Within the shape of fragments
we were entertained within
rooms of imported mahogany
and rich red fire according
to the ancient usage of the north.
A music wandered like a breath,
and we slept in the soft security
of the melody of the bagpipe
playing against our dreams.
We learned, as people away
from home are apt to learn,
that everything has its history,
even in fragments, even in
pieces small enough to remember,
and, as we slept, as we dreamt,
as we awakened and listened to
what the elderly gentleman said,
we learned that this was the tune
that the piper played while they
were burning. And he knocked
the ashes out of his tobacco pipe.
Ashes and thrashes, thrashes
then ashes, we all turn to dust
as it all burns away before us:
wallpaper, carpeting, furniture,
wood, flesh, eyes, and teeth.
You might well ask yourself
how sane is a philatelist?
and you would be right to do so.
Slips of perforated paper
torn into squares, licked and stuck
to paper and sent away, they are
the adventurers of the world,
those incapable of not moving.
Under the philatelist’s feet
there spreads a green growth
of soft ferny carpeting
with thin green twines growing
up the legs of the chair where
the philatelist sits, eye against
magnifying glass so he can see
a world too small eyes.
He had been, as I have, out
in Africa for three years, and what
he remembers most are leeches
and termites in sickening profusion
and the illustrations on his stamps.
The jungle is burdened by heat
and throbbing with life, so they ate
the first Bishop of Bahia, two Canons,
the Procurator of the Royal Portuguese
Treasury, two pregnant women,
and several children. The buttocks
provided the best meat, yet they
did not have the advantage of
a philatelist. In the jungle, everything
eaten grows large enough to eat,
everything foreign has an air
of the exotic, and that they gave
as the reason for eating the delicate
little children, tasty as they were.
Our life was a pure Augustan
splendour, as we would read
the languid novels of Swift,
the paltry poetry of Pope.
The world was rich with words,
but beyond the triple entrance
there spread a hexagonal forecourt,
as if an edifice to war. The figure
of Poetry stood flanked by bulls,
his figure worn but his identity sure,
crowned in the fanned-out calathos,
his arms exclamatory around his body,
quartered with faces of lesser gods,
those of the Novel or Essay or
the Clerihew. With a rich ale
in hand and a pewter flagon,
we would read their worldly words
for the leisure of our days or nights.
We once were students,
and retained a memory,
a relic actually, of those
sanguine days when we
had used to lie awake
night after night with a book
of poetry under the pillow,
hoping for an inspiration
from words that came to us,
though only from a page.
The severed heads of worthies
decorated the western gates
of the city. They were fragments
of people but complete in their
own way. We knew who they were.