Peter Porter b. Brisbane 1929, d. London 2010
The sky is silent. All the planes must keep
Clear of the fine volcanic ash that drifts
Eastward from Iceland like a bad idea.
In your apartment building without lifts,
Not well myself, I find it a bit steep
To climb so many stairs but know I must
If I would see you still alive, still here.
The word is out from those you love and trust —
Time is so short that from your clever pen
No line of verse might ever flow again.
Your poems were the condensation trails
Of a bright mind’s steady rush of soaring power,
Which still you show. Though plainly you are weak
In body, you can still talk by the hour.
Indeed we talk for two, but my will fails
Before the task of wishing you goodbye.
There’s all our usual stuff of which to speak:
Pictures and poems, things that never die,
And then there’s history, which in the end
No one survives, not even your best friend.
No one like you to talk about Mozart
Bad-mouthing Haydn: how the older man
Forgave the coming boy. No one like you
To bring it all alive, the mortal span
Of humans who create immortal art:
Your favourite theme. I ought to tell you now
That I will miss you. But I miss my cue,
Unless it’s tact, not funk, that tells me how
To look convinced this visit need not be
The last at which you’re here to welcome me.
If I am mealy-mouthed, though, you are not.
You say you hate to eat because it feeds
The crab that’s killing you. I could well ask,
If only to find out what fear it breeds,
Whether you dread your death now that it’s got
A grip the morphine can’t shake. That would be
For me, however. Better to wear my mask
Of good cheer and insist Posterity
Cherishes you already while you live,
And there will be more time, and more to give.
Ten weeks? Ten poems? Scarcely, it transpires,
Ten days. The planes can fly again. The phones
That never stopped are saying you are gone.
We try to give thanks that you made old bones,
But still I see the beach at Troy, the fires
For fallen heroes. This is an event
Proving for all the great work that lives on
A great life dies, and leaves an empty tent —
An aching void to measure our time by
As overwhelming as a silent sky.
London May 2010
Dante Alighieri: Monarchia. Edited by Prue Shaw for the Società Dantesca Italiana, 2009
More valuable than all of mine, your book
Is neatly kept like everything you do:
So clearly worth the twenty years it took,
It sparkles. Fonts well chosen, margins true,
Its every creamy page exhales the sense
Of learned judgment, tact and permanence.
If Dante waited seven centuries
To see his Latin tract receive such care
He can’t complain, though being hard to please
No doubt he did while he was lying there
Still exiled in Ravenna, still annoyed
That so much effort has to be employed
In re-establishing what he first wrote.
But what could he expect? He worked by hand,
And other hands, on skins of sheep and goat,
Made copies, and those went to every land
In Europe, and were copied once again,
And soon for every error there were ten.
Tracing the manuscripts back to the first
Few spin-offs is as good as you can get.
Often you don’t get that, and at the worst
A copy’s copy’s copy’s the best bet,
And so the scholar must compare, contrast,
And from the past deduce a deeper past.
It takes far more than sweat. It takes a mind
That can connect with the great poet’s heart,
Knowing his sweet new style was spare, refined,
Tough, difficult, precise in every part,
And therefore apt to be fudged in its gist
By scribes half qualified and some half pissed.
Such minds are rare, and often in disguise
They come into the world. My only role
In your brave saga is that I was wise
Enough to see the brilliant scholar’s soul
Shine through her beauty in the lecture hall
Even before we met. I guessed it all.
How could that be? Well, here is how it can:
You took notes at the same speed that I ate,
With an eye for truth unknown to mortal man,
Especially this man. It was my fate
To fish the surface but my luck to see
You hungered for a deeper clarity.
I saw you flower in Florence. That was where
The bigwigs spotted you and marked your card.
The sage Contini knew you were a rare
Natural philologist worth his regard,
And while you learned, you taught me. From the way
You read me Dante I foretold today.
Today, so far from our first years, I bless
My judgment, which in any other case
Is something we both know I don’t possess,
But one thing I did know. I knew my place.
I knew yours was the true gift that would bring
Our house the honours that mean everything:
The honour of our daughters raised to treat
All people with your scrupulous respect,
The honour of your laughter and the sweet
Self-abnegation of an intellect
That never vaunts itself though well it might,
And this above all, lovely in my sight —
Pursued through busy days in precious hours,
Pored over word by word and line by line
Year after year with concentrated powers
Of selfless duty to the grand design
Of someone long dead who was well aware
That dreams of peace on earth must court despair —
The honour of the necessary task
Done well, not just for show, and done for keeps.
Could I have helped you more? Don’t even ask.
I can hear Dante, grunting as he sleeps:
“You are the weakling and you always were.
If you would sing for glory, sing of her.”