My mother sits in a chair, beside the
tape-deck which is at present playing
Kathleen Ferrier singing something by Gluck.
By far the most usual something, I suppose.
Orpheus’s lament for Eurydice,
now dead and beneath the ground. And where is the singer?
Where is she even though her voice is among us?
And doubtless without the hope which Eurydice had.
For Eurydice will return, which this voice’s owner
will never do – no matter that, disturbingly,
to the inexactly balanced delight of both of us;
thanks to the eurekas of a few dead scientists
and the skilled routines of various factory workers,
presumably untraceable, whether alive or not,
the voice floats still among us – so precisely
coming out of a speaker just at my left;
while I rock gently in the white rocking-chair,
which it seems she is now using less and less;
gazing out at the quietened, lashing coastal rain.
That is another thing. I would prefer sunlight.
That is another thing I would prefer. Sunlight.
There is much I would prefer.
She has of late been listening more and more to music.
We have slipped back into silence, because of the music.
Wearing a headscarf; her hair much thinner now;
my mother sits nearby in a softer chair;
perhaps improving; perhaps not; after months of treatment
for a cancerous growth too intricately placed
for surgery to be able to separate it
from the rest of the strong body which it so stupidly threatens.
We thought for a while the problem had been solved.
But, as it turns out, the problem has not been solved.
How naive, to think that life might be one simple problem.
Love is strong. But so too is the ignorance of cells.
Let me steer clear, however, of unmerited compliments.
At some point during the music, perhaps a point of rest,
she tells me that that is the only thing she ever wished to do.
When young, it had been her ambition to be a singer.
I knew this. I had often heard her sing.
I had sometimes heard her say this, but paid it little attention.
Ordinary remarks on lost ordinary days.
It was all so extraordinary, and I missed most of it.
To be a singer. But those were harder times,
and the very thought was too much of a luxury.
‘So ... I was never given any encouragement.’
Said with such a subterranean pull of emotion;
such a subterranean pool of living emotion.
Look, mother: your ignorant son is making puns from your pain.
So: she was taken from school at the first opportunity,
and sent out to work. A normal run of events.
But one that I seem, by and large, to have managed to avoid.
To each his opportunity, whatever his speciality.
And then, after a war, you start up a family;
because your sister knows a demobbed foreign soldier,
and he turns up with a rather mysterious friend.
And other people, musical or unmusical,
somehow arrive and develop into an accompaniment.
Who can enumerate the things they are here to do?
To cause worries, of course. To try to say things to.
To sit nearer the window, in patches of silence,
wondering what, if anything, may still be done to help.
Why, it is even possible to smile at each other briefly;
while music plays, and life pretends to be ordinary.
I remember her singing this very song, decades ago.
One of the reasons, of course, why I bought her this tape.
How happy she was, so recently, to be given the tape;
understanding that more than music was involved here.
She had a contralto voice. As does the present singer.
I am not drawing any wider comparison.
In the realm of what might have been there are no experts.
How also, at the beginning of this year –
this year which we had hoped might be a welcome change –
in a pleasant moment which otherwise would have passed unnoticed,
I heard her sing a phrase of Rossini in the nearby kitchen;
rather like on our records, which by now are decades old.
I listened to it, happily enough, from this very room.
No, more: from that very chair in which she is sitting now.
From that tasselled armchair where she is now seated.
I can even remember what book it was I was reading.
And I thought: who would want more than this? She seems to be all right now.
Let it stay like this. I am not asking for more.
Just as well, perhaps. Since no one seems to have been listening.
Something in us wants to be looked after for ever, I suppose.
But now there will be no more of her singing,
even if and when the deterioration stops.
And what of me? Now reaching 42,
and older, I think, than the singer was when she died;
than my mother was in so many fresh memories of her –
though the same woman appears to be here opposite me.
Till now, I had hardly thought of her as being affected by time.
That singing voice also had cancer. It killed her.
What sort I do not know. An even unfairer sort, perhaps.
About the time I was born. Before my memories began.
I am held in place by a pair of female voices.
For a few minutes more, I shall be held in place.
A moment of this. Another moment of this.
Then, unexpectedly, a curious development.
The fly which has annoyed us, off and on, for a long while,
comes to rest on a curtain precisely in front of me.
Who put those light curtains up? I need not even ask.
How familiar the gesture with which she would lift them aside,
and wipe the condensation off the window-panes
on other, ordinary mornings. Ah yes: the fly.
Something about it seems peculiarly stationary.
That so much loud movement may annul itself so totally,
and leave no trace of itself hovering in the air.
And a sudden, perhaps vindictive impulse takes hold of me.
I’ll kill this beast, I think. Now: while this voice is playing.
While the air is so plangent with a sort of fictitious death.
We shall see whether or not we have no control over death.
It is annoying not only me, after all.
Why should I simply sit here, another passive target
for the world and its thoughtless bullying hubris – no.
We must all do what we can. We must fight back.
Time for some thoughtless bullying of my own.
We’ll lose, no doubt. But we’ll lose after a fight.
I shall add a free full stop to the universe.
After all, on what grounds can it possibly object?
Away and take your germs into the transcendental silence.
So, while the dead contralto continues to lament,
I reach forward, and squash the fly with another fold of curtain.
It falls inert to the woodwork, an immediate corpse.
Was it thinking about something? Could it? I don’t know. Was I?
Anything it was thinking about is no longer much trouble.
So, there you are, my dear dear mother –
although now, since the computer spelling checker
queries the repetition, let me say, my beloved mother –
that was another real life, and one you have outlived.
Resting in her chair, eyes closed, so far away,
she does not, I suppose, notice what I am doing
with the life that, as it happens, she transmitted to me.
The equal of which, for the moment, is still her own possession.
The dead singer pours out another wave of passion.
So much love. So much love. So much love.
Does it help us to anticipate our losses?
How much it desires to see the dead woman once more.
With much uncertainly, I continue beyond the end.
About a year later, I type out the poem again –
taking the opportunity for a few minor corrections.
There being so many major ones that I can no longer make.
The same tape now lies in a box beneath my bed.
I have never since been able to listen to it.
I feel as if the music must all have drained out of it.
That the real music has floated away, beyond recall.
Is all this true? Is all this adequate? No; it is not.
This much is true at least. No, it is not.