Workshop Date: 1963-1968
Poet: James Simmons
No longer students and not likely to succeed,
Tonight I remember old friends, scattered far,
Who wanted so much once, and now need
Only a rise of a hundred pounds or a car
Or a holiday abroad without the wife,
Or time to read more, or more fun.
Perhaps never, or only when drunk, does life
Seem as it once seemed, a war to be won.
The moving and influential things they devised
Have all be said and done, it seems, by others.
Some do the very things that they despised
And recognise the enemy as brothers;
And even those who've gained more power or sense
Feel sorry when they feel the difference.
A. Helen, last year you gave my love the bird.
Since then strange bits of poem fill my head;
Don Quixote was one image that recurred.
B. Try poet rampant flogging horse stone dead.
A. And then a war-horse, used to pull a cart,
Who tried to bolt when someone blew a trumpet.
These were, of course, to represent my part.
B. Why not a greedy child that grabs a crumpet.
A. Windmills and trumpets seemed to fit your beauty -
You needed me although you didn't know it -
Showing me faithful to the call of duty.
B. Emotional good-time girl and ageing poet.
A. But how am I to learn to trust my eyes
If truth and beauty live inside my head?
You must have lured me with your practised lies.
B. Christ! You persisted when she cut you dead.
A. When I am cured I'll learn to pity you;
The "dame sans merci" has a bitches life.
My heart starves if it must, I will be true.
B. Only to those who don't become your wife.
A. Time and the odds against true counterparts
(Our minds grow wiser as our bones decay)
Make tales ring true that tell of broken hearts.
B. You'll live to fornicate another day.
I wanted a walled garden's protected peace,
With many bushes, tall flowers and trees,
A wooden, well-aired bower in a simple design,
With a watertight roof and a dry seat, to be mine.
A gardener would come, but not to groom it for shows
And not in the long afternoons when the pubs close.
He would grumble because it is wild, but not care,
And I'd be securely alone in the open air.
But walls are a warning not to break the laws
Of trespass. Damn it! Already I see the flaws:
Boys, forbidden or fined, would upset my peace.
They would clamber or mock if I didn't connive with police
To catch them. The knowledge of good and evil seems
To infect any garden. I'd squirm with dreams
Of others wanting a part of my too great share
In the this overpopulous country. I would care.
I'd have no contempt for those who would dispossess me.
However strident or powerless, they could distress me.
I try to contrast the good work I might do
With the wrong that privilege is from the other view;
But to live in a garden's the only way to find
That the story is true and no one was left behind.
My wife: a martyr.
I have undressed this small perfect body:
It's holy now. I have caressed her white neck
Which is bruised where the rope choked her.
This mouth I have pressed with my mouth
Will not kiss and not argue again.
The mind behind her eyes is blank
And can't try to explain why truth was tricked
And gentleness abused, why youth met death.
And all those years I was expecting
Have been cancelled - the new life she won,
Married to me, free from her mad relations.
Martyr indeed! Her sisters were undone by loving
Edmund - lucky bastard, only a liar could reach them;
It was a family quarrel that Cordelia won.
It was the acuteness of her love
That made her silent, not pride.
Her love and her dear father would be justified
When time taught him to see the only way.
I could agree, but then, "My father is being tried
Too far - and tried by whom?" she'd say.
"None of these people understands his ways
Like me. There isn't time for holidays!"
"Not holidays," I said. "Your life is here.
He must choose now, you've made the issues clear.
This follows from your silence - you weren't cold
But wise, kind in the bravest way." She said, "He's old."
I gave her many good and interesting gifts
And new friends with wit and courage equal to hers.
While they were analysing and construing
And recommending liberal reforms, she'd say,
"I must go home, What is Goneril going?"
"To keep control of things I should have lied.
Truth is a luxury and I'd rather
Stop serving ideals and serve my father."
I told her there was no control of outcomes,
"Your father would have suffered either way;
Pain is the rent on life. Whoever chooses
Wisely will still suffer when others lose."
"Well, then I should have stayed like Kent."
My patience tried too far I said,
"Kent has the virtues of an English dog - that's all.
He serves blindly, barks at his master's enemies,
Comes to his call always and finally dies
On his master's grave - humorous, brave, useful;
But for all his good service, what will he save?"
She only answered, "He's better than you or I -
Give me your army." And I, to please her,
Have let me own countrymen go to die.
Why are so many involved? Why? Why?
Oh they were fascinators - Lear and his children -
Mad, bad, treacherous; all of them found
Faithful servants to watch and set forward
Their family spree of love and hate. They cared
Nothing for us, all for their damned family
And yet I am crying, I am ready to lie down
And die like Gloucester did and Kent will, like the clown.
I hit the strings with my curved fingers
To warn the people in the room:
They ignore me: I, never the less, begin
To sing a song I respect and delight in
And have practised and sing well.
The talking pauses, I relax and sing better,
The talking swells slowly, louder and louder:
No one is moved, I blush and deteriorate.
"What will I do?" I ask myself -
Still singing, but choked with shame.
Should I stop? Should I shout? I shrug
And go on singing, hearing myself:
I practise for a time when people are listening:
My singing improves.
I move upstairs
To sing on the landing and the crowd is hostile
Still, but more docile. They hear me out
And are pleased enough: I sing quite well;
But the people grow restive, are talking
After two more songs. I sing one more
And move to the hall for another performance.
(Leeds. Saturday afternoon. October.)
Going home alone this deserted Saturday,
As a child goes back to heaven, the longest way,
I knock at my usual doors to company
But pubs and coffee-lounge are closed, even the library.
It is clear to my mind when lifted awhile from self-pity
That blessings fall as surely as the soot
That made this spire a member of the black city -
God's mission to bankers or banker's loot.
Red-brick terrace houses and bare trees
Etched on a water-coloured sky, a cage of girders,
The worn pavement, all that my eye sees
Please me, being themselves, my beloved warders.
They are clothed in today's unique weather - not queer
But clearly defined by hour, season and year.
I am blessed and neglect the blessing and walk again,
Blindly hearing the mind rehearse its pain.
"I am not myself. These streets were the scene
Of my daily life. Involved in projects and routine
I passed here often and return as a ghost
To tour sites, seeing where my time was lost.
Ghosts should accuse their murderers; I shiver
At my own moaning but have no message to deliver.
A perturbed spirit with meal time for a clock
I start back as the bells say, "six o'clock"
To the nicest woman I have ever met,
Where my bed is made and tea table set.