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
Darkening the page.
Eurydice may be
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
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
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
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
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
Take from her
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
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
Maybe it’s the last thing
When you look at the clock
To tell what year it is
And strangers arrive with sad
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
Maybe it’s the
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
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
Only parting for
This is her last gambit and now she’s going to win
And that’s what she leaves them
Sometimes it seemed it was never going to end
They never end, the mortgage, new launches
Strange faces, the visitors
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