i.m. Sir John Finch (1626-1682) and Sir Thomas Baines (1622-1680)
For Donny O’Rourke
1 A Procession
For hours now: a little scraping tear,
scratchings, a dab, a blot; then it runs
again – blue, red – coagulates tired
eyes, swims in tears: the quill tears up
the grain of paper, reflecting it away
like skin, finger-forceps grip tense
the flap, scalp through deep fascia
to the muscles of sense.
That scrape again. Is it me
or the witter of the small barboni fish
hung from cabin beams whose thin blue light
dries out like rotten wood?
The parchment heaves up
with its choppy words, once sheathed
in the fibrous tunic of a Medway oak,
white, fusiform, cleaned, defined,
dissected into compass timber or stretched
tight for sea or study scroll. Beneath bark
this paper vessel ran like ink or blood,
its sap beating in tendons for the coffin
of my friend, Sir Thomas Baines, embalmed in brandy.
He floats next door. Not door. No. Mere canvas,
an indoor sail, still unless moved
by my erratic breath. His trestle glimmers,
looms in the palimpsest of candle-light,
trembles in the harbour’s toy troughs and crests.
He spurned play but it got him at the last:
the Ambassador’s companion borne in pomp
by twenty-six bostancis, muftis, imams, kadis,
down from Pera, Galatea, wreathed in salutes
of gun-smoke. A cenotaph stood for three days
in the Captain’s cabin, covered with a pall,
a sabred dervish by his scutcheon (sable
two bones crosswise argent), six great tapers
burning by in six great silver candlesticks.
‘Monsu arrivar!’ The pidgin Italian of the Turks!
That off-hand, intimate, distant, haughty race,
cruel and playful, obsessed with ceremony,
stopping trade to make fine shows of it
while eleven thousand boys had their prepuces
cut off at the Crown Prince’s circumcision.
We witnessed that procession: wagon
upon wagon each with its nesting guild,
shoemakers, tailors, weavers, all set out
with tokens of their art, bakers kneading loaves
the size of hammam domes, smiths stoking
little forges and walking gardens full of flowers
with waxwork fruits held in slings by slaves.
As they kicked up a perfect Egyptian mist of dust
you stood beside me, Tom, and called it
‘hobbyhorsism folly!’ Silenced by the fireworks battle
though, the Seraglio lit up in a thousand
camphor balls of pure white fire.
Fire, procession, ceremony.
There’s something to be said for it
and I’m determined we’ll have our own display,
dear Tom, our profession of unusual friendship,
our trade as doctors, diplomats, decked out
upon a Cambridge tomb, our ensigns of affection
flagged up and out for prayerful and tourist to decipher.
Embalmed within that stone or living our spiritual life
like the ghosts of holy Turks beside their kiosks,
we’ll move as we have always done in one harmonious
cavalcade, two bodies, one soul, the craft of love.
Except there is for now one person less
and I, John Finch, Ambassador to the Porte,
am less in consequence; ‘Dosti!’, ‘Dear Friend!’
‘Aman!’ ‘Janum!’ ‘Mercy!’ ‘My Soul!’ ‘Kuzum!’
‘My Lamb!’, unsteadily I grip your coffin’s berth
and look through a glass to your face below,
spirits of wine preserve its peaceful countenance
and momentarily it swells beneath my gaze
as if caught up in drops of oil spat out
by divers to magnify the minute objects of the deep.
My spirit diver, swim beside me on our voyage
home, protect me from storm and mermaid
and the ebb and flow of memory.
2 An Anatomy
We are goat born, my Baines,
like Marsyas, fit only to be flayed,
little worlds of inner secrets
split by the lynx-like knife.
In Padua and Pisa I got those skills
which I can turn on you in intimacies
of autopsy without a flinch: my love,
my work now perfectly combined.
Our Muslim surgeons could not oblige
and so I incise and cut, scour
brain and abdomen, aspirate gases
with a trocar. Where the heart beat
I place musk, sweet-basil in the kidney-bed,
quince in ala of the sacrum.
Saffron, violets, ambergris attack bacteria.
I repack the skull with honey.
Spooning in Constantinople moonlight
just a month before the end
I noticed how your nape grew dark hairs yet,
recalled how thirty-six years ago, snug
in the same view, I imagined how each one
would be white one day. It gave me hope.
‘Una mana con occhio!’ ‘A hand with eyes!’
whose skill could kindle infinite desire
now excavates the bladder for stones
that led you to your tomb. Irony
and renal colic were the dead ends
of distorted crypts that burrowed out
the ureteric musculature.
How you strained to void those philosophic calculi,
another joke that made you smile through pain.
And yet those phosphate stones
had serious facets too: ‘Lapis est,
quem Salomonis architecti rejecerunt.’
What niche for us in the Temple
of King Solomon’s England?
And so we rolled in exile across Europe,
gathering the moss of learning, liberty, love.
Royal servants, yes, but at a distance.
I stone the body of my lover, eviscerate
and then the glorious mineral
in three days reconstitutes itself.
As cousin Harvey’s good friend Donne once wrote:
‘He was all gold when he lay
down but rose all tincture!’
Oh, Tom! The alchemists have myriad names for you:
body of magnesia, the light of lights,
marvellous father, fugitive servant.
You are rubine stone and chaos,
toad, green lion, virgin’s milk.
You are Brazil! Or simply ‘Fava’
as our Italians called you, hearing ‘bean’ for Baines!
No matter! But that’s not quite the point:
matter and spirit, spirit in matter
to conjure until it effervesces
like the semen which seems contagious
for Harvey found no trace of it
within the ovum after sex.
How else explain the love of like for like
as well as different? Our Cambridge tutors
had the gist of it before modern science
got there too. They flew above the high and airy
hills of Platonism, disdained democritism
which so embases and enthralls.
More and Cudworth, good men who studied
to spiritualise their bodies not to incarnate
their souls, who thought Heaven first a temper,
then a place. In his enthusiastic middle age,
More shook like a Quaker in the threshold
of his body, tasting distinctions
in the cabalistic weather as our ship’s captain
tries the imbat which will carry us to sea.
That warm wind proves, to paraphrase Ficino,
that spirit is a very subtle body, almost soul,
not a soul and almost body. So, bent upon
this clotted and compacted corpse
I pare away the veins, capillaries and arteries,
reveal that luciform and attenuate vehicle,
transparent stone stuck in my balm of unguents.
Poor Baines, caught in a coat of resin
and pinned within a tree!
We are like tortoises in the Age of Tulips:
we strap small lamps upon our backs
and creep among the parterres of the night
so the distant think we are light itself
or tulips strolling among tulips.
Suspended disbelief! The tortoises
circle lamplight endlessly among the Gardens
of Felicity, small ventricles of light slowly
pulsing through the tulip fields as blood
pumps out to the periphery and then returns,
preserved. Yet cousin Harvey acknowledged
with Leviticus that the blood is soul,
numinous and turgescent, matter and force
as long as it moves in vessels: cor a currendo,
not this sorry cruor, this gore
I mop from the dissection table.
And so we moved continuously, sharing mot
et motion. When coaches failed we hired sedans
and grew a self so interpersonal each could say
‘I think, therefore, we are,’ wherever
the Red Apple of dominion settled
we were Zeno’s arrow, shaft and quiver,
barely different, presenting motion
and then decamping. Out. Elsewhere.
3 Dallam’s Fantasy
I return to Cambridge on the Oxford.
Spires shuffle in my memory, changeable
as the very spindle of the main top mast
or wamblings of my stomach which shears
off according to the emotions of the Euripus.
I sip a little sack and wormwood to calm
the humours, but England, the world even,
a poet may someday say is as variable
as the Euripus. It waxes, wanes with ages
of the moon. When we first loved each other
it seemed to be an isle of bells, debate
and woodsmoke wafting over playing fields,
annealed to the Universe by amber cupolas.
A steady place. And so it was. But steadiness
runs deep and from the depths our masters
looked at us and seeing chaos
where only difference lurked or a surfeit of similitude
suggested silence or torture for sedition.
We linked hands and left. First Paris
where I rejoiced to see old Calvin’s house
reduced to a dunghill, fit epitaph
for the man who burnt Servetus on a pyre
for proposing the lesser circulation
of the blood. And then our tour of Italy
which lasted twenty-two good years:
we made Pro-Rector, Syndic of Padua University,
Resident at Florence to the Grand Duke of Tuscany;
Ambassador, we learned to deal in trade capitulations
while great physicians of the day,
Malphighi, Borelli, Fracassati, Truttwyn
called us friends. When we went home
it was to be knighted, doctors to the Queen.
But in between it was as if our country also left:
one king lost his head, a farmer ruled,
around 1650 some folk noticed, really noticed
America was there and that the moon
and other planets perhaps existed for themselves
and not for us. New ways of praying
flak the air like volleys of small shot
and in the dim, dank lanes of London wynds
they open places for ‘our kind’. ‘Our kind’!
The fact that I can say this is the point.
And others say it too and persecute and tolerate.
We did not like this either and so we left again.
Plurality does not concern the Turks.
Severe but subtle they denote rank by perfume,
are not afraid if the religions of their Empire mingle too.
Nationality is a career ‘and not a cause’.
Beauty not gender is seductive.
When passion left us, I was lonely
and now I face the final loneliness.
But then we discovered, together and separately,
the bow-like eyebrows of tall Persians,
how good Armenians or silver-chested Greeks
feel against the cold, that Baghdad boys
like torturing ‘and never keep appointments’.
So the flavour of our happiness had graduations
that would surprise a superintendent of fine sherbets.
Not being but coming into being was our forte.
Seamen, semen, pneumatic blood concurred.
Even plague whose venomous and sticky atoms
took up abode in miasmatic air and chased us
from the city to a town of tents and back again.
And yet, and so I cannot stay. For even
‘the Refuge of the World’ has blind spots.
I cannot live well in a city crawling with calligraphy,
weltering in words that banish even as they gesture
in and to the stones they’re written on. Nothing
can be left to contemplation, the partially
uninstructed stare. No pictures here then,
no simulacra of the human, little music
which is a spirit like our own. How the ship’s bells
peel me back to Cambridge from the drone of muezzin!
Another shape wavers through the canvas
by my Baines’ coffin, it too a wrack of organs:
Dallam’s mechanical fantasy,
a gift from old Queen Bess to some forgotten Sultan,
is now sent back ‘to be repaired’, in fact
is banished for its display of personages
which stands at two corners of the second story,
lift trumpets to their heads and sound a tantarra.
In better times this organ played a song of five parts
twice over and on the casement top did sit
a holly bush full of blackbirds and thrushes
which at the music’s end sang and shook their wings.
Why did it offend so much? When Baines
had audience with the Vani Effendi he was told
the Blessed went not into Paradise
until the Day of Judgement but had continual
sight of it through one great window.
Perhaps he sees it from his little porthole now.
Is the principle not the same? We veer
predictably, our tack on the divine
is rude and artificial. We stand on tip-toe
at a threshold or a casement and then are flung
upon the cabin floor made giddy by our reach
and lack of it. But after the Marmarean sunset,
the gentle jangling of that instrument,
as the ship slides over into sleep,
stirs my blood like tulip-wine and I hear my lover
slip his veins of oak and colonise the organ
moving it ineffably. Then he sees and seizes me
in sound, his eyes, two knarled cherry plugs
of song, rush forth on tiny thrushes wings
like butterflies of soul. His hair enwreathes
the cabin with arias that wake the sap
in coffined wood and crescendo on a note
so pure it dissects me as I shiver
in my hammock’s pitch. The air becomes
a partial gauze: minims, quavers, blackbirds
stick to its interstices, waft a web
of tenor chirrups which then break off,
float down, a snow of feathered trills
that deliquesce upon my skin, vibrate
the tissues until all the vessels
of this little world are cloaked and magnified
in tune, a music that is his, is mine, is Dallam’s
and all the spirits that transport us.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2005. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2005 was Richard Price.
This is surely one of the best longer poems of recent times, a rich evocation of lovers, a friendship, and of Turkey in the middle ages.
‘Baines His Dissection’ is the longest poem I have written to date and came out of a visit to Cambridge while Donny O’Rourke was teaching there on a summer school. Donny suggested that I might be interested to take a look at a pair of portraits in the Fitzwilliam Museum and it transpired that these were of Sir John Finch and his lifelong companion, Sir Thomas Baines. A little research revealed that these men had met as students at Christ’s College, Cambridge, graduated as doctors and thereafter lived together for the next thirty-five years. Their profession took them to the continent, to Padua and Pisa and gradually they seem to have evolved into diplomats, working latterly for Charles II after the Restoration.
Finch was from a well connected aristocratic family while Baines seems to have been of much humbler origins. It is possible to visit their joint tomb – a lavish baroque affair – in Christ’s. This was designed by Finch before his death and displays a poem by him recording his great affection for Baines. While it is somewhat anachronistic to describe them as an early modern ‘gay couple’, that is more or less how my poem treats their relationship and it does seem possible, as the middle section of my poem suggests, that a more recognisably modern understanding of homosexual relationships was beginning to form in the late 17th century towards the end of their lives.
The poem is not simply concerned with this aspect of their lives, however. Both men were educated by a group of scholars who have become known as the Cambridge Platonists (Henry More, Thomas Cudworth) and I wanted to suggest how that highly idealistic education fitted with their training as doctors, how that great divide which sometimes separates spirituality and the sciences was largely absent in their case. Finch’s cousin was William Harvey, often credited with discovering the circulation of the blood, while one of Harvey’s best friends was the great poet and Divine, John Donne.
Towards the end of his life, Finch was appointed Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople and this is the setting for much of the poem. Finding out about 17th century Constantinople was one of the most enjoyable aspects of researching it and the temptation I had to fight hardest against was filling the poem with quaint exotic detail! Sadly, Baines died while they were living there and my poem is conceived as a dramatic monologue spoken by Finch, an elegy for his partner before he accompanies his body back to Cambridge for burial. As a whole, the poem forms the second part of my most recent collection of poems, In My Father’s House (Carcanet, 2005).
Among the many texts on which I have drawn for this poem I wish to acknowledge particularly the work of Philip Mansel, whose wonderful book Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453-1924 (Penguin, 1997) was a source of much inspiration. This description of the Armenians, Greeks and Baghdad boys is indebted to his transcription of details taken from Fazil Bey’s (1759-1810) Khubanname (The Book of Beauties). Bey’s dates are of course later than those of Finch and Baines, but I hope the reader may allow me this licence on the grounds that the same pleasures were possibly available during the earlier period.The ‘Red Apple’ was a Turkish phrase for whichever city was considered to form the capital of the known world.