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)
THE NINTH ELEGY
Why – when the span of our life could be spent
happily as laurel, that bit darker than all
the other green, with tiny waves on every leaf edge
(like the smile of a breeze) – why then
the need to be human and, avoiding fate,
why keep longing for fate? …
Oh, not because happiness exists,
that hasty profit we snatch from impending loss.
Not for curiosity’s sake, nor as practice for the heart,
which could as well exist in laurel …
But truly because being here is so much –
because everything in this fleeting world seems to need us,
calls to us strangely. Us – the most fleeting of all.
Just once for each thing. Once and no more.
And we too, just once. And never again. Yet to have been
this once, and so utterly, even if only once,
our having been on this earth can never be undone.
And so we press on and we try to achieve it,
trying with our simple hands to encompass it,
in our over-brimming gaze, in our speechless heart.
Trying to become it – who can we give it to?
We wood hold on to it all forever … Ah, but what
can we carry over into that other relationship?
Not the way of seeing that has so slowly been learned
and nothing that has happened here. Nothing.
The suffering, then. And above all, the heavy weight
and the long experience of love – just those things
that are inexpressible. But later, standing
beneath the stars, what is the use? They are better
left unspoken. For when the traveller comes
from the mountain to the valley, he brings not a handful
of the earth – inexpressible to others – but brings
rather a word he has won, a pure word, the yellow
and blue gentian. Perhaps we are here to say: house
bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, window –
at most: column, tower … But to speak them,
you understand, oh, you are to say them
with more intensity than things themselves ever
dreamed they would be. Is this not the sly intent
of this secretive world when it urges lovers together –
that each thing should shudder with joy in their passion?
Threshold: what is it for two lovers, little by little,
wearing away the ancient threshold of the door,
in their turn following others who went before
and still others closing behind … lightly.
Here is the time for what can be said – here its home.
So speak out and bear witness! More than ever,
things that we might experience are falling away,
are being elbowed aside and replaced by acts
without images. Acts beneath encrustations
that burst easily the moment the innards
seek out new boundaries for themselves.
Between the hammers
beats our heart, as the tongue
is still between our teeth
and still it can give praise.
Praise this world to the angel, not some
inexpressible other, because you cannot impress him
with sublimity in a universe where he knows
such wealth of feeling that you are a novice.
So show him something simple, something shaped
by generations, by lives like our own, near at hand,
within our sight. Tell him – things.
He will stand in amazement as you stood beside
the rope-maker in Rome, or the potter by the Nile.
Show him how happy a thing can be, how innocent
and how much ours, how even the keening of sorrow
can find its pure form and becomes a thing or dies
into a thing, or happily outstrips itself in the violin.
And these things, which live by passing away,
acknowledge your praise of them, as they vanish,
they look to us to deliver them, we, the most
fleeting of all. They long for us to change them,
utterly, in our invisible hearts – oh, endlessly,
to be within us – whoever, at last, we may be.
Earth, is it not this you want: to arise
in our invisible sphere? – Is not this your dream,
one day to be invisible? – Earth, invisible!
What is your urgent command, if it not for
transformation? Darling, earth – I will!
Oh, believe me, there is no need for the persuasion
of your spring-times – one, oh! a single one
is more than my blood can take. Without a name,
I belonged to you from the start – you were always right,
your holiest inspiration is our familiar, death.
Look! I am alive! On what? Neither childhood
nor the future is diminished … Being, in abundance,
whelms up in my heart.
Translated by Martyn Crucefix
(courtesy of the Enitharmon Press – http://www.enitharmon.co.uk)