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Cordelia: or, ‘A Poem Should not Mean, but Be’

To those who kiss in fear that they shall never kiss again

To those that love with fear that they shall never love again

To such I dedicate this rhyme and what it may contain.

None of us will ever take the transiberian train

Which makes a very satisfactory refrain

Especially as I can repeat it over and over again

Which is the main use of the refrain.

I with no middle flight intend the truth to speak out plain
Of honour truth and love gone by that has come back again
The fact is one grows weary of the love that comes again.
I may not know much about gods but I know that
Eros is a strong purple god.
And that there is a point where incest becomes
Tradition. I don’t mean that literally;
I don’t love my brother or he me.
We have been mutually avoiding each other
For years and will continue to do so.
Even I know about cross words—
Something. The word you want is Dante.
He said he loved Beatrice. Whatever he did
He didn’t love Beatrice. At least the
Beatrice Portinari whom history gives.
He knew her and the point about all these
Florentines is that they all were
Killing each other or dying of rapid
Consumption. Beatrice died; Rossetti painted her
Cutting Dante in the street. Botticelli
Painted the rest: Simonetta Vespucci
Died of a rapid consumption (age 23)
Giuliano dei Medici murdered by the altar rail (age 19)
Guido Cavalcanti died in exile (age 35)
Dante dei Aligeri died in exile (age 90)
Lorenzo dei Medici who lives for ever
Since he stayed there and commissioned
The paintings, and poems and statues
And if he also commissioned the deaths
I don’t blame him. He didn’t feel
Very magnificent when his brother
Was murdered in sanctuary.
Do you realise whoever did that
Would be excommunicated if, that is, if
He hadn’t also murdered the papal legate,
His best friend.
I have lived long enough having seen one thing;
That term has an end.
It was getting dark on the platform of nowhere
When I who was anxious and sad came to you
Out of the rain. Out of the sound of the cold
Wind that blows time before and time after
Even Provence knows.
And as for this line I stole it from T.S. Eliot
And Ezra Pound and A. C. Swinburne. All very good
Poets to steal from since they are all three dead.
The love that is must always just contain
The glory of the love that was whatever be the pain.
We played at mates and mating and stopped up the drain.
Hear me. a Mister Poster I know
You have burnt me too brown you must boil me again
You simply have no notion how delightful it will
Be when they pick us up and throw us with the lobsters out to sea.
It is the lark, my love, and not the nightingale.
None of us will ever take the trans-siberian train.
She wanted to and was collecting people who did
I thought I did but now I know I don’t.
It is the lark, my love, and not the nightingale.
In fact I’ve never heard either bird
But people say they sound very similar.
And what the devil were Romeo and Juliet
About wasting their last moments
Listening to birds. Hah.
I like kicking up larks or
Larking up kicks. So do most poets
Including J .H. Prynne, the memorable poet
Who is happy to say that the U. L.
Has got his middle name wrong.
He claims it stands for Hah
But there is a limit. I know it all.
Riddle me riddle randy ree
Round and round in the snotgreen sea
When they pick us up and throw us
With the Joyces out to sea.
Tell us tale of Troy’s downfall
We all would have liked to have been there.
The infernal Odyssos. He it was whose bile
Stirred up by envy and revenge destroyed
The mother of womankind. And Swinburne
Got a kick out of pain but I don’t
I just get kicked.
I wish I didn’t keep sounding like Richard the Third
Except that if I don’t I tend to sound
Like Richard the Second. And who wants that.
I suppose I must sound like Richard the First.
What did he do?
Nothing I take it
I get a kick out of larking up nightingales.
Prynne says that if I don’t come back
Safe from Sicily by the thirtieth April
They will send a posse.
March is the cruellest station
Taking on bullying men
And were you really afraid they would rape you?
No. I thought there would be grave difficulties.
Not just that I was actively opposed
And so was every other man, woman and child
On that there train.
I was afraid they would kill me.
I may look stupid but I’m not
So simple as to think your name
Is Elizabeth Brown. Well. All right
My name is Veronica Forrest-Thomson.
Agamemnon was King of the Achaians at the time,
Priam, of the Trojans, Theseus, of the Athenians.
And like all Good Kings, they are dead.
In my day it was the done thing to side
With the Trojans for no better reason
Than that they lost. But me I back
Winners every time.
Mary Shelley may go to hell
As she thought she was going to anyway
And take Frankinsense with her.
I want her husband, alive and well.
Who, of course, also got killed.
Hardly surprising if he made a habit
Of reading Aiscylos while sailing.
He wasn’t reading Aiscylos when he drowned.
Got cremated like a pagan king.
Not Agamemnon who, as I said, was king at the time
And lost, murderer of his daughter
Killed by his wife and (other) daughter.
Killed by his death killing his life.
Stabbed in the back in his bath.
I think of it every time I have a bath.
Though I have no sympathy at all
For that daughter and son.
I think it is unfair that Helen
Had everything, immortal beauty,
Lovers, cities destroyed and battles
Fought about her. And she just came home
And calmly went around being Menelaus’ wife
While her twin sister, Clytemnestra
Was murdered by her son and daughter.
And the Athenians acquitted them.
They would do, a nation of sophists.
Always betraying their allies and torturing
Women and children and enslaving people.
They even killed Socrates, their one good man,
Then Plato tried to be a philosopher king.
And got enslaved for his pains.
I wish they had kept him enslaved.
He escaped, of course, and wrote books
About how he would do it better
If he was in charge. All poets do that.
They are just as incompetent as the rest
If they try to organise things.
As witness my own efforts in that direction
Or those of my avatar, Agamemnon,
Who, as I say came home and was killed in his bath
Killing his wife and his daughter.
And if you don’t know about this you ought to.
Read it in the Iliad, read it in the Odyssey,
Do not read it in Freud who is always wrong
Although even Freud didn’t deserve a son like Lacan.
But first and last read me, the beloved
Who was killed in the general slaughter.
But rise again like John Donne
(read him too) I, Helen, I Iseult, I Guenevere,
I Clytemnestra and many more to come.
I did it, I myself, killing the King my father
Killing the King my mother, joining the King my brother.
It is the kick, my love, and not the nightingale
I like larking up kicks myself
But not kicking.
They that have power to hurt and do so
Should not be blamed by Shakespeare or anyone else
For hurting though such is the race of poets
That they will blame them anyway.
However it is a pretty productive process
Especially if one may be plumber as well as poet
And thus unstop the drain as well as writing
Poetic Artifice “Pain stopped play” and
Several other books and poems including
1974 and All That (seriously though)
I, Veronica did it, truth-finding, truth-seeking
Muck-raking, bringing victory.
It was a horse, of course, in which the warriors hid
Pretending to bring peace
And they wouldn’t speak to me, crouching in the dark
Like a lot of fools, hearing the voice of the goddess
In an alien city, I speak your tongue in my own city:
Cambridge or Camelot and you won’t listen to me
Advised, of course, by Odyssos, solicitor, betrayer.
And when they had killed all the men, raped all the women etc.
Agamemnon came home and, as I said, was stabbed by his wife
In his bath. Anyway it is the lark, my love,
And not the nightingale. I follow the sacred footsteps of
Hippolyta, the blest, the best
That has been said or spoken well in any tongue
Read John Donne—the memorable dun.
Don’t read Matthew Arnold; he’s a fool
I am not Prince Thomas Aquinas F.H. Eliot
I am not an attendant lord either.
I am the king who lives.
Spring surprised us, running through the market square
And we stopped in Prynne’s rooms in a shower of pain
And went on in sunlight into the University Library
And ate yogurt and talked for an hour.
You, You, grab the reins.
Drink as much as you can and love as much as you can
And work as much as you can
For you can’t do anything when you are dead.

The motto of this poem heed
And do you it employ:
Waste not and want not while you’re here
The possibles of joy.

Veronica Forrest-Thomson
Veronica Forrest-Thomson was the author of three poetry collections and the influential critical work Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry.