This seems like an excellent way to jump into one of the new major focuses of this blog: poetry in popular culture. Though there's certainly nothing "lowbrow" about Call the Midwife (I leave the closed captions on to catch every inscrutable turn of phrase, from British slang to the spelling of "Mother Jesu Emmanuel," "Akela," and "Babycham") but to me, the intersection of poetry with television, even verbose British period pieces, is fascinating because of one's mass appeal and the other's undeniably niche status.
And yet, even writing that phrase feels untrue, which is what has spurred me to, at last, revamp this blog and share the fruits of my longstanding interest in the intersection of poetry with popular culture...
In recent years, we've seen poetry emerge as an increasingly accessibly art form: Beyoncé and her cold glass of Lemonade helped Warsan Shire sell out on Amazon. Maggie Smith's poem, "Good Bones" went viral and ended up in an episode of Madam Secretary. Walter White was treated to some choice Walt Whitman on more than one occasion. I want to talk about all of these intersections and more, because I'm interested in what they tell us about art, entertainment, and ourselves.
Let's go! And more importantly, let's get back to Lorca.
Call the Midwife has always been a show about two things: women and love. That love sometimes takes the form of the bond between mothers and babies, between husbands and wives, or, interestingly, between nuns and their god. But in 1962, the romance between Patience "Patsy" Mount and Delia Busby, between any two women, is still taboo (not to mention illegal). When Patsy (Emerald Fennell) decides that she must return home to see her dying father in Hong Kong, Delia (Kate Lamb) is simultaneously crushed and supportive. Their love is secretive; up to this point, they have been able to keep the myriad residents of Nonnatus House in the dark. But early in the episode, Nurse Crane (Linda Bassett) happens upon Delia exiting Patsy's room one night (both are clad in their pajamas) and merely stops at a distance to watch them without judgment. This covert observation proves useful at the episode's end, as it allows Nurse Crane to comfort Delia in the wake of Patsy's departure.
After Patsy has said her goodbyes, Nurse Crane, clutching a Spanish-English dictionary, runs into Delia in the corridor. The older nurse notes that she studies Spanish as a hobby. Delia, attempting her usual pleasantries despite the sadness she's drowning in, says she might pick it up herself. When she sees Delia's glimmering eyes, wet from crying, Nurse Crane asks the young nurse if she may recite a poem. Reciting "Es Verdad" in translation, Linda Bassett's performance is convincing and comforting: she looks around as she recites it, as if reading the words on the air. At the conclusion, she notes that the words are not hers, but those of Lorca. Delia is visibly touched by the recitation, as well as Nurse Crane's advice that love is always worth the pain it causes us. The closing shot of the episode sees Delia crawling into Patsy's bed with Nurse Crane's period-accurate copy of Lorca's collected poems for the night.
Lorca had been dead for some twenty-five years in the world of the show, but his work, then as now, holds a scintillating, timeless power. "Who would buy it from me, / this ribbon I am holding," the poem asks, "and this sadness of cotton, / white, for making handkerchiefs with?" In this way, the sadness of cotton, beautifully, becomes a remedy unto itself. The cotton, woven into a handkerchief dries the tears that it has created, suggesting that the sadness love causes is part of the love itself, and therefore to be cherished, used, and carried with us, just as a handkerchief is.
Call the Midwife is always quick to remind us of life's dualities; many of the closing monologues urge us to take the bad with the good, to recognize that life is made up of both sorrow and joy. Asking us to cultivate a deeper appreciating for the hard times and the lessons they teach us is one of the show's many gifts, and Lorca's poem is right at home, here.
Though his death was politically motivated, many cite Lorca's own homosexuality as an additional factor in his tragic assassination, making Nurse Crane's recommendation all the more poignant. Whether we are to take this historical fact in stride as part of Nurse Crane's shrewdness or as a direct exhortation from episode writer Harriet Warner is up for debate. But one thing is clear: as viewers, we are to grieve the millennia of hardship behind and the decades of hardship to come for Delia and other queer people like her. (Up for a brief history lesson? The deeply restrictive Sexual Offences Act of 1967 was still five years away for women like Delia in 1962, and homosexuality wasn't fully decriminalized in the UK until 1982). Though she is tucked into bed with her lover's perfume and Lorca's book for now, heartbreak and separation are, chillingly, some of the best consequences of the still-forbidden love she has for Patsy.
And so, we're left only with Lorca's radiant words. For me, books have a talismanic power, and my first impulse was to see if I could own a copy like the one in this episode. So far I haven't had any luck, but I have come across a stunning array of vintage Lorca books. Though it's not the same as Delia's volume, the 1955 New Editions copy pictured below makes my heart race (and it can be yours for $60 on Etsy). And speaking of gorgeous books, the readily-available bilingual edition of Lorca's Collected Poems from FSG is no slouch, either.
Before reciting "Es Verdad" in translation, Nurse Crane admits that she studies Spanish because it "keeps [her] occupied, prevents the mind becoming rusty." This admission, for me, erases the deeply British confession that she later makes: namely, that she would rather read Tennyson than Lorca any day, even though the latter's words "move [her]." She has, it seems, betrayed herself: just as Lorca's and Delia's loves are culturally forbidden, so too is Nurse Crane's love of Lorca's poetry. This episode, and this interaction, calls us to question the messages that our culture sends us and instead listen to the emotion that springs at our soul's root, to the deep song Lorca spent his life naming and theorizing. Reading Lorca, and, indeed, knowing the lives of others who are not like us, keeps our minds, and our souls, from rusting shut.
CAITLIN COWAN has been getting way too excited about setting poetry up on a blind date with popular culture since the early 1990s. This is her website.