Sunday, 31 May 2015

Keith Douglas: 'The Knife'

THE KNIFE (Keith Douglas)

Can I explain this to you? Your eyes
are entrances the mouths of caves.
I issue from wonderful interiors
upon a blessed sea and a fine day,
from inside these caves I look and dream.

Your hair explicable as a waterfall
in some black liquid cooled by legend
fell across my thought in a moment
became a garment I am naked without
lines drawn across through morning and evening.

And in your body each minute I died
moving your thigh could disinter me
from a grave in a distant city:
your breasts deserted by cloth, clothed in twilight
filled me with tears, sweet cups of flesh.

Yes, to touch two fingers made us worlds
stars, waters, promontories, chaos
swooning in elements without form or time
come down through long seas among sea marvels
embracing like survivors on our islands.

This I think happened to us together
though now no shadow of it flickers in your hands
your eyes look down on ordinary streets
if I talk to you I might be a bird
with a message, a dead man, a photograph.

                                     [Wadi Natrun, October 1942]

'The Knife', published in Poetry London a few years after Keith Douglas's death, was originally dedicated to Milena Gutierrez, one of the subjects of one of his failed engagements. It has a touch of the swooning romantic which occasionally appears in his love poetry, to varied effect.

This poem has an unfinished quality (even to the extent of seeming to lack an essential word here and there), but beyond the heartfelt emotion and a few unforgettable images, it is the final stanza which really makes it special to me. Those bleak lines are so powerfully evocative of the end of a love affair, and the final lines have that cold, clear prophetic-foreshadowing quality of some of his finest poetry: "if I talk to you I might be a bird/with a message, a dead man, a photograph." 


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