This is one of several poems that P.J.Kavanagh (1931-2015) wrote in memory of his first wife Sally, who died tragically young two years into their marriage. He commemorates her in his partial autobiography ‘The Perfect Stranger’, a book which like this poem manages to be both grounded and luminous.
Perfection isn’t like a perfect story
I think often of the time I was perfectly happy,
And sat by the harbour reading a borrowed Cavafy.
You were there of course and the night before we
Played bar billiards, green under lights, in the café,
Postponing our first shared bedtime and every ball
That didn’t come back made us look at each other and down.
I collected the key and we crossed the late-night hall
And seeing the room you cried, it was so small.
We were too close. We bore each other down.
I changed the room and we found that you were ill.
Nothing was perfect, or as it should have been.
I lay by your side and watched the green of dawn
Climb over our bodies and bring out of darkness the one
Perfect face that made nothing else matter at all.
I was sad to hear of the death last week of the poet P.J.Kavanagh. I met Patrick once briefly at a poetry gathering when he read out one of my poems. I was hoping to see him afterwards to tell him how much I liked many of his own poems, but he had disappeared outside to catch up with the cricket on the radio and I thought he wouldn’t thank me for interrupting a Test Match at a possibly critical moment just to witter about poetry. So in lieu of that missed opportunity here is one of his that I would surely have cited, a poem of grief and epiphany, disarming in its vulnerable sincerity.
Stalled, in the middle of a rented room,
The couple who own it quarrelling in the yard
Outside, about which shade of Snowcem
They should use. (From the bed I’d heard
Her say she liked me in my dressing-gown
And heard her husband’s grunt of irritation.
Some ladies like sad men who are alone.)
But I am stalled, and sad is not the word.
Go out I cannot, nor can I stay in.
Becalmed mid-carpet, breathless, on the road
To nowhere and the road has petered out.
This was twenty years ago, and bad as that.
I must have moved at last, for I knelt down,
Which I had not before, nor thought I should.
It would not be exact to say I prayed;
What for? The one I wanted there was dead.
All I could do was kneel and so I did.
At once I entered dark so vast and warm
I wondered it could fit inside the room
When I looked round. The road I had to walk down
Was still there. From that moment it was mean
Beyond my strength to doubt what I had seen:
A heat at the heart of dark, so plainly shown,
A bowl, of two cupped hands, in which a pain
That filled a room could be engulfed and drown
And yet, for truth is in the bowl, remain…
Today I thought it time to write this down
Beyond decoration, humble, in plain rhyme,
As clear as I could, and as truthful, which I have done.
Deaf and dumb lovers in a misty dawn
On an open railway platform in the Dordogne
Watched each other’s hands and faces,
Making shapes with their fingers, tapping their palms,
Then stopped and smiled and threw themselves
Open-mouthed into each other’s arms
While the rest of us waited, standing beside our cases.
When it arrived she left him and climbed on the train
Her face like dawn because of their conversation.
Then she stepped down, grabbed his neck in the crook of her arm,
Gave him the bones of her head, the bones of her body violently.
Then climbed on again alone. Her face hardened
In seconds as we moved away from her island.
Tight-lipped she looked around for a seat on the sea.
A complex, beautifully observed poem: there is reticent compassion here but more than that an almost envious acknowledgment of an unshared intimacy.