An Ill-Loved Song

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Grey Gowrie

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.

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