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July all over again? And a poem.

Monday, July 21st, 2014

I truly don’t know what it is about me, my health, hospitalisations, and July. I’m trying to cling to the idea of random coincidences. But whatever the reasons, I went back into hospital just about on the exact same day as in 2013 and – gasp! – I’ve been here ever since.

Critical care all over again. Drips and central lines all over again, and a new thing called a PICC line which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Piccadilly Line although I admit I’m now getting a lot more emails from Transport for London.

I’m starting to feel better at last, oh thank thank! thank you! benevolent universe. They might even let me out of here soon… And meantime I read poetry and low novels, ingest a variety of drugs, and go for walks around the unit and even sit out on the balcony from time to time with Bruce (husbands are permitted in small quantities) and we pass judgment on the way the local mews houses have been modernised.

Because I’m in critical care I can’t have visitors , so this wonderful Charles Causley poem doesn’t apply to me. That doesn’t stop me loving it though – he was such a fine poet with such a distinctive voice and I find myself returning more and more to his work. He and my other current favourite – Cavafy – make rather unusual companions but I fondly imagine they’d have admired each other’s work.

One small irritation is that I can’t access FaceBook in hospital: I haven’t asked why not and I can surely live without it for a while longer. But this blog will (I assume) still bounce to FB and if you read it you’ll know why I haven’t responded to anything in the last month.. Roll on August, and maybe going home even for a short time …

Ten Types of Hospital Visitor,
Charles Causley


I

The first enters wearing the neon armour
Of virtue.
Ceaselessly firing all-purpose smiles
At everyone present
She destroys hope
In the breasts of the sick,
Who realize instantly
That they are incapable of surmounting
Her ferocious goodwill.

Such courage she displays
In the face of human disaster!

Fortunately, she does not stay long.
After a speedy trip round the ward
In the manner of a nineteen-thirties destroyer
Showing the flag in the Mediterranean,
She returns home for a week
- With luck, longer -
Scorched by the heat of her own worthiness.

II

The second appears, a melancholy splurge
Of theological colours;
Taps heavily about like a healthy vulture
Distributing deep-frozen hope.

The patients gaze at him cautiously.
Most of them, as yet uncertain of the realities
Of heaven, hell-fire, or eternal emptiness,
Play for safety
By accepting his attentions
With just-concealed apathy,
Except one old man, who cries
With newly sharpened hatred,
`Shove off! Shove off!
`Shove… shove… shove… shove
Off!
Just you
Shove!’

III

The third skilfully deflates his weakly smiling victim
By telling him
How the lobelias are doing,
How many kittens the cat had,
How the slate came off the scullery roof,
And how no one has visited the patient for a fortnight
Because everybody
Had colds and feared to bring the jumpy germ
Into hospital.

The patient’s eyes
Ice over. He is uninterested
In lobelias, the cat, the slate, the germ.
Flat on his back, drip-fed, his face
The shade of a newly dug-up Pharaoh,
Wearing his skeleton outside his skin,
Yet his wits as bright as a lighted candle,
He is concerned only with the here, the now,
And requires to speak
Of nothing but his present predicament.

It is not permitted.

IV

The fourth attempts to cheer
His aged mother with light jokes
Menacing as shell-splinters.
`They’ll soon have you jumping round
Like a gazelle,’ he says.
`Playing in the football team.’
Quite undeterred by the sight of kilos
Of plaster, chains, lifting-gear,
A pair of lethally designed crutches,
`You’ll be leap-frogging soon,’ he says.
`Swimming ten lengths of the baths.’

At these unlikely prophecies
The old lady stares fearfully
At her sick, sick offspring
Thinking he has lost his reason -

Which, alas, seems to be the case.

V

The fifth, a giant from the fields
With suit smelling of milk and hay,
Shifts uneasily from one bullock foot
To the other, as though to avoid
Settling permanently in the antiseptic landscape.
Occasionally he looses a scared glance
Sideways, as though fearful of what intimacy
He may blunder on, or that the walls
Might suddenly close in on him.

He carries flowers, held lightly in fingers
The size and shape of plantains,
Tenderly kisses his wife’s cheek
- The brush of a child’s lips -
Then balances, motionless, for thirty minutes
On the thin chair.

At the end of visiting time
He emerges breathless,
Blinking with relief, into the safe light.

He does not appear to notice
The dusk.

VI

The sixth visitor says little,
Breathes reassurance,
Smiles securely.
Carries no black passport of grapes
And visa of chocolate. Has a clutch
Of clean washing.

Unobtrusively stows it
In the locker; searches out more.
Talks quietly to the Sister
Out of sight, out of earshot, of the patient.
Arrives punctually as a tide.
Does not stay the whole hour.

Even when she has gone
The patient seems to sense her there:
An upholding
Presence.

VII

The seventh visitor
Smells of bar-room after-shave.
Often finds his friend
Sound asleep: whether real or feigned
Is never determined.

He does not mind; prowls the ward
In search of second-class, lost-face patients
With no visitors
And who are pretending to doze
Or read paperbacks.

He probes relentlessly the nature
Of each complaint, and is swift with such
Dilutions of confidence as,
`Ah! You’ll be worse
Before you’re better.’

Five minutes before the bell punctuates
Visiting time, his friend opens an alarm-clock eye.
The visitor checks his watch.
Market day. The Duck and Pheasant will be still open.

Courage must be refuelled.

VIII

The eight visitor looks infinitely
More decayed, ill and infirm than any patient.
His face is an expensive grey.
He peers about with antediluvian eyes
As though from the other end
Of time.
He appears to have risen from the grave
To make this appearance.
There is a whiff of white flowers about him;
The crumpled look of a slightly used shroud.
Slowly he passes the patient
A bag of bullet-proof
Home-made biscuits,
A strong, death-dealing cake -
`To have with your tea,’
Or a bowl of fruit so weighty
It threatens to break
His glass fingers.

The patient, encouraged beyond measure,
Thanks him with enthusiasm, not for
The oranges, the biscuits, the cake,
But for the healing sight
Of someone patently worse
Than himself. He rounds the crisis-corner;
Begins a recovery.

IX

The ninth visitor is life.

X

The tenth visitor
Is not usually named.

Used by kind permission of David Higham Associates

Next Tuesday’s Tuesday Poem

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

The Greeter, by Robert N. Watson

He’s not the Reaper, but he does stop by

To say, to everything that’s ever lived, “nice try.”

I know only that Robert N. Watson is the Neikirk Distinguished Professor of English at U.C.L.A. That fact, and this witty and wonderful poem.

At an angle to the universe

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

I have stolen the title of this blog post from Paul Bailey, who used it in his wonderful review of a new edition of Cavafy’s complete poems in last Saturday’s Guardian. (You can read the review here.) It is, in turn, a quote from EM Forster, who knew Cavafy in Alexandria during World War I and apparently said of him that he stood “absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”. And that metaphor seems absolutely perfect, for Cavafy in particular as well as for some other writers and artists: Rothko for instance, and perhaps Seamus Heaney. (Trying to think of creative artists to whom it applies reminds me of Alex Danchev’s wonderfully telling way of dividing visual artists between those whose paintings are saying, Look at this! and those whose paintings are saying, Look at me!)

But back to Paul Bailey’s review. I particularly like learning new things about Cavafy, for whom I have a deep and extravagant admiration, and Paul Bailey has given me the pleasure of another image; that of Cavafy setting down a few lines of a new poem on a sheet of paper and putting that in an envelope for later inspection, revision and expansion. It seems that he stored a mass of such envelopes in his apartment, and only opened them again “when he felt capable of bringing the half-poems they contained to a satisfactory end.” So contained, so controlled, so precisely laboured, those apparently spontaneous creations. I love to imagine that lonely and particular process.

The new book that Paul Bailey reviews is C.V. Cavafy: The Complete Poems, translated by the present keeper of the Cavafy flame, Daniel Mendelsohn. (I have his earlier compilation of the Collected Poems.) Bailey’s review commends the detail and scope of his scholarship but also points out some interesting infelicities in his translations, and contrasts one example with a translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. That makes me feel relaxed about my own (far less scholarly and knowledgeable) reservations that relate to several poems within the earlier Mendelsohn collection. The thing is, I’ve loved Cavafy’s poetry, and especially “Ithaka”, since I first read a translation of that in a Penguin book called Four Greek Poets, published in 1966. Much later I discovered that those translations were by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, and later still I encountered Daniel Mendelsohn’s version and have never been able to like it as much as the original (well, what I think of as the original) translation.

See what you think. I’ve posted ”Ithaka” before and I will probably find good reasons to post it again several times before it’s read – as I hope it will be – at my funeral.

So here is the Daniel Mendelsohn version:-

ITHACA by C.V. Cavafy
translated by Daniel Mendelsohn

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.

And here is my preferred version:

ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy
translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a summer dawn to enter
-with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.

Ithaka gave you the splendid journey,
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise have you become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

Another step backwards

Friday, November 30th, 2012

These retrospective posts won’t go on forever. Well, duh! they couldn’t really, could they? But now I’m taking you back to New York at the end of October, when I was trying to ignore the rising tone of hysteria about Hurricane Sandy.

The thing is – my excuse for this piece of foolishness on my part – is that I know about hurricanes. I lived through days of prep for Hurricane Michelle in Key West in 2001, when I discovered what ‘mandatory evacuation’ really means (the police drove around the streets of Key West shouting that phrase into megaphones, and here’s the translation: ‘don’t call 911: we won’t answer the phone’). I am hurricane-experienced. And Michelle blew right on past Key West in 2001, so all that prep was as naught. (Throwing the pool furniture into the swimming pool was the most fun. Getting it out again? Not so much.)

So anyway, I ‘knew’ not to believe the 24/7 alerts in New York. Oh please! I was heard to say: hurricanes don’t hit New York! And I kept right on saying that, right up to the last Sunday morning when we realised that the entire subway and bus systems, and oh dearie me also Amtrack, were all closing down that very afternoon, a full day before we were due to travel down to Washington DC by train.

Hmmm.

So Bruce made a mercy dash to Penn Station and changed our tickets to the very last train out of New York on Sunday night, and we regretfully left a wonderful restaurant in the middle of a delicious dinner to be driven to Penn Station.

I can’t believe that anyone who reads my blog hasn’t seen ‘Casablanca’. (You all have, haven’t you? Maybe not as often as I have, but still…) So you’ll remember that scene when Humphrey Bogart is waiting to catch the last train out of Paris – waiting for Ingrid Bergman, who never arrives?

That’s exactly what Penn Station looked like!

Tuesday poem – Ithaka

Monday, May 16th, 2011

ITHAKA
by C.P. Cavafy

When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a summer dawn to enter
- with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.

Ithaka gave you the splendid journey,
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise have you become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

This probably sounds rather childish, but ‘Ithaka’ is my favourite poem in the whole world. I loved it when I first read it almost thirty years ago, and I love it more every time I read it, finding new subtleties and sadness, and further layers of truth and irony and resonance. It has become absolutely My Poem, over the years. I’d like to have it read at my funeral, please.
C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) was the ninth child of rich Constantinople merchants. He was educated in England and Alexandria, but moved back to stay with his grandfather and two brothers in Constantinople when the family business collapsed, and then returned to Alexandria where he lived and worked (as a government clerk) until his death.
Cavafy wrote in modern Greek, which I do not know at all, and so I am forever in debt to his poetic translators. This particular translation has remained my favourite version through the years, and there are several others, the most favoured of which these days being Daniel Mendelsohn’s masterwork, the new translation of all Cavafy’s poems published by Knopf in 2009. I admire Mendelsohn’s work enormously but I don’t love his version of ‘Ithaka’ in the way that I love this one – and Mendelsohn spells it ‘Ithaca’ which is probably more accurate but to me removes a layer of the magic associated with the ‘Ithaka’ spelling. I’ve long since lost track of where this translation originates, but I reproduce it here with awe and gratitude.
Cavafy’s style is unemphatic, almost throwaway. His language has been carefully constructed from everyday speech, as though the smallnesses of human life – and also in this case the larger significances of Odysseus’ journeys – are being inspected and celebrated in a breathtaking journey through the language and mystery of the human heart. Such wisdom.

There are other lovely Cavafy poems, and you may know and love some of them – but this is the one for me.

I hope you’ll look at the Tuesday poem blog, if you’re not already there, and see what other poems people have posted today.

The city of ruins will rise again

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

It’s hard to think of anything other than the Christchurch earthquake. I have friends with family in the area so there’s been a fraught time of waiting to hear – most are now accounted for, and that’s a relief. Other friends have emailed me to pass on good news (Margaret Mahy’s fine, which I hadn’t even thought to worry about; Maurice Lyon’s friends are also OK and that’s also great to know.) But there’s still one Tuesday Poem poet unaccounted for: all we can hope is that he’s fine and just hasn’t got power for the internet or a cell phone connection Fingers crossed for you, Andrew.

Unless you’re on the spot it’s difficult to imagine just how hard it is for everyone without power or money (no ATMs) or sewage supplies, and having to dig out the liquefaction thrown up by the shallowness of the quake, and children and pets crazed with fear, and the continuing aftershocks.

One Tuesday Poem poet posted Bruce Springsteen’s song lyrics for ‘My City of Ruins’, which is an anthem of encouragement with a chorus of hope that I’ve been singing since I read the post: look for it here.

There is a blood red circle

On the cold dark ground

And the rain is falling down

The church door’s thrown open

I can hear the organ’s song

But the congregation’s gone

My city of ruins

My city of ruins

Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!

Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!

Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!


And everyone I know sends love and thoughts of courage. Kia kaha, people of Christchurch.