These are paintings I made last year which were shown at Creekside as part of Deptford X 2009. They are a response to Rilke’s Duino Elegies and the landscape of Deptford. The exhibition was in collaboration with poet Susan Mackervoy.
THE TENTH ELEGY
One day, at the close of this fierce inspection –
that I might sing out in celebration and glory
to affirming angels – that none of the clear-struck
hammers of my heart might fail to sound on slack,
doubtful, or broken strings – that my streaming face
be more radiant, these inconspicuous tears bloom.
Oh, then you will be dear to me, you nights
of grieving, though I did not then kneel more deeply,
more willingly in surrender, nor lose myself
in your loosened hair. How we squander our pains.
How we gaze upon them into the miserable
distance to see if there is not, perhaps, an end.
Yet they are winter leaves, our dark evergreen,
one season of our secret year – not only a season,
but a site, settlement, camp, soil and resting place.
Of course, the by-ways of Grief-City are strange,
where, in the false silence born of too much noise,
swagger the plumped-up dregs from the casting
mould of emptiness: the gilded racket,
the splintering memorial. Oh, how an angel would
crush this market of consolation without trace
and the church alongside it, bought ready-made,
clean, closed, disappointing as a Post Office on Sunday.
Further out, the frill and flounce of the fair.
Freedom’s swing-boats! Enthusiasm’s jugglers
and divers! The prettified good luck figures
from the shooting gallery that wriggle and ring
tinnily with the shot of some better marksman.
So – from cheers to chancing it, he stumbles on
as stalls with all kinds of curiosities flaunt
and drum and bawl. There is – for adults only –
something special to see: how money multiplies!
in the raw! not just entertainment! money’s
genitalia! the lot! the business! uncut – educational
and it will improve your performance …
…Oh, but just beyond that,
behind the last board plastered with posters for
Neversaydie bitter that tastes sweet to drinkers
so long as they chew fresh distractions with it …
immediately beyond the board, right behind it,
it gets real. Children play and lovers
hold each other seriously, out of the way,
in the sparse grass, and dogs obey their nature.
The young man is drawn further on – perhaps
he is in love with a young Keening …?
Trailing her, he comes out into the meadows.
She says, ‘It’s far off. We live way out there …’
‘Where?’ And the young man follows.
He is moved by her manner. Her shoulder –
her neck – perhaps she is of noble origin?
But he abandons her, turns about, looks back,
waves … What’s the use? She is a Keening.
Only those who die young, those in their first state
of timeless serenity, still being weaned,
follow her lovingly. She waits for the girls
and befriends them, gently reveals to them
what she is wearing – her pearls of sorrow,
the fine-spun veils of patience. With young men,
she walks in silence.
But there, in the valley which they inhabit,
one of the Keening elders answers the youth
when he questions her. ‘We were once a great race.’
she says to him. ‘The Keening people. Our ancestors
worked the mines, up there on the mountain range.
Among men, sometimes you still find polished lumps
of original grief – or erupted from an ancient volcano –
a petrified clinker of rage. Yes. That came
from up there. Once, we were rich in such things …’
And gently she guides him through the vast
Keening landscape, shows him temple columns,
ruins of castles from which the Keening princes
once wisely governed the land. She shows him
the towering trees of tears, the fields of melancholy
in bloom (the living know this on only in gentle leaf).
And she shows him grazing herds of mourning
and sometimes a startled bird draws far off
and scrawls flatly across their upturned gaze
and flies an image of its solitary cry. At evening,
she leads him to graves of Keening ancestors,
the sibyls and the seers. But when night comes,
they go more carefully and soon, as the moon rises,
there is a sepulchre overlooking everything,
twin brother to one on the Nile, the tall Sphinx,
with its concealing chamber and outward
And they are astonished at the way its royal head
has silently positioned the human face, forever
on the scale of the stars.
Dizzied still by his early death, the youth’s eyes
can hardly grasp it. But her gaze frightens
an owl from the crown’s brim so it brushes
slow strokes downwards on the cheek – the one
with the fullest curve – and faintly,
in death’s newly sharpened sense of hearing,
as on a doubled and unfolded page,
it sketches for him the indescribable outline.
And higher, the stars. New. Stars of the sad lands.
And slowly, the Keening names them. ‘See, there,
the Rider, the Staff, and that more dense
constellation is called the Wreath of Fruits.
Then further up towards the Pole: the Cradle, Pathway,
the Burning Book, Puppet, Window …
But in the southern sky, showing pure as the palm
of a blessed hand, the clear-shining M
that stands for Mothers …’
But the dead must push on, and the elder Keening
silently brings him to the foots of a ravine,
where there is, shimmering in the moonlight,
the source of joy. In reverence, she names it.
She says, ‘Amongst men, this river is most buoyant.’
They stand at the foot of the mountain range.
Then she embraces him weeping.
He climbs alone into the mountains of original grief.
And not once does his step ring on the soundless way.
But if they – these endlessly dead – awakened us
to comparison, then see, perhaps they might point
to the yet empty hazel bush,
with its catkins hanging down,
or have us think of rain falling into the dark soil in spring –
and we, who conceive of happiness
as something that must be rising,
find in us feelings almost of dismay
when a happy thing falls.
Translated by Martyn Crucefix
(courtesy of the Enitharmon Press – http://www.enitharmon.co.uk)
Life, death and the whole damn thing, the final word from Shakespeare (who else?):
“Fear No More“, from Cymbeline in the version by Gerald Finzi.
Bryn Terfel Bass-baritone
Malcolm Martineau Piano
From THE VAGABOND
and other songs by Vaughn Williams
Butterworth, Finzi, Ireland
Recording: DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON
FEAR NO MORE THE HEAT O’ THE SUN
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownéd be thy grave!
I looked up where Deptford people were buried, happily (if that is the right word) it turns out that the nearest private cemetery is my local one – Nunhead. It’s always a pleasure to walk round and this is a great excuse to share.
When I was typing up the Ninth Elegy the words –
“your holiest inspiration is our familiar, death.”
– suddenly brought to mind this poem, by Keith Douglas, who was killed aged 24 in WWII during the D-Day landings. I found it intensely moving to hear this echo of Rilke in the poem.
HOW TO KILL
Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.
Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears
And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.
The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches
Keith Douglas (1920-1944)