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,
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.
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.