2004

I

Janet Leigh, actress, 1927-2004

 

I met her once, two years before she died.

LA in January on the Universal lots

and just the other side of those planes and towers

which had, already, made an after of everything.

 

Age had whittled her like a bird,

the years paring her at elbow, collar bone and cheek

so when she handed her coat to the driver

he draped half of her over his shoulder.

 

A cruel splice perhaps, for the photographer

to have taken her there. The motel unchanged

and the shower inside still the same

where, in fifty cuts and a single still

 

her white-toothed scream, a knife

stabbing a melon, the shadow of mother,

had all made, via the studio’s campaign,

her name.

 

As she posed for the shots and I took my notes

a tour bus approached, the guide’s voice amplified

through its windows   And here on your right the Bates motel

made famous in – Oh my god! It’s Janet Leigh!

 

Their turning heads made her a starlet once more

so as the bus down slowed she switched on a smile

and released a red carpet wave, returned by twenty-four

palms against glass, like convicts at visiting hour.

 

But as it drove on and she turned back to us

whatever had lit her didn’t last, her smile dropped

and her eyes downcast, as if she knew, already,

that more than just a bus had passed.

 

                             II

But none of us knew.

And even now we’re learning how much.

Look, here in the same magazine

where just last week I read of her death - this.

 

Another still; a young woman again

her lips spread in a smile not a scream

and her thumbs up as she leans into frame

to place her face beside the prone detainee’s.

 

No lights, body doubles or make up.

No studio or Hitchcock composing the scene.

Just the flash of a camera in this place of ravens

illuminating a young woman in fatigues,

 

a girl in a windowless corridor,

unknowing, like an actress in the seconds of a take,

that this is the moment that will make her famous forever,

the new starlet face of American horror.

 

(Photographs of the abuses and torture committed by the U.S. Army at Abu Ghraib prison first came to light in 2004.)

 

Owen Sheers has written two collections of poetry, The Blue Book and Skirrid Hill (Somerset Maugham Award). His non-fiction includes The Dust Diaries (Welsh Book of the Year 2005) and Calon; A Journey to the Heart of Welsh Rugby. His novel Resistance has been translated into ten languages and was made into a film in 2011. His plays include The Passion and The Two Worlds of Charlie F. (Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award). Owen wrote and presented BBC Four’s A Poet’s Guide to Britain. His verse drama Pink Mist was commissioned by BBC Radio 4 and was published by Faber in June 2013. He has been a NYPL Cullman Fellow, Writer in Residence for the Wordsworth Trust and Artist in Residence for the Welsh Rugby Union.

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