There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.
The young are walking on the riverbank
arms around each other’s waist and shoulders,
pretending to be looking at the waterlilies
and what might be a nest of some kind, over
there, which two who are clamped together
mouth to mouth have forgotten about.
The others, making courteous detours
around them, talk, stop talking, kiss.
They can see no one older than themselves.
It’s their river. They’ve got all day.
Seeing’s not everything. At this very
moment the middle-aged are kissing
in the backs of taxis, on the way
to airports and stations. Their mouths and tongues
are soft and powerful and as moist as ever.
Their hands are not inside each other’s clothes
(because of the driver) but locked so tightly
together that it hurts: it may leave marks
on their not of course youthful skin, which they won’t
notice. They too may have futures.
Literally thin-skinned, I suppose, my face
catches the wind off the snow-line and flushes
with a flush that will never wholly settle. Well:
that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young for ever, to pass.
I was never a Pre-Raphaelite beauty,
nor anything but pretty enough to satisfy
men who need to be seen with passable women.
But now that I am in love with a place
which doesn’t care how I look, or if I’m happy,
happy is how I look, and that’s all.
My hair will turn grey in any case,
my nails chip and lake, my waist thicken,
and the years work all their usual changes.
If my face is to be weather-beaten as well
that’s little enough lost, a fair bargain
for a year among lakes and fells, when simply
to look out of my window at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors and to what
my soul may wear over its new complexion.
How many years ago now
did we first walk hand in hand –
or hand in claw –
through Alice’s Wonderland,
your favourite training ground,
peopled with a crew
of phantasms – Mock Turtle, Gryphon –
as verbal as you?
Your microphone, kissing my lips,
inhaled my words; the machine
displayed them, printed out
in sentences on a screen.
my precious parasite,
my echo, my parrot,
my tolerant slave:
I do the talking;
you do the typing.
Just try a bit harder
to hear what I say!
I wait for you to lash your tail
each time I swear at you.
But no: you listen meekly,
and print ‘fucking moron’.
All the come-ons
you transcribed as commas –
how can we conduct a flirtation
in punctuation? –
you spell doom to romance
by writing ‘flotation’.
I can’t blame you for homonyms,
but surely after a decade
you could manage the last word
of Cherry Tree ‘Would’?
Context, after all,
is supposed to be your engine.
Or are you being driven
by Humpty Dumpty?
I take it amiss
when you mis-hear the names
of my nearest and dearest;
in particular, Beth.
Safer, perhaps, if I say Bethany.
Keep your scary talons
off my great-granddaughter:
don’t call her ‘death’.
You know all the diseases
and the pharmaceuticals:
are no trouble to you,
You’re hopeless at birds:
can’t get wren into your head –
too tiny, you try to tell me:
it comes out as rain or ring.
Let’s try again: blackbird, osprey,
hen, (much better), kingfisher, hawk,
duckling. But I have to give up
and type Jemima Puddleduck.
What am I thinking of,
How could I forget
that you too have wings?
Fly to me;
let me nuzzle your snout,
whisper orders, trust you
to carry them out.
Do I think of you as “he”? –
Beyond male or female;
yet as close as my breath –
you hover at my lips –
am I going too far?
Are we into theology?
Animal, vegetable or mineral?
Who’s playing these games? –
Abstract, with mineral connections
and a snazzy coat of scales.
Gentle dragon, stupid beast,
why do I tease you?
Laughter’s not in your vocabulary:
all you understand are words.
Today I saw you cresting the gable
of someone’s roof: a curly monster
smaller than me, but far too large
to hide yourself inside a computer.
They’d painted you red – was that your choice?
But this was only your graven image.
Your private self was at home, waiting
for reincarnation through my voice.
Poem Ended by Death
They will wash all my kisses and fingerprints off you
and my tearstains–I was more inclined to weep
in those wild-garlicky days–and our happier stains,
thin scales of papery silk. . . Fuck that for a cheap
opener; and false, too–any such traces
you pumiced away yourself, those years ago
when you sent my letters back, in the week I married
that anecdotal ape. So start again. So:
They will remove the tubes and drips and dressings
which I censor from my dreams. They will, it is true,
wash you; and they will put you into a box.
After which whatever they do
won’t matter. This is my laconic style.
You praised it, as I praised your intricate pearled
embroideries; these links laced us together,
plain and purl across the ribs of the world . . .