Ted Hughes, 1983
As I recall it now, the foyer of a civic hall
somewhere in Edgbaston -
Winter drawing in outside, orange neon tinting mist
and the fall's last leaves in an avenue
which must have once been forest
Hunched over a dark pint,
You were not, I'm glad to say,
Presigned copies of 'The Iron Man' and 'Wodwo'
freighting a nearby table
Though as yet no takers
In the hall itself, between empty chairs,
Some OAPs, a party of schoolchildren,
Their whittering teachers
As from some ultima thule
Your voice made the building 'ring like a fine goblet
in the note that any second would shatter it'
To quote a line three decades cannot erase
After term on term of Palgrave's 'Golden Treasury'
All at once poems as charged as James Watts' kettle,
Heaving against the gentility of rhyme -
'Macaw' and 'Little Miss,' 'Thrushes,' 'Jaguar'
Remembered far beyond the grades of any 'A' level -
Language alive and kicking, careering backward
To when words were worth their weight in blood
That evening, from the half-lit stage,
Work from four or five books later:
A re-creation of bears in North West Canada -
Crow confronting Death and winning -
Your birth-dirge to a stillborn lamb -
A salmon with skin-cancer
Whose final journey upstream
You somehow rendered epic
Book closed, your voice echoing back into a silence
a-ripple with meanings
From the row behind someone's comments
flitted like a gnat
Then out into the Egbaston night and the last bus home
Even the cold majestic, for all their lamplight
Crescents and cul-de-sacs flimsy like a stageset
Intimations of what came before and will outlast them
These thanks I pen too late
Hoping they might catch your eye
Along the bar one, two, three centaurs
In suits gulp down ouzos, whiskies, beers;
Clink tumblers until they all but break;
Chomp nuts, yet still manage to smoke and smoke
And in the flicker of an Adam's apple
Generally make known all that's female
Is theirs to have at a flash of will.
Except with her six rings and new fur coat
Helena does not bat an eyelash;
Up and down the counter merely taps
Her brilliant fingernails. A match
And more for the most rampant libido,
She smokes, smokes and downs whisky also;
As the bulbs on the wall glow red and blue,
Strokes now her curls, now a centaur's cheek;
Aims huskily seductive vowels in Greek
Across at the purse-lipped crone for whom
There's nothing new under sun or moon
Or neon, who's kept the bar for decades,
Noting what's consumed against what's paid
At intervals in a fat black folder -
Helena's image some thirty years older.
Meanwhile Mariana, the short-haired blonde,
Attempts to square being in such demand
With her own desire to be elsewhere.
In five languages she could tell her regrets
About that advert back in Bucharest,
Write a thesis upon east versus west,
The way reality and dreams compare -
And inbetween, hint by hint, lay bare
The unfairnesses of circumstance,
What's stopped her becoming something special.
Only nobody asks; Centaur number one's
Calling her a name she's never been called
In her life before. This bar turned prison -
Seven hours done, another four to go -
She retorts with a double-barrelled "Porco!
Porco!" which he, knowing no Italian,
Accepts as though it were a compliment,
And then in the mirror checks his grin:
Leaving her to assess the extent
Of his wallet, how if she'd only dare
Lower herself a little further,
Its folds might provide the escape fare
To Italy or Switzerland or France...
Such tangled purposes, closeness, distance -
Biographies in a single glance!
Less a centaur than J. Alfred Prufrock,
From a few stools down I watch, listen, watch,
All too aware how this time tomorrow
I will be back in Riyadh, drinkless, dour...
I drown the fact with another 'Brandy Sour'
And - No more nights out for six months or so -
Drink while I still can, scribble, scribble,
Lingering over each tell-tale detail,
Then stretching it as far as it'll go.