Saturday, 26 March 2016

Keith Douglas: 'Mersa'

Mersa Matruh by David Holt. Used under Creative Commons license

MERSA (Keith Douglas)

This blue halfcircle of sea
moving transparently
on sand as pale as salt
was Cleopatra's hotel:

here is a guesthouse built
and broken utterly, since.
An amorous modern prince
lived in this scoured shell.

Now from the skeletal town
the cherry skinned soldiers stroll down
to undress to idle on the white beach.
Up there, the immensely long road goes by

to Tripoli: the wind and dust reach 
the secrets of the whole 
poor town whose masks would still
deceive a passer-by;

faces with sightless doors
for eyes, with cracks like tears
oozing at corners. A dead tank alone
leans where the gossips stood.

I see my feet like stones
underwater. The logical little fish
converge and nip the flesh
imagining I am one of the dead.

                                        [after October 1942]

Apparently it was on this day (26 March) in 1944 that Keith Douglas sent 'Mersa' to Betty Jesse, who was the assistant of Tambimuttu, editor of Poetry (London). Betty Jesse was also one of Douglas's girlfriends, which comes as no surprise to anyone who has read about his complicated love life.

Mersa is Mersa Matruh in Egypt, not far from El Alamein and another key location in the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. It has also been a popular beach resort for a long time. This concise poem seems to describe an out-of-season resort, but details emerge gradually to show that the war has ravaged this town: it is 'skeletal' and 'A dead tank alone/leans where the gossips stood'.

As is sadly so often the case in Douglas's poems, 'Mersa' ends with a portrait of the artist as a dead man. The brilliance of the final stanza is in how much it says with so few words. Douglas sees his feet like 'stones underwater': he is like an ancient statue lost in a Mediterranean harbour, already becoming part of history. The 'logical' fish see him as edible, 'one of the dead'. Douglas is logical, too, but as with the clear water of the port, there is always more beneath the surface.

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