Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Box Set for the Rolling Stones

By: Michael Mintrom

If Joseph Cornell had been inspired by the Rolling Stones

Box 1: ‘Time is On My Side’

Welcome to our small Shakespearian stage.
Time Magazine covers hang on a wall:
Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, JFK.
Golden ropes pull back scarlet curtains
Revealing a mansion by the sea — 
Summer on the Mediterranean.
Roses bloom. A marble Adonis stands 
Stage right. Young people float on the terrace
Laughing, trading half-hearted promises.
Leftward, above cliffs, there flies Icarus.
This might be his fated day. Who can know,
Taking the plunge, what time has planned for us?
Blue martini glasses almost obscure
A page ripped from Proust; the lunar landings.

Box 2: ‘As Tears Go By’

The box is a knocked-down child’s dresser:
Pink boards, with white dots, like it once belonged
To Minnie Mouse. The back surface is lined 
With a black and white photo. It’s Dresden
After the firestorm. Allied bombers
Came at bedtime and left a wasteland.
Now uniformed men collect charred bodies. 
They place them in neat rows between lamp stands.
Inside the box, a grooming set waits for
Its young owner to return. A heart-shaped,
Hand-held mirror, a comb, three brushes,
And hair clips. The box has two thin drawers.
One holds Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
The other keeps safe tickets to Snow White.

Box 3: ‘Get Off My Cloud’

On his cloud, pensive Zeus, legs astride, arms
Crossed, watches for intruders. The guitar
Riff mimics his hard, staccato glances.
The light-filled box radiates from his presence.
Lesser gods swat at advertising men –
All down the walls they fall, their products too.
It’s action with purpose – we need peace and 
Solitude to touch souls, to think, to write.
Faded news stories of the band are glued,
Like wallpaper, across the box’s lower half
From a colour snap, the band bursts forth.
I like the cut-outs laid beneath their feet:
Blake’s ‘On a Cloud I Saw a Child’, and
Two Joni Mitchell albums, Clouds and Blue.

Box 4: ‘Out of Time’

We’re looking from the sea to the foreshore
To the compound beyond. As if the sun,
Upon setting, gave us tickets to the
Late Show – Life in Limbo, Nantucket Sound.
The walls are coming up orange, with blue
Sky above, dappled by luminous clouds. 
The box is simple, in Cape Cod style.
Jetting to New York, Paris and London,
The party crowd’s left, their books abandoned:
Profiles in Courage, Things Fall Apart.
A lone figure sits, wrapped against the chill.
It’s Jacqueline Kennedy, martini 
In hand – In exile, remembering
Camelot, imagining life in Greece.

Box 5: ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’

This box was constructed to remember
Swinging London. Faded red walls match
The cover of Time Magazine, April 15 1966 –
Used here as background to four glass shelves.
When England appeared sexy and cutting edge.
That’s faded too; but what a blast it was.
The box holds a Lucian Freud sketch book,
Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings and
The Who’s 7-inch, ‘I’m Free’. There’s even
Elizabeth Taylor with Richard Burton — 
Cleopatra in command of her yacht.
Everything converged towards London. 
After ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ the Beach Boys got laid 
In Chelsea. The sound it made: Hot Rocks.

Box 6: ‘Child of the Moon’

It seems like a wave of blue and white dots.
Close up, the face of this dark wooden box 
Is a lunar chart printed on glass.
There’s an inner light, pale but steady.
Through small round windows marking each full moon,
Other surprises await. Neat wooden shelves
Display photographed portraits washed in
Warm blues and golds, all carefully patterned,
Like Cameraworks by David Hockney.
The repeated face is Marianne Faithful’s —
From ‘Broken English’ to ‘As Tears Go By’.
So ethereal. Such stormy weather. 
In a long, thin compartment, two books lie:
A well-worn Hamlet, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

Box 7: ‘Stray Cat Blues’

Summer comes to the south of France,
Families with teenagers languish in
Nice’s Negresco Hotel. Desire does
Double shifts. Lavender gardens release
Their fragrance and midnight escapades
Become increasingly risqué. Even
At brunch, tensions arise, causing glances
And blue static to leap between tables.
A father constructs a memory box:
There’s a record sleeve – Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ –
A Blue Nude after the Musee Matisse,
And a black and white photo – Carey Grant
And Grace Kelly swimming right here. ‘One day’
Says the mother, ‘we’ll do the Grand Corniche’.

Box 8: ‘Street Fighting Man’

The whiff of motor oil and dry grass
Returns me to my father’s Greenwich shed.
There’s news of riots in the Middle East,
And I think of my old Che Guevara
Poster, blood red, by the hedge clippers.
Between ‘A terrible beauty is born’
And ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ I’ve
Battled myself for decades. Look at these
Oil-stained shelves and the items on them. 
There’s a photo of the Rolling Stones in
Baltimore, 1969. A copy of Burke’s 
Reflections on the Revolution. Then
Two CDs, dust-covered, still looking good:
London Calling and Never Mind the Bollocks.

Box 9: ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?’

We’ve entered the swamp lands. Few visit now.
A small, gutted, Fender amplifier
Contains dark smoky glass above the knobs.
Peering in, at first I see only my own eyes.
Then, getting closer, my breath 
Misting the glass, I make out ghostly
Objects against crushed velvet draping.
An acoustic guitar and a saxophone
Rest against a small tabernacle.
It’s morning at the Crossroads. Hanging off
A live oak, a rusted sign declares ‘Fishing
Sacred’. Robert Johnson, knee-deep, casts 
Low into the murk, then tensions his line.
Also near, working his line, stands John Coltrane.

Box 10: ‘Shine a Light’

This box is part shrine, part movie theatre.
It smells of incense, and holds a candle,
A cross, a Bible, and a knife. A screen
Replays scenes from Angel Heart. To begin,
Harry Angel, the private gumshoe, drives
Up to Harlem, and enters an old church 
Where a gospel choir rehearses. The 
Wind blows through a ventilator. Its blades
Turn slowly. Nothing’s as it appears. 
Harry meets Louis Cypher, and is told
To summons the singer who sold his soul.
A blood-splattered road trip unfolds, until
Evil meets self-knowledge in New Orleans —
Butchery and gumbo in the Voodoo Lounge.

Box 11: ‘Memory Motel’

This box was constructed in Baton Rouge, 
As wind and rain distressed its wooden boards.
A Rauschenberg screen print lines the back — 
JFK speaks of the missile crisis,
His face and hands washed in lunar blue.
Pin-ups show young Elvis, he’s gyrating
Fit to lose himself — The joy breaking through.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter protrudes
From a shelf. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is here too.
There are certain things we’ll never discuss.
Down at the bottom, there’s Janice Joplin’s 
‘Me and Bobby McGee’. And a photo
Of Lucinda Williams with her father,
Waiting beside an abandoned truck stop.

Box 12: ‘Down in the Hole’

The Blue Peninsula, the place I long to be
Is unearthly. It is of air,
A distant throwback to what Picasso 
Made living in the Marais, distilling
Neighbourhood emotions onto canvas.
This evening, I’ve returned to his tight
Rooms, haunted faces, atmospheres.
I think of Brando’s blue, smoky stare
As he pulsates through Last Tango in Paris. 
Such an unhinged, carnal, middle-aged man.
Coffee aromas waft from night cafes.
Like coiled neon signs, commitment and 
Freedom flicker round me. A trumpet plays
‘All Blues.’ My guitar, enchanted, joins it.

Box 13: ‘Black Limousine’

Formed of dark stained oak, this slim box cradles
A screen showing a set of band photos, 
Black and white. What shards are enough to say
‘This is my life’? The photos constantly change.
The oldest ones morph through to the latest,
Then back again. It’s an elegant piece,
Like something in a jeweller’s display or 
The Apple Store. In early shots,
London is the backdrop, later Paris, then New York.
When do we accept who we’ve been
And who we are, and join Maya Angelou to breathe 
‘And Still I Rise’? Slim trays, beneath the screen, 
Hold two album covers. In one, mauve Aftermath. 
In the other, Blue and Lonesome.

Box 14: ‘Sleep Tonight’

This apartment, this box, looks over the Seine.
Last night, with the sun setting, I listened
To Satchmo, ‘(What Did I Do To Be So)
Black and Blue’. His trumpet, his voice, took me
Down the river to New Orleans. Brass bands,
Gospel choirs. Then I was back in Harlem —
Wondering how the Renaissance grew from 
All that tough, industrial stuff. Twilight
Above Paris, and the ‘Harlem Shuffle’. 
There’s so much left – so much to connect up.
We write songs, perform to audiences,
While all the big questions go unanswered.
I sat at the piano, playing until sunrise,
Louis Armstrong on my mind.

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