The Dying of a Long Lost Lover
Your mother slept with me – I daresay you regard that
As peculiar, I daresay she is old (and so am I,
But I’m less your affair). Think. She was young.
Imagine her. I see still her long fingers round her belt.
Which is her myth, her past, or her reality?
Young, did not foretell this old I do not know.
I know she is the hand which stroked both me and you:
various the occasions, and the kinds, of love she felt.
You touch that vehicle of extinct heat. But love
that she loved, and was the call of love. With some
distaste you soon may close her eyes: love
that I see her young long fingers at her belt.
Geoffrey Grigson as poet and critic was distinguished by a tart independence of mind; this poem, perhaps my favourite among his work, shows that he also had a capacity for tenderness.
If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift, but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for the foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant.
But if you should look in your idleness after ten thousand years:
It is the granite knoll on the granite
And lava tongue in the midst of the bay, by the mouth of the Carmel
River-valley, these four will remain
In the change of names. You will know it by the wild sea-fragrance of wind
Though the ocean may have climbed or retired a little;
You will know it by the valley inland that our sun and our moon were born from
Before the poles changed; and Orion in December
Evenings was strung in the throat of the valley like a lamp-lighted bridge.
Come in the morning you will see white gulls
Weaving a dance over blue water, the wane of the moon
Their dance-companion, a ghost walking
By daylight, but wider and whiter than any bird in the world.
My ghost you needn’t look for; it is probably
Here, but a dark one, deep in the granite, not dancing on wind
With the mad wings and the day moon.
A beautiful temporal perspective, haunting in its vision of what goes and what stays. Maybe one small flaw: the choice of epithet ‘mad’ in the last line doesn’t seem quite right to me, but perhaps I am missing something.
It is near Toussaints
It is near Toussaints, the living and dead will say:
‘Have they ended it? What has happened to Gurney?’
And along the leaf-strewn roads of France many brown shades
Will go, recalling singing, and a comrade for whom also they
Had hoped well…
On the night of all the dead, they will remember me,
Pray Michael, Nicholas, Maries lost in Novembery
River-mist in the old City of our dear love, and batter
At doors about the farms crying ‘Our war poet is lost.
Madame, no bon!’ – and cry his two names, warningly, sombrely.
The poems of the First World War poet Ivor Gurney dance on the edge of disintegration – it could be argued that not many of them achieve completeness, but they are brave and vulnerable and usually offer some memorable quirk of observation or language.
Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere – it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.
Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,
Or if they do, it is like a confession
Of having little feeling – or too much.
Chastity faces them, a destination
For which their whole lives were a preparation.
Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself’s a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they’re old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold.
The best poems of Elizabeth Jennings are characterised by a quiet intensity and great formal skill; this compassionate, elegiac piece is perhaps my favourite among her oeuvre.