What Olivia de Havilland Wished For

 

I believe in the long shot. I wait for one
who might never come
here by the gazebo in St David’s Park.

Errol — please call me Livvie once more

Nearby, gravestones:
names now just worn cuneiform.

if I could bequeath my beauty to be ordinary,
to be with him and share a history

Heat bleaches the ground, scorches the grass to blonde.
A voice is singing from the conservatory.

How were our eyes so fluent?
They knew how to speak, even when we didn’t.

I wish for something more than a celluloid kiss,
the mirage of eternity between our lips.

 


Ivy Alvarez (photo by Rachael Duncan)
Ivy Alvarez (photo by Rachael Duncan)

“I was born in the Philippines and naturalised as an Australian after I left Manila in 1985. For the longest time, I was uncomfortable with calling myself Australian. Even though I was naturalised, it did not feel natural to me.

My discomfort stems from other people’s discomfiture. I did not look like the majority of Australians nor do I match how the media portrays an Australian. Growing up, I did not see many people like me on TV. That said, I did not see that many poets or writers on TV, either. One can fly under the radar in so many ways.

I’m not sure I really “blend”, either in the sense of blending in and being camouflaged — because back in 1985, in Hobart, there weren’t that many other Asians around and so I attracted a lot of uncomfortable scrutiny that ranged from diffident curiosity to outright hostility — or in the sense of stirring evenly two cultures, the one I was born with and the one newly-acquired. One had to be subsumed by another, a cannibalised twin in utero. (Yep, pretty dark.) Also, I was discouraged from speaking Tagalog and so my vocabulary is frozen at ten years old. I know enough to understand but not enough to speak it.

All the identifiers you mentioned I find problematic. Possibly the only exception is the term writer. I would gladly call myself that.

I have come to realise that such identifiers are more for other people’s convenience on where to situate me. These identifiers lose their valency and become largely muted when I write.

Funnily enough, I am more comfortable defining myself as an Australian when I am outside of Australia. Nobody here can contradict me; else people here in the UK are too polite or don’t care enough to disagree aloud.”

I am no etymologist. I’m hardly any kind of –ologist, but I am fascinated by the origin or words and what additional layer, supposed or otherwise, we can place on words when we know just a little more about their origin. So, when Ivy Alvarez – writer – answers my initial question, “do you feel comfortable identifying as an Asian Australian writer”, I wonder what my role is as editor to her clear, and forthright response. Ostensibly, it is my job to edit, to make changes to documents, and as the Latin root (edō) implies “to give out, to put forth, to publish”. Seems simple enough.

A related meaning of edō, however, is “to eat”, as in “thou shalt be eaten”, or “it shall be eaten” – and I’m re-reading Ivy’s beautifully direct response, wondering just how to “eat it”. As a Filipino Australian, I relate directly to Ivy’s questions of what it means to “blend” as an Australian. In just a few short paragraphs, Ivy identifies and takes issue with many of the core questions and problems of simplistic identifiers, and starts the ball rolling for an interesting discussion about what writing means to her as a writer.

Her first inkling of “poetry’s power and how it would have this hold on [her]” was in high school, during English class. She recounts:

“We had been studying poetry and it was all dead white male poets and their poems, to which I would dutifully write my responses to assignments that were set. But the day I read ‘Tulips’ by Sylvia Plath! That was the day my eyes opened up, light came in and I could see and, more importantly, feel what poetry was about. This highly compressed and oblique language suddenly came alive for me and words, written years before I was born, became incredibly relevant. What has led me to my work? Curiosity, restlessness, the love of a challenge, a hunger to discover what the next poem will bring, a love of wordplay, metaphor and the strange, a low threshold for boredom, the need to puncture the stuffy and the staid, to strain against my comfort zone and embrace the risk against the formulaic and see if I can beat the house. The core questions that interest me changes often, although there have been thematic arcs I have explored in several sequences and series of poems.”

One of the underlying themes of Ivy’s work is a connecting to the inter/personal, and strong sense of the intimacy of experience, although it is not necessarily biographical or confessional in style. Ivy says:

“Of the many and several elements that crop up in my poems, the inter/personal is one of these. Emotion is another, one that serves to heighten my explorations of the inter/personal and of relationships, whether it is between people, or the speaker and their environment.  I like to mess around with preconceptions of the auto/biographical. My first book Mortal, for instance, contains several poems that played with destabilising this and the poem might not necessarily clarify which woman, among the generations of mythic and semi-fictive women, is speaking. Disturbance (Seren, 2013), my second collection, is a more ambitious work for me, with a greater number of personae to help tell the book’s story.”

The piece submitted by Ivy to the Peril Map, “What Olivia de Havilland Wished For”, is taken from a series called “Hollywood Starlet”, each poem of which evokes a famous, female silver screen-era star of the likes of Rita Hayworth, Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Having had the delight of reading several of the series, there is something within their Americana referencing, the critical suspicion of these female totems, something both seductive and suspicious that seems really to connect for me with my Filipino-Australian background – I’m not sure I don’t need to think further on that, but either way the works are really exciting for me. About these works she says:

“For the longest time, I avoided indicating place in my poems — reacting against the pre-eminence of place in poetry — and deliberately set out to allude to a sense of placelessness as the background to my work. By contrast (and an evolution in my previous position, a reaction against my reaction), place is everywhere in this chapbook-length series of poems. Here, I use it as a way of disrupting precepts about auto/biography, and it seems to signal a swing to the other extreme. The Hollywood Starlet series’ inspiration arose from combining two separate prompts I came across at the time: one from The Guardian and another from the Poetry Society. The first prompt provided a list of names, places and situations. The second prompt requested 100-word poems (excluding the title). After writing a poem each on Jacqueline du Pré, Ringo Starr and Katherine Hepburn, I kept going, fascinated as I was by the rich seam the Hepburn poem exposed, and which catalysed this short collection.

I would not want to limit your readers’ approach to these poems, so I will take an indirect route and perhaps some of what I write might prove either applicable or contrariwise to their own interpretations. For the first poem in the series, “What Katherine Hepburn Lost”, I chose the location of Yorkshire because I believe Hepburn would not have visited there before. (Neither had I, at the time of its writing, though I have since.) What was she doing there? Who was she there with? I wanted to unsettle my preconceptions of her in the poem. In answering my questions to this and other poems in the series, I discovered another side to the actor, a more vulnerable face hidden behind the veil of fame, uncovered in the small duration of time she has extracted away from the societal glare, and the price exacted for being a woman under intense cynosure.

The personal-seeming narratives you intuited constitute elements borrowed from my own life, though these are imbricated with what I have gathered, whether fact or rumour, about these women. I, feeling doubly Other, have tried to ally myself with these women, and, in a rich and complicated way, reveal something new about these people, these places, these situations, through the poems. I cannot really pick a favourite from among the series, though I would identify the poem ‘What Olivia de Havilland Wished For’ as one I associate with Australia: specifically, Hobart. I like that, in my mind, it connects with a Gwen Harwood sonnet similarly set on the grounds of St David’s Park.”

Having just spent the last hour or so searching information on Olivia de Havilland; her sister Joan Fontaine; her multiple films with the imminent swashbuckler, Errol Flynn; and ending with the devastating Gwen Harwood’s “In the The Park”, my editorial brain is decidedly full. Instead, I’ll just put it out there, let you decide how to respond to Ivy’s work and her even more thoughtful response as writer.

– Interview with Eleanor Jackson, Peril Poetry Editor

 

Ivy Alvarez

Author: Ivy Alvarez

Ivy Alvarez's second poetry collection is Disturbance (Wales, UK: Seren Books, 2013), with two shorter collections due for release in 2015: Hollywood Starlet (Chicago: dancing girl press) and The Everyday English Dictionary (London: Paekakariki Press). Born in the Philippines and raised in Australia, she lived in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, before moving to Auckland, NZ in 2014. www.ivyalvarez.com

4 thoughts on “What Olivia de Havilland Wished For”

  1. Glad that you liked the piece, we certainly loved it… and *shhh* hopefully this piece will be seeing some publication further in Ivy’s new book.

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