Alfred Corn is the author of nine books of poems, the most recent titled Contradictions. He has published a collection of essays, The Metamorphoses of Metaphor, and a novel, Part of His Story. In 2008, University of Michigan Press brought out a collection of essays titled Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007 and Copper Canyon recently published a new edition of his study of prosody, The Poem’s Heartbeat. Fellowships and prizes awarded for his poetry include the Guggenheim, the NEA, an Award in Literature from the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. He has taught at Yale, Columbia, UCLA, the Poetry School in London, an Arvon workshop at Totleigh Barton, and at the Almàssera Vella Arts Centre in Spain.
Christmas carols, light-strings, mist, and rain.
Learning how to pronounce Marylebone.
A cut-rate holiday flight over the Channel
had lobbed us from our year on the Left Bank
to London, where Ann and I put up in a Baker Street
two-star, heated only when numb-fingered guests
fed shillings to the gas-gauge. Shillings, thruppence,
half-crowns, and the imaginary guinea:
Sterling’s baffling backup currency
at least had been marked down by Harold Wilson,
which gave grad-student cash a little boost.
Currency was everything, birds on Carnaby Street,
rock fans at Camden Round House, hip mandala
for music happenings. Stones and under-thirties
were rolling their own, and soon as Jimi Hendrix
breezed into town youth hair ballooned out
in fluffy, copycat spheres. Are you experienced?
A purple haze drifted through Notting Hill,
compounded of smoke, incense and hallucination.
Fire up the time machine, get in and drive
with Vanessa Redgrave in Blow Up, levitate
on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and tune in
to visible autonomy now the overdue
Sexual Offences Act has gone into effect.
At Liberty’s, my paisley shirt compared itself
to their extravagant flower-power cottons,
strawberry fields the Doors of Perception
could open on as before for Aldous Huxley,
Jim Morrison. And if for them why not for us?
Doors onto an innocence at least less vapid
than Holborn’s fake Olde Curiosity Shoppe,
a private blamelessness we tried to fabricate,
making a separate peace untainted by what
America had locked, loaded, and fired in Vietnam
Sure, but innocence of the standard sort
won out when we queued up to see the Tower’s
ravens, its tourist bait of regal finery.
With meeker if still jeweled exactitude,
Van Eyck’s uncanny Arnolfini Marriage
wakened enlightened silence in the gazer,
transmuting a public-funded institution
into a Buddhist shrine for rag-tag pilgrims.
Our friend Jean took us up to Hampstead,
Keats’s leafless garden subsisting without its Bird,
a no-show we shrugged off with a trudge up to the Heath,
to nurse a pint at Jack Straw’s Castle, another
in the brown interior of the Spaniards—
somehow followed by a trip on the Northern Line
to Charing Cross and a prance down Whitehall,
the tall-hatted bobby on duty not bothering
to challenge whoever stepped into Downing Street.
So plant yourself in front of No. Ten’s
unassuming door, take in the plain white spokes
of a fanlight set in soot-black brick, and then
push on to the bridge, waiting until Big Ben
strikes three, lit up by winter sun and brazen
as Hendrix’s ax. Evening the same as morning,
Earth had not anything to show more… Cool.
We experienced the scene that experienced us,
reciprocal fuels pledged to set the night on fire.
Yale English had opened its doors, to us
junior-faculty types sufficient motive
for culling closer knowledge of the source.
At Paddington, no stereotype fogs
Or rains, instead, mid-July heat. Reception
at our hotel in Bayswater suggested
Hyde Park as the guest’s likeliest cool refuge.
Untrue in the event, but on we loped,
on past the statue of Peter Pan, recalled
from an album cover of The Wand of Youth.
My own I’d shelved; was serious; had published.
On offer at the National Portrait Gallery
were dour Tudors, Stuarts, Pepys, Blake, Shelley.
And why not follow up with a tiptoe through
Soane’s lapidary house by Lincoln’s Inn Fields?
Meanwhile, on the south bank of the Thames,
where, except to take in Turner’s spectral
cyclones, no one used to go, had risen
a massive modernist performance complex,
design incarnate in gray concrete. Elsewhere
the Wallace Collection hoisted its genteel
standards, attracting patrons with Boucher
or Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time, a title
Powell’s panoramic Proustian twelve-speed
novel recycled for his own charmed circle.
Planning to stay three autumn months, I lucked out
with a cheap flat on literate Gloucester Crescent.
I had some introductions: to Adam M.-J.,
Marina W., and a Firbank expert
named Hollinghurst who worked at St. John’s Gate,
the Clerkenwell office of the TLS.
Comments made were polite, forgettable;
but not the Jamesian glint in those brown eyes.
From my street, Regent’s Park and its terraces
were an easy walk, and, in the opposite
direction, Camden Lock, where, Sundays, Euro
twenty-odds would flaunt their vampire getups.
Meanwhile, the newest London Library patron
ferreted out old curiosities
in St. James like Lock’s, or Pickering Place, which once
sheltered an enterprising embassy
from the single-starred Republic of Texas.
In Spitalfields, the Dennis Severs house
relived its multi-generational stories,
level on level, not so far from Hawksmoor’s
bone-gray neoclassical Christ Church,
a haunt fit for the Ghost of Christmas Present,
along with those that Jack the Ripper made.
And it was Dennis, monarchist as fervent
as only U.S. citizens can be,
who dragged me along to see the Royal Salute,
a show of cavalry and cannon-fire
staged in Hyde Park the festal day reserved
for the Opening of Parliament. When thunder
died down and smoke dispersed, we joined the hedge
of gawkers posted along the Mall until
Her Majesty’s gold-leafed vitrine rolled past.
Kings may inspect a cat or commoner,
and for two public seconds our eyes met
across a revolving glove: I had been seen,
a disappointing spectacle, to judge
by the frown directed at my dark blue mac.
With Eliot as Baedeker, I found
The Waste Land sites—at least those not done for
in the blitz. Cannon Street and Lower Thames,
St. Mary Woolnoth, Magnus Martyr, Wren
inventions to burn, St. Mary le Bow, St. Bride’s,
St. Mary Aldermary. Hurry up,
please, it’s time that Britain modernised
its slug economy, said the Iron Lady.
And, true enough, the City towers stood
to glass attention round the Monument,
a proud New Babylon that let the Blakean
handwriting crimson felt-tips had indited
on the Roman Wall go placidly unread.
Ed White dropped in from Paris, inviting me
for drinks at Le Caprice with Alan J.
and Nigella L., new talents I’d never heard of.
Redgrave stammered a harried Mrs. Alving
in Ghosts, and AIDS doom-saying filled the papers,
putting a pall on the singles scene. Connecting
became a new protectorate in need
of detailed diplomacy, which didn’t mean
I stayed indoors and never danced at Heaven.
Didn’t mean I failed to start a novel
with AIDS as a theme, the Cibber family
another. Research? Done beneath the beehive
dome of the Reading Room, at a desk Virginia
Stephen may once have propped her elbows on.
If I meant that novel to conclude, I’d need
to come back for another stint. This time,
like a shimmering wand-waver out of Perrault,
Marina opened a door in Kentish Town
and set informal terms for a house let.
Rain sent down dark floods on the backs of brown
brick houses, over the chimneypots, spilled
from the pewter cloud cover. At Covent Garden,
Geraint Evans’s farewell performance in Falstaff,
at the National, Judi Dench as Cleopatra.
Immortal longings, London in Thames melting…
Slowly the expat metro-fiction settled
into focus, its goal to fuse a travel
novel with history and match the clear-eyed
narrator with a certain place and era.
A city is a person; its devotees
read the Blue Guide’s constellated pages
as a diary that keeps whole centuries
of the beloved’s secrets. Which begin
to include the latest love-struck resident.
Arriving just at the pre-Christmas rush,
Chris and I found our three-star in Cartright Gardens,
my job to serve as volunteer Cook’s tour.
Casting a cool eye on the horseman martyr
at the top of Whitehall, then the Banqueting House,
we paused at grillwork barring Downing Street,
closed now except to official visitors.
But Horse Guards hadn’t changed at all, the off-white
tassels of their polished helmets dangling
in faces royalist, unblinking, handsome.
During dinner with D. and N., one wearing
red and black, the other, grape and green,
we heard that Spender’s daughter was engaged
to an Aussie comic famous as “Edna Everage.”
Had Auden at Christ Church been prescient, wondered
D., would he have failed to comment, “Stephen,
what you’ll most likely end up being is
the married father of a daughter whose
husband is a brilliant drag performer.”
Lunch next day at a Finsbury pub with Adam
and his new partner, a red-haired Scot from Skye,
both sporting motorbikes and leather jackets.
Intro reciprocity with Chris,
consensus beaming as if to say, “Well done!”
Scanning the West End, we’ll veto The Phantom
in favor of Three Sisters, Redgrave’s Olga
grasping at dimly foreseen straws of hindsight….
As for music, Britten’s rare A Boy Is Born,
performed in Smith Square, stars the holiday
we’ve been ignoring. Concert done, outside
we see a matron outstriding her plump husband,
who says, “Marie, I will not run!” That going
without effect, he hisses “Cat!”… Old Possum’s
lyrics sung on Shaftesbury Avenue,
the musicosmic comedy of time.
Last week of the millennium. I’d been asked
to house-sit for D. and N. on Montagu Square
and to feed their Abyssinians, my only
company this visit. Single life:
hardly worth writing home about (what home?)
if change-of-scene pursuits cave in to gloom.
So I’ve listed dozens of must-sees like the new
Tate Modern down in Southwark, a giant hangar
in brown brick, reachable by a footbridge
built to commemorate the year, then closed
when traffic made it wobble. But you could still
arrive by tube to rubberneck at the hall,
a guest at the wedding of hi-tech and art.
Faustus begin thine incantations… Or don’t.
Late afternoon the 31st, I noticed
embroidered mottoes on Westminster Abbey
altar cloths: And all manner of thing shall be well,
and Eliot’s the fire and the rose are one.
Exiles themselves from Ethiopia,
the pets again accepted me as minder
while D. and N. enjoyed July in Paros.
(George Bush’s jingoistic rap had made
expatriation more and more appealing.
Be careful, though. In today’s hawkish climate,
vocal dissenters incur a dossier.)
The newly stabilized bridge let me cross it
from Southwark to St. Paul’s and find my chair
for Evensong, as sung with no apparent
irony for one of the ancient guilds,
The Worshipful Company of Ironmongers.
Next, Bottom and I would wince a long midsummer
night on the Globe’s relentless oaken bench;
attend the ENO Purcell Fairy Queen;
and meet Marina at Kings Cross to hear
Barry’s The Triumph of Time and Deceit—
as camp as modern opera can get
and not just float up to the flies. From Adam,
a glass of elderflower at his flat in Highbury,
and, next day, lunch with laughing Yvonne G.
in the Middle Temple’s Great Hall, where colleagues
convened in her early years as a barrister.
I haven’t verified Twelfth Night was once
staged there for Gloriana, so, will someone?
Outside, the old round church prompted a pause,
its Templars crossing long stone legs on tombs
engraved with Norman titles. But the Grail quest
faded when we made our way to Fleet Street.
Queen’s Gallery: Vermeer, her portrait by Freud,
Carracci’s Il trionfo del tempo e del desenganno,
Seen possibly by Handel and then Barry?
From Marble Arch, I walked to Edgware Road,
its Mid-East flavor marked by outdoor shisha
cafés and news-racks stocked with Al Jazeera.
At the London Mosque, guards with walkie-talkies
stared long and hard at anyone approaching.
Chelsea solitudes, the Physic Garden laden
With Liberty-print wisteria, with rue and elder.
Acknowledge Thomas More’s restored Old Church,
give Cheyne Walk its due, then on to Tite Street,
to find the plaque put up for Oscar Wilde—
and the Worshipful Company of the Yellow Book,
some of whom added their voices to that solemn
De profundis of the Oakum Picker.
At the Greens’ in Clifton Gardens, kind supports
for my overconfident intention of joining
D.’s months-long bedside vigil for poor N.,
once doctors said that no more could be done.
(In fact, I never got to make goodbyes;
or work through mourning for a Byzantine
intelligence that put heart first, lighting
the deep proscenium where fact meets vision.)
Yvonne read out new poems in the garden.
The children painted masks for Purim, stringing
paper chains above the kitchen. Then walked
to the old Spanish-Portuguese shul where
Esther’s recited prototype foreshadowed
X number of eleventh-hour rescues.
Reflective wanderings through Little Venice,
the Regent’s Canal a mooring for long barges
named Esmeralda, Little Pud, or Rose.
Tea at the Poets’ Place near Covent Garden
with Mimi K., who spoke of childhood in
the “elfin” Isle of Wight. A matinee
of Endgame in St. Martin’s Lane, the blindman
Michael Gambon’s black lenses punching holes
grim insight flowed from as he raved and snorted,
till house lights rose and spectators filed out.
Bush re-elected, I laid my plans to desert
a nation-state become coercive, Texan,
my substitute two smallish rooms in Hampstead—
perfect if you liked its Georgian-Euro
blend, the expelled Green Man reanimated
on rolling tracts of Heathside, semi-wild
woodland. Bags unpacked and books on shelves,
I hiked there over zebras, traffic islands,
to Jack Straw’s Castle, which, revamped as modern
up-market condos, blared loud ads for buyers.
Unreal. A sigh, a plod to the famous view
for a telephoto fix on distant towers
below, including one nicknamed “The Gherkin.”
Globalisation. Passive resister seeking
asylum, where to now? Back to your lair.
Or to the Spaniards, its dim, snug allure
unchanged. To Adam, now living in Herne Hill,
for a meal with his (to me) new partner Keith.
—Or a Kentish Town reunion with Marina,
her place redone, yet recognizable
as we climb upstairs and find a place to sit,
ticking off updates, good and less than that.
Oh, but there are instances when appeal
sidesteps attrition, the comedy of eyes,
nuanced verbality, pared-down gestures…
And does middle age whip up an appetite
for medieval surrounds? Falstaff knows,
so here, two decades on, is St. John’s Gate,
the brick-and-limestone Charterhouse, Ben Jonson’s
St. Bartholomew, and Cloth Fair Street,
where a pub called “Betjeman’s” looks fresh and smart.
I took home his collecteds from the Keats
Branch of the Camden Libraries, next door
to the ailing genius’s beige house, bemused
when I heard two nightingales begin to wrangle.
Summoned by Bells sent me up to Highgate, catching
the footsteps, rustling leaves, the blackbirds arcing
down—afterimage of his pre-war world,
Where firelight shone on green linoleum.
In search of Blake’s lost Heaven, a turn from
South Moulton onto Brook. And what springs up but
Hendrix’s plaque, hard by the Handel House,
As Jimi—hallelujah!—married to
his Hell-bent lyrics, must have chuckled over.
“Paradise”: revivified experience.
Sound out this theory at the renovated
London Museum, stratum on recreated
stratum of city chronicles retold
in successive bone and fired-clay idioms.
Add Guild Hall, too, after the blitz rebuilt
with repro giants Gog and Magog perched
in its rear balcony, plus excavated access
to the Roman theatre deep underground—
a refuge from barbarians till Rome
called time, quit Albion, and scuttled home.
From our equivalent imperium,
a Christmas visit from Philip A., sparked up
with energies that Piccadilly’s limber
bronze bowman might want partial credit for.
Remember the warm afternoon we hiked
to Parliament Hill and watched a fleet of kites
swirling their swoops, an animated paintbox
menagerie? I couldn’t summon up
every detail about Dick Whittington’s
fabled about-face maybe two miles north,
but sketched what scenes I could. Then, walking back
across that little bridge, a psychic reader
practiced at living in the future said,
“This will turn out to be another of
those unmomentous moments that for reasons
tricky to formulate you don’t forget.”
Dusk moved in from its eastern earliness,
black trees reflected topside down in water,
a peach-flesh glow suffusing the anti-twilight.
I’m booked to give an Oxfam reading early
in July, with Philip coming over for
a sort of honeymoon. When Anne-Marie
and Cahal give us a meal in Bedford Park,
I recall that Jack and Willie Yeats once lived there,
emblems of a fluent expatriation
Kavanagh and a younger Ireland picked up on.
Green leaves slow-dropping rain, fine Arts and Crafts
Houses, light in a turret window… But
we’ve got tomorrow’s drive to Wales before us,
and have to make an early evening of it.
We’re back only a day before P’s flight
when petrifying newsbreaks sound the alarm:
Police say British Islamists are planning
to blast eleven international
flights to Crusader’s Hell. Cold panic jams
Heathrow where, detained for more than thirteen
hours after check-in, he at last
flies safely home. Which leaves me shaken, numb,
meandering the streets in a fried daze.
Casting around for some innocuous
mood-lifter, I remembered having often
postponed a visit to the Leighton House
in sedentary Kensington. Today, then?
The project sounded mild and should have helped
except that the most lavish of its rooms
evoked lush scenes from the Arabian Nights
or, closer home, the saga of T.E. Lawrence.
What Iznik tiles in blue, white, and blue-black
can do had been done, fitted to the high
ogees and tall faux mihrab opposite
one trickling fountain. Add a narghilé
and your “Oriental” fantasies would be
complete, had harder fact not smashed them all—
along with the Aesthetic Era’s fine
distinctions priests of art like Whistler, Swinburne,
and Beardsley drew, their pipe dreams pale and helpless
before philistinism’s foursquare onslaughts.
Eve of departure for the title city,
and Philip says his packing’s almost done.
I’m reading Shelley’s Triumph of Life, the lamp
throwing a warm, illuminated circle
on facing pages of a sixties edition,
complete with fragments like this late Dantesque
outcry. Fragments: Why did the Romantics
produce so many? Well, it could be “life,”
the personal, transfixing avalanche
of innocent experience, ironic
triumphs, the stark, euphoric blend of cheer
and disappointment is itself the perfect
open-ended fragment. Which, though in-
complete, is something like our day job, vital,
current, the partly conscious estuary’s
untrammeled, unacknowledged legislation
freighting raw material to the mind.
A flight from Kennedy will snatch us aloft
for touchdown at Heathrow. From whose express
windows we’ll watch brick houses speed and darken
under spring showers, then yield to stone and steel.
Let friendships rekindle, doors we know or don’t
open on memories involuntary
or called back; read papers, absorb the fact
that recent changes in Common Law can marry
us if we need law to shore up commitment.
At last, midsummer light will climb back down,
a flushed Prime Minister resigning, his stage,
in this scenario, Westminster Bridge—
appropriate for drowning tools of office,
the river running softly with common parlance,
iconic echoes, summits, past addresses,
lines got by heart, cool voices rocking on
the sunset’s red, resilient grave, not one
with any plausibility recycling
Shelley’s sign-off: ‘Then, what is life?….’ In place
of the usual depressing blare of trumpets,
it leaves the run indefinitely extended.