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Tuesday, 05 May 1998 00:00

While Searching Through Some Old Files - a Startling Discovery

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koudelka 2010

At least startling to me. 

Last night, while using a search function to find (unsuccessfully) a recent translation of Rilke poem, I stumbled across this sequence dated 5th May 1998. 

This is starlling to me for many reasons. Firstly, I have no memory writing it. Many of the lines and theme re-emerged in later work for the next five years, but every time I used a line again (a lot of the third poem for example about a woman I met later that year) I assumed I was ironically quoting someone else's work: perhaps something I had translated once.

Unless I'm mistaken, I was inadvertently quoting myself.

But beyond echoes and literary themes such as Orpheus and Eurydice, is the way the imagined poem prefigures, in early 1998, the events of the next five years. The more romantic sections are - almost word for word - a pre-emption of a turbulent second marriage. Meanwhile the closing section set in the Old People's home is almost like a first draft of the poem I would write about my mother's death ('Learning to Die') five years later in the Spring of 2004.

What does this prove? That I am incorrigibly predictable in my emotional responses, and that there is a pattern I impose on events which I unconsciously fulfil? Quite possibly. A more benign interpretation would be that I was unconsciously preparing for the turbulence ahead. 

I've tried, vainly, to search the internet to make sure that this isn't some kind of unattributed translation. One reason makes me doubt it. The recurrent re-appearance of the image of my dead father, especially in verse two. That image of talking to a dead father obsessed me from my early 20s (inspired by reading something in Freud's work on Dreams) and he disappeared in 1996, two years before this poem was written.  He actually died in 2008.

I note I have yet to repeat or reinvest that bit of the story.  Yet.

(The only thing I've altered from the 1998 original is to add a missing number and a title for the third poem).

 

EURYDICE AND HER FATHER

1. APROPOS OF NOTHING

Always at four in the morning

Before milk bottles sing

And babies cry

In a pool of silence

Of lamplight and silence

She waits

Darkening the page.

 

Eurydice may be

All alone

But what does she want

With any Orpheus?

 

She has her own words

Her open necked dress

And her own sharp sword

Which her father gave her

To cut off his head

Should she find him wandering

In this place of shades.

 

She will not rest

Wondering

Till the babies cry

And the milk bottles sing.

2. THE BRIDGE OVER THE STYX

Last night she saw her father in a dream

Though he had been dead ten years or more

She engaged him in talk quite normally

Though his face had decayed and his coal eyes burned

Asked him how he was and did not stop

As they walked along the river she ignored

The silence he kept and kept on talking

Everything she could to occupy his thoughts

Until they came to the bridge

 

She knew when he crossed it he would see

His reflection in the water and confront

The subject she had been avoiding

How dead he was!

It was not a lesson he could take

Like a brittle stem of clematis

You bend around a frame

He would break

And face the full horror alone

His empty eyes

Crumbling skin

What choice did she have?

The border was final.

He couldn’t leave

So she had to stay

.

Then Eurydice remembered how he’d given her a sword

One strange occasion, long ago, when she was young

The words he’d said: ‘In another world

You may be my parent and I your son’.

For the first time she understood her meaning

The trouble of the thought passed over her face

Now clearer than the water in the river

And on it her father saw his state

 

‘Eurydice, he said, free me from this misery

Look away. As the moon fortnightly

Turns away from darkness and towards the light

Just leave me behind in this place of shades.

Your presence shames me. Your kindness

Dries my heart and reminds me what I was

I hate you for it. Will haunt you for it

Don’t curse me any further by staying here

Make severance our last connection

Find the sword I gave you

Cut the strings of filial love

Do us both justice

And look away’

 

And at that moment

The dream was ended

His memory faded

Without a trace

 

3.  WHEN NO ONE LISTENS

We were gathered at the pub

She came down and sat with us

(No-one noticed) but when she left

We saw her place was empty

Then we knew she’d been.

 

And she is here at this moment

Sitting in this room, she leans over

Finishes these lines

But the moment you look up

She’s gone. You’re just read Eseoing.     

That’s how you know she’s been here

 

No one collects her e-mails

Studies her manuscripts or fingernails.

Sometimes they see her on the Underground

And ask her what she meant

But all she can do is shrug

Unable to say

 

She cannot speak

when they are listening.

 

And she was there when the prizes were given

Smiling at everyone, putting her arms

around the guests, nodding

in agreement, and even manages

to express a little sympathy

for the deceased – herself.

Practises her acceptance speech

Waits behind the curtain

But is never called

 

She was there. But nobody saw her.

 

Orpheus sat under the trees

And imagined missing her forever

But she sits under the stairs

Imagining the dark the hope

They will find her. But they won’t.

She hides so well. No one will.

 

And when no one is listening

Eurydice sings

 

At her best

When no one listens

 

3. FOUR DIFFERENT ORPHEUS'

And the fourth she can’t remember at all

 

All called Orpheus

 

4. EURYDICE IN THE OLD PEOPLE’S HOME

 

Take from her

This stroke

Of luck

This lump

Of pearl

This blade

of grass

 

Nothing is more subtle

 

Than the whole thing singing together

A chorus without conductor

When the only audience is

The voices themselves

As they rehearse

Listen!

 

Take from her

The fizz

of hair

The crystal

Of privacy

Her reflection

In her eye

 

And what is left?

 

The soul goes before the body,

The mind fails before the flesh,

 

Soon the deafness is so deep

She can no longer hear herself

 

An eagle’s feather

On an empty desk

 

5. FINALE

Maybe it’s the last thing left

When the memory of the light

Of the mountains and the sky

Of wild open spaces

Blurs behind your eyes

To the vague screens they put around your bed

And you turn to the wall

And even that fades

Into pale

Insubstantial

Hospital

Shades

 

Maybe it’s the last thing

When you look at the clock

To tell what year it is

And strangers arrive with sad

Incomprehensible faces

Bringing flowers that smell

Of someone else’s sickness

Call you mother and grandmother

And you’re dimly conscious

How the end of each sentence

Is lost in ellipses.

 

Maybe it’s the last

When fury makes the only kind of sense

How they pushed you punished you

All those years of resentment

Stole your house your son your pills

Covered you in bruises

When your life is running backward

Deeper into childhood

Back to cold flannels and wet sheets

Spooned food helpless moods

Inexpressible rages

Maybe it’s the

Maybe it’s

 

Maybe

 

And just when you think

There is no reason left

Just when you think

No coherence or intent

At the bottom of the pit

She finds it

Like a wish

An instinct to survive

But not like this

Her own residual stubborness

To live

But not exist

 

Now at last she’s back in charge

Refusing to move

Ruling the roost

 

For two weeks now

She would not eat

Would not talk to anyone

Has lost two stone

She does not rage

But sits in her chair

Has shut her mouth

To love and antibiotics

And no guilty entreaties or mellow mints

No guilty tears will move

Those lips

Only parting for

The breath

She takes

This is her last gambit and now she’s going to win

And that’s what she leaves them

Her gift

Her determination

 

Sometimes it seemed it was never going to end

They never end, the mortgage, new launches

Strange faces, the visitors

Breakfast TV,

The neighbours banging on the door

The rattle of the trolley down the corridor

Sometimes it seemed it never would

But she takes her breath

 

And this at least is finished

 

 

 

Read 687 times Last modified on Sunday, 14 December 2014 17:23
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