Clive James New Poems
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.