It will never be again.
Remember the lovers you gathered like flowers into your arms.
Remember each but blend their edges together so they do not cut your skin open. Remember their eyes – blue and green as marbles, as the sky and sea tumbled into a landscape of rolling bedcovers that tangle with those things brittle as butterfly-wings you call ‘beliefs’, those things whose strength is tested against the walls of an arena with complicated archaeology that you study late into the night beneath a single lamp, hoping to unlock the catacombs and shake out the bodies one by one, dust lifting from skeletons as from the hems of each item of clothing you have lifted over your head, in sunlight and in rain. Remember the skin of them. The roundedness of shoulders and the hips in their gentle whale shapes you marvel at each time you uncover them (discovery is the mirror image of recovery: dig and sanctify; consecrate and bury; forgive. Forgive. Reverse and repeat each motion). Remember the scattering of freckles, but forget where they were (a shoulder, a forearm, the kissed tip of a nose: does it matter whose?). Remember the smokedrift and blue carpet, the sound of the sea and a generator’s industrial hymn beneath a Japanese lily dropping petals like salt, or bombs. Remember the taste of each smile and the crease at each elbow underneath the press of your thumb. The sweat between the sheets and the cotton billowing above your outstretched arms, grazing your fingertips. Remember those. Remember arms. ‘You have lovely arms.’ ‘They are lovely with you in them.’ Remember a scar running across the back of a hand that pushed into your wristbone till you thought it might snap. Remember your heart, snapping out of its brown-paper-and-strings. A flicker of muscle. Hair curled between your fingers. Teeth. The thud of limbs heavy as trees falling in floodwater. The slap of a wall against your open palm. The way he leaned across a table in a cafe to kiss you. A photograph caught like a wish on a phone. The way your body fell sideways over the bed and you threw your arms back and the floor and the ceiling were the same.
Remember the sound of your name.
In different voices. Urgent. Or questioning. Tender. Or with a kind of wonderment that makes your ribs ache. Remember it is only a game. Remember the rules are always changing. (‘Excuse me?’ I loved you. I loved you, you idiot. I loved you.) It was. It will never be again. It was. It will be again. But different. Remember.
A little poem of mine has been shortlisted for the Fish Poetry Prize 2014, judged by Ruth Padel. Another poem, ‘Kairos’, was longlisted. I wrote the poem below for someone who told me once it was his favourite thing he’s read of mine. I hope that’s still true.
Here it is. For him. And for you.
Wind-scattered, these children
have followed us here, to lie
in the shade of a wide-leafed tree —
they make patterns on our skin
and Aristophanes tells us
why we have two faces.
We make an art
counting down our ages on each other’s hands
until a year is a finger’s breadth between us.
And there is an earthquake
shimmering like a lantern, soft
and large as a thistle moon.
And there is an earthquake
shimmering like a lantern, soft
and large as a breath (this breath)
…………………….a heart (this heart)
She was opening the orange as if it was an origami flower, its peel falling away in bright chunks. He watched her eat it, and she watched him watching her, her head cocked slightly to one side, observing him observing, watching the slight quiver of his Adam’s apple and the flutter of his fingers by his thigh where he rested his left hand, the wedding band glittering. She thought about his wife. Wondered if she knew about her husband’s obsession with younger girls who sat naked and cross-legged on beds peeling oranges and letting the juice slide out of the corners of their mouths and drip down onto the curve of their breasts. She went to flick away a drop of juice from her nipple, and that is when he came towards her, crawling on all fours as she knew he would, his eyes over-bright with a reverence an observer would find perverse. He knelt before her on the bed. His breathing by now was ragged. She wanted to feel in control, to feel powerful, straight-backed and elegant in her nakedness, with her neck that curved like a swan’s (this is what he had told her the first night they had slept together. She had been lying on her back and he ran his thumb from the nape of her neck down to the nub of her spine, and whispered that she was a swan. His swan. Beautiful and dangerous.) But she didn’t feel powerful now. She felt instead a familiar throb in her belly, an ache that spread like a bruise through her, making her tender and vulnerable. And when he drew each of her fingers into his mouth, one by one, sucking the juice from them as he placed a hand between her legs, she felt the curve in her spine crack and felt her armoury of feathers floating away down a torrent of river, a whitewater obliteration: she could feel herself opening up like an orange-coloured origami flower, and she could feel, too, her heart breaking inside her chest.
When he had left, she gathered the bedcovers up in her arms and breathed the smell of him up through her nose and down into lungs and her whole body; into her arms and legs right through to the tips of her toes that she stood up on now, feeling her calves stretch out like rope as she lifted herself up and up toward the ceiling where the fan cut through the stale air of the room, her whole skin filling with him where it touched the still-warm sheets which she wrapped around her now, tighter and tighter around her shoulders, her hips. And all around her arched feet, with small thudding sounds, segments of curled orange peel were falling, escaping from the linen folds that had held them, making a sound on her carpet like an arrhythmic heartbeat.
On the screen of my Kindle, in ghostly letters thickening to more solid black as the sun warms my screen from the back window of the upper deck of the 55 to Oxford Circus, the reflection, in mirror image and upper case, of the word ‘OPEN’. I watch the tall, slim characters flicker beneath the final words of a chapter containing a discussion of the Greek theory of beauty as terror (Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it … If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones). I feel, suddenly, very calm.
The metallic whirr
of ladybird elytra,
gently rattling the glass.
I wonder who sent them to me,
like a gift, and if you still have yours.
Wonder too if, at the bottom of the day,
a small thing you might almost call memory
(if you were sentimental, which you aren’t)
glimmers. If you fish it out, finger and thumb
hooked as gently as if unhooking a bra – quiet,
in a bed rustling with books, spread out from their spines
A moon and a sixpence, and three small dots
all shiny-black and round as watchful eyes, here
on the lacquered shell-back of a ladybird
gazing outward. I gaze too, as if I could magic
some part of you out of the horizon
stretching lazy as we were, lazy as
each morning smile I miss, every day.
The father in this case happens to be John Steinbeck. On hearing that his son had fallen desperately in love for the first time (Thom was a teenager at the time and attending boarding school; he confessed his burgeoning feelings for a girl called Susan to his father in a letter written in 1958), Steinbeck sat at his desk and penned the following response:
November 10, 1958
We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.
First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.
Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.
But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.
Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.
The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.
If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.
Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.
It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.
Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.
We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.
And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
See also: Steinbeck’s six tips on writing.
or toggles (remember those?)
smooth as bullets in your hands.
Storm’s a-coming, you tell me, solemnly,
and I smile into the blue of you – it’s all I see.
And you haven’t a clue
how I think of you at night
when my breath steams the windows
and I make a glasshouse out of this room;
smear hand-prints into the wet of you
lick salt from the windowsill corners and
I can almost taste the sweat of you.
opening hungry mouths to the spring rain.
But your lips, my love, are on the other side
of every window pane.
Beware, madam, of the witty devil,
The arch intriguer who walks disguised
In a poet’s cloak, his gay tongue oozing evil.
Would you be a Muse? He will so declare you,
Pledging his blind allegiance,
Yet remain secret and uncommitted.
Poets are men: are single-hearted lovers
Who adore and trust beyond all reason,
Who die honourably at the gates of hell.
The Muse alone is licensed to do murder
And to betray: weeping with honest tears
She thrones each victim in her paradise.
But from this Muse the devil borrows an art
That ill becomes a man. Beware, madam:
He plots to strip you bare of woman-pride.
He is capable of seducing your twin-sister
On the same pillow, and neither she nor you
Will suspect the act, so close a glamour he sheds.
Alas, being honourably single-hearted,
You adore and trust beyond all reason,
Being no more a Muse than he a poet.
− Robert Graves (1962)