The Makers

David Harsent

It was pride and nothing else made me lift my head from the spit
and sawdust of The Prospect of Oblivion,
on my cheek
a dark naevus that married

a knobby knot in the planking. How long I’d been down
and out was anybody’s guess; I’d guess
an hour or more by the state of my suit,
a foul rag-bag,

by the state of my hair, a patty-cake,
of my own ripe keck,
unless it was the keck of Sandy Traill
or Blind Harry, my friends in drink that night,

that aye night, every night, in fact, that I found myself
making the first full dip
into the cream-and-midnight black
of a glass of stout, with a double shot on the side,

the very combination that left me wrecked,
face down, and holding fast to the spar
of a table leg as the room went by, or else
the floor was a wheel ... The brilliant double zero

of the Prospect’s neon logogram swam up
from a two-quart pool of special brew, and I looked
deep for any chance reflection
of Sandy’s turnip head, his docile grin, I looked

in hope of a glimpse of Harry’s silver-backed
pennyweight dark glasses, taken off, sometimes, with such
graceful delicacy that Harry seemed
to be setting aside a near impossible burden, taken off

to give you the benefit
of a bald-faced stare from a couple of weepers white
as the little scalp from a soft-boiled egg, but when
I got to my knees, to my hands and knees, to my feet,

it was just me and the barman, whose face I’d seen
before in another place, but this time kinder and wiser
as he drew me off
one on the house ‘to stiffen your backbone’,

he said, ‘to loosen your joints’, which put me in mind
of Sandy going down to a Scotch handshake
followed fast by a boot heel laid
to his kidneys, one of those luminous nights

when you say the wrong thing to the right
person, ‘Or perhaps the other way round,’ Sandy wondered
as I held a staunch to his face in the closet bathroom
of what he liked to call his ‘atelier’

with its bright blue Pompidou pipes, with its half-glass roof,
with a full moon, that night, in a clear sky, and Sandy bearing a pint
of blood, at least,
crusted to his shirtfront, and Blind Harry

tapping round in a stark flash-flood
of moonlight, until the ferrule of his cane
knocked the neck of a bottle of Famous Grouse. Remembering that,
I remembered a day spent walking the towpath

from Hammersmith down to Kew, a bottle going between us –
this would have been the day
of Francis Bacon dying in Madrid, if not
the day after for sure – and Sandy toppling back

through a common or garden fig as we passed the Pagoda
the bottle upraised, his complaint: ‘The dearth of great painters.’
That was a night when none of us went home
to our beds, a night of trial and true confession

as Harry lashed out at himself,
a long, torn, basso profondo, sick at heart,
counting off the betrayals, the betrayed, the white nights
returning in wastefulness, the pledges, the pacts,

the business of going cold turkey, the equally tricky
business of turning a blind eye, turning a blind
corner only to find yourself
standing where you stood but ten years older ...

This was right through the dead hour of the night.
Much later, Harry said: ‘In the days when I had my sight,
all I ever feared
was what might tap my shoulder in the dark.’

Thinking back to this, one foot in the neon slop,
the other hoiked on the bar-rail,
it came to me in a rush, along with my third or fourth
pick-me-up, that what Sandy had said that day

was not ‘dearth’ but ‘death’,
a thought I chased to the mirror behind the bar
and there he was, the Old Man, larger than life, his eye
like a raptor’s, raw and quick, who took

Bacon that day in Spain, who took Soutine
and Schiele and Rouault, three who knocked me flat
before I could think, before I knew a thing,
leaving me no way back,

and took John Keats in a room by the Spanish Steps,
stanza della morte, where I caught
one glimpse of the flowered beams and fainted fast,
and took Pierre Bonnard

who delved with me deep in the mysteries
of domesticity, year in, year out, leaving me no way back,
and took the Tam Lin poet, took
the poet of ‘Jellon Grame’, and took my friend

‘Henri de Beaufort’, self-styled,
who introduced me first to Jeanne Duval, leaving me no way back,
while Baudelaire brayed from his deathbed
merde merde merde– and took

Kirsten Flagstad who delivered up
Kindertotenlieder, a gift outright, the radio on
as I leant from my bedroom window to smoke that night,
that aye night of sleet

and little light and a frozen sea,
brass-bollock weather as Sandy would no doubt have it,
when even on pain of death
I couldn’t have told you who in hell was Mahler

or Rückert, and took
Alberto Giacometti, who said, ‘The more
I take away the bigger it gets,’ thereby
explaining a lot and leaving me no way back, and took

the distant greats like dominoes, not dearth
but death, and took Serina Stocker,
who taught me how to flay a hare (‘You get
the knife under her scut – see there? – then up

over the paunch, enough to peel and pull,
and it’s off like a Babygro’), and took, within a week,
George Stocker who said to all,
‘I shall turn my face to the wall, and there’s an end,’

and took Giacomo Puccini, who sent me
crying from the hall, too green and feverish
to be clever, and took, one day, a mere face in the crowd,
who fell or stepped

onto the rail, and was brought back up
broken, wide-eyed, a fallen angel, and passed,
like our best ambitions,
from soiled hand to soiled hand,

and took Albert Camus
who dressed me in black and told me to grow a beard
and pronounced me an Existentialist through tears
of laughter, and took Sigmund Freud

who sat at my shoulder throughout one bookblind summer
foxing me utterly, and took,
one by one, like a circle closing a circle,
people I should have loved

but wouldn’t, leaving me no way back, and took
Walt Whitman and Raymond Chandler and Laurence Sterne,
who hitch-hiked with me
through France and Italy and down to Greece,

the four of us with our toes at the utter brink
of a strip of dual carriageway a mile
beyond the city limits, backed by cornfields,
and darkness coming on with a mist of drizzle,

took them as he’s bound to take
whoever might catch his eye, and there’s an end
that even the brightest must come to, even the best,
as with the wynd wavis the wickir, even the great

and good, ‘even your good
self and my good self’, the barman said, putting a cloth
to the mirror where now only a tarnish lay,
nickel and muffled yellow, just below the glass, an end

even for Sandy and Harry, two faces
I’d hoped to see again, but he pulled me ‘one for the road’ and next
I was through the door, the last swallow
still caught in my throat, and walking the precipice

of a four-lane freeway, hearing Whitman’s line again
in the beat of an engine
half a mile back, hearing Sandy say,
‘There comes a moment when you lay your brush to the canvas

and everything’s ease, everything’s gift,
so that even the time it takes
to load your palette is unendurable boredom,’ whereupon
Harry turned his head, as if to darkness.

This was just before dawn and the whisky gone.
Much later, I came to see
what Harry might have meant by that sudden
turn-and-shudder, not least as I shuddered in turn,

tenant of that stinking suit, not least
as I bowed my head to a brisk downpour, not least
as the road unravelled
behind me, leaving me no way back, not least

as I considered those days of dog
eat dog (‘just blanks’ in Sandy’s view, ‘just blanks’, by which he meant
canvas, or pages), the yards of unread books,
the music stalled on ‘pause’

in a room that no one uses any more, my face in the glass
of Femme debout dans sa baignoire, the sea rising
off the sea wall with a cold, mechanical hiss, the days dug-in
when even the clear

prospect of money couldn’t raise the dead-
weight of a way of life gone out of fashion,
days of certain folly, certain fools, a certain
landmark standing out of a day-long mist, the interest

you pay hand over fist, a certain way
of simply getting down the street, a sense
of things going under, a sense of things running to waste,
the knack of living always against the grain, the stinging glare, that day,

of the city in negative (just blanks),
as my plane tilted and dropped and I saw the sun
on a stretch of water, nickel and curd yellow, like a stain
under glass, a stain

under the fingernail, not least as I turned that night,
that aye night, and cocked my thumb at a slow-lane juggernaut
decked out with coloured lights like a carousel
and rolling up through the rain.