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Angels over elsinore, p.1
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       Angels Over Elsinore, p.1

           Clive James
 
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Angels Over Elsinore


  CLIVE JAMES

  Angels Over Elsinore

  COLLECTED VERSE 2003–2008

  PICADOR

  Contents

  Windows Is Shutting Down

  Angels Over Elsinore

  Exit Don Giovanni

  My Father Before Me

  A Gyre from Brother Jack

  Woman Resting

  Sunday Morning Walk

  Natural Selection

  Under the Jacarandas

  The Victor Hugo Clematis

  Mystery of the Silver Chair

  The Genesis Wafers

  Museum of the Unmoving Image

  Statement from the Secretary of Defense

  The Australian Suicide Bomber’s Heavenly Reward

  Diamond Pens of the Bus Vandals

  The Zero Pilot

  Iron Horse

  Grace Cossington Smith’s Harbour Bridge

  Belated Homage to Derek Walcott

  When We Were Kids

  Only Divine

  Lock Me Away

  Bigger than a Man

  Publisher’s Party

  Literary Lunch

  At School with Reg Gasnier

  At Ian Hamilton’s Funeral

  Press Release from Plato

  Young Lady Going to Dakar

  Ramifications of Pure Beauty

  The Serpent Beguiled Me

  State Funeral

  This Is No Drill

  Tramps and Bowlers

  Fires Burning, Fires Burning

  Yusra

  Private Prayer at Yasukuni Shrine

  Naomi from Namibia

  William Dobell’s Cypriot

  Ghost Train to Australia

  Les Saw It First

  Signed by the Artist

  Return of the Lost City

  Anniversary Serenade

  Double or Quits

  Overview

  The Nymph Calypso

  Meteor IV at Cowes, 1913

  The Magic Wheel

  Portrait of Man Writing

  Status Quo Vadis

  Dreams Before Sleeping

  The Carnival

  We Being Ghosts

  Windows Is Shutting Down

  Windows is shutting down, and grammar are

  On their last leg. So what am we to do?

  A letter of complaint go just so far,

  Proving the only one in step are you.

  Better, perhaps, to simply let it goes.

  A sentence have to be screwed pretty bad

  Before they gets to where you doesnt knows

  The meaning what it must of meant to had.

  The meteor have hit. Extinction spread,

  But evolution do not stop for that.

  A mutant languages rise from the dead

  And all them rules is suddenly old hat.

  Too bad for we, us what has had so long

  The best seat from the only game in town.

  But there it am, and whom can say its wrong?

  Those are the break. Windows is shutting down.

  Angels Over Elsinore

  How many angels knew who Hamlet was

  When they were summoned by Horatio?

  They probably showed up only because

  The roster said it was their turn to go.

  Another day, another Dane. Too bad,

  But while they sang their well-rehearsed lament

  They noticed his good looks. Too soon, too sad,

  This welcome home for what seemed heaven sent.

  Imagine having been with him down there!

  But here I dream, for angels do not yearn.

  They take up their positions in the air

  Free from the passions of the earth they spurn.

  Even their singing is done less from joy

  Than duty. But was this the usual thing?

  Surely they gazed on that recumbent boy,

  Clearly cut out one day to be a king,

  And sang him to his early rest above

  With soaring pride that they should form the choir

  Whose voices echoed all the cries of love,

  Which, even when divine, implies desire?

  But soft: an ideal world does not exist.

  Hamlet went nowhere after he was dead.

  No angel sighed where lovers never kissed,

  And there was nothing in what his friend said.

  Hamlet himself knew just what to expect:

  Steady reduction of his body mass

  Until the day, his very coffin wrecked,

  Some clown picked up his skull and said, ‘Alas.’

  No, there would be no music from on high.

  No feather from a wing would fall, not one.

  Forget it all, even the empty sky –

  What’s gone is gone, sweet prince. What’s done is done.

  Exit Don Giovanni

  Somewhere below his pride, the Don’s bad dreams

  Fashioned the statue that would take him down.

  Deep underground, the tears were there in streams.

  The man who had the only game in town,

  In Spain, in Europe, when it came to love,

  Sensed that there had to be a reckoning.

  The boundaries he claimed to soar above

  Meant nothing to him except everything.

  Why the defiant stance, if not from shame?

  And why deny that truth, if not from fear?

  The bodice-ripper made his famous name

  By staying buttoned up. His whole career

  Came back to haunt him in a stony glance.

  Transfixed, he followed where the statue led.

  Below, tips of hot tongues began to dance.

  Further below, it was a sea of red.

  There was a jetty. Next to it, a raft

  Held every name on Leporello’s list,

  Even from just last week.

  The statue laughed And left.

  The women, modelled out of mist,

  Were images, as they had always been

  To him, but strong enough to ply the sweeps.

  They would not meet his eye, having foreseen

  What waited for him on the burning deeps.

  A long way out, they paused, and one by one

  They disappeared, each hinting with a smile,

  But not to him, their work had been well done.

  He was alone. To cry was not his style,

  But then he reached down through the surface fire

  Into the water. Almost with relief

  He learned at last the flames of his desire

  Had floated on the ocean of his grief.

  Had he known sooner, what would that have meant?

  Less to regret, and little to admit?

  The raft burned: final stage of his descent.

  Hell was on Earth. Now he was out of it.

  My Father Before Me

  Sai Wan War Cemetery, Hong Kong

  At noon, no shadow. I am on my knees

  Once more before your number and your name.

  The usual heat, the usual fretful bees

  Fitfully busy as last time I came.

  Here you have lain since 1945,

  When you, at half the age that I am now,

  Were taken from the world of the alive,

  Were taken out of time. You should see how

  This hillside, since I visited it first,

  Has stayed the same. Nothing has happened here.

  They trim the sloping lawn and slake its thirst.

  Regular wreaths may fade and reappear,

  But these are details. High on either side

  Waves of apartment blocks roll in so far

  And no further, forbidden to collide

  By laws that keep t
he green field where you are,

  Along with all these others, sacrosanct.

  For once the future is denied fresh ground.

  For that much if no more, let God be thanked.

  You can’t see me or even hear the sound

  Of my voice, though it comes out like the cry

  You heard from me before you sailed away.

  Your wife, my mother, took her turn to die

  Not long ago. I don’t know what to say –

  Except those many years she longed for you

  Are over now at last, and now she wears

  The same robes of forgetfulness you do.

  When the dreams cease, so do the nightmares.

  I know you would be angry if I said

  I, too, crave peace. Besides, it’s not quite so.

  Despair will ebb when I leave you for dead

  Once more. Once more, as I get up to go,

  I look up to the sky, down to the sea,

  And hope to see them, while I still draw breath,

  The way you saw your photograph of me

  The very day you flew to meet your death.

  Back at the gate, I turn to face the hill,

  Your headstone lost again among the rest.

  I have no time to waste, much less to kill.

  My life is yours; my curse, to be so blessed.

  A Gyre from Brother Jack

  The canvas, called A Morning Long Ago,

  Hangs now in Dublin’s National Gallery

  Of Ireland, and for capturing the flow

  Of life, its radiant circularity, Yeats painter leaves

  Yeats poet beaten flat.

  I hear you saying, ‘How can he say that?’

  But look. Here is the foyer of a grand

  Theatre. It is always interval.

  On the upper level, brilliant people stand.

  What they have seen inside invests them all

  With liquid light, and some of them descend

  The sweet, slow, curving, anti-clockwise bend

  Of staircase and go out into that park

  Where yet another spectacle has formed:

  A lake made bright by the oncoming dark.

  And at the left of that, white wings have stormed

  Upward towards where this rondeau begins.

  Birds? Angels? Avatars? Forgiven sins?

  He doesn’t say: the aspect I like best.

  William had theories. Jack has just the thrill.

  We see a little but we miss the rest,

  And what we keep to ponder, time will kill.

  The lives we might have led had we but known

  Check out at dawn and take off on their own

  Even as we arrive. Sad, it might seem,

  When talked about: but shown, it shines like day.

  The only realistic general scheme

  Of the divine is in this rich display –

  Proof that the evanescent present tense

  Is made eternal by our transience.

  Woman Resting

  Sometimes the merely gifted give us proof

  Born artists have a democratic eye

  That genius gets above, to stand aloof,

  Scorning to seize on all that happens by

  And give it the full treatment. Look at her,

  Mancini’s woman, as she rests her head

  In white impasto linen. Cats would purr

  To think of lying curled up on that bed

  Warmed by her Monica Bellucci skin.

  Her mouth, like Vitti’s in La Notte, breathes

  A sulky need for more of the same sin

  That knocked her sideways. Silently, she seethes.

  She’s perfect, and he’s well up to the task

  Of illustrating her full bloom of youth.

  Why isn’t she immortal, then? you ask.

  Look at her bedside table for the truth.

  Carafe, decanter, bottle, beaker, all

  Are brushed in with the same besotted touch:

  Not just as clutter which, were it to fall,

  Would break and be swept up. He cares too much

  About the world around her. While she dreams,

  The room dreams too, as if it too were spent

  From pleasure. In the end, nothing redeems

  This failure to make her the main event.

  Manet’s Olympia is no great shakes

  For beauty beside this one, but transcends

  Her setting with exactly what it takes:

  The fire that starts where general interest ends.

  Out for the count, Miss Italy sleeps on,

  So lovely that we check the artist’s name,

  Vow to remember it, and then are gone,

  Forgetting one who never found his fame

  Because his unrestricted sympathy

  Homogenised existence. Art must choose

  What truly merits perpetuity

  From everything that we are bound to lose.

  Even a master’s landscape, though devoid

  Of people, has a human soul in view:

  His own. A focused vision is employed

  To say: behold what I alone can do.

  Picking the mortal to immortalise,

  The great paint objects only to abet

  Their concentration on what lives and dies.

  Faced with a woman that they can’t forget

  They make sure we can’t either. Should she rest,

  Her daylight hours still dominate the room.

  We see her waking up and getting dressed.

  Her silence hits us like the crack of doom.

  But this girl, drowned in décor, disappears

  From memory, which doesn’t care to keep

  A pretty picture long, so save your tears.

  I shouldn’t try to wake her. Let her sleep,

  And let Mancini, suave but second rate,

  Sleep with her, as in fact he might have done –

  Some recompense for his eventual fate

  Of scarcely mattering to anyone.

  Sunday Morning Walk

  Frost on the green.

  The ducks cold-footing it across the grass

  Beside the college moat

  Meet a clutch of matrons

  In freeze-dried Barbours

  Walking their collies

  Freshly brushed by Gainsborough.

  Buoyed by the world’s supply

  Of rosemary sprigs

  Packed under glass,

  The moorcock emerging from the reeds

  Does a hesitation step

  As though dancing to Piazzolla.

  Cool shoes, if I may say so.

  In front of the boat-houses

  The rowers rigging fulcrums to the shells

  Bite off their gloves

  To push in pins,

  And the metal shines

  Just short of a glitter

  Because the light, though Croesus-rich,

  Is kiss-soft.

  Under the bridge, the iron ribs

  Form a pigeon loft,

  A pit-lane of sports saloons

  Testing their engines.

  The final year

  Of the finishing school for swans

  Passes in review,

  Watched by the cob, his nibs,

  Who at Bayreuth once

  Had a glide-on role

  In Lohengrin,

  But this is better.

  Winter regatta,

  Unspoiled by even

  Yesterday’s litter

  Spilling from the bins,

  Is it any wonder

  That I never left you?

  Remember this day,

  It’s already melting.

  Natural Selection

  The gradual but inexorable magic

  That turned the dinosaurs into the birds

  Had no overt, only a hidden, logic.

  To start the squadrons climbing from the herds

  No wand was ever waved, but afterwards


  Those who believed there must have been a wizard

  Said the whole show looked too well-planned for hazard.

  And so it does, in retrospect. Such clever

  Transitions, intricate beyond belief!

  The little lobsters, in their mating fever,

  Assaulted from the sea, stormed up the cliff,

  And swept inland as scorpions. But if

  Some weapons freak equipped their tails for murder

  He must have thought sheer anguish all in order.

  Source of all good and hence of evil, pleasure

  And hence of pain, he is, or else they are,

  Without a moral sense that we can measure,

  And thus without a mind. Better by far

  To stand in awe of blind chance than to fear

  A conscious mechanism of mutation

  Bringing its fine intentions to fruition

  Without a qualm about collateral horror.

  The peacock and the tapeworm both make sense.

  Nobody calls the ugly one an error.

  But when a child is born to pain intense

  Enough to drive its family all at once

  To weep blood, an intelligent designer

  Looks like a torture garden’s beaming owner.

  No, give it up. The world demands our wonder

  Solely because no feeling brain conceived

  The thumb that holds the bamboo for the panda.

  Creation, if the thing’s to be believed –

  And only through belief can life be loved –

  Must do without that helping hand from Heaven.

  Forget it, lest it never be forgiven.

  Under the Jacarandas

  Under the jacarandas

  The pigeons and the gulls

  Pick at the fallen purple

  That inundates the grass

  For two weeks in October.

  Although the splash of colour

  Should seem absurdly lush,

  Soon you get used to it.

  You think life is like that,

  But a clock is ticking.

  The pigeons and the gulls

  Don’t even know how good

  They look, set off like this.

  They get it while it’s there.

  Keep watching and you’ll learn.

  The Victor Hugo Clematis

  In our garden, the Victor Hugo clematis

  Grows among masses of small pink roses

  Prettier than it is, but not as stately.

  There’s a royal lustre to its purple petals:

  Long splinters of amethyst

  Arranged like the ribs of a Catherine wheel

  In a disc that is almost all space,

  And the edge of every petal

  Is curved like the volutes in any of the four

 
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