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