Poetry: The Book of my Enemy — To Prue Shaw: a letter from Cambridge | clivejames.com
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To Prue Shaw: a letter from Cambridge

[This version contains numerous small edits for
‘Other Passports’ and ‘The Book of my Enemy’

I miss you. As I settle down to write,
       Creating for my forearm room to rest,
       I see the hard grey winter evening light
Is scribbled on with lipstick in the West
       As just another drowsy Cambridge day
       Discreetly shines and shyly looks its best
Before, with eyeballs glazed, it slides away
       And slips into a night’s sleep deeper still,
       Where Morpheus holds undisputed sway
Throughout the weary academic mill —
       An atmosphere of cosy somnolence
       I hope that I can summon up the will
To counteract. I’m striving to condense
       Within the terza rima my ideas
       Concerning us, the arts and world events.
I shake my skull, which for the moment clears,
       And shape a line to say that minus you
       I’m lonelier than Hell and bored to tears:
Then slumber paints my eyelids thick with glue.
       Uncertainty bemuses. Somewhere round
       Lake Garda you’ve got lost and left no clue.
The post is void of cards, the phone of sound.
       If you were elsewhere than in Italy
       I’d start a hue and cry to get you found,
But as things are I think it best to be
       More circumspect. The blower’s on the blink
       Across the strike-bound north from sea to sea,
And Heaven only knows the waste of ink
       Involved in trusting letters to the mail.
       The ship of state is getting set to sink
Again. (The poor thing never learned to sail.)
       Italia! Poverina! Yes, and yet
       The place’s old enchantments never fail
To work their subtle wiles. You’ll not forget,
       I’m sure, when passing ice-cold Sirmione,
       The way we used to swim and not get wet
In water soft and warm as zabaglione.
       The titles to the olive groves and palaces
       Catullus walked with courtesan and crony
In our time were Onassis’s and Callas’s,
       But as you stood hip-deep in liquid air
       I thought the moment sweet past all analysis
And thanked the pagan Gods I knew were there
       (The sunset stretched a ladder of gold chains
       Across the lake) that they’d been so unfair
In handing you the beauty and the brains.
       An egocentric monster then as now
       I graciously resolved to keep my gains
By staying near you, never thinking how
       You might not co-divide that deep esteem.
       Unwarrantedly dry of palm and brow
I wed you, in due course. Today I dream
       Of what I would, if I had missed the boat
       Undoubtedly have undergone. A scream
Of retroactive anguish rends my throat.
       That physicist from Stockholm you refused,
       The one who tried to buy you a fur coat:
To think of the affection I abused!
       Now here was this attractive, well-heeled bloke,
       Whose talk of synchrotrons kept you amused,
Whose china-white Mercedes — Holy smoke!
       What made me certain he should get the grief
       And I the joy? I swear I almost croak
From apprehension mingled with relief
       Recalling how I flirted with defeat.
       It’s only now I think myself a thief —
Of his luck and your time. You were to meet
       Yet brighter prospects later. I still won.
       I had a system nobody could beat.
I flailed about and called my folly fun
       For years and even then was not too late:
       The threads that joined us were as strongly spun
As your forgivingness of me was great.
       I wonder that your heart has not grown numb,
       So long you’ve had (or felt you’ve had) to wait
For my unthinking fondness to become
       A love for you like yours for me. The fault
       Is all mine if it has, for being dumb.
I’d have no comeback under Heaven’s vault
       — my only plea could be è colpa mia,
       A hanging head, and tears that tasted salt —
If you should fade from my life like la Pia.
       But you have not, so I shall for the nonce
       Eschew this droning form of logorrhoea
Which feeds upon what might have happened once
       And hasten to give thanks that you and I,
       Like Verdi and Strepponi or the Lunts,
Seem apt, so far at least, to give the lie
       To notions that all order falls apart —
       Though giving them as one who would defy
The gods, yet feels a flutter in his heart.
       Has something happened? Down there, so much can.
       The right-wing terrorists are acting smart.
They’ve thought hard and have come up with a plan:
       To bomb the innocent. Earmarked for death
       Are woman, daughter, child and unarmed man.
From now on no one draws an easy breath.
       Your train ride down to Florence will be like
       Accepting a night’s lodging from Macbeth.
I wonder if you’d rather hire a bike?
       Except the roads aren’t safe. Well, why not walk?
       You’d thrive on a four hundred mile hike ...
But no, all this is fearful husband’s talk:
       What-might-be acting like what-might-have-been
       To turn my knees to jelly, cheeks to chalk.
No matter how infernal the machine
       Prepared to blow our sheltered lives to bits,
       It would be less than just, indeed obscene,
To harbour the suspicion murder fits
       The Italian national character. Not so.
       As always, most of them live by their wits
Amidst — as, to your cost, you’ve come to know —
       Administrative chaos. It’s a wonder
       That utter barbarism’s been so slow
In gaining ground from brouhaha and blunder,
       Yet even when Fascismo had its hour
       The blood was always upstaged by the thunder.
They held pyjama parties with their power
       Forgetting to wipe out a single race.
       Some blockhead said a bomb was like a flower,
Some communists got booted in the face,
       But no one calls that lapse a Holocaust —
       More like a farce that ended in disgrace,
When men yelled like a racing car’s exhaust
       In uniforms adorned with a toy dagger;
       A time when word and meaning were divorced,
Divided by a verbal strut and swagger
       As pompous as a moose’s mating call,
       Bombastic as a war dance by Mick Jagger.
But we both know it’s not like that at all,
       The eternal Italy, the one that matters.
       The blue-chinned heavies at the costume ball
Whose togs inept explosions blow to tatters
       Are just the international tribe of jerks
       That crop up anywhere, as mad as hatters,
To pistol-whip the poor and cop the perks.
       The real Italians, far from on the make,
       Are makers. Ye shall know them by their works —
To which the guide who brought me wide awake
       Was you, ten years ago. You were my tutor.
       At times you must have thought this a mistake
And wished me elsewhere, or at least astuter.
       I paced our tiny rented room in Rome,
       I crackled like an overtaxed computer
And used my nerve-wracked fingers for a comb,
       Attempting to construe Inferno Five.
       It took so long I wanted to go home
But comprehension started to arrive
       At last. I saw the lovers ride the storm
       And felt the pulse which brought the dead alive.
For sheer intensity of lyric form
       I’d never read that stretch of verse’s peer.
       You said such things, with Dante, were the norm.
You proved it, as we read on for a year.
       And so it was our Galahad, that book,
       As well as one ordained to make it clear
How art and antellect are king and rook
       And not just man and wife and guest and host —
       They link together like an eye and hook
While each moves through the other like a ghost.
       Both interpenetrate inside the mind
       And, in creation, nothing matters most —
By Dante these great facts are underlined,
       Made incandescent like a sunlit rose.
       My clenched fist thumped my forehead. I’d been blind!
Awaking from a Rip Van Winkle doze
       I realized I’d been groping in the gloom,
       Not even good at following my nose.
A knowing bride had schooled a clumsy groom:
       Belated, crude, but strong, his urge to learn
       Began there, in that shoebox of a room —
A classic eager dimwit doomed to burn
       The candle at both ends while, head in hands,
       He mouths what he can only just discern
And paragraphs twice read half understands.
       To Petrarch’s verses and to Croce’s thought
       We moved on later. Etiquette demands
I don’t go on about the books we bought
       In all those second-hand shops we infested.
       I’ve never mastered grammar as I ought.
My scraps of erudition aren’t Digested.
       But still I’ve grown, drawn out by what I’ve read,
       More cosmopolitan — well, less sequestered.
(Our old friend Goethe, writing in his head,
       Would tap out stresses on his girlfriend’s spine.
       Gorblimey, talk about Technique in Bed!
Urbanity on that scale’s not my line.
       I must admit, however, that at times
       I found my brain, as well as fogged with wine,
Inopportunely chattering with rhymes.)
       And then there were the canvases and frescoes,
       Cascading like a visual change of chimes
Or stacked ten-deep like racks of tins in Tesco’s
       All over Rome and Naples, Florence, Venice ...
       I felt like a research group of UNESCO’s
Investigating some microbic menace:
       To sort it out, life wasn’t long enough.
       It just went on like Rosewall playing tennis.
There wasn’t any end to all that stuff.
       An early Raphael, or late Perugino?
       (I haven’t got a clue. I’ll have to bluff.)
Who sculpted this, Verrocchio or Mino?
       (But who the heck was Mino?) No doubt what
       The banquet would have soon become (a beano
With sickness as the sequel) had you not
       Been there to function as my dietitian;
       Ensuring I’d not try to scoff the lot
But merely taste each phase at its fruition,
       Assimilating gradually, and thus
       Catch up with Europe’s civilized tradition —
Which wasn’t really a departing bus,
       You argued, but a spirit all around me
       I’d get attuned to if I didn’t fuss.
From that time forward every summer found me
       In Florence, where you studied all year long.
       Your diligence continued to astound me.
I went on getting attributions wrong,
       But bit by bit I gained perceptiveness
       As day by day I keenly helped to throng
The galleries, exalted — nothing less —
       By how those fancy lads all worked like slaves
       To make their age so howling a success
Before they rolled, fulfilled, into their graves.
       In Cambridge, night wears on. The evening ending
       Will soon dictate the sleep my system craves.
I’ll close. These lines might just be worth the sending
       To Florence, care of Rita at her flat.
       Supposing they get through, they’ll wait there, pending
Your safe arrival — and amen to that.
       That city is a place where we were poor.
       In furnished dungeons blacker than your hat
We slept, or failed to, on the concrete floor
       And met the morning’s heat chilled to the bone —
       Yet each day we felt better than before
Forgetting what it meant to be alone.
       Well, this is what it means: distracting games
       With tricky rhyme schemes and — wait, there’s the phone.
‘Will you accept a call from Mrs James?’
       P.S. You’ve made this letter obsolete
       But rather than consign it to the flames
I’ll send it. For you must admit, my sweet,
       A triple-rhyming verse communication,
       While scarcely ranking as an epic feat,
Deserves perusal by its inspiration.