It was somewhere to live. I was
Just hanging around, courting you.
Afloat on the morning tide and tipsy feelings
Of my twenty-fifth year. Gutted, restyled
A la mode, the Alexandria House
Became a soup-kitchen. Those were the days
Before the avant-garde of coffee bars.
The canteen clatter of the British Restaurant,
One of the war’s utility leftovers,
Was still the place to repair the nights with breakfasts.
But Alexandria House was the place to be seen in.
The girls that helped to run it lived above it
With a retinue of loose-lifers, day-sleepers
Exhausted with night-owling.
Somehow I got a mattress up there, in a top room,
Overlooking Petty Cury. A bare
Mattress, on bare boards, in a bare room.
All I had, my notebook and that mattress.
Under the opening, bud-sticky chesnuts,
On into June, my job chucked, I laboured
Only at you, squandering all I’d saved.
Free of University I dangled
In its liberties.
Every night I slept on that mattress, under one blanket,
With a lovely girl, escaped freshly
From her husband to the frontier exposure
Of work in the soup-kitchen. What
Knighthood possessed me there? I think of it
As a kind of time that cannot pass,
That I never used, so still possess.
She and I slept in each other’s arms,
Naked and as easy as lovers, a month of nights,
Yet never once made love. A holy law
Had invented itself, somehow, for me.
But she too served it, like a priestess,
Tender, kind and stark naked beside me.
She traced out the fresh rips you had inscribed
Across my back, seeming to join me
In my obsession, in my concentration,
To keep my preoccupation intact.
She never once invited, never tempted.
And I never stirred a finger beyond
Sisterly comforting. I was like her sister.
It never seemed unnatural. I was focused,
So locked onto you, so brilliantly,
Everything that was not you was blind-spot.
I still puzzle over it — doubtful, now,
Whether to envy myself, or pity. Her friend,
Who had a bigger room, was wilder.
We moved in with her. That lofty room
Became a dormitory and HQ
Alternative to St Botolph’s. Plump and pretty,
With a shameless gap-tooth laugh, her friend
Did all she could to get me inside her.
And you will never know what a battle
I fought to keep the meaning of my words
Solid with the world we were making.
I was afraid, if I lost that fight,
Something might abandon us. Lifting
Each of those naked girls, as they smiled at me
In their early twenties, I laid them
Under the threshold of our unlikely future
As those who wanted protection for a new home
Used to bury, under the new threshold,
A sinless child.
From Birthday Letters, (Faber & Faber, 1998).