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Clive James New Poems

Language Lessons

She knew the last words of Eurydice In every syllable, both short and long. Correcting his misuse of quantity, She proved the plangent lilt of Virgil’s song Depended on precision, while his hand, Light as a mayfly coming in to land, Caressed her cheek to taste the melody Of such sweet skin, smooth as a silk sarong. Give her the palm for speaking well, he thought, But has she ever melted as she should With no holds barred, or wept the way she ought? His scraps of Greek, it seemed, were not much good. He said the words for rosy-fingered dawn And when she set him straight with laughing scorn He spoke a tongue she barely understood, Contesting her with kisses long and short. In such a way they traded expertise Until the day came it took half the night. She gradually improved his memories And he set loose her longing for delight. The passion underneath the verse technique She saw in its full force, and learned to speak – Strictly, as always, but in ecstasies. So finally, for both, the sound was right, A compound language fashioned out of sighs And poetry recited line by line. Few lovers and few scholars realise The force with which those separate things combine When classic metres are at last revealed As reservoirs where rhythms lie concealed That sprang from heartbeats just like yours and mine, Pent breath, and what we cry with flashing eyes.

In that regard they made a pretty pair: He with his otherwise unhurried touch, She with her prim and finely balanced air, When they lay down together, came to such An ending they were like a poem caught In the last singing phrase of what it sought To start with: to contain what means too much Left lying loose. In something like despair, Though it was joy, they would forget they knew What anybody else had ever said Of love, and simply murmur the poor few Abstract endearments suitable for bed Until they slept, and dreamed they’d never met And none of this sheer bliss had happened yet. One woke the other –which was which? –in dread: Ah, Orpheus, what has lost us, me and you? Alas, what is this madness? Out of sight Like smoke mixed with thin air I seem to fly. Although her form, when he switched on the light, Was still there, he had heard her spirit die. To bring it back, he swore that he would go To hell for her. It would be always so, For he would live forever and defy The halls of Dis and the gigantic night. Having heard this from him, she smiled again, And in his arms came back to life as one Returning to the mortal world of men, Their ticking clocks, the race that they must run. Believing in their love: that was the task That these two faced. It seemed too much to ask, So moved were they when all was said and done – Knowing that it would stop, but never when.

90

January/February 2010

Standpoint Andantino from D.959

Not much interpretation needed here, It seems at first. For once the most mechanical of players Is as valuable as Schnabel. Isaiah Berlin specified this piece For his funeral. Listen. Here, hedge-hopping from the blue horizon Comes that little phrase again, straight out of Proust. Play it again, Katsumi. And she does, As if arranging flowers: The echo where you never quite expect it. I wake in hospital. My mother’s here With sweets and comic books and a lead soldier. I was saved by penicillin. And now here comes the bit that tells you he Could not possibly have died at 31. And here’s that same phrase flying low, so near And yet so far. So far, So good, like a lovely woman smiling. May it never, never stop. Not this, not now. So some interpretation needed, then, If just to be aware What won’t work here. It wants a master’s tact. That swine Cortot, that sweet man Rubinstein, Both brought the fine touch that leaves well alone. Here she falls short But not by far. Respect the intervals, Trying not to interfere. Brava! Well done.

Fly back to Tokyo with all my thanks, Young lady. Third at Leeds, You leave me happy here, and pleased for him, Where he lies buried next to Beethoven.

Franz Schubert’s tombstone

91

January/February 2010

Standpoint