The Lost Book


Here’s where the far-gone Irish came to die And having died got up to disappear Into the space they wore into the air:

They were a crowd who favoured solitude.

They came ‘pro tem’ and stayed, and stayed,

Bed-sitting room remittance-men

Whose files authority had usefully mislaid.

Dug out of ‘kiln-baked’ tombs, the gas left on,

This Tendency the calendar forgot

Kept suitcases of ancient paperwork

That could have grassed them up but didn’t talk.

Poor demi-felons, dead of what? – of afternoons,

Whose rag and bone the council boxed and burned:

And you were of their party, were you not?

I owe you this. I watched you and I learned.

You lived provisionally, ‘the man with no home team’.

Reliant on the Masonry of drink, you made

A modest and convincing entryist of crowds

Who only ever knew your Christian name,

Your trebles at Uttoxeter, perhaps

Your politics, on no account your game.

You seemed composed entirely of words.

‘Tell no man – still less a woman – who you are.’

Who cares, now that the principals are dead

As the impossible morality

Whose prohibitions brought your lie to life

And in the end would send you off your head?

I care, for I was made to care.

You told a priest but couldn’t tell your wife.

You were the author and the patient too,

And in another life another house

Imprisoned others and the clock had stopped.

You knew – and all you did was know –

That there was an appointment to be kept.

That was your art – to frame your punishment –

An endlessly extended sentence,

Solitary confinement in plain sight,

Nothing you could put down on the page,

Nothing you could ever simply name

But manifest in jealousy and rage

And episodes of heartbroken repentance.

There was nothing that could ever put it right.

‘Yourself’s a secret thing – take care of it,

But if it comes to handy grips you take no shit.’

Yours was a way of waiting, though you knew

That really there was nothing down for you

But vestibules and corridors and days

In which to seek permission to be old.

Kardomah Lampedusa, minus book,

Deported from successive realms of gold –

Longpavement and the Bronx and Hammersmith –

Or so you said, and who was I to ask?

Then when at last I came to take a look,

When you had sat it out as far as death,

Inside the case, behind the broken lock,

There were no secrets waiting underneath,

Just fragments of a poem you’d recite,

And scraps of stories you’d begun and re-begun,

In which the names alone would change, as though

You had forgotten who they were.

I found no history in this, no hidden world

Before I came – I’d heard your stuff bashed out

Through years of chainsmoked afternoons

And read it when you asked me to. I liked

The one where in the fog the sergeant found

His constable nailed up across a five bar gate,

But feared and did not understand the priest

In his deserted parish (fog again)

Who found his name had changed to Lucifer.

He lost his way and then he lost his mind

And that was that, with nowhere left to go,

Hell being where and who and what he was,

A state with neither origin nor end.

‘The duty is to entertain’, you said, ‘or else

To seek to make no sense at all.’ And then

When you had filled the room with ash and smoke

There would be racing or the news, a second

Scouring of the Telegraph, a third, and no

Persuading you that you should persevere.

You were already old. Was that the plan?

To climb into the box and disappear

In smoke above the crematorium

And leave your furious pursuers unappeased

And shorn of purpose, standing in the snow

Beside the hearse, in mourning for themselves?

I studied you before the lid was sealed

And, as my mother had requested, placed

Rosemary for remembrance in your hands.

The deep, unhappy brow, the cloud-white hair

Combed back – oh, you were otherwise engaged.

In settling debts, or simply free to dream?

You wouldn’t care to comment ‘at this stage’.

Was there another world, where you belonged,

Or one more corridor where you still sit, rereading

With the patience of a lifetime

Last week’s paper, hoping it might yield

To scrutiny and show the outcome changed?

Sean O’Brien

From November, by Sean O’Brien, to be published by Picador next month