. 

The timeline of Bowie’s cancer isn’t our business, but I’m wondering if the TWD surfaced in the Halloween video because Bowie intuited that something was wrong, or if he knew. October 2013 falls well outside the eighteen months that has been cited as the length of Bowie’s final illness, but I have read that he had had cancer, they thought he had beat it, and then it returned, which may account for the type of cancer initially being pegged as liver cancer and later changed to pancreatic.

At least once it was clarified as pancreatic, the nonsense about his cancer being caused by drink and drugs ended. Is it any wonder that he wanted to keep his illness private? Bowie had, after all, been straight for 15 or so years. If the cancer had metastasized to the liver, the cancerous cells had their origin elsewhere.

The point is that Bowie may have been sick longer than 18 months.

And sometimes, even if there has been no firm diagnosis, you know something is wrong before you know what it is. And that is very, very scary.

Since the TWD years were the ones when Bowie was scared and sick, it is unsurprising that Station to Station is alluded to in “Lazarus.”

Now, the TWD doesn’t appear in “Lazarus,” but Bowie has chosen, for the last we will see of him on film, to wear striped pajamas resembling the ones he (Bowie, not the TWD) wore on the back cover of Station to Station (photographed by Steve Schapiro). 

I have never liked those pajamas, and they look awful on him in the “Lazarus” videodbkaSome say the white lines were inspired by the copious amounts of cocaine Bowie was consuming at the time. I think they look like the convict uniform in the South, with stripes askew. (I’ve wondered too why in the Schapiro photo he is using white chalk to draw black lines.) 

But the pajamas do evoke some of the darkest days of his life.

I don’t, however, think they mean that Bowie was using his last months to revisit the Kabbalah, regardless of stories on sites ranging from The Irish Mirror  to The Jerusalem Post. Even The Guardian’s Jude Rogers talk about Aleister Crowley “with whom Bowie was obsessed in the 1970s.”

I think what he said in the 90s still held true: “Nobody professing a knowledge of the black arts should be taken seriously if they can’t speak Latin or Greek.” This implies that there are black magicians out there. He could have added that those who dabble in the occult can get in way over their heads. This is not something you want to fiddle with when you are already sick and weak. He’d already been through that. Bowie arrived in LA a Crowleyite, but he left with respect for Dion Fortune, a white magician, and particularly her book, Psychic Self-Defense. More on that next time.

The “Lazarus” video is about a man who is sick and under attack, not from a malevolent magician, but from that for which there is no psychic defense. 

Still, he isn’t going to let that lady with the creepy face be the guise in which Death comes for him. He eludes her and backs into the closet from which she had emerged. He will do as he told Cameron Crowe back in 1976: “I’ve now decided that my death should be very precious. I really want to use it. I’d like my death to be as interesting as my life has been and will be.”

Here’s a strangeness for you: In 1976 when Cameron Crowe reviewed the Station to Station tour for Creem,  he subtitled the piece “David Bowie Pulls A Lazarus.”

Finally, did anyone else feel chilled by Bowie’s teeth in “Lazarus” ? Gone are Bowie’s beautiful hands; they are now mottled. His neck has bulging veins, not the swan’s smoothness he had so long. But his teeth? His teeth are perfect.