Mr Duffy…lived at a little distance from his own body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his own mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. He never gave alms to beggars.
- James Joyce
November is my friend.
I welcome the blighting of the day,
The spite of liquefying rain,
The facts that things aren’t stars, but smears
Of distant lamps.
Let the dim branches of trees smother me –
I am one with their pulped leaves
Feeling myself to be an outsider at life’s feast
And preferring, perhaps, to contemplate
The dead eye of a monger’s mackerel
Or the vegetation that swallows memorial urns;
Indifferent, I am, to the sodden peat that sucks you down
Beneath a slabby sky, engulfing half-living lungs,
Drowning sentience in a blind clasp
- But maybe I’d note the texture of it, the odour of it
As I went under. I’d play the voyeur, as was my custom,
Because it seemed the safest bet.
I could have been Mistah Kurtz
Wrestling the imponderable greyness of it all;
Except I had no grand, colonial army.
Suburbia had granted nothing, save everyone’s
Favourite social disease: a buzz of platitudes.
If I am Lord, it is of less than flies.
But you can call me a featherweight Mephistopheles:
Denied (at least) your cadaverous mass of noxious flesh:
A phantom of parchment sentiments, measured and profane.
A collector of wayward minutiae, is what I am:
Repelled by nothing save my own face.
And yet, the pathology of this detritus everywhere
Continues to engage me.
Determined (as I am) to judge nothing
Merely to scrutinise and, perhaps, to quantify.
My chloroformed leisure is infinite -
As always it is, for those of us resolved
Not to do anything silly.
I know it is important not to be dismayed
And rather, to adopt a proper scientific stance
With only a curious lump in my throat
To proclaim one’s human fallibility.
Vexed by the dissecting room
(Its rancorous brilliance of blades and lamps)
I preferred my research in the field.
A troglodyte, you’d say I was:
A misanthrope, perplexed by the Trick and the Dead
(At what was meant to be alive, and what was somehow not)
Emerging from shadow when I sensed a safe audience
And otherwise, seared by the cold in my skin
Like a confrontation, like murdered friendships.
An embryonic curl was my defensive stance.
Yet, with my mind in free-fall,
I’ll stand outside you, sense – November being
A senseless month.
What’s that? How could it come about, my little life
Of studious calligraphy, extemporised on muddied earth?
Don’t ask, don’t ask.
I’d be two or three years old (they say) when the die was cast.
The other boys could make imaginary friends. I’d keep
An executioner. He never forgot a face, least of all mine.
His tutelage was frightful. One learnt how to gouge
One’s own liver – without the added expense of eagles –
And thank him for the privilege. One learnt restraint.
Others would have cried, ‘Somebody hear me, help me
Or let me die. Find me guilty, or let me go.’
But of course, to earn a trial would mitigate one’s
Punishment. You don’t ask a mechanism to weep.
You don’t squeeze tears from a wafer.
I learnt frugality, to be content
With solitary confinement.
Don’t ask if I seek death. Suicide is for rodents
And Norwegians. I want oblivion as my respite from
The poison stain of consciousness. My needs are simple:
To sail on air, like a swan at midnight: without thought,
Off to reclaim lifelessness, my simple option;
Better, at least, than what I must deserve:
Better than scalding gossip or
The intrigue of presumed denunciation,
The scouring of my back for unremembered crimes.
How little wonder, England is my spiritual home.
The way of Little England, that was meant to be
For squandered misfits much like me:
Malcontents, whose rank grudges
Might allow a kind of wayward acumen:
Renegades, who nursed some ingrown canker like a pearl;
If only the pain of being alive;
The pain we felt – so, by a sinner’s inference,
The pain we must have caused to others.
You’d give us absolution, as when
I’d hear grass scrape my skin (somewhere across the globe)
And disappointment gave me my good armour.
England, we learnt, was meant to be
For butterflies upon a wheel,
Rustics and cranks, provincial visionaries,
The types you didn’t mess with.
(The ones nobody would hold,
Close to herself as she dozed,
Wanting you to keep her warm.)
…We’d all be in with a chance. Swept up to
Chariots of fire, we’d find again our voice, our aim.
Ein feuchter Windzug…“A wet gust of wind
Ripples the grey waters; in a sad rhythm the sailor
Rows my boat…” Like a lion, grey in winter,
Wary of the twilight of its life
So an English seaside town
Crouches before a November fog.
How could I know for myself?
I have not seen his great mane fall.
I have not seen the Promenade’s bright neon bite,
And suffocate on a damp extinction of air.
But this is the landscape of my mind.
This is the landscape of disappointment:
A scab out of time, kept moist by a northern sea.
A hope vanquished by silence,
Containing nothing waiting for the spring.
Instead, a further summer’s dead. Knocked
On the head, for England and for me,
Another harvest of oblivion.
No pristine form anticipates its ruin here;
We know it crumbled long ago:
No ruralist’s Elysium came to grief. No
Pestilence flourished, whether of the soul or from without;
No worm in the night, it was, that sickened Blake’s rose:
It was instead, a necessary poison in the sap that filled
A budding form – and frankly, filled it best.
Always self-interest, that propelled each writhing shoot
In Marvell’s garden; and above, his milder sun
‘That through its fragrant zodiac must run…’
There too the industrious bee:
Each tiny set of scurrying feet, each claw, each selfish gene
Impelled, Darwinian in necessity,
Shooting out to feed an inner gulf.
I loved our mythic Albion, Albion in autumn. I loved
Its captious intolerance and its compassion – the fact
It let me be, even me, whatever the cost,
Even though it knew what I was, even though
It was wearier, world-wearier, than I was –
This nation’s melancholic apparition, noble Albion;
Like our unicorn, like Moore and Russell’s apples.
Our mascot, and one more consoling falsehood.
Truth is: you die, or else you look out for yourselves.
Solicitude’s a luxury for comfortable times
And easeful minds.
Look at this town, defeated and boarded up.
There is no appetite in autumn:
No clarity of hate (and that attracts me),
No trade to tout for, no words to appease:
No sunshine, to inspire a certain shame.
November is the indifferent month, mired in remote
Seclusion, a month of hopeless peace, and
Circles within stasis; of routine beyond
Resignation. It is (like England, like my own
Remembrances) a home to all, and haven for none.
In my mouth, a shard of nickel. From my mouth,
The whisper of falling needles.
If you want to know what’s going on here, listen to either Schubert’s Schwanengesang or his Winterreise (the two last and greatest song-cycles). Here is my crack at a Winterreise for myself.