Sometimes I used to wonder whether I had I had a chip on my shoulder, or whether I was really just the chip. Not that it bothers me now, as the days are long gone when I was able to harm other people. No more amours for me, no more heartbreak; for when you reach my immense antiquity any orifice, so long as it is warm and damp and contains no woodlice, is sufficient to make one feel at home. A Hottie is a dream, if you can waylay one; and without recourse to mantraps what that means is one of those rubber bottles to bring solace on winter nights.
Growing up is about the violation of innocence, and about growing a thick enough carapace to ensure that you are not ruined again. In a society where the word “tragedy” is dispensed as freely as artificial sweeteners, I believe still that the loss or desolation of one’s first love is a genuine tragedy, and one of the greatest that life brings. Let’s take Byron’s wailings as read, so that I can offer you something more contemporary by Sheila Parry:
THE LINES ARE DOWN
I can’t believe you’ve gone,
still, after all this time,
I read a poem,
see a play,
hear music that you’d like
and want to phone you,
hear your swift response.
I did that once –
Heard shrill ringing
Echoing through empty rooms.
Now I know
your number’s disconnected,
My fingers hesitate,
what should I say
if you should answer me?
The gap between us now
is far too wide
for trivial chat;
your traveller’s tales
too strange for telephones.
And I’m afraid
that you might call me back.
An ominous sign, when one sees a dedication in initials. Of course, the W B Yeats is an emblematic cipher that can be read on several levels:
NO SECOND TROY
Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a lightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
But my favourite, because it is short yet says everything:
SO YOU NEVER REPLY
So you never reply to my letters.
I no longer expect or request anything.
At this late stage it would be absurd
To ask the postman if he has for me
An envelope that glimmers
Like a tiny star.
Claudia Lars (El Salvador, 20th century)
We’re all allowed one rotten relationship, which we can notch up to experience. But do not be too ready to pity those for whom disaster in love is the norm. Years ago, considering my own errors time after time, I had to ask what it was about me that bullies and exploiters and the irredeemably needy could nose out, so that we could hobble forward in life together for a few months or a few years like two runners in the three-legged race. It is wise not to look too closely, for otherwise you might glimpse what it is about yourself that is no better than the one who is now your enemy, so that in truth you probably gave as good as you got. But learn too that Life is an increasing progress towards isolation. In an odd sense a new-born baby is never alone, for it exists solely as a response to those around it. How we deal with our loneliness, and the timidity it engenders, is up to us. A wet tongue in your ear at bedtime is not the be all and end all of human worth. Consider rather Leonardo:
If you are alone you belong entirely to yourself. If you are accompanied by even one companion you belong only half to yourself, or even less, in proportion to the thoughtlessness of his conduct; and if you have more than one companion you will fall more deeply into the same plight.
Or better, Paul Tillich:
Language… has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.
In the book of my own, DEAD PEOPLE ON HOLIDAY, there are a couple of poems about the follies of sailing too close to another guarded island. The first has to do with the misjudgements one can still make in middle age:
Peas in a pod
Laid out for God.
Like shrunken heads, or like autumnal
Conkers: once jostling, now quiescent in a line,
Each one of us awaits his weekly feather-dusting.
A good woman needs knick-knacks for her mantelpiece.
A good woman (uncowed by the moral weight of the universe –
though frantic, hamster-frantic, before the unleavened slough of
infinite responsibilities as she strives to make the Lord’s lesser
creatures all neat and proper to give an account of themselves…)
… Oh, well our Belle Dame grasps
How gossip might flounce as apt counsel, how throttling control
As care: how spite can strut as prim tough love.
For the mouse, it is said (missing a bladder), must dribble its
Piddle as it runs; and so does she – knowing that, in the end,
Her ceaseless nip and caustic drip can wear down solid bone.
“Don’t show me up again”, she says, in a flutter of lace.
A good woman knows it:
Beneath each crease of your rumpled shirt
Lies the great trench of irrationality,
Of – worse – imprudence. Behind each public yawn (unstifled)
Breaks a breached mire of shame.
No devils in the detail for this bracing lady,
No context to another’s submerged pain.
The broth of minutiae is not for her;
Nor is the sediment of shambolic, tiny tragedies
(crushed underfoot, unrefined and shredded
By the hard nails of memory)
Stained with a culpability she might yet share!
Instead, behold a litany of the commonplace –
(Her mind’s too deft for insight, irony, still less compassion:
Consumed by imminent impropriety, dispensing guilt)
– She likes her men scraped free of manhood,
She being aware, perhaps, that only
Nakedness is timeless, as a tabula rasa is.
She likes her men neutered, fragile and flawless,
Ready to be dollied up à-la-mode.
Her chaos is my mother-lode;
Without disorder, there is no new birth:
Without the difference, there can be no love,
But rather, only our own echo.
And so, breathe on us, breath of God,
Set us back amongst the straight-and-narrow
Of your candlesticks, dear busy squirrel.
Give us a good scrub with the Chammy
And then: please to forget us, let us go;
So that – untended and behind your back – we might
In silence creep towards some private, lesser light.
Of course there is always the big one, the first one, the one that cannot be undone, the one that had so much weight on its shoulders that it could never have stood straight.
The coach before mine
Was headed for Bialystock.
Celestial on their concrete rafters, pigeons
Stolid as bolts, or gunmetal,
Nattered to themselves, or helped to
Transmute sunshine into dirt.
But you and I, little lost girl, we’ve known
Fissures of air, like glass
Where living cloudscapes tore and boiled
Above the Russian border;
On the black brink of forest, have you and I,
Sweetheart, trudged through billowing wheat,
Picked mushrooms in a vale of golden dust:
You with your almond eyes and dancing
Cadences of speech, like skylarks.
When was your last postcard? A year ago?
You were coming to London – my city, you said,
But not to me. You were off to pals
Who’d done much more for you, or so I learnt,
Than I had ever done.
Little in life is more public, more private, than a station is –
Sparing, perhaps, the fact of our own mortality.
I’ll rest awhile, with blanked face and my bag of little English litter,
And a nail where my heart was.
Life is so needlessly difficult – above all for a man – that I felt I had to issue a disclaimer and plead that my honesty was not misogyny. Yet I was glad that I did. As Norah Vincent put it:
There is a time in a boy’s life when the sweetness is pounded out of him; and tenderness, and the ability to show what he feels, is gone.
Aching years of tedium, listening to the sub-atomic posturing of men in pubs or coffee rooms, had at last to find an outlet. Amongst male artists, only Mozart began to understand the difference between sexes; and in The Marriage of Figaro or Cosi fan Tutte you can hear it. The men’s music is rumbustious – or else metrical, precise and stolid: the women’s is pliant, fluid, lithe, questioning.
Compared to women, masculine men are brittle, simple creatures with whom I have never found much pleasure in identifying. Easily moved to anger (sadly, not to joy) they do what they say, for they know no better. Their lives are spent skating over an opaque and mirror-like surface until it occurs to them to worry or dig a hole in it, like a dog with its bone. It seems to me that men are like dogs, only without the loyalty. At the periphery of men’s vision, beyond the compass of the narrow and frozen tract they have chosen the navigate, the landscape glitters with vaguely intimated terrors: of being unmanly or unassertive, of being inaccurate, of being wrong or (worst of all) subject to an uncertainty that can never be quantified, still less mitigated. And of course, this is no more than the hard, tunnelled vision of the hunter demands of them.
Concerning the battle of our sexes, Hilaire Belloc wrote:
If all the harm that women do
Were put into a barrel
and taken out to sea at Looe
Why, men would never quarrel.
The truth is that if intelligent women took ignorant men less seriously – were taken in by them less often and refused to be like them, or refused to give men the benefit of the doubt – our world might be a less tedious and objectionable place. This is the context within which I should wish my poems to be understood.
Stephen Jackson’s own poems and images are from his book, DEAD PEOPLE ON HOLIDAY