Poetry: At Ian Hamilton’s Funeral | clivejames.com
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At Ian Hamilton’s Funeral

Another black tie invitation comes:
And once again, the black tie is the long
Thin one and not the bow. No muffled drums
Or stuff like that, but still it would be wrong
To flout the solemn forms. Fingers and thumbs
Adjust the knot as I recall the song
About the gang that sang “Heart of My Heart”.
Death brings together what time pulled apart.

In Wimbledon, a cold bright New Year’s Eve
Shines on the faces that you used to know
But only lights the depth to which they grieve
Or are beginning to. The body-blow
You dealt us when you left we will believe
When it sinks in. We haven’t let you go
As yet. Outside the church, you’re here with us.
Whatever’s said, it’s you that we discuss.

We speak of other things, but what we mean
Is you, and who you were, not where you are.
No-one would call the centre of the scene
That little box inside the big black car.
Two things we wish were true: you made a clean
Getaway, and you have not gone far.
One thing we’re sure of: now the breath is fled
You aren’t in there, you’re somewhere else instead –

Safe in a general memory. We file
Inside. The London literati take
Their places pew to pew and aisle to aisle
At murmured random. Nothing is at stake
Except the recollection of your smile.
All earned it. Who most often? For your sake
Men wrote all night, and as for women, well,
How many of them loved you none can tell.

Those who are here among us wear the years
With ease, as fine-boned beauty tends to do.
It wasn’t just your looks that won the tears
They spill today when they remember you.
Most of us had our minds on our careers.
You were our conscience, and your women knew
Just by our deference the man in black
Who said least was the leader of the pack.

Dressed all your life for mourning, you made no
Display. Although your prose was eloquent,
Your poetry fought shy of outward show.
Pain and regret said no more than they meant.
Love sued for peace but had nowhere to go.
Joy was a book advance already spent,
And yet by day, free from the soul’s midnight,
Your conversation was a sheer delight.

Thirsty for more of it, we came to drink
In Soho. While you read his manuscript
You gave its perpetrator time to think
Of taking up another trade. White-lipped
He watched you sneer. But sometimes you would blink
Or nod or even chuckle while you sipped
Your scotch, and then came the acceptance fee:
The wit, the gossip, the hilarity.

You paid us from your only source of wealth.
Your finances were always in a mess.
We told each other we did good by stealth.
In private we took pride in a success:
Knowing the way of life that wrecked your health
Was death-defying faith, not fecklessness,
We preened to feel your hard-won lack of guile
Rub off on us for just a little while.

That being said, perhaps I should explain
Why I eventually was seldom seen
In Greek Street. Fear of going down the drain
Was the main reason. Some of us turned mean
When we lost girls to you, but that was pain
Time’s poultice cured. Mere time would not have been
An antidote if I had stayed to match
You drink for drink. I had a train to catch.

Between men there’s no difference greater than
Their fear, or lack of it, of consequence.
For all your poise you were the desperate man,
The chancer. I, too short of common sense
To waste a drop, went back where I began,
Into the quiet life. Nietzsche’s intense
And dangerous existence was for you –
Your poems bullet-holes hell-fire shone through.

For lyric truth, such suffering is the cost –
So the equation goes you incarnated.
The rest of us must ponder what we lost
When we so prudently equivocated.
But you yourself had time for Robert Frost –
His folksy pomp and circumstance you hated,
Yet loved his moments of that pure expression
You made your own sole aim if not obsession.

Our quarrel about that’s not over yet,
But here today we have to let it rest.
The disagreements we could not forget
In life, will fade now and it’s for the best.
Your work was a sad trumpet at sunset.
My sideshow razzmatazz you rarely blessed
Except with the reluctant grin I treasured
The most of all the ways my stuff was measured.

Laughter in life, and dark, unsmiling art:
There lay, or seemed to lie, the paradox.
Which was the spirit, which the mortal part?
As if in answer, borne aloft, the box
Goes by one slow step at a time. The heart
At last heaves and the reservoir unlocks
Of sorrow. That was you, and you are gone:
First to the altar, then to oblivion.

The rest is ceremony, and well said.
Your brother speaks what you would blush to hear
Were you alive and standing with bowed head.
But you lie straight and hidden, very near
Yet just as far off as the other dead
Each of us knows will never reappear.
You were the governor, the chief, the squire,
And now what’s left of you leaves for the fire.

Ashes will breed no phoenix, you were sure
Of that, but not right. You should hear your friends
Who rise to follow, and outside the door
Agree this is a sad day yet it ends
In something that was not so clear before:
The awareness of love, how it defends
Itself against forgetfulness, and gives
Through death the best assurance that it lives.