Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Elegy: Washington Square Revisited

The reference, of course, is to Henry James's novella, Washington Square, although the poem actually ends up with Oedipus in the groves at Colonus and, indeed, at the fateful crossroads themselves. Such is the logic of poems. This 132 line poem is written in my approximation to the classical elegiac metre, i.e. alternating alexandrines and pentameters, although for good measure I have added rhyme in the pentameters. The subject is a personal one, concerning a most significant "other", but perhaps not unusual in these disordered times.


(n m-s)
This is the saddest poem I shall ever write.
   There’s Morris Townsend stalking from the house
Of blameless Catherine, his hat upon his head,
   Smarting disappointment that the meek mouse 
Pursued by him has crushed with vexing dignity 
   His plea that friendship be allowed to grow
Once more, despite the silence of his absent years 
   Spent travelling and getting, and the blow 
Landed brutely a decade since, rejecting her
   Because control of all he wished would not
Be his. What made him think it might be otherwise?
   In agony the years pour back with what
I’d hoped forgotten: broiling storms of obstinate 
   Despair which swamped all sense; unruly surges
Of love and hate which crashed like blackened waves on sands
   Made sumps by spray and rain, and the wind’s dirges
Screaming over the seaweed, soggy as ropes, heaped 
   At the storm-line, crawled across by sand crabs 
Like confessors digging motives. And who’s to blame?
   Where’s forgiveness? My tale, a hand which grabs
Your arm as the stairs turn, may only be resolved 
   In death. Was it a case of opposites?
You used to amplitude, the freedom of fine rooms,
   Where ornament and grace-notes as befits
A dwelling held aloof by the exemplary
   Milch of trust funds, embodied boundaries,
Implicit expectations, always difficult
   For one who kept small rooms, a life of sundries 
And unheated winter mornings to intrude upon. 
   Likewise, love for you was contextual,
Requiring the warm weft of family and friends 
   As setting for commitments functional 
As well as heartfelt; whereas I preferred the cold 
   Mist of sunrise, a soul-denuding calm 
Which offered isolation and intensity
   Of thought on self – that puzzle-in-a-psalm
Wrong-footing every sage and scribbler who has tugged
   A loved one into its transfixing coils. 
O, but memories of grace and giving oversweep: 
   Those moments which up-end the toils and moils
Of passing hours, epiphanising what’s most real 
   In any true commitment – that entrusting
Of each to each, an unconditional bestowing 
   In self-abandonment that knows no musting
Nor peevish motive. I recall a time of play,
   Of guileless teasing, you confronting me
Helpless in laughter, falling in my arms and resting
   In and on them, bodily, psychically – 
Your skin was blushed, your voice as musical as water;
   A boundless moment superseding time
In which the weaker, trusting, was caressed to growth,
   The stronger one, sustaining, sought the prime
Of both, fulfilled that strength might be transposed to being
   And thereby draw the hidden inwardness 
Of persons to a crux of pure communion. 
   But should such confidence decay, the dress
And flaunt of love become torn rags of discontent, 
   What truly might suffice to retouch lips  
Grown sullen and infected like a swelling wound? 
   So came the crisis. There were signs, the slips         
In any twosome which, ignored, can disunite 
   The common track which then diverges like
A bramble’s branches, blundering and fiercely-toothed.
   I sought your dogged fealty, to hike
You on that track through scree and the windhover’s cry
   Until at the sun-wet snowline we caught 
A view of freezing granite, fog-disgorging chasms
   And cloud-imprinted tarns I hoped had brought 
Us joy; instead you feared a challenge, banishing
   All dear to you, forcing a Trojan choice
Between the warmth of well-loved places and a stark
   Dreamer’s desert. You balked; I heard my voice
Rebuking you – how disembodied those ferocious 
   Moments were, how great the injury done
In seconds! Dumb-eyed in your awkward years you stood 
   Enduring disappointment’s frown like one 
Who turns her sopping back on grapeshot winter rains, 
   Chilled by the blast. When it had passed we found
The landscape rearranged, estrangement grown into
   A pathless waste, barren of life or sound,
And years of absence flowing by like shadows thrown
   On rock. Incredibly, a decade fled
And more, rebellious at first with stymied love
   Like the sea’s anguished disarray, placated
Later to the disheartened sorrow of an airless 
   January day. Eventually, aware 
Of piling years and greying flesh like week-old bread, 
   I sought for contact to attempt repair
Of what had grown to feel a rent in consciousness.
   But thin-lipped life does not submit to fiction’s 
Dab symmetries, embodied Catherines may not 
   So willingly abandon those inflexions 
Which fling up barricades to memory. Perhaps 
   One can’t return again like Townsend to 
That lamp-lit house behind its paling, hot and still
   On summer nights, the shadows turned mauve-blue,
Where sits a woman finely-skinned but definite
   Of motive, unflinching that life-hurt suffered  
Those many years ago should not be torn to rupture, 
   That the pain of tyrant-like rejection, buffered
By friendly time and peaceful growth, should not erupt 
   In fury and a lorn anxiety,
Aching resentfully in an unhealing sore.
   Therefore, a meeting was not offered me
Nor any notice of my e mailed pleas, although
   Such ice-hard silence frigidly conveyed 
The gist of what there was to say. In Townsend’s word,
   “Damnation!” Contact of the heart defrayed,
There’s left the bootless task of mourning bitter words,
   Their consequences which like ocean swells
Can voyage magnitudes of distance and of thought,
   Insensible of drowning men, their yells
Resounding emptily in the great sea’s rollers.
   And so, like clubfoot Oedipus I drag
Myself exhausted to a stymied place, where limbs
   Drained by longing can rest and a head sag
On hapless knowledge. Sophocles told iron truth:
   Despite their parting pangs only the dead
Are fortunate. Hence, when heart’s love has decomposed
   To a scatter of husks and misdirected
Motives, it’s best like Oedipus to reconcile
   To fruitful absence that abiding growth 
Might bless the city’s fields and groves, or even like
   The cash-struck Townsend with a thwarted cough
To take oneself away in search of greater windfalls 
   Elsewhere. Thus, proffered is a final gift: 
The rinsings of love’s residue so that no hobble 
   Stagger pathways chosen – Catherine’s thrift 
And restful meander or a more combative
   Stride to the crossroads where the earth defiled
By seething blood shed ignorantly cries in warning: 
   Rush by to happiness my love, my child!

© October 2013



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