Poetry: Gate of Lilacs 11: The Copy of a Kiss | clivejames.com
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Gate of Lilacs 11 :  The Copy of a Kiss

The naturalist who makes gay sex a garden
Is heaping hills of flowers around a coffin,
And it is his. Right from the start, his book
Is ending in a transubstantiation
By which the genders blend with one another
Into a Liebestod, and to the end
It is beginning in his love of women,
So Albertine, when caught out in her vice —
Marcel finds out she had a three-way fling
With Madame de Vinteuil and her friend —
Still tastes to him the way his mother tasted
When she came to the nursery to kiss him.
Late in the book he takes a page to say
His memory kept no copy of the kiss
With which he first acquired from Albertine
His knowledge of how ecstasy could feel,
But early in the book, when they blend mouths,
He tells us how the angle of their noses
Had mutually to be agreed so as
To maximize the contact. Every pore
Of her young skin is in the picture. Breath
From her lungs sends its perfume into his.
Saintsbury once said the flavour of a lyric
Is like a smiling girl. So it is here:
The feminine invents the sensual
In our erotic childhood, and then
Imperiously unfolds to fill the mind.
(When I was first in love, on holiday
With my mother at Katoomba, New South Wales,
The little girl —we called her Lacy Skirts —
Would dodge my doting gaze down corridors
And swerve into the garden with a flourish
Of her white frock, and now all I remember
Is how she frowned, and how I lay awake
Planning the speeches that would make her smile:
The lovelorn hunger I still write with now
Was born then, so whenever I read of Swann
Wasting his life with longing for Odette
Even when she was his, I see myself
Back there in the Blue Mountains, yet again
Consumed by the sweet torments of a love
That never happened, unless this is it.)
Like the Fortuny gowns Elstir admires
Because they bring back the Venetian light
Of classic painters, Proust’s book is a swathe
Of pleats that open swirling into space
As a woman pirouettes, wrapped in a wave
Of cloth that follows her, still chasing her
When it has caught her. Just the way it moves
Is feminine in essence. So is he:
Perhaps we all are. During his time in Venice
In 1900, Proust fell for a bar-girl,
Or might have. She is in The Sweet Cheat Gone,
Where the Venice flashback is almost a novel
In itself, as Marcel informs us firmly
His love for Albertine is dead and buried:
Done with. Forgotten. A closed book. So over.
Is he the one he’s striving to convince?
And was the pretty girl a pretty boy
Who waited on him at the Florian?
Proust must have known, but Marcel doesn’t say.
All this, however, counts as a flash forward,
For first the girl must tease him towards God
As Beatrice did to Dante. In his mind
He had the amorous vision, even if
His body, as it were, thought otherwise.
‘As Aristotle tells us in the second
Chapter of . . .’ So pipes M. Pierre,
Historian of the Fronde, but no one pays
Him any heed except, of course, for Proust,
Anatomist of bores. But almost every
Man he invents is boring. The great Duke —
The walking castle of the clan Guermantes —
Writes novels about life in the gratin
That are worthy of his grocer. What he does
Is hardly worth recounting. What he is
Is all that matters, and what matters most
Is the poem he is married to. And she,
The stately, subtle and divine Duchesse,
Can be as coldly nasty as her husband,
Though she never, unlike him, joins in the cry
Against Dreyfus, which would undoubtedly
Have put Proust off: at least we trust it would.
A royal couple fabulously dressed
And heading for a ball, the pair are told
That their close friend is dying. They blame him
For selfish timing. Marcel is appalled,
But all the more he must admire her style,
For this is the perennial human struggle,
Not politics. Thus she keeps to her role,
Which is to fascinate him. He loves her
Past anything he felt for Albertine,
For that was merely passion’s fleeting madness,
And Oriane de Guermantes is the face —
As poised as the ephemeral held still —
Of death, as nowadays some film star is
The face of Dior, of Saint Laurent, Chanel
Or Givenchy, and what we see in Proust
Is how the genius prepares to take
His place in history even while he lives
His life as someone who knows very well
How beauty can be false. But falsity
Is in life too, and ruthless. Think of all
Those plain companions back there in our youth
We should have liked, but just pretended to,
And never saw again. The Duchesse smiles.
She makes her way to us. She knows our name,
And all our childish passions come to this.