from HOME LIFE
A house full of fear. She gave up being young,
Her life of clothes and parties, just to get away –
‘She Loves You’ and ‘Please Please Me’ were the songs we’d sung
As she bashed at the piano and I thumped the same two keys –
The ‘bass’. A long way from ‘Chopsticks’ and ‘Fur Elise’.
But she didn’t love me, and there was no pleasing her,
Not from the moment I’d arrived, while our mother,
Some time between ‘Michelle’ and ‘Yesterday’
Gave in to disappointment that wrapped her like the fur
She did not own. The things no one could say. . .
I hid in the back room among my Airfix model kits
Or polished and polished the already gleaming chrome
On my second-hand Raleigh racer. So many hits,
So many years, until it was ‘She’s Leaving Home’. . .
Leaving home for deep green recessed avenues,
All implicated light and shade and rustic names,
I found the rustling giants with flowers like candle-flames
Towering over me; on pavements that were mined
With spiked horse-chestnuts, paths where I could lose
Myself for hours, the mongrel trotting behind,
Sniffing the ferns and bracken. . . Most of them split
On impact, waiting doe-eyed for me to harvest them;
Polished mahogany; I drilled them with a bit
Borrowed from my father’s bottomless toolbox,
Threaded string and tied it off, then fought
Until those champions of trouser-pocket, blazer-hem
Had shattered into smithereens, my stocks
Were used up and the real fights began. Or so I thought. . .
So I thought of going back to that forbidden spot
Where paths petered out in brambles, heaps of straw
And leaf-mulch: that was where I’d seen them squat,
Their knickers round their ankles, squealing
With little-girl laughter, peeing in the dirt –
My sister and our older, teenaged cousin. . .
It was dank and shady there, and the feeling
Of defiance I could bring on before tea
By singing ‘Walkin’ back to happiness
Had failed me there; their giggles and their closeness hurt
Like the slow drip of contempt and crappiness
She dealt out to me, that left me speechless, raw,
On the brink of tears. I prowled our garden savagely:
Found a beetles’ nest. Killed about two dozen!
Two dozen of us under canvas for two weeks
Somewhere in Kent. The first week, it rained.
Shivering, weeping silently, we drained
The drops and rivulets from a thousand leaks
Into a rank-smelling central ditch, sawed logs,
Stirred baked beans round and round a greasy tub.
While the ‘Captain’ and ‘petty officers’ were in the pub
Spending our pocket-money, we dug the bogs
(Which in this case we had to call ‘the heads’. . .)
There must have been moments of well-being –
‘Eleanor Rigby’, revelations on the soggy river-bank.
But what I recall is the creaking of camp-beds,
The thrill of disbelief at what I was seeing
When Big Dave asked, Who wants to watch me wank?
Rock vs Soul
Watch me, wankers! was the shout that went up
As he charged the full-backs from another school;
In the changing room, his thick cock spilt a whitish drool
When he waggled it…Mondays, we whooped and cheered
The First XV’s results – no-one stood a chance
Against that thuggish gang we never sent up
As we did the grizzled sea-dogs and the jittery types
Who tried to teach us, whose motto was ‘Six stripes –
Across the bare bum’: it wasn’t them we feared. . .
In the pub for the Friday-evening disco-dance
Motown was the hard-nuts’ gospel and they preached it
In Ben Sherman shirts, Levis, Doc Marten boots.
(That organ in ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, with roots
In Bach! We knew a climax when we reached it. . .)
The Art of Photography
When we reached it, night was falling softly on
The lawns and benches in the little formal garden
By the river, and the ink-smooth water shone
A moonlit, still blue-black; as he unrolled
His tattered copy of The Naturist I saw
The white gleaming breasts, the lightly-downed
Thighs and stomach of the girl in the centrefold –
His torch would not stay still, the statues frowned
But I was hypnotised, I felt myself harden
As his fingers fumbled in my fly. . .Want some more?
He whispered; OK, my turn. Let’s change places.
(A long way from Fishing With Mr Crabtree
Whose rods, keep-net and pipe-smoke made one free. . .)
What have you been up to? greeted our flushed faces.
Flushed face and beard flecked with baccy-stains, ‘Baz’,
‘Uncle’ Basil, drove a souped-up Hillman Imp,
Turned up at weekends, always on his way from here
To somewhere else, and gave us, with his amazing
Handlebar moustache, our only family fun –
Baz was ‘a scream’ as ‘Auntie’ Eileen said
Through clouds of cigarette-smoke, gin and perfume:
Coming past that place Baz calls the Tea-and-Bun
He overtook a Rolls, then dropped back to make room
And waved them on – I laughed till I was limp…
Even my mother loved him – It’s a way he has;
His check suits, ten-bob notes and Terry-Thomas phrasing –
‘Drinkies’, ‘gee-gees’, ‘damned nag dropped stone dead’ –
All we knew, then, of life in that house full of fear.
Stéphane Mallarmé’s poems must be some of the most (musically) perfect and (syntactically) riddling ever written, in any language; his prose poems, though, can be more straightforward. My lines here translate the ending of one of them, ‘La Pipe’, into verse, as well as into English. The first published works of Oscar Vladislas de Lubicz Milosz, a French poet of Lithuanian-Polish descent, belong to the world of the Symbolists and Decadents (Ezra Pound lent him a Laforguean voice in his ‘Strophes’), though he later went much deeper into the esoteric. ‘L’Étrangère’ (the foreign one, the stranger, and female) is a plangent piece in his earlier style. These translations are both ‘long after’ their originals because I have taken quite a few liberties with them (see Poetics).
The little smoke-black steamer, wet with spray,
You went aboard, bound for England, home
And Blighty. . .The screws were churning up white foam
As you stood shivering on deck, she in a cloak
That clung wetly to her shoulders – the colour of dirt
Or mourning – and the hat, battered straw,
Without a ribbon or a feather, that,
If she were rich, she would throw away;
That she must wear and wear until it’s dust
Or she is. Round her neck she wore
The handkerchief with which she waved goodbye for good.
(Stéphane Mallarmé: ‘La Pipe’)
You know nothing of your past. You dreamed it,
Yes, you must have dreamed it.
I see your face in the greyish light of the rain that seamed it.
November shrouds the street and shrouds my life.
I know nothing of your past, and don’t want to know.
Your eyes speak to me of distant fog-bound towns
– Towns I shall never see, whose names
I’ll never hear you say.
November weighs on me, and on the lowlands.
I see you, unknown, across the years.
These things have been dead a long time
– Dead and buried, too deep for tears –
Muffled melodies, blighted lusts.
I’m certain November is out there, behind the door.
I see what lives in your heart that your heart forgets.
Your thoughts are far, far away from here. Your foreigner’s soul
Is like the night and fog,
Fog and filthy drizzle in the suburbs
Where life is the same bloodless colour as the earth
And men die never having known love.
You knew me once before, do you remember,
Once, long ago, tragically long ago,
In the country of old books and old melodies,
In the blue twilight of a quiet house,
Its windows full of lethargy.
The ghosts of words you do not recall
Or that you might not have said at all
Lend such a strange meaning to that distant air of yours,
To the silence in which I decipher
Your story, a dead letter, even to yourself.
It’s as sad as a winter’s day in the suburbs
Where the city’s death is stalking,
As sickness and mourning in some godforsaken hole,
As the sound of footsteps in a rented house
As the words ‘long ago’ when darkness covers the sea.
I don’t want to know a thing about your past.
I see the daylight fading, now,
The last light on your face and on your hands.
Leave me the sweetness of never knowing how
Chance helped you find your way to me.
I recognise in you those mysterious beings,
Travellers to secret destinations
Met with in the old days in the fog of stations
Where all sounds have the sound of farewells.
Sometimes, a hint of the fairground
With its teary lights and stale smells
Of mustiness and vice,
The awful sickly gaiety of its tunes.
Nostalgia for the gaming houses of memory
Is implicated in my nervous disarray.
If I left, if I closed the door, what would you do?
Perhaps it’d be as if you’d never set eyes on me.
The sound of my footsteps dying away
In the street, without so much as an echo,
And I would see only darkness in your window.
It’s as if you had to leave me today
Suddenly and for ever, alone
Without telling me where you came from, where you’re going.
It’s raining on the November gardens, you’re chilled to the bone,
November shrouds the street and shrouds my life.
(Oscar Vladislas de Lubicz Milosz: ‘L’Étrangère’)