Pointy Birds and Other Pointy Creatures by John Lillison.
Recovery Project By Sommer Browning
O pointy birds, o pointy pointy,
Anoint my head, anointy-nointy.
John Lillison wrote these words across the blouse of Miss Lily Tyson, his dining companion and a prominent socialite of the time, because he had forgotten his notebook. It was a bold move for the usually prepared Lillison as England was embroiled in the infamous Londonderryton Dry Cleaners Strike of 1888. We are lucky for one, that Miss Tyson was well-endowed as Lillison had Hancockian large penmanship, and secondly that her blouse was kept, for use as refuse rags, and is now preserved somewhere in the basement of the Otherwise Sane Insane Asylum in Lowlyhamshire, North Westerburyham. This linen blouse, with its tulle edges and tastefully crenellated scoop neck, is one of the only artifacts we have relating to John Lillison, also known as EnglandŐs Greatest One-Armed Poet.
In fact, just one copy of his book, Pointy Birds and Other Pointy Creatures, seems to exist. Most of what has been written about him can be found in a few obscure literary journals that he solely founded, edited and subscribed to, such as EnglandŐs Greatest One-Armed Poetry Journal and the exceedingly rare and, likely, mythic, Udders and Teats Review. From these scattered references and fragments we learn more about his life than his poetry, and for that, we are lucky. Further scholarship and a little excavating, provides another source of Lillison evidence in letters written by his contemporaries. The following passage comes from a letter written by William Morris to Alfred Austin—two of EnglandŐs most distinguished poets of the time:
I woke up this morning, in a frenzy, for I remembered that I had run out of PimŐs Cherry Bicarbonate Fizzy the night before. So I immediately ran down to SpencerŐs to purchase a pint before I could begin to write you this letter.
It is believed that Lillison sold Morris the Fizzy.
Like so many of the worldŐs famous figures, LillisonŐs unusual death tends to overshadow his accomplishments in the realm of letters (and numbers, as he sometimes wrote in). In 1898, John Lillison became the first man to be killed in a car crash—women had been dying in them for years. The fateful machine was one of the first gasoline-powered prototypes of the Model T, designed by the Lanchester Motor Company. Police reports of the time suggest the driver was very alert and knew exactly what he was doing when the car suddenly swerved onto the sidewalk striking Lillison fatally in the groin. The one copy of Pointy Birds and Other Pointy Creatures I spotted online, on sale for over $400, was in extraordinarily poor condition—it appears to be a 45-page manuscript missing pages 2-44. Ironically, the last surviving copy of his book was in his pocket when he was run over.
In a strange turn of events, Lillison once again enters the poetry canon in 1983 in a film starring the actor Steve Martin. So many poetsŐ reputations have suffered when they were quoted out of context, but none so little as John LillisonŐs. Steve Martin quotes him in The Man With Two Brains, a vulgar, lowbrow, B-rated, perverse, derivative, and highly enjoyable comedy. From this point on, Lillison, once known as an inscrutable unknown languishing in the dustbin of history becomes a forgettable reference in the dumpster of contemporary obscurity—and for this imperceptible shift I blame Steve Martin. If it wasnŐt for MartinŐs use of LillisonŐs verse in this film and later in L.A. Story, he would have remained comfortably unknown today.
Only two fragments remain of LillisonŐs literary legacy. As is his overwhelming tendency exemplified in both Pointy Birds and In DillmanŐs Grove, below, Lillison eschews traditional rationality, and even taste, for the more poetic necessity, rhyme:
In DillmanŐs Grove, our love did die,
And now in ground shall ever lie.
None could eŐer replace her visage,
Until your face brought thoughts of kissage.
The passage above refers to DillmanŐs Grove, a small patch of Excoriating Pear Trees about 30 miles outside of London. ItŐs unknown if Lillison is referring to a real death in the grove or a figurative one. And here we see another trait in LillisonŐs approximately 37 surviving words (37 depending on how you count anointy-nointy), his deft use of ambiguity. In the first line he uses love as both the great Platonic ideal and as the enamored, and newly dead, direct object. He uses ambiguity again with the pronoun our, immediately preceding love. He broadens the scope of the poem and reaches outside of it, to the larger world. The our comes to symbolize the nation, our England, or the our could refer to the numerous multi-partnered sexual assemblages he hosted at his country house Die Esplanade in East Westerburytonessex. Whatever his meaning, whatever depths and emotions he ached to reach, it is certain: there is more to John Lillison and his poetry than should ever be explored.