at sea

Poem: To the Captain of the Swimming Team

Le temps se passe
And it’s so long now
Since you came across
The Common Room
That autumn evening
In Connecticut
And asked me if I knew
Your cousins near
Annapolis.

The moment before
There had been no one
Lonelier than I.
Standing there
Beside the fireplace,
Unspoken to
For being new,
I had been wondering
How to run away.
But all my plans
For catching trains
Departed
When I heard you say:
‘Let’s go
And have a cigarette
After dinner.’

Later,
When we were room-mates,
I still remember
The Headmaster
Entering suddenly
Without a knock
To find me on my knees
Beside the closet,
Where you,
With giant cardboard teeth
To make you look
Like Father X
Were hearing my Confession.
It was a moment which he
Handled well:
‘Acting, I see,’
He said,
And left.

There is something
About a first friend
From school
That lasts
After the years between
Have gone.

But only now,
I think,
Do I begin to understand,
As I reach back
To the true
Things
Lost touch with
Long ago.

If only
I had realized
What swimming meant
To you -
So when
Later at college
Your arm was hurt,
It was an end.

If only
I had answered
Your letter
When you thanked me
For my books;
Had made
The right response;
Had turned into a real friend,
Someone who was close
And cared.

There is nothing
Sadder
Than later
To realize
What one
Should have done.

But I wasn’t able
To make
The right response
Having made
The wrong response
Too often -
Looking out
For myself
First,
And unaccustomed
To care
Really
For anyone,
Though, of course,
I thought
I did.

But that kind of life
Makes one
Stupid,
With a kind of stupidity
Which only sorrow
Removes,
If it has
Its way
In breaking through
To the heart
Imprisoned
By selfishness
And isn’t
Channelled off
To increase
The sad self-regard.

In the spring,
Before the end of Sixth-Form year,
When we lay in the grass
At the top of the hill
Behind the chapel,
Watching the sun go down
Over the mountains
Beyond the Housatonic,
And talking
About nothing very much,
I knew then
That I would remember
Those minutes always,
That somehow they were even then
Filled with nostalgia.
Momentarily it was as though
I were already old,
With my life lived through,
And with nothing but school
To look back on.
That kind of tristesse
Is most enduring,
Alas.

All those poems I had read
Up there in the gymnasium,
Sitting on the balcony
Supposedly watching the basketball,
While you were down in the pool
Practising
How to win every race,
Had done me no good.
I had learned to welcome unhappiness
As my only real friend,
And that was a stupid thing to do.

So you see,
I feel
There is very little to be said
For romantic poetry.
It is all
Ultimately false
In all
Its suppositions.
If this were the only life,
And we were finally finished
When we are dead,
A case might be made
For that kind of sadness.
But, blessedly, this is not
The only life,
And we have our religion to tell us
That there is a Kingdom
Ahead.

But I paid
No attention to wisdom
Then
And went on reading
And saying:
‘How true!’
To all the beautiful lies.

Once,
When something had gone wrong,
And you
Had lost a race,
And were much upset,
They sent for me
To leave off reading
And come down to the showers
And talk to you,
Because they thought
That I could help.
I don’t think
That I did help.
But still.
It is pleasant to know
That they thought I could.

And later,
When I was Manager
(Did I owe that, after all, to you?)
And greatly enjoyed announcing
In my fraudulent English accent
The races
(And at the end your name
Almost always
Among the ones who won),
The whole team looked forward.
After the final triumphant meet,
To throwing me in.
I rather looked forward to it myself.
But on the day
When the laurels were bestowed
I was ill
In the infirmary.
And so
My assistant was thrown in instead.

Now,
When I would like to delight in that memory,
I can’t,
As the occasion never occurred.

But there were other times
Which did.
They come back suddenly,
Real and vivid,
As though they could be touched.

There was that week-end
Which you asked me
To spend with you
At home.
We went out driving
In your rattley car
And stopped in the woods
And talked
While we looked
At the brilliantly coloured
Leaves.
But how can that be?
It was early summer,
When the leaves
Are still green.
You see
How one changes things round
To suit one’s feelings.
And fall
Is a more effective
Time of year.
But it was early summer,
And we were both,
I should say,
Seventeen.

If I went back to school,
Went back to evening chapel,
Heard Ave, Maris Stella
In that wonderful unearthly tone,
And after prayers:
‘Mother of Perpetual Help
Pray for us:
Holy Saints of Canterbury,
Intercede for us,’
After prayers,
If it were close to Christmas,
The boys might sing
One of those carols
Which always bring
The years at school to mind.

How has it happened
That you have taken your place
With Good King Wenceslaus
On the Feast of Stephen,
When, as you remember,
The snow lay round about,
Cold and crisp and even?

And
You must remember
How we used to serve Mass together,
Kneeling up perfectly straight
In black cassock and white lace-edged surplice,
Underneath the great baldachino
Of blue and gold
That soared above the trecento crucifix -
Our Lord,
Painted as it were by Cimabue,
Looking down upon us
In the early morning of our youth.

And sometimes too
We served Benediction,
With all the candles burning
When those carols were sung,
And afterwards,
When the boys had gone
Down to the Common Room,
We would stand out of sight
Behind the chapel
In the late evening light,
Smoking a cigarette,
And talking
About nothing very much.

It is a great many years since
Your generous letter;
And now this is the answer
Instead of the novel I promised you
All about school.
I doubt
If I shall ever write that.
And so I must offer
These lines
In its place.

I wonder how many letters
Are never sent
Because the writer
Fears
There would be no response.
But that is rarely, I think,
Deliberate,
At least not in an unkind way.
There is usually a reason
Which it might be painful to explain -
One’s own lack of friendliness, for example,
As with me.

But you sent your letter off
And now
What you have probably forgotten
You wrote
Brings you this in return.

- Dunstan Thompson
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