Wool and War
after the Latin of Florentius Wilson of Elgin (c.1500-47)
Never mind our European allies.
The Arab snuggles into wool. It’s worn
By peoples round the delta where the Nile
Courses down from sky-high mountain peaks,
Splashing broad fields each year, slashing across
The desiccated soil of Libya
In one grand arc. Upscale designer dressers
Sport wool in old Damascus, and so too
Does the Cilician youngster when not bathing
In sparkling Cydnus. Thracians love to wear
Pure wool. Wool clothes alike the freeborn West
And those ruled by that Scythian dictator
To whom our own failure to stand united
Has handed all the empire of the East.
Now, though, to build on foreign policy
Disasters, we’re rearming, summoning
That tyrant over here to blitz our cities
As if we gave our enemy a sword
And begged, ‘Now, stab me, stab me in the guts.’
These days, ignoring our true interests,
We fight among ourselves, ready to wage
A dirty civil war. Our shared beliefs,
Our closest allies’ manifest defeat,
The burned-out shrines of the true God – all fail
To make us act. Religion has been wrecked.
Artists are exiled. Everywhere today
The enemy is winning. Times to come
Will see through all our tears and arguments,
Rhetorics of tyranny and empire,
Hunger and blood till, time and time again,
Posterity will curse the warmongers
Who started this, who first failed to confront
The coming dangers and to stop the madness
Right at the start. These arms, these men, they’ll say,
Ignored the spirit. We chose to screen out
Just what they were after all along.
I can still smell him, T.L. Essiott,
Pin-thin reviewer in his gloomy flat
Under that tube station at Marble Arch.
A rasp and clank of passing trains above
Made dark slicks dribble from his lidless Quink
Across the sea of papers on a rolltop.
His hall was lined with unoiled cricket bats
Autographed by Novelists’ Elevens
From Oxbridge colleges. Shelved on the walls
Taxidermied heads of minor poets
Mixed with Virginia’s toothbrush, Ezra’s cufflinks,
A spattered sunshade that had sheltered Proust.
Standing at his front door, I could hear
Trains make a ziggurat of empties clink –
Probably that Paraguayan whisky
He’d christened Essiott’s Rocket Fuel because
It could accelerate him towards a deadline
At ninety words a minute, which he runed
In Linear B shorthand, then typed up
On his smashed Remington. Its juddery ribbon
Had been changed, once, by Arthur Conan Doyle.
I never saw him eat. He lived on liquids,
Literary gossip, cigarettes.
Lunch must have been a bun thieved from some launch.
This was the literary life. His adverbs
Asphyxiated Yale. His bad reviews
Could axe whole Faculties. One good would save
Lives, marriages and sales of foreign rights.
He looked me in the eye. He cleared some phlegm
And spat it on his doorstep. ‘Well. Come in.’