Poem: London Trio #2

Posted by RDN under RDN's poems on 13 July 2017

These London Trio poems are:

London #1 Marylebone
London #2 The Thames
London #3 Pimlico

This is:
London #2 The Thames

London #2 The Thames

Two cranes guard
Battersea Power Station
and though they have been scrubbed up,
and are now almost fresh and young,
I see them as I always have:
rusting and defiant,
like tarred rigging,
or cobwebs in cable-knit,
made to
shift coal out of barges
towed by tugs called Reliant or Steadfast
to fuel boilers to light London
and to send waste heat in pipes
to council flats
where once fields and manor houses stood
and where Sir Thomas More
educated daughters.

This River Thames
is Whistler’s, and Turner’s,
and Manet’s and Monet’s,
and it is Ed Beale’s too,
who has known and painted it
man and boy
and inhabits the spirit of
the Horse’s Mouth.

The Thames is never tranquil
or pretty:
burly more like,
a boisterous, hurried adventure.

Moored in its world,
Penelope Fitzgerald,
a sort of wolverine –
a sensibility both sharp and mysterious –
raised daughters
in a sinking barge
which barely shrugged
itself on the rising tide
of swirling murkiness.

She put the girls in
a novel
(an exorcism or an explanation, some such)
and we see the kids –
somehow old-style
with chapped lips
and sagging ankle socks
and rose-hip cheeks —
on the low tide’s
soggy clay,
itself – I imagine – a little pink in heartless dawn
and – this I have seen – on fire in sunset.

And there beside the barge
when comfortably sagged on to the
clay
there nestled
shards
of de Morgan
Arts and Crafts
for the girls to worm out
and sell at
the World’s End –
in that early-Beatle Chelsea
where they were just ripe
to ape Quant girls.

Those wellingtoned-girls
may have skulked or sauntered
through housing estates
more purely working class then,
where they were known
and welcomed, or not –
I couldn’t say.

In the precious
unpressured days
hammocked between
Christmas and New Year,
having fridge-snarfed
Ottolenghi’s
faintly Levantine turkey
(left-overs in a borrowed flat)
I strode and jogged
from Vauxhall Bridge to Lots Road.

Am I falsely beatific?
Am I missing some tragic affair?
I see
the new glasshouses
rising across the river from Dolphin Square –
famously shiftless, yet bold in its way –
where I lived once
(and swam back stroke
in a marbled pool under a stone dolphin
in a house named after Nelson’s Rodney)
and contemplated a bus
Up West
where I might
inveigle dirty old men into
rowing on the Serpentine
or a cinema ticket,
more importuning than
importuned.

These new shiny Southbank buildings
seem almost empty,
though I sometimes see trim young women
with dogs,
and the acres of glass and steel,
look fine and temporary.

And now the great brick-built engine houses
of Battersea and Lots
are being re-clothed,
their burliness shimmered up.
They’ll out-glitter
their cousin at Bankside,
where the young
have made a Mecca
out of the husks of megawatts,
and where I have worshipped
Strindberg’s seascapes and
allowed myself the dark
thrill of Joseph Beuys.

These new trolloped
power-houses
were once the handsomest
of the Modernist ball,
and won’t yield in defiance.

They speak of solidity,
even surliness,
not like the confident
stepping-out of the Festival Hall,
so cheerful,
so post-war,
so un-Futurist in its
careless way.

One evening in the 80s,
Indian gypsy children,
glowing and dark
and smelling of bivouac,
love-bombed my kids
at a concert,
raucus and funky,
incensed and sweaty.

And in that hall 30 years later
I took a step-child to hear Jackie Leven
moan and holler
his inner Scott Walker
proudly re-channelling
his Anais Nin.

Along a bit
in a later, more assertive place,
where Lasdun insisted
concrete could be nature
not Nazi,
I took my boy to see
a day-long Stoppard,
and he –
willing but not over-eager
to please –
sat through The Coast Of Utopia –
or What Chekhov did next.

And later yet,
with my beautiful wife,
I saw The Invention of Love –
Stoppard’s last hurrah for pederasty,
a sort of proclamation
against the closing of doors.

And outside, on a sunny riverside,
forty years before,
Stoppard gave us Hamlet in 15 Minutes.

And between the two,
we had his Shakespeare in Love,
with boys in frocks
and girls in breeches
populating the upstream reaches
from Bankside to Hampton Court,
whilst ferryman
made timeless jokes.

It’s downstream
for docks and streets
which were
once replete in risk:
pepper was in the air,
and opium added forgetfulness
to the fog
and Chinamen and darkies
thronged amongst
Lascars and deck officers.

That world was gone the day before
I ever went so far east,
but I visited a bit,
and scavenged ruined warehouses,
and now –
re-thinking those days –
I recall Joseph Cornell’s lonely walks
in New York
for riverside detritus
to treasure.

And by the Hudson and by the Thames,
alike walled-in by brick warehouses
now repurposed,
I went looking for Tristan Jones
and sort of found him once or twice,
an old salt
making everything around him
seem Melville,
as he shrugged own inside his
pea- jacket
resisting river winds,
and me.

Further down
in broader reaches,
I once kept freezing watch for Jones
on his ocean-sharpened trimaran
whilst he rested his one leg
and his grouches
and we were amongst Conrad’s
steamer lights
mingled with street neon
and headlights,
and all – to me, alone on deck –
frightening.

Thereabouts,
one eerie summer afternoon,
I cruised
in a Clyde puffer.
We wheezed and sighed
across a boundless milky
estuarine ballroom
as smooth as Southend’s
Kursall ballroom floor
off our port beam.

We anchored in a muddy creek
and Nick Nice,
the full-on EOD man,
knew every explosive wreck
and many a stray doodlebug
and could recall Sir Galahad
parked in such a spot
in a nervous TNT quarantine.

We swung out
a leaky clinker dinghy
so I could sail
in a timid imitation
Gallico’s goose wanderer
and my heart nearly burst.

 

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