Here is the last poem in my 52-poem sequence (one a week) for 2013, followed by some illumination and reflection:
On clear winter nights my father
would take me walks around the town
and point out all the stars to me
naming them old friends which
had guided him across the world’s seas
pursuing Hitler’s U-boats
and brought him home to this:
the surrender of marriage
the defeat of children as he saw it.
He thought himself a failure somehow
measured against some vast never-quite-defined
scheme of greatness, to be a writer or an architect.
And here am I both now. The irony is not lost
on I who have no children. But there was he
with four, valuing none of them. Yet am I being fair?
There were the walks, the talks, the dreams.
I was a poor underage substitute no doubt
for the intellectual audience he craved
but all too soon became the only one he had
and then to my shame: even I stopped listening.
Left him to lonely meetings with himself
In urban coffee shops, writing me letters.
It’s like the stars I suppose, just as he explained it:
setting out to reach one, you’ll find it dead most likely
by the time you get there. We all miss
each other, and the point of everything.
And all we have is light, these mirages of memories
veils of doubt and gravity that tug at us with their love
as we slip beyond each other’s orbits.
This poem was published in Ambit Magazine this year (Issue 213, July 2013). In April 2008 I flew to London to read for Ambit (in The Owl Bookshop)the day after my father died (that sounds terrible, but my father begged me not to cancel, knowing how much it meant to me). I found myself in the beer garden of the Chelsea Art Club the next evening, talking to Ambit’s editor Martin Bax about my dad and his experiences in the navy in World War Two. So it was somehow very symmetrical that this poem appeared in the last edition of Ambit before Martin retired this year. In a sense, we can have many fathers throughout our lifetimes: people who go out of their way to help us, to impart wisdom, who see something good within us that we struggle to see ourselves. Pay it forward, as they say. Help the young.
Throughout this year of blogging, I have tried to bring less well-known artists to people’s attention, but for this final post I feel we have no choice but to cite the incomparable “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh. The less-known drawing of it, is pretty special too. Van Gogh personifies for me, and for many others, the ultimate in generosity in the artistic spirit. Humanity failed him in a sense, but rather than be bitter he gave us all this back… a testament that continues to break people’s hearts with its beauty to this day. He lost, and yet somehow he won. The answer of course, is that useless old word, worn down to nothing by our misuse and abuse: Love. Our only possible salvation.
There are only two films that ever been made that make me (forgive this sexist expression) “weep like a girl” from start to finish. One is the American Civil War epic Shenandoah, and the other is Lust For Life, Kirk Douglas’s portrayal of Van Gogh. I’m frequently amazed by how few people have ever seen this extraordinary film. It is devastating to watch, and also always strangely purgative.
So, I can’t believe it. We have come at last to my final poem of 2013, and so this experiment comes to an end. I don’t know what I’m going to post next year, if anything. As I said last week, looking back at my life has changed my life, irrevocably, and I’m not sure what comes next. But I do know that I know myself better now and have looked into a lot of dark recesses and feel all the better for it. Know Thyself, as the ancient Greeks said, and it’s sound advice, akin to Buddhism and the best of many other philosophies. Not because we should be self-obsessed, but because in order to minimise the harm we do to others, we must first try to heal ourselves inside. Let’s end on that great quote from Leonard Cohen: “One by one the guests arrive/ the guests are coming through/ the broken-hearted many/ the open-hearted few”. Or better still on two great old quotes from the far east, one imparted to me by the poet Joan Poulson and the other by the novelist Sue Reid Sexton:
“Keep a green branch in your heart and the singing bird will come.”
“Set the caged bird free and if it comes back to you it is yours.”