Ein Bild des Glaubens ist das schöne Weib:
Sie ist ein ja, und sie ist grenzenlos.
– F. Schuon
The summer sun brings tables out on the sidewalks.
At the age of 60, sitting in a café,
He becomes conscious again how someone’s knee
– The conniving perpendiculars of thigh and shin,
The complex full and hollows of the kneebone –
Compels desire, and with desire, longing.
(Desire is by its nature ever-new,
Drives to self-quenching action, whereas longing
Strives without wanting, is the blaze itself.)
His gaze returns, and nothing else intrigues it.
A woman’s body wakens consciousness
So intense it leads to stupor unless managed,
Held back by fire-breaks or, by a barrel, aimed
At some particular target. How one longs
To die, to drown, in those ogival planes!
Formerly, of course, it was unbalancing glimpses,
Rapunzel’s mighty hair, the arms of mermaids,
Where matter seemed to blur its self-containment.
The elaborate ship, that slipped its moorings, vanished
At once in fog, left only churning water
To slap and splash under a midnight wharf.
Later, the fog had lifted, but the ship
Now seemed prosaic, seemed like a rowing-boat
Oared clumsily by children, going in circles;
And then – sea-bells! the lovely bunting fluttered,
The raffia streamers could no longer hold the
Moving liner. Small tugs drew out ahead,
With rigid cables over their shoulders.
Carried the charm of novelty, gone now
Yet never quite supplanted: mind knows the truth but stays
A happy victim: summer after summer
The ordinary chaos of the body,
Combed and combined and primed for provocation,
Emerges like artillery onto the street
And guns him down like Tammuz, laughing
As he is dismembered. You’d wish for him,
If he had his life again, that someone would
Warn him effectively about July.
Yet maybe you’d be wrong. The thoughts of sex,
Those hilarious putti carrying Mars’s helmet
Which leave nobility naked, draw us toward
The proximate flesh, the face, the watchful eyes
We had forgotten at our grown-up distance.
Body is known – we don’t struggle to recall it,
Although we had forgotten –
Is known so strangely that its closeness speaks
With a sudden shock the only human language
In the gross backdrop of inhuman hubbub.
In which propinquity (O Margarethe!
You are named uniquely, thought sweetens and divines
What poets meant by those insistent potencies –
Penelope, Mary, das Ewig-Weibliche,
The child whom boyish Dante loved, and found
His guide to Heaven when he got there finally:
Which image, deeply established, changes everything,
Clouds, winds and ocean into breath and blood.
Now in this café in the silencing sunlight,
Aware of youthful flesh, he has awakened
From the stark surfaces of knives and buildings,
Figures in matter which he may acknowledge
But which won’t answer him. Conceive that racing ship
Over the dazzling ocean where Isolde
Sleeps in the prow. Both she and you have drunk
The potion, and your destinies are fixed
Now, regardless of physics. Heart-mysteries there,
As Yeats might say, yet all still held in matter,
The stuff of which you are made. Your thoughts are free
To go apart, yet all your freedom
You will spend in re-uniting. Here then is the god Amor
Whose inner name is Joy, whose viewless force,
Like the swimmer crashing down through emerald water,
Discovers to you void, astounding depths
– How suddenly entered! like happening on a secret –
No way conflicting with the sunlit surface.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2011. 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 2011 was Roddy Lumsden.
The epigraph translates as:
The beautiful woman is a vision of faith:
It is a yes and it is unending.
Claiming Kindred is David Black’s first book of poems in twenty years, a varied and striking book collects poems written over time. I nearly selected a moving elegy for a family dog, so hard is it to bring off a dead pet poem, but this poem, ‘The Sunlit Surfaces’ seemed to me the book’s heart. Longing for a younger person is a much felt, seldom explored subject. In taut blank verse, the poem looks at this issue, reflecting on its place in literature and its never solved complexities.
This poem shows an older man reflecting on the power sex has had in his life, with decidedly mixed feelings. He recalls his early intimations of sex in childhood, and then its bewildering and disruptive force in adulthood. The poem is probably very much a product of its period. 1950s Scotland offered no way for the young to be sexual that was not socially and religiously condemned. Sexual possibilities were over-exciting, or collapsed under the weight of moral judgment. The poem attempts to convey the changing realisation, as the revolution of the 1960s had its effect, that sexuality could become something profoundly different: a gateway to the personal love that allows life to be joyful and worth living. The ornate pulling-out of all the stops in the poetic myth-kitty is intended to convey this richness. Maybe it’s also a bit defensive – the poem is quite personal!