An Ill-Loved Song
Here is an old sad song I sang in 1903 before 1914 let me guess what might happen to me: oblique, foreshortened man locked in the blind caress of unrequited love; locked in the old wrong with nothing left to prove; an unrequited lover who before it even began knew the affair was over; on whom it had yet to dawn that love the Phoenix is born full-grown from sacred fire, the fire of its own cremation, to cauterize desire and extinguish elation.
A foggy day – dusk rather – in London town… By arches at Charing Cross between Strand and the river, I caught the eye of a boy who reminded me of you.
A derelict, a scrounger, his eyes were peaty pools with languorous, up-turned lashes any girl except you would die for and, like you, he seemed always smiling. Your wide, nonchalant mouth.
The rest of him looked dirty. Clothes ill-matched or stolen perhaps were held togethe by fragments a cut above like the Burlington cravat holding up holey trousers or silks with a peacock sheen to fashion a patchwork shirt in some insolent imitation of your Fortuny gowns. He rose and moved toward me.
I expected a hand for hand-out. But as he drew near he jerked his head and turned around so both of us faced the river. He stopped again to beckon me on, to follow him. Perhaps he thought I wanted to fall into his line… I didn’t but I couldn’t help myself from following this bad lad, this rough sleeper who reminded me of you. He was whistling cheekily now. His hands were deep in frayed pockets, his worn soles lapped like little waves on dank slabs of a lampless Embankment.
After a time we turned – I kept ten paces behind – north, climbed to a cluster of houses in mean streets. Everything was obscure.
I quickened, to keep up. Then the gaps between houses seemed to part like the Red Sea: me playing Pharaoh; his beautiful drowned dark eyes, like yours, embracing all the Jews…
Somehow I wanted to conjure something, assert myself, wrest control in the end from this hobo, this voyou, this confident ragamuffin. But then the fog lifted.
We recovered civilization. Lamps gleamed in the streets. Lights flickered from windows as if the whole town were about to burst into cheerful flame. My heart was close to bursting
for you yourself felt near as I thought you never would be, as I knew you never could be, mythical, royal, remote: a girl from a medieval tapestry fondling a pale gazelle.
Now my down-and-outer skedaddled, disappeared behind one of the windows or perhaps he hurried on down back to the mist and the river. Now a side-door swung open at a street corner.
A woman burst out, almost bumped into me, cursed. Under a lamp she looked like I imagine you’d look old, without any money and drunk. In my grief I pretended to be Ulysses come home after all my conquests to a smelly old dog and a wife old and knitting and cursing…
So disillusioned I turned on my heel back to the river. I trudged for hours, for miles into the heart of Docklands. I wanted to get away, swap my soul for a ship;
a ship for changing my luck; a ship for sailing away from you and from desire and all the undeniable dawns which seem to end up in some sorry evening.
And I did sail away in my imagination from you, see you swallowed by fog and fiery buildings: drowned in dark pools deep in the eyes of my accomplice.
Cast off from unrequited love and endless dreaming! From opaque streets and torn
kingdoms, from a winter dying to see Easter return once again, roll aside wrong years, the wrong woman… I grew tired, trudging. My ship beckoned, as if in sudden recall
that last year I met another woman, a girl from Germany. Or did I even? Who knows? Who knows but fog will lift, Thames mists clear, and some night, above empty mastheads pointing to it,
Galaxy show its face, Milky Way lean over this earth like the body of a woman bending to say Good Night, as I used to imagine you bending for me, adrift now in far waters among unannounced years
and their openings.
That was the ill-loved tale I told in 1903 before 1918 concurred with the cold that did for me. My friend Picasso drew my bandaged head, my wound. His line will last a while when we have gone to ground. May my lines too be a word in the ear of an unborn lover
that even a love unborn turns to a love long over. As for the one I called you whom I failed to pull off a throne, our joys may be distinct; our suffering’s always the same. Her smile, her eyes are linked to my heart but no longer her name.