‘It is life, more than death, that has no limits.’
(Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’)
‘Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that
year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then but that’s no matter –
tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further…And one
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back
ceaselessly into the past.’ (F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Great Gatsby’)
In those days you couldn’t just hop on a plane and follow your dream
especially if you were only twenty and worked in a meat pie factory
although some of the time you did daydream the impossible like can I
just sort of wish myself to be seven thousand miles away in BuenosAires
where she is and in the end that was how you ‘resolved’ your loss
by using up your feelings which otherwise would be a completely useless burden
to write a novel out of your imagination that transported you there to recover
the disappeared one you’d lost.
But, of course, all the writing came later, not when you were only twenty
and still with her, nor after she’d left, leastways not for years.
While she was here in London you knew right off this lovely girl of fifteen
was your first love the love of your life and your last.
Looking back fifty years later you know as a concept she still is,
But what if you’d never met her, would you be where you are now
(without her obviously, as she was only here with you for one summer)?
Would you though have become who you’ve become – a writer who travelled
through other continents, met all those people, did all those things,
paintedthe pictures, wrote the novels, stories, and poems?
Others you’ve met since along the way have counted for something too, but yes,
I think it’s true but for her none of these would have existed, leastways,
not in your life, not for you.
So, where would all these people she never met be if I hadn’t met her?
Has she changed their lives in some small or significant ways through me?
I make discoveries while I am writing this poem,
not so much like falling asleep into a dream but like little miracles
that flash up like tiny fish jumping from a pool. For example
most of the subsequent others do meet something of her through me for parts
of her are become visible through me, as an essence, a wraith, an aura,
ectoplasm from my soul; something extraordinary appearing in a puff
of smoke. Her path crosses theirs through me.
I resurrect her (not that she is dead, I don’t know, I hope not so);
I conjure her body in my body. She is in my body and sometimes I can feel her
coming out and then the burden of being me falls away and I become her, walk
like her, smile like her, chuckle like her even though I’m an old man now
with creaky joints and a terminal brain tumour. Does this kind of reincarnation keep me
Well not as young as she was then obviously, but is she, wherever she is, if she still is
and not just was, as young as me now?
I don’t dream of her anywhere near as often as I’d like,
and when she does visit me in my dreams at night,
or even nodding off as frail old men tend to do during the day,
still I can’t go all the way, which is a pity as dreams nourish me
with a parallel life that seems so real I always write these momentous meetings
with her up and my words scrawled inkily across the page become looking back
on them over the years like tangible relics I’ve brought back from a deep sea
dive to the Titanic that I can touch of her: how lovely it would be if I’d filched
a few strands of her hair while she was here, or kept one or two of the wild flowers
she’d held to her nose or tucked in her breast cleft to press between the pages
of my diary now; perhaps a buttercup I’d held under her chin to make her smile;
even her hanky or something intimate she’d worn that smelt of her – yes my dreams
of her are as poignant as if she were here still fifteen and when I awake
I can smell her presence in her absence, her hair her skin her body so why in my dreams
can’t I go all the way with her even now?
It was my discovery of romantic poetry through my Jamaican friend that made
me recognise I loved her and crippled any full expression of that love,
especially gentle Keats who for me made it a far more complicated thing
than it was for her who had no interest in poetry or Keats.
Everything had to be so perfectly splendid and romantic like nothing like this
had ever happened to anyone else before and until it was I just couldn’t
take the plunge and do what other boys might have done. Of course in my fantasies
then and now I do it all and d’you know what? It’s not really all that splendid or romantic
at all, just red-bloodied, hot and wet and dirty just like I’ve had since with so many
trusty lusty one-night stands. I discovered that’s the kind I like best but I had no idea
of that then. Maybe I got the wrong idea from Keats or read him wrong
but reading him made me so decent and high-minded I thought I had to wait,
until a few days before she flew back home she met a slightly older boy
who’d never read any poetry either, unless it was Allen Ginsberg, and couldn’t wait.
Neither could she. Just as though I were a girlfriend she told me all about it
with a delicious relish when we met for a coffee at the Rendez-vous cafe
in Ealing Broadway the day before she left.
I haven’t lived in Ealing for forty years but on the fiftieth anniversary of our first meeting
I went back to Almora. The walk from the Broadway and the bench under the willow
where we had our trysts were still there; Castlebar Road wound up to number fifty-one
and when I got there I sat where she had sat on the wall outside strumming her stringed
instrument the unsuspected angel of the roads. I gazed at the boarded-up ruin of Almora.
Her bedroom window was broken but the opening intact and suddenly I imagined
she might be imprisoned inside, one of the disappeared from the 1970s; a woman
in her thirties being beaten and tortured in this ghost house that was once the paradise
of Almora where on one hot summer night in 1962 I saw the moonlight fill
the sheen of her nightgown she slipped out of like water, the beams
that played among the furniture sketch her lovely shape as she locked
the door and, for the first and last time naked, entered my arms.
Now, confronted by the ruin of Almora my lovely memories became an anguish
like I was starving in a room of plastic fruit.
I resisted the urge to go into the back garden with the nursery book flowers,
the trees and swing, the little pond with its lilies, waterboatmen, newts, and frogs.
Walking away from Almora I suddenly saw myself at twenty through her eyes –
skinny, pale, intense, thick curly hair, glasses – which gave me a remnant
of the past reminding me perhaps of why I wanted to reach through half a century
and get in touch with her – it was to get in touch with myself, my youth, when body
and soul were as one, for fifty years more of life, however enriching cannot compensate
for the loss of what I had then, with her, that hot night in June, so long ago at Almora.
In my heart I know that I’m a far more spiritually nourished, better, stronger person
now than I was then – a callow youth, but at twenty I was surely vivid and defined,
valued because I was pretty and had potential; and it’s how you are perceived
by others not how you are inside that gives you access to the delightful world
of textures, heady tastes and smell; hugs and kisses, smiles and laughter.
A failed old poet cannot get close to a lovely young girl and experience
those wondrous sensations that bring him alive and make him feel real –
not without degrading himself (financially) in one way or another first.
A stream winds through my mind carrying wonderful vivid creatures
that leap and shine, splash and play, and there is debris, detritus,
odds and ends all tangled, clotted with blood, the roots, sinews, veins of leaves and trees.
Ever hungry for those times now but memory no doubt makes it all
seem more piquant than it actually was then when I had, or could
have had all those in-my-face smiles, touches, tastes, smells, if only
I’d done this or that different; thus memory becomes pain, pain
becomes a poem like grit creating a pearl in an oyster;
but still I feel like a starving man locked in a room with a bowl of plastic
fruit. Yet even that image has value for its colour,
especially the green which has a smooth cool soothing texture
as I lay it against my feverish brow.
The boy who replaced me just before she flew home
must have got to know her more deeply, more intimately in
those few days than I had in the previous six months.
It was he who heard her murmur passionate and soft,
make special little noises, yes, sighs, cries,
and whispers; even gasp or cry out loud – things
I’d never heard. He’d seen her lovely angel face distort
with ecstasy and lust, and all his other senses had been brought into
play too and I hope you more than me know what wild delights
all that implies.
When she’d gone back to Buenos Aires there was only my loneliness,
memories, regrets (especially when she sent me a picture postcard
of Courbet’s painting ‘The Origins of the World’ with the message she’d written
on the back:
‘Why didn’t you?’), and the boy, who I shall call Ned.
I began to follow Ned, to stalk him because I wanted to be
where she had been, to get as close as I could to him
in the belief that such propinquity might bring me close to her.
I wanted to talk to him to find out what it’d been like to be him
experiencing her; and even, by some process of androgynous alchemy
or, empathy, go over the bound into a sensual and forbidden garden
of eden where I, identifying with her, might begin to know
what it was like being her experiencing him,
which would mean that for a few precious moments I’d be her.
Since Ned had been the person who’d got the closest to her most
and last, it seemed possible I could recover her, discover her,
get close to her by getting close to him.
What was it like to be him, to be her?
Would I be able to reach her through him,
even more powerfully than I had when she was actually here
with me? It was as if, now that she’d gone far away, something
tangible, some essence of her lingered on Ned, still clung to him
just as if he hadn’t washed away her kisses and caresses, all
her girly tangs: her intimate body dews and love secretions.
If she’d married me, we could this year have been celebrating
our golden wedding, and my feelings for her might be different now,
less passionate perhaps, and far more tender and compassionate.
So for my love for her to mature it behoves me to begin to visualise her
not at aged fifteen any more (which, incidentally in today’s moral climate
would, technically, make me a paedophile), but as she’d be now,
at sixty-five, if she still exists other than in other people’s memories,
hearts and minds, including mine, but I have no memory of her after
the age of fifteen, nor am I entitled to although perhaps that would be
So, how can I recreate her whole life in my mind, fill in those fifty absent years?
Ned looked powerful, masculine, and beautiful and,
following him as close as I dare about the town I began to feel
the thrill of a powerful osmosis possess me, my absent sweetheart’s
spirit of desire, as it were, gradually leaking out of my memories into
my very blood until every time I caught a glimpse of Ned,
heard his voice, noted his facial expressions, his walk,
his gestures, his movements, I felt a shiver of vicarious desire,
until one day, standing side-by-side with him at the Rendez-vous
pissing in the gents, saw he had a popped pimple on his nose,
dropped my gaze, copped a glimpse of his dick, and knew
for sure that, projecting myself into her shoes, if he’d let me
I’d have blown him on the spot – speaking of which
no matter whose the shoes I’d have popped his zits.
But shortly after that he began to notice me, to give me fierce looks,
until one day as he passed me in the street he muttered to his companion
‘look, it’s that creepy poet she told me about,’ which, to be fair
was only half true as I wasn’t a poet at all at that time
(if ever I was or am) – I’d only quoted Keats at her,
nothing of my own.
So, what to do with all these feelings that have been brewing in me –
festering if you like – like some exquisite poison for half a century?
She inspired a novel – ‘The Cage’- which I had some success with
forty years ago, ironically enough about a man with a terminal brain tumour
who meets a young girl in Cornwall from South America,
and, until recently I thought the act of writing that and having it
published, bought, and appreciated exorcised my feelings sufficiently
to enable me to stabilise my despair and move on.
Last night though I dreamt of her once more and this visit
from her while I lay all defences down in sleep after – I note from my diary
entry for June 1992 – neglecting me for twenty years was so powerful
I now believe that I am too overwhelmed to take care of it by writing another novel.
I know what I must do before I die.
I must now, at the age of seventy, do what I couldn’t do at twenty –
follow my dream to Buenos Aires, not to find her, but like an artist
who has to paint a portrait in the absence of his muse, to go there
to saturate myself, my mind, my diminishing senses, by breathing
in the air of her city, tread its sidewalks and grasses,
smell the smells of Buenos Aires that she smelt and might still smell,
feel the pulse of her city, all its sights and sounds, in order to distill
it all into one final poem.
I’ll go there and saturate myself in the things that made her her,
in order to find her by becoming her:
but if I had feelings for her fifty years ago,
what feelings could I have for her as she is now,
if indeed she still is.
I am all packed ready to go. I have my air ticket.
I leave for my journey into the unknown tomorrow.
What will I find?
One thing is certain, whatever happens to me there
and (to quote Montale) ‘I do not know what sort of tomorrow
will fall to me, shadowed or blithe,
whether my path will lead to untrod clearings
where the waters ever murmur, of youth;
or if it will be a going down into the bottommost pit,
into the gloom,’ – one thing is certain:
none of my adventures would have happened,
and for better or for worse,
I wouldn’t be the person I am now, if fifty years ago a young girl
from Buenos Aires hadn’t smiled at me as she sat playing her guitar
on the front garden wall of a house in London called Almora.