Under My Mattress the Pea
A unique portrait of a girl created in vivid language and enigmatic photographs of dolls shows how hard it is to grow up, and what good poetry can achieve.
In thirty-five free-verse poems and fifteen portraits of clay dolls, all-round artist Ted van Lieshout explores, in his original and distinctive way, the inner workings of a girl who is teetering precariously on the line between childhood and adulthood. Her voice is distinctive, her tone is direct, and her emotions are familiar yet ambiguous.
The opening poem, for example, is wonderfully apt, as she is still playing her role as a mother of dolls, and yet it quite deliberately takes the form of a countdown. Too big for dolls, and too small for love, she soon becomes aware of all the changes taking place in and around her, and of the passing of time, beautifully reflected in the poet’s language. She sees her grandmother ‘slowly dying’ and becoming lost in her own childhood (‘where I don’t exist yet, of course’). She wonders about her relationship with her divorced parents (‘Maybe we have no right to wise parents, / although we had been counting on them. / We can keep on longing for them too, / even though we realise there’s no point’) and why she is actually here on earth (‘so far there’s been no one who’s said: it’s great / that you’re here, we’ve waited so long for you’).
At some times she sounds astute, at others humorous and contrary. The poems playfully alluding to the princess status her parents created for her and her longing for fairy-tale romance are particularly touching. And yet she struggles with her appearance, mentioning ‘an innate / ugliness that no child deserves’.
The photographs of the white clay dolls’ heads with glass eyes reinforce that feeling. The dolls, with the common-or-garden materials that Van Lieshout has skilfully used to adorn them, not only refer to the individual texts, but also create a pattern of attraction and repulsion that nicely lends meaning to the whole. With his approach, Van Lieshout offers a kaleidoscopic gaze into a girl’s life and into the best of his artistry.