A man, a sentry post, a little dance
was how it ended and began,
that grey-green journey in and out of time
through mirage landscapes just beyond my reach
between the woods and the water,
a world where rhyme and reason
had no part to play, yet much to teach,
their role usurped by the scent of Russian cigarettes,
August melting bitumen and new mown hay,
sun-blurred glimpses of red-tiled roofs that seemed
dark light years away
from my reflection in the rear-view mirror
as I wondered about the lives that people lived beneath them,
whether I could run unseen across the forbidden fields of Brandenburg
and hide behind a native alder tree,
watch their old, scratched front door open
as I looked on, a stone’s throw from their familiar touch
which I had never known, and never would.
And the door would open and close
a reminder that before I could write a single line of verse
I had to see this and many other towns and cities.
The searing tarmac mumbled on, meanwhile,
tyres bump-thumping me in and out of sleep
as I dreamed my eastbound life away behind the wheel
– and how the wheel becomes it, I would think –
which was turning, turning,
engraving Berlin, its himmlische Luft, into my loveless heart
as I sped along the black, scarred Avus route
beneath the fly-blown frowning watchtowers,
the Grünewald cloak-billowing behind me
as the journey came to a close
at a white-painted, tobacco smelling sentry post
where I and the Soviet soldier would dance our little dance
one more time.
The pure white, top floor office
with its balcony and blue-grey rooftop panorama
had something of her well-swept home town,
famous for its orderly obsessions
as well as its psychological syndromes,
a love of funerary pomp and afterlife fixations;
the once-imperial city on the Danube
which she referred to as
with a glance out the window
at the uninspiring London view
which did its best, but unsuccessfully,
to compromise the scent of what it saw as
but was in fact the wiener Kaffee
that we were drinking at her tidy, glass-topped desk
on which she rested her elegant white hands with their long fingers
and bony wrists
as she talked of the city of her birth,
‘bei uns’ – ‘where I come from’ –
making unflattering comparisons
with the capital of mammon which sprawled acquisitively around us,
carillon cash tills sounding its imminent decline.
As we talked my eyes kept straying
to her pale and bony wrists,
their hard-edged, skeletal contortions
as she picked up a pen or glass of water,
poured me another Kapuziner,
filling me with the same, chill-eyed unease
which this anatomical phenomenon always inspires,
a sense of dread, of looming disaster.
Girls with bony wrists,
they frighten me;
something in the clicking of their joints
speaks of treachery, manipulation,
an unspoken sexual manoeuvring,
the demands of Protektion and personal advancement
which echoed in my mind every time she said
Already I could feel my lifeless body
being swept away
by the waters of the Danube, no longer quite so blue,
and washing up somewhere downstream,
eine schöne Leich,
a beautiful corpse
ready for the horse-drawn bier and elaborate, K und K tributes.
So we drank our Viennese coffee
and played our parts
perhaps too well,
her with her bei uns bony wrists,
me with my misgivings.
Also spielen wir Theater,
as young Hofmannsthal observed,
Spielen unsre eignen Stücke …
We all have walk-on parts in our own, individual play.
Premature and delicate and sad,
the comedy of our soul.
Walking aimlessly. I am interested in nothing except the expressions which fall off people’s faces and are trampled by the crowd, or blow under the wheels of passing cars.
Words well up as I walk. They are found then lost, inspired by taste and smell. Home, I remember, is where you have not yet been. I wonder if I might take the look of longing from a boy’s eyes, or brush the smile from his face without him noticing, and carry it away to stroke and kiss.
Budapest howls. Communism has left Hungary behind, stripped naked in the gutter of Europe’s road, its scars and pleading ignored by wealthy passers-by who avert their anxious, bloated eyes. For years, people here collaborated with their own worst, weak selves. Don’t sneer; we all do it, in our way. But the buildings with their empty cellars, the attics with broken window eyes high up in baroque palaces, frozen in the winter sunlight, grasping for a blue sky, any sky that is not a liar, gives them, the people, away. They have lived too long with too many dreams. They have not settled on one, two or even three.
Perhaps they wanted it all? Justice, equality, the dignity of labour; the list goes on and on. And in the end – but is it the end or just a wistful, womb-like beginning – they got this. Yes, just this. Broken, dirty panes of glass, cellars black as coal, full of damp, rotting clothes; human waste, voices seeping out of barred, airless windows at ground level along with the smell of excrement and old socks; crying out to us, to me, to take notice of their dying, their lying, their living; their wishing that the world could always be the same – but not like this.
The same, but something else, not this. This golden yellow, crumbling stucco façade that is nothing but pan-stick, a morning’s hasty makeup to cover more than cracks; to paste over filthy, broken limbs and lives; to hide the shame that people did not choose, but chose to loose their will on the wind which rushed in from Russia.
Russia, land that has mastered its will, at least for now. Russia, making everything better, bigger, braver, creating nations of Young Pioneers who wear the red tie, who smile to order and all at once; who dream of nothing except not having to choose, of leaving choice to the facades along this street, Andrassy Utca, or Parliament, or up on Castle Hill with its street of Lords; ten lords a-laughing.
Now the Pioneers wear blue ties, with perhaps just a hint of red. But still they dream. They dream of the rich in their villas in the grander quarters, in quietly streets, stultified, repressed, clenched together with fear and disapproval, desperate to protect their new wealth, their hard-won war of having more than one choice and making something of it. We, they say, will not let our houses lose their feet and heads. We will not see them with ruined, dying shoes, blind eyes, glasses smashed, hair matted to their broken-tiled heads, hatless, headless, brainless, soulless, exposed to the eternal winter that Western wealth has brought, just because no one could choose. Or would not choose, wantonly waiting for summer to come at last, short trousers and skimpy skirts and untanned legs.
But now all we have is ruined complexions, they say. Poor diets, a growing list of wants and when’s and who’s, and will the men from Brussels sign the cheque, leave it blank for us to fill in with our nice clean hands; well, not quite clean. Dirt is engrained in our fingertips and nails from where we’ve been trying to restore the cellars and attics of our once-grand palaces so we can sell them to bankers from beyond the Rhine.
We are proud tramps. We are part-East, part-West, MittelEuropa. And now we are beset with too much choice, choice that grows like an epidemic, although these days they call it a pandemic. Gradually, unstoppably, it cripples us one by one.
Soon we will become like the West after all. They will lend us the money to fix our facades, to make them as shallow as their own. But that is no choice, and we know it.
Meanwhile, along Andrassy Utca and elsewhere, all over Budapest, the cellars and the attics, the feet and the eyes, are lame, halt and blind. They are empty and uncared-for.
But no, we say, they are loved. O yes, we love them with all our heart. But somehow, among all the decisions, the democratic choices, they got left behind.
Still, no matter. Long live the cold, empty cellars and attics, we say. There are beggars, rejects, almost a whole nation, not to mention those who drift in and out of our new, open borders, to fill them forever.
They at least are lucky. For they have no choice.
Your footsteps echo on the Pont des Arts
and the lights of the Left Bank reflect in the silk water,
reminding you of a small town in Germany
where you sat at your usual table in your Stammcafé
reading Castiglione, Cārtārescu and the Kalevala
in the original
and writing letters to an Argentinian friend in Budapest
who you met in the pearly penumbra of the Király baths
and whose gender is as uncertain as
the winter sunlight which fell in snowdrops from the cupola
of the octagonal Ottoman dome
while you played chess with a Turkish functionary
of indeterminate age and origin
who moved his pieces in Greek pentameters
and whose daughter married a Syrian from Aleppo
who wrote poetry as the war raged all around
and killed their only child
two days before they fled to Sweden
where his verse was published in French and Spanish by a man you know,
and which you read on the slow train to Milan
on the way back from Bucuresti
where you were bitten by a mongrel,
part Alsatian part Pyrenean,
after you had been to the liturgy
celebrated by a priest from Moldova,
a mutual friend of a Russian hieromonk you met
at the Sorbonne
where he was teaching Coptic theology,
although for his sins he later ran a nightclub in Kazan
after the Wall fell
and you finally felt at home among the Babel
of so many familiar, set-free tongues
which you had always been told to beware
by the monolingual mammon monarchy
who speak no Greek and brook no violations
of their whitewashed picket fence.
For a moment you just stand there on the bridge,
drink it all in,
give thanks to those who have offered you
their far-flung hands,
led you down byways as rich as
their much-lined, outstretched palms,
to houses whose doors are always open.
Then you walk on into the night,
towards the Académie that guards the nation’s voice
against all interlopers, all lingual no-hopers.
As you stroll through the crowds of St-Germain
two strutting figures pass you by,
barging you into the gutter
where you tread in something brown.
You stop to scrape it off,
while on the breeze comes the smell
of their mocking English laughter,
their hollow voices.
Then somewhere a door slams,
and a choir sings the Ode to Joy.
You sit talking to Friedrich Nietzsche
at a corner table in the Café Gerbeaud,
it’s February (at least here on Vörösmarty ter),
and nothing has changed
except the name of the coffeehouse
and some of the streets.
As so often you are thinking of Rilke
in a room full of alembics;
he said he might drop in for a fekete and a slice of cake (aber bitte mit Sahne),
depending on whether he can catch the bright red ball
thrown by the idiot,
but at that moment the door bursts open and
in strides Rasputin,
bringing gusts of snow and gunmetal winter air,
treading them into the carpet with his bast-shod feet
and pinching the waitress on the bottom
as he thunders towards you like the five o’clock express,
hair and beard alive with laughing nits
and plump white maggots.
It’s only once he has sat down at your table
and his goat-like stink is coiling round your neck
that you realise that he, Nietzsche and Rilke are all long dead,
which probably accounts for the smell
and the fact that you are sitting here
thinking, drinking coffee,
making excuses for putting off writing
one more time.
Wand-like chalk in hand,
the Latin Master expounded his pet subject,
the Peloponnesian War,
a ruse he was inclined to use on long, hot afternoons
when schoolboy brains would drift
from gerunds, superlatives and the
sublime art of the subjunctive
onto the more fertile ground
of Caesar’s legions and legendary Roman valour.
That afternoon as the clock turned back in time
he spoke reverently, as ever, of Thucydides,
of his disdain for those who fought with bow and arrow,
a shameful instrument which the lofty Greek likened
to the spindle that women use for spinning cloth;
a weapon favoured by those who dare not fight
hand to hand,
knee deep in blood and fresh-spilled entrails.
Once the chorus of jejune approval had died down,
like an errant knight lifting his standard in the fray
you raised an enquiring hand:
‘Then the English archers at Agincourt were cowards,
weren’t they, sir?’
‘They were afraid to meet the French knights
man to man,
in a fair and honest fight’.
Like all home truths
your arrow found its mark,
struck where it hurt the most.
No answer was the stern reply;
and the class, perturbed, took out their Latin primers
and returned to the safe territory
of regular verbs.
Rain begins to fall, blows in the face of the East,
mingling with its tears, streaking its face with frosted glass memories
which trickle over its quivering lips.
You are in every droplet, Bucuresti, drifting on the wind,
each chill wet touch on the window opens up the void within me
where you once came to stay, long long ago,
leaving behind the scent of dusty creaking cellars,
attics outflung in turrets poised in your autumn sky,
cracked windows a-blink, aghast, a-quiver,
gazing sightlessly into the hollows of my eyes.
Rain falls, I see footsore silhouettes of your legions,
O Bucuresti, spade-faced women rusty from digging up the past,
finding nothing but handfuls of dust and pearl grey pebbles,
arms plunging earthward at their beer keg sides weighed down by shopping bags
of nothingnesss, dry goods garnered from hope-laden shelves which
disappear as soon as they get home, up there in the smog clouds
whose grime grubby fingers claw the windows of their top floor apartments,
primary painted balconies like dog-eared playing cards,
the hand dealt them by the Great Architect of the Nation
whose memory they revile, revere, erase yet never hide from view.
It’s raining on the card tables of Bucuresti, laying the dust,
soaking the green baize cloth of collusion and self-compromise
while I huddle in the corner, ice cold rivulets coursing
down my neck, still stiff from craning to see you, Bucuresti, from turning
first this way then the other, dodging the winds of change,
always playing my own cards close to my chest.
Whenever it rains, O City on the Plain, I fear you will wash away
before I have come to know you, exhumed that part of me
which shares your tomb in the well that lies deep beneath my past.
Parched ochre leaves begin to crackle. The wind breathes out, summer limps to autumn. Black pine forests weep healing tears for wounds caused by an angry, dying sun.
Everywhere, in billowing green columns, battle tanks growl out of barracks. They are restless to wash the German plain with their song of freedom.
Roads turn into greedy diesel mouths. Crossroads lose their temper, the dove-grey clouds bleed parachutes. The airwaves are singing too, with let’s-pretend traffic, generals grabbing for a new gold star, the touch of the Royal sword on their thrusting shoulder, arise sir…
We won the war. Peace must not break out. We can’t afford it, people might see the cracks.
Atop a grinding tank I bathe in Herbst-dust, October soft, finer and more golden than the generals’ prizes. My senses are shining, free to roam and drink, to cast the leash aside; at least for now, till word comes down to hide them away lest the enemy discover I am one of theirs. Pack up your
spirit in your old kit bag and smile, smile…
Harassed mothers clap hands to their ears, scowling at the screaming motors; old ladies cough up fumes and shake their graveyard fists. Schoolboys laugh and cheer and wave. Joy is out.
Strength through joy.
This year’s phoney war begins. On the maps, coloured pins and arrows are moving, snarling. All over mocked but enlightened Germany, Cold Warriors strut their prejudices; offspring of those who betrayed the Poles, scorned the Czechs, sold their souls to the US of A. Termites of reparation, we burrow into farms, castles, houses, whole villages, carve furrows into virgin lawns, wither hard-earned crops with our mealy scorn; make yet more enemies. Behind us, shovel in hand, comes the quartermaster’s chequebook, picking up the pieces of honest German pride.
Gott strafe England.
For twenty-one unholy days the world is ours; well, almost. But tomorrow belongs to me. Niedersachsen fields and forests are overrun by this post-war Carnival, the parade of the Mardi Gras’ most ugly masks before the ritual fire and burying.
We come as protectors, guardians of voters’ freedom, the Dollar and the Deutschmark. In the name of liberty we rip open the night, despoil the day, splatter prams and puppies with our blackened oil. Cobbled streets disintegrate, shop windows dance a fearful jig. This is why you pay your taxes.
It is autumn. The time of aquatint is here, patchwork vermillion foliage and drifting dawns. I stray away from the thrumming khaki hulks, wander alone to the edge of a high forest to touch another sunrise. Below, helicopters crouch in the valley, idle blades misted in sleep. A blackbird sings.
So this is freedom. Death paid for this. The war is won, peace prevails. The liberated land spreads out before me, purged of demigod dictators. No marching step invades the new day.
The sun peers over the eastern horizon, light seeps into sleeping meadows. Drop by drop it etches out the gashed walls, torn-up crops and fields, farmyards overrun with trenches, wire, the long black finger-barrels pointing heavenward. A dog barks.
A minute’s silence. Maybe two. Then a flash, a crump. An engine racks and coughs, blue smoke blotches the amber morning.
Voices. From far below, gunshots spatter, curt explosions, the skeletal rattling of tracks. I feel the day pour over me, already captive to its promises.
Behind me in the forest, a hatch slams. Radios cackle, the wicked witch of the West. I turn back to the pines, inhale their healing scent, watch a red squirrel scramble up a branch. Exhaust fumes lace round my legs.
The war is won. All that is left is peace; the pieces; at least until the next time.
A flare lights the brightening pink sky. Machine guns begin to fire.
Listen. Can’t you hear the freedom song?
At your desk
with a view out over the city,
its rooftops and gutters,
the city which holds its breath
every time it senses
that you are watching,
hoping you won’t notice
that it lies prostrate at your feet,
next to your lost and dusty shadow;
at your desk
you write of solitude,
steel Einsamkeit which falls like rain
drawn up from the eyes of distant oceans,
then travels here in slow, grey sleeper trains
that wait in the sidings of someone else’s dawn
before pulling into the station,
where it unloads puddles in great, black sheets
for you to step in by mistake
because you are staring at the horizon;
at other clouds, other rain,
but the same loneliness
dissolving into solitude,
or sometimes absence.
You sit alone at your desk,
yet you are strong;
stronger than the rooftops, than the gutters
which tremble far below you in the street;
the rain runs off you
and forms puddles for others to step in
as they hold on tightly to the crowds around them,
which makes them feel strong;
for they cannot know
that the lonely man
is the strongest man.
Night begins to fall, the boulevard Flandrin fades
to parchment, an ivory page on which a hand,
ossified and courtly, writes in dark blue ink
speckled with the stardust of golden summer windows,
their arms flung open to the sky, welcoming us
unwelcome passers-by, who gaze at the youth-clad
balconies wrapped in the notes of an unseen piano that plays
These Foolish Things
and sigh, knowing that what we see is just
one more door on the street where stands
the harlot’s house.
This is where the evening leads me,
along this unreflecting softly street with flowing gutters,
its adolescent soirées that draw to a close,
coughing politely, on the stroke of ten,
yet by then I am past and gone, hurrying on, on
to where boy dancers gather by the woodland
for their midnight round, pacing their fragile, allocated space
in the place that they and I call home,
at least for the tariffed, hour-long season when
their love, for what it’s worth, can be sought
but never bought.
The walls of leather spines
in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève
soon became encumbering;
Existential dust floated into a spider’s web
put there to trap the unlettered.
‘Ach, du spinnst!’ you muttered.
‘Enough of pen and paper slavery,
misplaced words that tickle my tired blood;
I need to drink the backstreet air of Saint-Sulpice’.
On the way to the launderette
to wash away your stains
you bought fresh bread, colomniers, a ripe melon
whose intrusive scent would later invade
your apartment and its Colonne-de-juillet view.
It was only after you had quit la laverie,
upended mind still turning soapy cartwheels,
that you remembered you had left behind
your modest evening meal.
When you hurried back, breathless,
in the sputtering fluorescent light
a girl was guarding it on her lap.
Tiny, unringed fingers held it out to you;
the corners of her mouth grew upward,
a kindly, sister’s instinct.
Her hazel eyes would have enchanted Louis Malle,
and through him all the world,
all the world wondered.
You smiled as well,
thanked her seven times, and,
eyes cast downward, kissed her.
As you hurried down the street, brain still awash,
you tried to remember the last time
you kissed a girl with such
innocent, reminiscent joy;
a love born of no country that you knew.
The long approach to the baths along Fö utca, arterial road of Víziváros, the Water Town of Budapest. It and I part the waves as we stride along beside the Danube.
Lacklustre journeys. We pass houses, homes, offices, their dilapidation reminds us that our lives totter on a cliff. We are all waiting for the ground to give way and offer us up to the waves below. Into the baths; the murmuring begins. Perhaps the voices never stop, perhaps they are as constant as the air, the sky, the turning of the tides.
Water Town. The pool, an octagon, dome-topped by Ottomans, is silver with darkness. The shapes of men are barely visible, they crouch, bob, lounge and lunge in the water. On the surface drifts the usual mist, making shadows, projected images of those who come here to wish, to worship, to want unwillingly.
To worship? Why yes. Figures stand in the warm, healing water, wavering like so many candles. Heads and shoulders float on the surface, will-o-the-wisps, Greek fire. The voices chant. We don’t come here to talk, to watch, to think, even bathe; we come here to pray to our selves, mislaid over the years, soaked away by the healing water that soothes our dried-out blood.
Steam rises to the cupola. It is the morning mist of lives other than our own, long past. With it rises lust, desire, desperation, only to fall again as rain, its droplets cooling the ardour of false hopes.
Above the water, eyes are watching. Beneath the surface lurk the paunches, the hairy chests, bearing up these men, bladder-like, the footballs of a youth that is past but not forgotten. No, never forgotten; lamented, remembered for the things that didn’t happen; for what might have been but wasn’t and now will never be. Or is there still time, we ask? We ask ourselves, not others. They might give us an answer that we don’t wish to hear.
Light soaks through the amber stained glass window. It is a half-moon of world outside; world with a face and tears. Even on a cloudy day, it and the tiny, blinking eyelets of sky in the Turkish dome above still drip their light on us and our souls, wallowing in the here and now below. They do it to remind us that, out there, the world is still turning, that Time is going by, slowly but unstoppable; and that we, our years, are passing too.
In case we tell ourselves, – but not others, for we only talk of such terrors to ourselves in case we get answers that we don’t wish to hear – the pearl grey light comes down to join us, to say that we are getting old and can’t sustain our fantasies for much longer, least of all forever.
So this is how it stands. We stand in the water, watching age and time go by, soothed by healing warmth. It does its best to bear us up, us and our dreams.
Beneath the water, muscles give way to gravity. Bellies sag, almost slip off and float away. Yet manhoods twitch and rise, until they are coaxed back into maturity; call it probity if you will.
Outside it starts to snow. The light trickling through the dome gives itself away by its purity, so unlike the water. So unlike us. Or have the baths saved us from our sins? The water is soft and warm and safe, it is a womb without women. But I tire of it, long to return to the world of fresh new snow outside. I leave, walk down the street, back in the world where time passes, even passes me by.
when the last petit café of the day
had long cooled in its pearl-white cup,
– O divine demitasse –
and blue grey snakeskin shadows
whorled ominously across the inner courtyard
beneath your easterly, fifth-floor room
with its view of trompe l’oeil neighbours’ balconies,
vertigo cascading Bougainvillea
and the paintbox coloured swings in the jardin public,
all adding depth of field
to your telescopic view of middle-distance Montreuil,
you dance-stepped over to the silver washstand
beside the seashell-encrusted bath
which stood on tiptoe on its lion claws
as if to take one final, wistful glance
at the pure white sands it was abandoning
until next year’s eagerly awaited, unending holiday,
seashores and bird cries echoing eternally.
There you hesitantly unstoppered, with trembling hands,
a tiny, crystal flask
filled from the golden tap of a vast glass urn
one autumn afternoon on the avenue Montaigne
by a tall, blonde woman in obligatory black,
releasing, with its scents
of citron, tobacco and antiquary leather,
the essence of the room,
the city where you then stood,
eye to eye with the boy-girl-boy-girl statue
atop the column at Bastille,
the distance between you
dissolving into question marks of mist
born neither at dawn nor dusk but somewhere
which drifts eternally over the Seine,
bearing you along on its dark blue, perfumed tides,
wide-eyed with wonder
and speaking in tongues.
In the distance a church bell tolls,
ringing down the sinking of the sun
and the foreign fields that now surround you,
walling you in with their lack of cadence,
their sheep-dip dissonance;
this landscape for which
has no more meaning than a car backfiring
or fly tippings blown wantonly across a potholed road.
So, like a needle-punctured addict
reaching for their latest and perhaps final fix,
you go to the cool, dark closet
where dwells the crystal flask,
now as well-travelled as Saint-Exupéry
in Terre des Hommes.
Gently, ritually unstoppered,
it releases worlds of memory more real,
more vital than the one where you exist,
albeit only for a while.
Gratefully you inhale,
drink deeply of the images
which only this uncaptive fragrance can evoke,
to your balcony in the forest,
balanced in high-wire gold and blue
between Bastille and Père Lachaise,
where you always felt at home.
If only for a while.
At the out-of-focus crossroads,
that rond-point where the amber of the street lamps
tints the blue light of the night a shade of shifting, underwater green,
is your place of assignation,
the midnight spot where they fall to earth at twilight,
these tactile yet out-of-reach angels
who pass the hours of darkness
talking to Tinkerbell,
spinning cold comfort yarns among themselves,
swapping urban legends and half-smoked joints
but never needles
as they wait for you and your kind
to step out from behind the analogy
of Peter Pan
which you write across your face in stars
to protect yourself from you
and sometimes them;
to earn the right to spend
a moment in their tariffed company,
here by the entrance to the woods
where families go on Sundays
to let their dungaree-clad sons and daughters
skip along the paths
between the avenues of tended trees
which, at the stroke of twelve
turn into statues
at whose dainty feet you worship,
when you have the money
and perhaps the time.
For time is of the essence here;
the devil and his flailing, fiery tail
wait for no man
in no-man’s land.
So there they stand,
these Thrice-Holy Innocents,
en faisant le pied de grue,
cooling their heels,
kicking up dust
in the headlights of passing cars,
– tu veux une passe? –
and missed opportunities
while you wonder
whether to pay the ferryman;
trying to convince yourself
that these unwilling angels
fell to earth
just for you.