An Evening with John Heath-Stubbs

Alone in Sutton with Fynbos my orange cat
A long weekend of wind and rain drowning
The tumultuous flurry of mid-February blossom
A surfeit of letters to work through, a mountain
Of files to sort, some irritation at the thought
Of travelling to Kentish Town alone when
My mind was flooded with the mellifluous voice
Of Heath-Stubbs on tape reading 'The Divided Ways'
In memory of Sidney Keyes.

"He has gone down into the dark cellar
To talk with the bright faced Spirit with silver hair
But I shall never know what word was spoken there."

The best reader of the century, if not the best poet.
Resonant, mesmeric, his verse the anti-type of mine,
Classical, not personal, Apollonian not Dionysian
And most unconfessional but nonetheless a poet
Deserving honour in his eighty-fifth year.

Thirty people crowded into a room
With stacked chairs like a Sunday School
A table of pamphlets looked over but not bought
A lacquered screen holding court, a century's junk.
An ivory dial telephone, a bowl of early daffodils
To focus on.

I was the first to read, speaking of James Simmons' death,
My anguish at the year long silence from his last letter
To the Christmas card in Gaelic Nollaig Shona -
With the message "Jimmy's doing better than expected."
The difficulty I had in finding his publisher's address-
Salmon Press, Cliffs of Moher, County Clare —
Then a soft sad Irish woman's voice explained
"Jimmy's had a massive stroke, phone Janice
At The Poet's House."

I looked at the letter I would never end or send.
"Your poems have a strength and honesty so rare.
The ability to render character as deftly as a painter.
Your being out-of-fashion shows just how bad things are
Your poetry so easy to enjoy and difficult to forget.
Like Yeats. 'The Dawning of the Day' so sad
And eloquent and memorable: I read it aloud
And felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle
An unflinching bitter rhetoric straight out
Hence the neglect. Your poem about Harrison.

"He has to feel the Odeons sell
Tickets to damned souls, that Dante's Hell
Is in that red-plush darkness."

Echoed in Roy Fisher's letter, "Once Harrison and I
Were best mates until fame went to his head."
James, your 'Love Leads Me into Danger'
Set off my own despair but restored me
Just as quickly with your sense of beauty's muted dance.

                                     "passing Dalway's Bawn
where the chestnuts are, the first trees to go rusty,
old admirals drowned in their own gold braid."

The scattered alliterations mimic so exquisitely
The random pattern of fallen conkers,
The sense of innocence not wholly clear
The guilt never entirely spent.

'The Road to Clonbarra', a poem for the homecoming
After a wedding, the breathlessness of new beginning.
Your own self questioning, "My fourth and last chance marriage,"
Your passionate confessions of failure and plea for absolution
"His thunder storms were in the late night bars.
Home was too hard too dry and far the stars."

You were so urgent to hear my thoughts on your book
And once too often you were out of luck,
Heath-Stubbs nodded his old sad head.
"Simmons was my friend. I'd no idea he was dead."
Before I could finish the poem John Rety interrupted
"Can you hurry? There's others waiting for their turn!"
I muttered to my self, but kept my temper, just . . .

Eventually Heath-Stubbs began — poet, teacher, wit, raconteur and man
Of letters — littering his poems with references
To three kinds of Arabic genie
The class system of ancient Egypt
The pub architecture of the Edwardian era.
From the back row I strained to see his face.
The craggy jaw, the mane of long white hair.
The bowl of daffodils I'd focused on before.

He spoke but could not read and
Like me had no single poem by heart.
In his stead a man and woman read:
I could forgive the man's inability to pronounce 'Dionysian'
But when he read 'hover' as 'haver'
My temper began to frazzle
The woman simpered and ruined every line
As if by design, I took some amitryptilene
And let my mind float free.
'For Barry, instead of a Christmas card, this elegy
I wrote last week. Fond wishes. Jeremy . . .'

"So often, David; I still meet
Your benefactor from the time:
her speedwell-blue eyes, blue like yours,
with recollection, while we talk
through leaf-fall, with its mosaic
mottling the toad-spotted wet street."

I looked at Heath-Stubbs' face, his sightless eyes,
And in a second understood what Gascoyne meant
"Now the light of a prism has flashed like a bird down the dark-blue,
At the end of which mountains of shadow pile up beyond sight
Oh radiant prism
A wing has been torn and its feathers drift scattered by flight."