Hemingway & Gertrude Stein


At night, he dreamed of fires. Tall tongues of red and yellow flame leaping into the cold night air. The acrid smell, the sound of insects exploding in the heat. At night he dreamed of fires and woke in the morning to his pale skin, to his fair hair, to his skin and bone body.

The truth is, Gertrude told Ernest, there’s nothing new in your ‘novel’. A new novel has new things, she continued, after a pause that owed nothing to a rose is a rose is a rose.

Ernest looked at her, her absolute fullness, the absolute simplicity of her absolute fullness: that overwhelmed him more than her words. Nothing new, he repeated aloud, submissively, overwhelmed, hopeless.

At night he dreamed of blazing fires, of fires raging on an African horizon, in clearings, on the foothills of Kilimanjaro. Ideas ravaged his mind, flickering shades amid the flickering shadows of leaping tongues of yellow and red flame. At night he dreamed of death, and woke in the morning to his pale skin, to his fair hair, to his skin and bone body and a Swiss Army knife tucked under his pillow.

And an empty page. . . .

Question and answer. Answers will take you nowhere, Gertrude said, savouring every word as it left her mouth. Ernest listened at her feet, open-minded, mouth agape. What is an answer, she continued. An answer is nothing great. An answer is the end; it’s an end, not a beginning. It’s independent, and it’s clear. Only if it leads to another question, only if then is it an answer that matters in any way to a questioning mind.

Pale blue, Ernest thought, her words are pale blue, a Picasso blue. Words for a canvas, perhaps. And he listened, over and over, but to no avail.

Where’s the drama in an answer, Gertrude asked him, and he had to shake his head and admit that there was none. That’s the reason, she continued, why the ends of stories are so frustrating, because an end is always much less dramatic than a beginning and a beginning is a question, while an answer is a full stop. Now, who created the world, that’s an interesting question, at least, but as for the end of the world, well, that’s not even minimally interesting to anyone, since, by definition, the end is the end of the end of all questions. And the end of genius, that is, the ability to ask the right questions, without worrying too much about the right answers. Shakespeare is certainly more questions than answers, wouldn’t you say so?

Ernest thought and saw that Gertrude was right, and felt, for a moment, the hope that a little of her genius could, by osmosis or some similar process, be transferred to him, although he knew it was unlikely, or all but impossible, even though he had already yet to totally discount the therapeutic value of hope, even as he recognized the aridity of the promises it brought.

At night he dreamed of fires and endlessly long vipers that somehow managed to meander in and out of the fire without injury, such green, intricately spotted snakes creeping into the icy flames. At night he dreamed of fires and could smell the flesh of a woman he had once desired and felt a fire invade his body while sleeping, while curled and snaked snug within the dream. And in the morning he awoke to his pale skin, to his blond hair, awoke to his aloneness, to his skin and bone body, and he remembered the fire and a waning moon and a dark canvas and shooting stars, and a breeze that gently fanned the flames, and the roar of a lion far away in the distance, the mountain contours on the horizon, Kilimanjaro; and the emptiness of his day was plagued by the unshakeable oppression of the turmoil of his constant dream.

Can a man love a woman? Gertrude paused, to listen to her own question.

Anna brought tea. Ernest served. Anna brought scones. Ernest buttered. Anna withdrew, leaving the tea, the scones, the butter, and a little honey in a glass jar. And a silence.

Can a man love a woman? Gertrude hesitated again before the immensity of her question.

Or, she said, why can a woman not love a man? That is so much more the question, and she smiled, leaning forward to receive the cup of steaming tea from Ernest’s trembling but devoted outstretched hand.

The question is much more that, Gertrude repeated, savouring each syllable on the tip of her tongue. Yes. . . I think not, she continued, after a long pause. Do you not agree, Ernest?

That night he dreamed of a woman whose face he could not see, whose body he could not see, though he could feel her face and feel her body in his dream, as if awake. The warmth of her body, the smell. He felt her breath on his face, heard sweet nothings in his ear, an invisible body and face, and legs, which he felt invisible, ran his hands over her breasts, over her belly, the soft hair between her legs, the same horizon, the same roar in the distance, but no fire and no flame. He threw himself across her body, the body he could feel but not see, felt the rapture of desire, and then he awoke: back to his pale skin, to his blond hair, to his skin and bone body, and an empty bed.

Can a man love a woman, or more precisely, can a woman love a man? These are difficult questions, said Gertrude as she proceeded to devour a second scone. Can a man and a woman truly love?

Yes, dear Ernest. Too many things happen in your novels, so that they are not really new. So busy busy with events, no time for any story, because you are never anywhere long enough for the story, a real story to emerge. Always too much going on and always nowhere near enough questions and everyone knows that when a question in itself is not interesting enough, then what hope, I ask you, what hope have the poor answers?

In his dreams. . .

In your dreams, dear Ernest, does the moon always wax or does it occasionally wane? Always the same dream, you say, but does the moon from time to time wax or does it from time to time wane? Or perhaps neither wax nor wane, or perhaps sometimes both? Is that not the question, my dear Ernest?

That night, the same dream but there was no moon, or if there was it was as though it was beyond his view, since in his dream although he strained, he was unable to raise his eyes, and so could not answer Gertrude’s question, though not as though.

Pilate’s question, if you remember, Ernest. Do you remember?

Ernest remembered. He always remembered to the point at times of cursing memory and preferring not to remember, but he always remembered almost always almost everything almost all the time, and that was why he drank, he almost always remembered.

Can a woman love a man? Why did Pilate not ask this question? He should have asked this question because it is so much more interesting than the question he actually asked. Whether a man can love a woman is also an interesting question, but very much less so in every respect but two. Perhaps the solution is to ask whether a woman will love a man and whether a man can love a woman, do not you agree, Ernest? In truth, do you not agree?

In his dreams. . .

In the evening, a river. The roar of a lion, a mountain cat. A campfire. Towering tongues of yellow and red flame shooting up, against the mountain shapes in the distance. A savannah stretching infinitely in all directions, in his cot, a huge mountain. Kilimanjaro. The hills. The smell of acrid smoke curling into his nostrils. Rolling his blanket in the dust, and then a dream within a dream within. . . and the smell of a woman, the smell of her body, no visible body, the soft feel of her hair against his face, her legs against his legs, the brush of her lips against his lips, the softness, the hopelessness of it all, green snakes, slow slippery tongues of venemous flame approaching his blanket before entering and leaving the fire without injury, and the roar in the distance, his hand slipping down her back, a body he could feel but not see, his tongue in her ear, a desire to take her. His pale skin, his blond hair, the morning solitude of his skin and bone body. The hopelessness of it all.

Will a woman love. . . ?

Can a man. . . ?

Isn’t that so, Gertrude assessed as she polished off the final – delicious, as always, thank you so very much, my dear Alice – scone. Thank you!

John Lyons, © 2022

Hope in doors

yellow door

Yellow door, John Lyons (40 x 40 cm, oil on canvas)

Hope in doors
hope in gates
a yellow door
in a sea of blue
soft light of the sun
on the surface

all paths lead
to her heart
on both sides
hearts depart

a single plane
a single hope
a single key
key to her heart

John Lyons

Blue door

Blue door

      Blue door, John Lyons (40 x 40 cm, oil on canvas)

If I told you
If I told
If I told you
would you like it
would you ?

A play not on words
but a play in words
In space words
In time words

If I found them
my feelings
If I found them
and if I told you
If I told
would you like it
would you ?

Played out
in rooms
bed and

One door leads
to another
and another
and another
all our lives
windows and doors

One door
on either side
entrance and exit
coming and going
first to last

If I told you
If I told
If I told you
would you like it
would you ?

John Lyons


Blades of grass


The dark side of coffee, John Lyons

It could after all
have been
blades of grass
rather than leaves
the cutting edge
of poetry
in a brave new world

Love is child’s play
innocent as the day
is long : and a poem
is so many words
immersed in silence

as Gertrude said
it’s a meeting place
where everything
is on the table
so bring your appetites

All I know is that
when I said
what I meant
I meant
what I said

You are no flower
you are no blossom
no alabaster neck
no peachy skin

you are the flesh
of my blood
the blood
of my flesh
my love incarnate

Look to the heavens
I have counted the stars
all present and correct
nothing dies forever

John Lyons

The passing of age

To be older is not
to be aged or antique
or ancient or passé
or frail or forsaken
or to be dyed
in the wool

or to be mutton
dressed as lamb

To be older is neither
to be forgotten
nor remembered
nor to have lines drawn
across the forehead
or circles under the eyes
or to be a big noise
or to suffer in silence
or to be seated
in the corner
with curtains closed
nor to eat bread
without crust
nor to be butter
without jam

To be older is neither
to deny nor to affirm
nor to chatter without teeth
nor to put duty before love
nor to sleep with all the angels
nor to rearrange the stars
nor to believe in the past

to be older is not a vocation
nor a vacation nor an excuse
for a reason
nor a missed opportunity
nor an opportunity
not to be missed
to be older is to be younger
as time goes by 

John Lyons

Corrected version

A love song

In the thousand small places
       of myself and of my name
in the growth of passions
       of interests and abilities
of successes and failures
       in all the one-by-one days

and the one-by-one nights

       when flowers bloomed
and before those flowers faded

       in every moment of intimacy
and despite the solitary pain
       of unfolding distance

in every meadow crossed

       and upon every river sailed
at every waking hour
       whether observed or deep
into my dreams I have
       heard you in the song

of sparrows and finches

       and held you in my heart
and will do so for however
       many months and years
remain knowing that in love
       all things are for the best

John Lyons

The business of love

                         Table, John Lyons (70 x 50 cm, acrylic on paper)

A steadfast table

Icelandic blue
on an arctic white
chequered cloth
that cannot contain
every object
the shoes and plates
and tickets to ride

A table
a tenderness
a place in time
an invitation to all
who are absent
a necessary space
where laughter
and silence may

A table where chance
would be a fine thing
and intimate moments
may be played out
or where a hat may be left
or a bunch of keys
and a dog may bark
off camera

A table fit
for the business of life
or the business of love
or to address the appetite
or to say grace
before a meal
or to lay or to clear
or to be in between
or to bear the weight
of a cool red rose
in a cut glass bowl

John Lyons

Gateway to love

        Gateway to love, John Lyons (40 x 40 cm, oil on canvas)

Sometimes the best poetry
       for the moment is composed
of silence : just as sparrows
       do not sing all day long
a pause a respite a lull
       is always welcome
rather than
       a glut or an excess

Broad margins
       of white space
a huge empty sky
       blue by all accounts
waves of transparent air
       shifting imperceptibly
a kind of nothingness
       of fulfilment

What I want to tell you
       is. . .
but it can wait
       just allow me to be
the one beside you
       basking in your beauty
loving you wordlessly without
       so much as a sigh

John Lyons

The passing of flowers


There is no aim
       to clean cut flowers –
to be frank they are
       an unnecessary need
We place them
       upon pedestals
we water them
       with affection
we say we love them
       we admire them
from all angles
       they centre our rooms
and light up the hours
       of our lives that are
themselves mere petals : and
       when their stems droop
and their blooms
       fall apart we mourn
their passing just as
       we mourn the passing
of our loves and all things that
       must necessarily pass

John Lyons

The red ball gown

How the words fall
       the occasion of words
or words for an occasion
       words that tell a story
or words that are the story
       pivotal words not merely
yes or no but found to be
       at every inflection of our lives
words in the midst of silence
       intriguing or decisive words

A widow in a wise veil
       a careless colour applied
to a carefree canvas
       a meal consumed
without animosity
       words measured so as
not to cause offence
       or precisely the opposite
: if a silence is not observed
       does it exist does it ?

A luscious red ball gown
       laid across a bed –
who will wear it and
       will she or won’t she ?
And if love is not observed
       does it exist does it?

John Lyons