Ondine

Alan Jenkins

M’introduire dans ton histoire
C’est en héros effarouché . . .
(Mallarmé)
Her river was the swift-flowing Rhone;
mine, all that improbable year,
the Hérault (‘M’introduire,
I said, ‘m’introduire dans ton histoire
c’est en Hérault . . .’) The two come near
but do not flow into each other,
any more than the mighty Seine and the Loire.

I walked with her by the mighty Seine and the Loire,
by Fontainebleau, Chambord and Chinon
where the curved neck of a queen carved in stone
trembled in the water, the reflection of a swan

then a real swan sailed by and the moment was gone;
and we were still both there and nowhere,
neither one thing nor the other.

Chopping and changing, neither one thing nor the other
the Blackwater raced over pebbles and a pair
of mermaids basking by the weir,
half-hid in weeds that waved like mermaids’ hair;

but you could no more see beyond it to Cape Clear
than the three sisters, Barrow, Nore and Suir
would ever get to Moscow by way of Rosslare . . .

But what of her whose salt water, whose glair
I tasted by the banks of the Severn, Teme and Yare?
Her whose lips I tasted at Sommières
beside the green Vidourle, where the trout smelt of mud,
she said, loud enough for the fisherman to hear –
whose streams of salt and fresh water, clear
or muddied, laced sometimes with blood

I tasted by the banks of the Deben at the flood,
by the banks of the Mersey, Trent and Humber?

You tasted times without number –
when we ran from the ferry, rain splashing in abandoned mugs of beer,
when I said I was leaving, a dutiful daughter

and domes and spires and cranes dissolved to water
while the ferryman waited at the pier.

Now you must believe that I’ll appear
at low tide, where mud and water and the estuary
are one, and the ferryman and fisherman both stare
from the little rain-misted jetty out to sea

and it could be her or my mother,
waving, and all flows away from me, from the sheer
cliff-face, leaving gull-cries, torn-off air.