Funnelweb

Clive James

The flame reflected in the welder’s mask
Burns the board-rider’s upstage fingertips
That cut a swathe across the curved sea-wall
Inside the Banzai Pipeline’s tubular swell.
Sopranos feel the same fire on their lips
Kissing Jochanaan as befits the task.

The crank-winged Chance-Vought F4-U Corsair
When turning tightly spilled white vortices
Behind its wing-tips in the cobalt blue.
A mere machine, a Running W
As once brought stuntmen’s horses to their knees,
And yet you can’t deny it carved the air.

Phenomena like these, it will be said,
Are only incidental at the most
And mostly trivial, to say the least:
Less the confetti at the wedding feast
Than the box it came in, spice without the roast,
Beaches at Tarawa without the dead.

A saturation diver sets his seal
Where even fish can’t see reflected flame.
A surfer in the folded tube may form
His signature unnoticed from the foam.
Night fighters’ ailerons worked just the same
And Salome might think of her next meal.

True, but not true enough, in my belief.
These things though tenuous aren’t set apart.
The casual grace-note can’t help but imply,
If not the outline of the melody,
Then anyway the impulse at its heart –
And do so all the more for being brief.

Stillness in movement is a waking dream
Movement in stillness has refined from strength.
The river bank must make the drift apparent
Of swans at evening plugged into the current,
But lest they be disorganised at length
Just out of sight they steer to point upstream.

Wristy Makarova’s Odette/Odile
(Two lovely people spinning on one toe)
Exemplifies the Body Beautiful
Consumed by its own power to appal.
Watch how the whirlwind sucks up driven snow –
A double helix drawn from sex appeal.

Woodcut adoring kings with narrowed eye
Quite clearly find the cradle-capped young Prince
Painful to look at, backed up by his nimbus.
Even His Mother, pierced by the columbus
And haloed in Her own right, seems to wince:
The sun is in the wrong part of the sky.

He could not save Himself, they said with scorn.
But always it has been supposed they erred
And that, armed by His power to distinguish
The star-bursts in His hands from human anguish,
He ultimately went out like a bird
The way that He came in when He was born.

Watching a dear friend go down fast with cancer
Like a raindrop down a window pane, I hold
Her hand of balsa clad with clear doped silk
Pulsating like the skin of simmering milk
Which must boil over soon and leave her cold.
Next time I’m coming back a necromancer.

The floorboards in Kyoto’s Nijo-Jo
Will sing like flocks of birds from their sleeved nails
When someone walks, however light in weight.
Thus Tokugawa shoguns dreamed at night
Equating sudden death with nightingales,
And paper walls seemed real, this being so.

Saito himself committed suicide
The long way round by using the short sword
Before the charge went in just after dawn.
Three thousand died before the sun went down.
All night it sounded like a psycho ward.
We slept among the corpses open-eyed.

What happened the next morning broke your heart.
We saw the whole thing from above the beach.
Mothers threw living babies from the cliff.
The sick lined up to have their heads hacked off.
Those soldiers that the non-coms couldn’t reach
Kissed a grenade and blew themselves apart.

Marines you’d swear would never shed a tear
On Saipan wept. And that was all she wrote.
We just got used to it, like swatting flies.
Not even Iwo came as a surprise.
The whole Jap nation would have cut its throat
I swear to God sure as I’m standing here.

For Lichtenberg, wit was a microscope,
Yet in between the lines he seemed to know
His fine analysis did not disperse,
But gave coherence to, the universe.
That strong light touch sums up the rococo:
An epoch blown from clear glass, not from soap.

So do the buildings of Cuvilliés,
The Wittelsbachs’ great court-dwarf architect,
Whose play of curlicue and arabesque
Like flame reflected in the welder’s mask
Suggests a brilliance beyond intellect,
Fulfilled creation singing its own praise.

His small theatre of the Residenz
In World War II was bombed to smithereens
Yet could be put back as it was, because
Its dazzling inner shell was lath and gauze,
A kit of plaster panels and silk screens
They stashed away until the world saw sense.

At Vegas, the last Grand Prix of the year
Before he died in Belgium, Gilles Villeneuve
Put on his helmet and I saw the sun
Fill up his tinted visor like white wine.
Few poets get the face that they deserve
Or, like Hart Crane, can travel in a tear.

Of course Villeneuve was handsome anyway –
The Rimbaud of the wheel just oozed romance –
But where his class showed was in how that beast
Ferrari drew sweet curves at his behest
Instead of leading him St Vitus’ dance.
He charged the earth but gave back art for pay.

If she could see herself, the girl on skates –
But she must work by feel in the event,
Assured by how her heavy fingers burn
As in mid-air she makes the triple turn
Explosive effort was correctly spent
And from the whirlpool a way out awaits.

They say that Pipeline surfers deep in white
Whipped water when wiped out may sip the froth
Through pursed lips and thus drown less than they breathe
While buffeted their helpless bodies writhe,
Then once the ruined wave has spent its wrath
Swim resurrected up to the bright light.

Though children in deep shelters could not watch,
Pathfinder flares were sumptuous where they burned
And rustic simpletons found food for thought
In how those coloured chandeliers would float
As if the Son of Man had just returned –
Before the earthquake made them a hotch-potch.

Descending from heaped rubble,‘I’ composed
Der Rosenkavalier,’ Strauss told GIs
Whose billets underneath the Führerbau
Reminded them of their hometown hoosegow.
At eighty he was right, if scarcely wise:
From where he stood the episode was closed.

And soon there was another Salome
To propagate his long legato phrases,
And by their contours be made feverish
Lifting the prophet’s lopped head in a dish,
And taste the everlasting fire that rages
On those cold lips of papier maché.

She’s gone, perhaps to start again elsewhere.
The freezing fens lock up their latent heat.
The rime ice on the river to the touch
Splits in a gash benign neglect will stitch.
Full of potential like briquettes of peat
Atomic bombs enjoy conditioned air.

The Emperor’s portrait had survived the blast.
We carried it to safety in the stream
And took turns holding it aloft. The fire
Arched overhead and we succumbed to fear.
The surface of the water turned to steam.
I must say we were very much downcast.

The sun so far has only twice touched Earth
With its unmitigated baleful stare.
Flesh turned to pizza under that hot look.
From all the forms of death you took pot luck,
But that by which the occasion was made rare
Showed later on in what was brought to birth.

At KZ Dachau the birthmarked young nun
Beseeching absolution for that place
Won’t turn her full face to your chapel pew.
Only her murmurs will admonish you
For thinking to give up pursuit of grace
Simply because such dreadful things were done.

High over Saipan when another plane
Came back above us heading for Japan
As we flew south for home, I never saw
What would have been a chromium gewgaw,
But only what it casually began –
A long straight line of crystal flake cocaine.

Your progeny won’t sit still to be told
Nor can you point out through the window how
Air battles of the past left vapour trails
Swirling and drifting like discarded veils,
Scarcely there then and not at all there now,
Except you feel the loss as you grow old.

Black-bottomed whiteware out of nowhere fast
The Shuttle takes fire coming back to us,
A purple storm with silence at the core.
Simmering down it is the dodgem car
Daedalus should have given Icarus,
Whose wings – a bad mistake – were built to last.

To stay the course you must have stuff to burn.
For life, the ablative is absolute,
And though the fire proceeds against our wishes
Forms are implicit even in the ashes
Where we must walk in an asbestos suit:
A smouldering tip to which all things return.

We may not cavalierly lift the casque
Which separates us from the consequences
Of seeing how the godhead in full bloom
Absolves itself unthinkingly from blame.
It knows us as we know it, through our senses.
We feel for it the warmth in which we bask –

The flame reflected in the welder’s mask.