Unfinished Mystery

Enter Hamlet, stabbed, no longer baffled,
Stepping across his mother, drowned in a pearl,
Carrying lifeless Ophelia. Now enter

Stabbed Othello, enlightened at last,
From his cistern of toad-genderings, bearing
Suffocated Desdemona. Now enter

Headless Macbeth, regicide killed in him,
Stepping from the cauldron of sisters
Bearing his cold Queen. Now enter

Crack-brained Lear, finally freed
From the foam-lipped vortex of his daughters,
Carrying strangled Cordelia. Now enter

Prospero smiling. Rolls up the magic island
And wakes out of being.

Enter Oliver
Milton – carrying under his arm
His own head, helmed, stake-pierced, and blind.

A crowned monkey picks its nose on his neck-stump.

Delilah, with bitumen cries,
Limbs blazing, bears Blake in the Mills of Hell.

The Earthenware Head

Who modelled the head of terracotta?
An American friend. Life-size, the lips half-pursed,
Raw-edged with crusty tooling – a naturalistic attempt
At a likeness that just failed. You did not like it.
I did not like it. Comments magnetised it
For a perverse ritual. What possessed us
To take it with us, in your red bucket-bag?
November fendamp haze, the river unfurling
Dark whorls, ferrying slender willow yellows.
The pollard willows wore comfortless antlers,
Leafless switch-horns. Just past where the field
Broadens and the path strays up to the right
To lose the river, and puzzle for Grantchester,
A chosen willow leaned towards the water.
Above head-height, a twiggy crotch, the socket
Of a healed bole-wound, nearly an owl’s porch,
Made a mythic shrine for your double.
I fitted it firm. And a willow tree
Was a Herm, with your head, watching East
Through those tool-stabbed pupils. We left it
To live the world’s life and weather forever.

You ransacked Thesaurus in your poem about it,
Veiling its mirror, rhyming yourself into safety
From its orphaned fate. But it
Would not leave you. Weeks later
We could not seem to hit on the tree. We did not
Look too hard – just in passing. Already
We did not want to fear, if it had gone,
What witchcraft might nurse it. You never
Said much about it.

What happened?
Maybe nothing happened. Perhaps it’s still
Representing you to the sunrise, happy
In its cold pastoral, lips pursed slightly
As if my touch had only just left it.
Or did boys find it? (And shatter it?) Or
Did the tree too kneel finally?

Surely the river got it. Surely
The river is its chapel. And keeps it. Surely
Your head, made in a furnace, kisses God –
Mudded at the bottom of the Cam,
Beyond recognition or rescue,
All our fears washed from it, and perfect,
Under the stained mournful flow, saluted
Only in summer briefly by the slender
Punt-loads of shadows flitting towards their honey
And the stopped clock.

That was what you called the head. Evil.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences