On “Where were you last night?”

In this beautiful and haunting poem, Tammy Ho offers interesting answers to this question. The poem is part of a project in which she writes poems on demand. She asks that those interested email her something about themselves – an incident, a piece of information, a photograph – and she will then write a poem dedicated to them, inspired by the material they sent.

The poem “Where were you last night?” was written for a photographer friend; his photograph of a pair of bedroom slippers with the words “Her bedroom sippers,” used for inspiration.

The poet rose to the occasion, a difficult one, since it does not simply involve writing in response to a photograph, but a picture by a photographer and friend. How close is the friendship, one wants to ask, how much information is one not privy to, why bedroom slippers, what is the artist’s intention? And yet, on reading the poem, these questions lose their urgency, as we enter, or rather are led into, a world we feel we know, which however appears magical at the same time. From a book launch, to fairy tales, to Moscow, to Chelsea, to hotels and linguistic stops, we are taken round the world and back into the poet’s arms.

There are so many things I like about this poem that to single out one thing would do injustice to the rest. Nevertheless, I will pick out a theme which resonates particularly strongly with me.

The first stanza gives a clue that serves as an entry point. The narrator might be asking herself the question “Where were you …?” The book launch she attended was a boring event, too many writers’ egos, neat piles of books and lots of wine on an empty stomach! But we know you can’t judge a book by its cover. This leads the narrator to crack open the book pile, and the stories, fairy tales, metaphors, characters come tumbling out in the subsequent stanzas. The writer is never bored, or alone… and the reader is certainly entertained and amused, but also puzzled.

At the same time, a sense of longing and loneliness comes across in the poem. “Where were you last night?” might also be a question asked of the “you” in the poem – as if the narrator wished the “you” had been with her. The repeated question suggests feeling excluded, or left; and all that within the context of closer intimacy claimed by the words in the photograph “Her bedroom slippers.” In asking the “where were you” question, the narrator implies “you” could have been with her, “at home,” in her own arms, with her wearing “her bedroom slippers.” Perhaps, the fact that “you” were not is just as well, as one might imagine that, had that “you” been at home with her, the poem might not have been written!

In this sense, for me, this poem also explores the source(s) of creativity: is the feeling of a lack, of longing and of loss an essential ingredient of creative work? What other ingredients are there? And why is inspiration and creative effort so often experienced as capricious, and fragile, needing to be nursed and safeguarded? There is a powerful hint in the poem at our anxieties about the fragility of the creative process: one snowflake and we can be blinded for ever… There is a display of poetic force in this poem which transcends and transforms the longing into a poetic journey well worth embarking on.