20 Poems For George – By Olivia Harrison.
Review by Phil Wood
There was no grand plan or strategy by Olivia to publish a book dedicated to George to mark the 20th Anniversary of his passing and it was only in 2018 that the germ of an idea took hold . She has admitted to experiencing “some emotional turmoil” at this time and was advised by a neurologist friend of hers to go and read some poetry for three days .
This provided Olivia with the inspiration to begin writing and what flowed from her pen was not in the form of conventional prose but instead poetry , despite the fact that she had no prior knowledge of its rules. She felt that poetry was a more appropriate medium to write something deeper and more personal than an autobiography. What transpired is almost a hybrid of the two forms, “a poetic autobiography ” is how Martin Scorsese describes the book in the piece he penned for its forward.
“Came the Lightening ” was published by Genesis Publications in June of last year. As well as a standard hard back version (£25), Genesis released 2 limited edition sets; a run of 1000 “Collectors” copies and a further 500 under a “Deluxe” branding. I opted to purchase one of the “Collector’s” books at a cost of £114 with my edition being numbered and signed by Olivia. Included within the slimline volume, 104 pages bound in a sumptuous woven yellow cloth, is a loose leaf print of one of the book’s poems, “Carved in Stone”, which is also signed by Olivia.
The more luxuriant “Deluxe” version will set you back in the region of £315, and includes a book mark made from the wood of a fallen oak tree from George and Olivia’s Friar Park Home, a sacred heart milagro charm (a Latin American religious pendant and a nod to Olivia’s Mexican heritage), three prints of photographs taken in the gardens of Friar Park and the “Carved in Stone” print included in the “Collectors” edition.
In addition to the text of the poems, “Came The Lightening” contains many unpublished photographs, as well as fascinating mementos such as fragments of notes and drawings from their life together.
I felt both excitement and trepidation when I began reading the book.For the normally shy and reclusive Olivia to write intimately about her life with George would of course be fascinating, however poetry is a notoriously challenging format to master and I was concerned that her brave attempt might end in failure.
I am therefore pleased to report that my fears were dispelled immediately upon reading the opening poem, “Another Spring”. In the first part of this achingly sad piece, Olivia imagines what it would have been like to spend just one more Spring with George. For the second half of the poem she describes the ritual she undertook on the final day of George’s life as she prepared to bid farewell to her husband. This is Olivia bearing her soul, searingly honest and very moving to read .
Each of these poems is a carefully crafted vignette of Olivia’s life as seen through the prism of her relationship with George. In “She 34° North” ( a reference to her home city of Los Angeles and its line of latitude) she recalls her upbringing in the city of angels, and taking George to visit her parents modest home which he observed was like a mansion compared to his childhood home in Liverpool .
One of the book’s more unusual poems is the somewhat quirky “Tuum Corpus” which is Latin for “your body”. Here, Olivia provides a vivid description of George’s physical appearance and distinguishing features written in the vernacular of a geologist studying a fascinating rock formation or a botanist observing a wonderful rare flower. My favourite lines concern hitherto unknown scars on his fingers , which were the consequence of being slashed by a fish that he had caught and was in the process of returning to the sea and which she refers to as – most intriguingly- “Instant karma”. ( Upon further investigation, I discovered in an interview that Olivia conducted with the American publication AARP that “Instant karma” was indeed George’s pet name for his scars)
And on the theme of Beatles related references, there is no shortage of material here for fans to dissect and pore over. “My Arrival” in particular – running to four pages it is the longest poem in the collection-will keep Beatles sleuths occupied for some very considerable time. Beginning with Olivia ‘s arrival at Friar Park in December 1974 in John and Yoko’s white Rolls Royce, this piece focuses on the weird, wonderful and somewhat unnerving new world she had entered into. There are oblique references to the revolving door of musicians checking in and out of the house. One of these is “Slowhand ” aka Eric Clapton and we have six intriguing verses which address the George, Eric, Pattie love triangle which Olivia alludes to as being more like a hexagon in its complexity.
Another poem replete with Beatlesque overtones is “He Never Hurt No One “. Olivia serves up a potted history of George’s life from his formative years growing up in Arnold Grove, Liverpool in a cramped two up two down house, his immersion in rock roll as one of “three teenage scruffs” (no prizes for the names of his two accomplices) and even referencing the black eye that he took on behalf of Ringo at the Cavern Club. The poem then makes a quantum leap in time from 1962 to 1980 when she describes receiving the news of John’s murder. Both George and Paul issued rather perfunctory statements to the media on December 9th 1980 that belied their true feelings which Olivia addresses in several lines of the most poignant writing Beatles fans will ever read .
A recurring theme throughout the book are Olivia’s reflections on the transient nature of life, its impermanence and the realisation that all things must pass. Indeed the poem that lends the collection its title, “Came The Lightening, Came The Light” addresses this in the context of George lightening the load or in other words unburdening himself of everything connected with this life in his final days.
The magnificent Victorian gothic house, Friar Park situated in the tranquil Thames Valley town of Henley, provides a fitting setting for Olivia’s philosophical musings. This was George and Olivia’s home throughout their marital life and in several poems she writes about their shared passion for gardening and its restorative powers which have helped her during her grieving process. Indeed the final poem in the book “Ode to Friar Park” serves as a homage to the house and gardens that she and George both cherished, nurtured and restored. In the piece, she also contemplates her own mortality and how she will be remembered as a custodian of Friar Park.
“Came To The Lightening ” is a beautifully conceived tribute to George in which Olivia reveals herself to be a writer of consummate skill and emotional depth. Essential reading for all fans of George, I also believe that it would appeal to a wider audience in the sensitive way that it portrays one person’s journey through grief, healing and the passage of time.