National Poetry Week: Number five of five.

(I made this drawing on the first anniversary of 9/11, in the small town of Ferndale in California, a city lined with old Victorian buildings. At around noon, we sat on the lawn of the library with its flag at half-mast. It was calm on that sunny day, and for a while, perfectly quiet.)

I did tag yesterday that I would post something “beyond PC” but I’ve changed my mind. I had earlier meant to finish the series in an operatic, emotional climax and so here it is. My favourite poem of loss is Peter Porter’s ‘Non piangere. Liù’, but I have already posted that on the occassion of Porter’s death. Running a close second is another poem from the same remarkable collection, The Cost of Seriousness (it was his Blood on the Tracks, but with more blood).

‘The Exequy’ is a long poem around the death of his wife (by suicide) and you can read the whole at Clive James’. For me, the middle part is more than adequate, if one can so cavalierly truncate a work. Porter wrote it in classic iambic tetrameter, so the poem reads with a measured formal grace, each syllable espaliered onto its vertical grid — on a scaffold of pain. (Why, then, in its pain — the closing lines here I find literally hair-raising — it gives this reader such satisfaction, I cannot say.)

Extract from

T H E   E X E Q U Y

by Peter Porter

The words and faces proper to
My misery are private — you
Would never share our heart with those
Whose only talent’s to suppose,
Nor from your final childish bed
Raise a remote confessing head —
The channels of our lives are blocked,
The hand is stopped upon the clock,
No one can say why hearts will break
And marriages are all opaque:
A map of loss, some posted cards,
The living house reduced to shards,
The abstract hell of memory,
The pointlessness of poetry —
These are the instances which tell
Of something which I know full well,
I owe a death to you — one day
The time will come for me to pay
When your slim shape from photographs
Stands at my door and gently asks
If I have any work to do
Or will I come to bed with you.
O scala enigmata,
I’ll climb up to that attic where
The curtain of your life was drawn
Some time between despair and dawn —
I’ll never know with what halt steps
You mounted to this plain eclipse
But each stair now will station me
A black responsibility
And point me to that shut-down room,
‘This be your due appointed tomb.’

+ + +

From the Guardian: “I never intended to make those events my subject,” [Porter] says now, “but there was a compulsion, something my better self couldn’t suppress. It’s not a question of telling the truth or a lie; it’s not even a question of special pleading. It’s a question of the mind being forced to find a way of dealing with something, not in extenuation and not in therapy, but as a means of presenting the material to itself. I was writing for myself. Poetry is its own answer, its own end.”