When I wrote "Old Frankenstein," the newest poem in Love If We Can Stand It, I got the first line out of nowhere. I was watching TV in the living room and thinking about nothing. The line was "The old man never calls" and the title came right after it. I laughed. I got paper and a pen and started writing. By the time I got to the smoking jacket I knew what I was doing. The whole thing took about two hours. The poem reads:
The old man never calls.
He quit making us
settled down with his bride
in a stone cottage
went back to his smoking jacket
wrote a book and tore it up
they say, I never saw it.
I learned to talk again
in spite of them all
every crowd and Burgomaster
—read by fires, by lakes
ate what I ran across
but killed no people
not for a long time now.
The flesh has not decayed, probably can't.
I carry a cane and that explains the walk.
I dress like a cheap old man
a man with peculiarities
a man you'd leave alone
to live in a shed in the woods.
He'll die, I won't.
He can't live forever
and he doesn't like it when I show up.
I haven't tried that in twenty years.
I accumulate birthdays like everyone else.
He could call. His wife
could call. My only family.
I wonder how it will be without him.
By line 2 of the poem I found that I had to decide between the Hammer series (which began with The Curse of Frankenstein, 1957) and the Universal series (which began with Frankenstein, 1931). In the Hammer series Dr. Frankenstein, played by Peter Cushing, reappears in each sequel and builds a new monster. In the Universal series the Monster reappears, but after Bride of Frankenstein the doctors change; in the first two films he is played by Colin Clive. I have a special affection for Bride of Frankenstein and wanted to work it in, as I had worked it into "One, or Words for Poetry," a poem about one-syllable words:
the fiend said
fire no good
but we can not say the long name
not his in the first place
of the man who made him
I did not have
So I chose Colin Clive as my doctor. Peter Cushing was not ruled out, though. There could have come a time when he "quit making us," us being all his consecutive monsters, and settled down. Clive makes the Monster and the female whom Dr. Pretorius calls "the bride of Frankenstein," hence the "us" in the Universal series sense. At first I meant the "us" to apply to the Monster (Boris Karloff) and the bride (Elsa Lanchester) from Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein as well as the series of monsters made by Cushing, but by the time I saw the doctor in his smoking jacket, he was Colin Clive and the "stone cottage" was in black and white. Then I saw the title had made the same choice.
There was a rule in the first three Universal sequels' titles that Frankenstein had to refer both to the doctor and to the Monster. In the first film, as in Mary Shelley's novel, it was meant to refer only to the doctor, but the public was soon calling the monster Frankenstein. In Bride, the doctor gets married and the Monster has a bride, even if she rejects him. In Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein, there is always a relative of the original doctor. But in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the name refers only to the Monster. So my title, Old Frankenstein, needed to refer both to the aged Dr. Frankenstein and to the aged Monster, and that was no problem; it dictated the story of the two old Frankensteins. I also thought of Young Frankenstein, which I love, and saw this poem as a sequel to it as well as the final entry in an imaginary Universal series.
Another advantage of being able to use Bride of Frankenstein was that in that film, the Monster can talk. "I learned to talk again" is my defiant response to the decision made in all the sequels after Bride, in which he can't speak. (The exception is that in Ghost, when the Monster has Ygor's brain, he does briefly speak, but they are Ygor's words.) My Monster would learn, and as in the novel, he would read.
The doctor's torn-up book got me back to the Monster and to the end of what worked as the first stanza, and it was seven lines. I decided to make the poem in seven-line stanzas, not sure how many there would be. I have written my share of sestinas with their six-line stanzas, and I enjoy working in tight forms, as I had done in "Slides" where each ten-line section of the poem is a rectangle of type set halfway down the page to resemble a projected 35mm slide. A contemporary take on the Renaissance sonnet sequence (like Samuel Daniel's Delia), it was presented as a slide show of episodes from and meditations on an unrealized romance. I wrote it first in 1969 and rewrote it from 2010 to 2011, changing the plot, cutting out half the "slides," and revising many lines and images, so that it's now tighter and makes more sense. It's also more honest although it remains deliberately obscure.
But back to stanza 2. The crowd and the Burgomaster (as the credits spelled it) came from the Universal series. I always enjoyed the torchlight parades when the crowds get torches and search for the Monster. The Burgomasters are fools that my Monster would look down on. The "fires" and "lakes" are in the novel. By the end of the stanza, I had him stop killing people. He's an old monster conceived in the era of the slasher movie, a Jason who's given up his machete or just uses it on trees. He's also an old monster in approximately 1955, because he says he hasn't shown up to see the doctor for 20 years, and I figure he did that in 1935, the date of Bride. Of course he could have done it later in some film we didn't see.
Jason also shows up in stanza 3, as the model for the monster living in a shed in the woods. I was thinking of Friday the 13th Part 2. By the time I wrote about his walk and his clothes, I was clearly seeing the Universal Monster and the way he walked when he was played by Karloff, which wasn't as stiff as he later got, and the thrift-shop clothes he would wear. I thought the lines were funny and I was really enjoying writing them. With "He'll die, I won't" I tightened up the rhythm to prepare the ending, the thing that's bothering the Monster and making him take stock of himself and his current life.
Stanza 4 starts with a repetition of thoughts about death because I needed seven lines in the stanza. That happens sometimes. By line 4, I was feeling outraged about the birthdays the monster was accumulating in solitude, I was feeling his isolation, I was feeling that his more-or-less father (implied in the double meaning of "old man" in line 1) and Mrs. Frankenstein should call him and certainly could. I felt he was a real character and I felt his emotions inside me. That is a wonderful feeling. It's like what writers mean when they say their characters created their own dialogue. It happened to me a lot when I was writing "Two Greek Women," which is a short epic about two contemporary lesbians whom I made up out of two women I slightly knew who were not lovers; mainly I made them up, and I certainly didn't know what my models (whom my characters looked like and from whom they took their names) thought about anything, but the characters I made up spoke words and lines and did things the way they—the characters—would; they became real to me while I was writing, and in that way every invention in the poem became both true and something I couldn't miss. So that's the kind of feeling and creating that came out as "He could call. His wife / could call."
Then came "My only family," and the poem had stopped being funny a while ago. The last line came to me as suddenly as the first, and I knew it was the last line when I wrote it: "I wonder how it will be without him." Everything came together with that line, which for me was the most creative and insightful moment in the writing. Then I went back to the top of the stanza and wrote the redundant but not that bad "He can't live forever" to make seven lines, and the first draft was done. I went over it until I had things like the shed image the way I wanted them and the correct rhythm for the line about his walk, and the poem was done.