New Poems

Four New Poems

Clive James

Language Lessons

She knew the last words of Eurydice
In every syllable, both short and long.
Correcting his misuse of quantity,
She proved the plangent lilt of Virgil’s song
Depended on precision, while his hand,
Light as a mayfly coming in to land,
Caressed her cheek to taste the melody
Of such sweet skin, smooth as a silk sarong.

Give her the palm for speaking well, he thought,
But has she ever melted as she should
With no holds barred, or wept the way she ought?
His scraps of Greek, it seemed, were not much good.
He said the words for rosy-fingered dawn
And when she set him straight with laughing scorn
He spoke a tongue she barely understood,
Contesting her with kisses long and short.

In such a way they traded expertise
Until the day came it took half the night.
She gradually improved his memories
And he set loose her longing for delight. 
The passion underneath the verse technique
She saw in its full force, and learned to speak —
Strictly, as always, but in ecstasies.
So finally, for both, the sound was right,

A compound language fashioned out of sighs
And poetry recited line by line.
Few lovers and few scholars realise
The force with which those separate things combine
When classic metres are at last revealed
As reservoirs where rhythms lie concealed
That sprang from heartbeats just like yours and mine,
Pent breath, and what we cry with flashing eyes.

In that regard they made a pretty pair:
He with his otherwise unhurried touch,
She with her prim and finely balanced air,
When they lay down together, came to such
An ending they were like a poem caught
In the last singing phrase of what it sought
To start with: to contain what means too much
Left lying loose. In something like despair,

Though it was joy, they would forget they knew
What anybody else had ever said
Of love, and simply murmur the poor few
Abstract endearments suitable for bed
Until they slept, and dreamed they’d never met
And none of this sheer bliss had happened yet.
One woke the other — which was which? — in dread:
Ah, Orpheus, what has lost us, me and you?

Alas, what is this madness? Out of sight
Like smoke mixed with thin air I seem to fly.
Although her form, when he switched on the light,
Was still there, he had heard her spirit die.
To bring it back, he swore that he would go
To hell for her. It would be always so,
For he would live forever and defy
The halls of Dis and the gigantic night.

Having heard this from him, she smiled again,
And in his arms came back to life as one
Returning to the mortal world of men, 
Their ticking clocks, the race that they must run.
Believing in their love: that was the task
That these two faced. It seemed too much to ask,
So moved were they when all was said and done —
Knowing that it would stop, but never when.

from D.959

Not much interpretation needed here,
It seems at first.
For once the most mechanical of players
Is as valuable as Schnabel.

Isaiah Berlin specified this piece
For his funeral. Listen. 
Here, hedge-hopping from the blue horizon
Comes that little phrase again, straight out of Proust.

Play it again, Katsumi. And she does,
As if arranging flowers:
The echo where you never quite expect it.
I wake in hospital. My mother’s here

With sweets and comic books and a lead soldier.
I was saved by penicillin.
And now here comes the bit that tells you he
Could not possibly have died at 31.

And here’s that same phrase flying low, so near
And yet so far. So far, 
So good, like a lovely woman smiling.
May it never, never stop. Not this, not now.

So some interpretation needed, then,
If just to be aware 
What won’t work here. It wants a master’s tact.
That swine Cortot, that sweet man Rubinstein,

Both brought the fine touch that leaves well alone.
Here she falls short
But not by far. Respect the intervals, 
Trying not to interfere. Brava! Well done.

Fly back to Tokyo with all my thanks,
Young lady. Third at Leeds,
You leave me happy here, and pleased for him,
Where he lies buried next to Beethoven.

Melbourne Botanical Gardens 

Australia Felix

Was it twenty years ago I met that couple
In the Melbourne Botanical Gardens?
They must have been the age that I am now.
Two Poles, she from an Auschwitz labour camp,
He crippled by the walk home from Siberia,
They met in Krakow, married, and came here
On a migrant ship that docked at Woolloomooloo —
Which must have seemed a long way from Lwow,
Though the old name was in the new name somewhere.
Knowing my face from TV, the man told me
My jokes against the local intellectuals
Concerned about Australia’s vassal status
In a Western world controlled by the US
Were doomed to fall on deaf ears. “They have no
Idea,” he said. She was fine-boned and graceful
Like my mother, who would certainly have liked her.
“We walk here every day,” she said. “So peaceful.”
He nodded while he watched the currawongs.
Her first fiancé perished at Katyn,
The year my father sailed to Singapore.

And Then They Dream of Love

“Were you not more than just a pretty face
And perfect figure”, he thought, kissing one
While clamped against the other, “this embrace
Would not be so intense.” But she was done
For now with doubts and fears. Her state of grace
Had come upon her like the rising sun.
He bathed in daybreak, loving its suddenness,
The way she shook, her look of sheer distress
That meant the opposite, and everything.

Back in the world, her limbs still trembling,
She said it all again, and this time he
Expressed himself in words as best he could —
“You must know you mean more than this to me” —
Merely to find himself misunderstood.
“You mean you don’t get lost in ecstasy
The way I do?” she said. “I want to be
All that you need of this.” He said, “You said
I only cared what you were like in bed.”
And so their bickering began again

About what you mean now and I meant then.
Only so long could they go on that way
Before they parted, worn out by their knack
For petty quarrels even when they lay
Replete. The things they said before came back
To plague them. If it matters what you say
It can’t last. Best to take another tack,
And meet for just this, very late at night.
Would she do that? No. He would. She was right.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"