Albert: a deafness not of hearing

Albert: a deafness not of hearing

In a little village of the Midi
you can see an old man, in his eighties,
confined to short walks with the aid of a stick,
taking regular gasps of breath as he proceeds,
like a champion swimmer ready to touch home
              after a gruelling race.
Test him in English as though he were Winston Churchill
he has Churchill’s physique
his baldness and gruff voice.
He will reply in tones that remind you of Churchill,
a thirties’ English which he learnt in the thirties
                       in England.
He will tell you perhaps
         of the young schoolmistress
who fell in love with him
                but he had come to England
to learn English, not to fall in love.
He will probably tell you of his visits
                                        to Speakers’ Corner
in Hyde Park where every cause of the day could be aired.
Then the years in Paris teaching English
                                                         and Spanish
but mainly teaching English to arrogant
young Frenchmen who felt so superior
although no Speakers Corner existed in France.
A career of antagonism, bearbaiting
             (there was something
                                       of the bear about him)
terminating
              in retirement and
                                       depression.
As if wishing to defy his countrymen
he reads his favourite novelist
           Balzac
                     translated into Italian
the young man at Speakers’ Corner
                                                       depression
the depleted library, half the books
thrown away in a fit of gloom, given to his housekeeper
to be burned with the rubbish, now regretted
                            done in depression.
Educated by accident; the Scottish woman who lost her wombripener
to German shells on the fields of Flanders, forced back
to this same village with three young sons; his nephews.
Learning English from her (till sixteen merely
passing exams through her – a shepherd)
leaving for Paris thanks to her
                                                  to begin,
                                                               or to end.
Notice finally his deafness, the left ear hoisted
into view, like the old trumpets, but serving
little purpose, little motivation to listen
except to his own voice,
       as he pours you a cognac,
                             a deafness bottled up and matured
a private delectation.

1977

Le Minier, L’Aveyron

Le MinierHere is a poem written many years ago when I was travelling in Central America researching my doctoral thesis. I remember showing it to Ernesto Cardenal while I was staying in his commune in Solentiname, on one of the islands in the south of Nicaragua’s Great Lake. He told me then that it reminded him of Ezra Pound’s poem “Provincia deserta” and that indeed – in addition to my own experience – was the inspiration.

Le Minier is a very small village close to Le Viala du Tarn and not too far from the town of Roquefort, famous for its sheep’s cheese. Once a thriving mining community, nowadays the principal activity in the region is rearing sheep. In the time when I used to visit the village, many of the houses were in disrepair or in the process of being renovated as second homes for families who lived in Montpellier or other cities in the Languedoc.

Ezra Pound’s poem begins:

AT Rochecoart,
Where the hills part
                    in three ways,
And three valleys, full of winding roads,
Fork out to south and north,
There is a place of trees … gray with lichen.
I have walked there
            thinking of old days.

This morning I awoke thinking of old days, and of the days that lie ahead. I still remember the sound of the sheep bells at dusk when the shepherd would drive the flock down the hill, through a narrow street, past the house where I was staying. The form of my poem was intended in part to suggest that descent.


Le Minier, L’Aveyron

The river flows beneath the old bridge,
swollen by recent storm rains, polishing
the stepping stones in the bed, racing down the weir.
In the square a memorial stone
                                             1914-1918
            Le Minier
at war with Germany. On the slopes
that run up from the square are their deserted houses,
some still with roof, but mainly caved in,
                              windowless,
                                             doorless
By the memorial the little chapel built by the names
on the stone,
                 perhaps helped by their fathers.
Room for sixty or more on the worn benches
though now at eight o’clock, before the sun
has broken the hill top, only
         a handful of women dressed in black hear a mass
   said by the frail priest who cannot shave so early in
the morning.
            Few returned to the village
and their young soon left for the cities
               where they could bury themselves in life.
   Now a few come back in retirement,
back to the village
                     so suited for dying.
At night the sheep come down from the hills
for shelter, the shepherd’s stick
   keeping the pace steady, the anxious dog
                                   guarding the rear:
through the narrow paths
                                 for shelter.
The copper mine is finished,
   no work. Perhaps a few women making gloves
at home, making lace for tourists.
   Summer visitors arrive like a transfusion,
     but the blood seeps out through the cracked
walls, gushes from broken window frames.
     You may see a young couple kissing passionately
by the river, pledging
                              a life
                                     of love
together. How can you tell if the next year
      will not see them miles                                      
                                          apart
lives apart.

1976