Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Keith Douglas: 'Tel Aviv' and 'Jerusalem'

Tel Aviv near Haifa, 1948 by Willem van de Pol

The two Keith Douglas poems below, 'Tel Aviv' and 'Jerusalem', could seem from their titles to be companion poems written around when Douglas was on leave in Tel Aviv and Alexandria, in April 1943. More accurately, though, 'Tel Aviv' is a draft for (or earlier version of) 'Jerusalem', and the two were preceded by an even earlier draft called 'Saturday Evening in Jerusalem'. The notes he left suggest that Douglas viewed 'Jerusalem' as the only finished one of the three. 'Saturday Evening in Jerusalem' is definitely less interesting, but I like to look at 'Tel Aviv' and 'Jerusalem' together.

It appears that 'Tel Aviv' was written about Olga Meiersons, a Latvian-Jewish woman who Douglas became friends with in that city, and to whom he wrote some very interesting letters. The introduction to his Letters, by Desmond Graham, calls Olga "a great and important friend...rather than a lover", but the poems and even the letters suggest there was a bit more to it than that. Olga found her way into the late poem 'To Kristin, Yingcheng, Olga, Milena' - the other three women were definitely ex-girlfriends - and in one letter to Olga, Douglas wrote: "When we meet it'll be good for us both if we do more kissing than talking." This meeting apparently led to those poems, which also speak for themselves. Keith Douglas did love girls and ambiguous situations, that much is certain.

The final poem, 'Jerusalem', opens with a wonderful and very Imagist stanza to set the scene ("the cat moonlight leaps out/between the dark hotels upon/the river of people"), and then becomes more openly romantic, with its references to Ophelia. I particularly love the line "our hands meet like strangers in a city". The image of war as a many-headed hydra (or some other mythic creature) is also very vivid.

'Jerusalem' is more streamlined and you can see the editing work that has taken place, although much was carried over from the previous version. I wish, though, that he had kept the final lines of 'Tel Aviv', which though not subtle are bold and sensual: "If/I had said this to you then, BANG will/have gone our walls of indifference in flame."

TEL AVIV (Keith Douglas)

Like Ophelia in a lake of shadow lies
your face, a whiteness that draws down my lips
our hands meet like strangers in a city
among the glasses on the table tops
impervious to envy or pity
we whose drug is a meeting of the eyes.

In your locked mind your news from Russia is
and if I think, there is waiting Libya,
Tripoli, the many heads of war
are watching us. We are not unaware
but are this evening finding heavier
than war the scents of youth, youth's subtleties.

We who can't put out a single hand
to help our balance, who can never lean
on an old building in the past
or a new building in the future, must
balance tiptoe on a pin,
could teach an angel how to stand.

Do not laugh because I made a poem
it is to use what then we couldn't handle - 
words of which we know the explosive
or poisonous tendency when we are too close. If
I had said this to you then, BANG will 
have gone our walls of indifference in flame.

                                                 [? April 1943-1944]

JERUSALEM (Keith Douglas) 

Tonight there is a movement of things
the cat moonlight leaps out
between the dark hotels upon
the river of people; is gone
and in the dark words fall about.
In the dome of stars the moon sings.

Ophelia, in a pool of shadow lies
your face, flower that draws down my lips
our hands meet like strangers in a city
among the glasses on the table-top
impervious to envy or pity
we two lost in the country of our eyes.

We two, and other twos.
Stalingrad, Pacific, Tunis,
Tripoli, the many heads of war
are watching us. But now, and here
is night's short forgiveness
that all lovers use.

Now the dark theatre of the sky
encloses the conversation of the whole city
islanded, we sit under
the vault of it, and wonder
to hear such music in the petty
laughter and talk of passers-by.

                                                             [? 1944] 

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