A Letter to François Villon


You weren’t expecting me, I know, nor even know me,
but indulge me. Don’t let it be said
I found a voice in which to speak to you
and that you understood me entirely; nor let it be said
you spoke to me and I exactly understood you. Time
and mother tongues outfox us.

Time was when I sauntered in the cold snap
of the Parisian esplanade
one morning in Mont Martre, vagabonding the streets
like a politic fox.
I thought I saw you turn a corner
somewhere ahead of me. Was it you?
How shall I so construe you? You’re a figment to me
no less than you once were
to those who knew you, to whom you were beloved. Who on earth
comprehends you now most truly? I hold it true
we’re most truly ourselves when we’re alone;
evasion and suppression render us
bearable to one another, as does alcohol, excess of which
can kill. In the end poetry
breaks out, radiates
from an all too earthly solitude,
a flourish of terra firma,
to prove how eloquent silence can be.


Whose were the bird-prints in the fallen sky, which I followed
until they took flight? Who was the pure bride
fleeced of her virtue by the evidence of your passage?
François, I tracked you in the very snow
that melted over five hundred years ago.
Those bridal snows have melted now, Villon.
What endures
are preoccupations of the spirit, not the flesh –
the rest, François, assuredly, is ash.


Mourn then those women throughout history
whose beauty briefly flared with life
and the lives of the satellites about them
among whom, if you look closely, certain poets
are made out in dissolution, perpetual orbit,
libidinous connoisseurs. Mark their faces, François, then
confront the mirror, forlorn except
when drunk. A masque of tragedy awaits you.
Mourn then those women; I cannot.
Those I mourn
are those I saw with my own eyes
whose dazzle was like snowfall in the flesh
to be crushed like paper in the vice of time.
I mourn no less the living.
Better than their solid weight and shape
to those who saw Helena in the flesh
is mother’s bounty, the debts we can’t repay.


Princess, for whom my hope is dead,
do you lie awake with thoughts of him?
You who revived my dying heart,
made chemical changes in my head,
I can tell you what became of them –
the dimpled cheeks, the hair a nest,
the shaded calf and the spotlit chest
are wind-blown snows to make a rhyme;
savoured but not saved or preserved
by the body butter applied at bedtime.
Even the bluest lady lies
where worms have entered her.
Now, where were we?


François, are you still there? The line’s gone dead.
Even the obedient children have been sent to bed.


If any fruit partakes of the resurrection
then unlock the secret of the pomegranate,
the fruit of my abandoned poems, whose name itself
is key, whose seeded chambers
scattered on the conjugal bed
proclaim fertility.


Time begins to run, is interrupted
by stones within its stream, pips on the revolving vinyl
of albums long forgotten
involving or relating to, or touching upon, or leading to,
wherever it is we find ourselves today.

What happened to me, François? Where did I
lose my way? The violins mutate around the cello,
the players swaying in sympathy to their instruments.
See how they move, François,
the two violinists about the cello player. Music moves
singularly through time
but is not corrupted by it, unlike so many things
in the jurisdiction of his mercy.
When we meditate on the nature of corruption and loss
we hope we will be redeemed
by driving a splint through a tramp on a cross.

But there is an afterlife.
I have known authority that supports that premonition.
I said, “I have no authority that supports that proposition.”
On the face of it
prima facie
root and reasoning
shot to ribbons
in the light of your findings and mine.

Compagnon de misère,
you spoke to me across the centuries
but I misheard you, with my renown gift
for creative mishearings.
I raise my glass to you, outlaw;
I shall raise many more before the night is over.


One crapulent morning (as most mornings post my twentieth year)
I awoke to hear
death whispering in my ear,
but I couldn’t make out the inaudibles.
Was I in heaven with a hangover?
Whose bed had I woken in
camouflaged as the wide-ranging snow?
I brushed the window with my sleeve
and the seasons changed.

What was that place beyond the glass where the trees
blazed with shadow and the birds flickered among
new leaves, finches like jewels in the crowns
of the conifers? I don’t know where,
I don’t know when, but a barbed noose of leaves and twigs
ambushed intangible birdsong, lassoing sunlight itself
and my soul by the swirls of the river. My memory returns,
turns in on itself, like leaves in its whirpooling water.


What could they tell us about ancestral sin,
the root of knowledge glowing in their eyes,
the flesh animal, rogue, irreproachable,
when we were young, free, uncondemned
by Church and State, ever to be trans-
gressed by the fugitive light of grace?
It is an acid question that I ask, since it is
the red meat of human nature, though I can see
some of you don’t care a fig.

Who was that girl with sly and bribing eyes
who regarded you knowingly as she passed,
with disregarding effrontery and come hither,
her sly eyes like the slit of a snake’s mouth?
What distance between chastity and knowingness?
If you knew, tell me, would you confess?


I seek a pattern of resolution.
But what reference signal of sonic instruments
that can graph the flutter of a pigeon’s wing
can be used to calibrate the recording,
revealing of a tension, a defect of some kind,
that wavers in the timbre of the voice?
Let’s raise a glass to miscreants like us
who never knew stage-lit, rapturous applause.
Let’s bow gracefully before
the inevitable, before
the curtain

It will make for clarity if I round this off,
whether it generates clarity or confusion,
charity in profusion, disparity in cohesion;
concordia discors, the essence of art itself.
In the interests of completion
if anachronism does not accord with the general taste,
the purveyors of callous mendacity will incite us.
At first blush
let me hear you say, “With respect to the court,
they have renounced this world.”

These are the witches who lure and kill.
When my true bride comes I‘ll lie down with her, be still.
Witness the execution of my will:

I leave to the taxman an empty tankard
To the police the handcuffs on the bedpost
To Petronius Arbiter my posthumous works.
To the landlord of The Blessington Carriage
my Tremblement de Terre.
To the government my head on a spike;
take it all, do as you like.
But who’ll live to tell if I was good and got good grades
when Sister Raphael and Father Tobin are both shades?
My boyhood friends all gone,
no wonder then I feel like one
who has crossed the Rubicon.
To the judge at court my Lextox test.
To Frank Gaffney, who dealt with the rabblers at school,
a final 4am call to play Morning has Broken down the line.
The boy just won’t behave.
Will you, Frank, leave no bouquet at my grave?

Leave all unsaid to the one who passed you by
for the way she looked at you,
that once made your heart beat faster
and made the world seem new.
The memory of my first kiss with Louisa Sharman
has not forsaken me,
my shy tension in the pulsing snow.
Raise a glass to the mates you had back when.
Your lover and your friend is dead
and will not come again.

So bring on the dancing girls!
The catwalk twist, the furs and silks a-swirl;
Helen’s pulchritude, Cleopatra’s snaking hips,
Anne Boleyn all scarlet at the lips,
Where are they now where
are they now?
Time is coming, coming ready or not;
the poets and their works are soon forgot.
The maggots dance where they have smelt the rot.
The shadows come, shadows mount and maul the day,
the blossoms of history blown where none can stay.

Rainfall plummets in a bucket,
the barrow heaped with rotten leaves.
Time of the essence as a matter of construction
will not assist us here.


Mother, forgive your youngest son,
a man unworthy of your love and care,
take the colour of his eyes and hair
and teach the world there’s nothing here
to make a girl’s eyes warm and wet
although he is for ever in your debt;
his dreams dissolve, his life has ended,
it has gone athwart, as your God intended.

This one’s for livers of ox-hide. Do you recall
the boy who could out-drink you all;
he’ll never marry, he’ll never recover
from whatever it is that grapples his heel –
not just another vindictive ex lover.
Lover, eat my heart out, swallow the baited hook.
Do you follow? Do you catch
my drift? Those of us who are rehabilitated
are subject to inquiry.


I stumbled out of the dense woods to tell myself
that I must mourn
the dereliction of a poet’s duty,
that the years of heavy drinking led nowhere where I
might find her, that I must confront
the self who withdrew from those it loved,
a man abandoning all he knew
to contemplate
the vacant shadows of a silent moon.


Do not abuse me of my explicit misunderstanding;
I never claimed to know the reason
why a life goes wrong, such mass of wreckage
irrupting on our shores. Disjecta
membra. Latin’s closer to jurisprudence,
though when you lived, François,
French was the language of the English court.
Before the last tribunal
there’ll be no defence, no counterclaim,
no one who prays in aid.
This abandoned wretch could not be saved.


And you, what were you had up for, monsieur?
What blood
did they ring from your wolfish pelt? Was it
the blood of another?
Don’t fret, François, your secret’s safe with me.
Do miscreants rely on your discretion?
I trust so; the dead don’t speak much anyway.
At least, that’s what we’d have them think; you
and I know different [being both
dust now, reader, as you read this]. Let’s keep
what we know sub rosa
beneath the flushed corollary, gashed into magenta
by its own thorns.

As to this last endeavour,
it’s a fine line between discretion and tact;
but would you regard it as premature
or merely immodest
if I speak of my works outstanding?
That’s another fine line.
I’m not shaken from any of my
conclusions, no, but I am
shaken by them.

The blunt instruments of last resort
are not as the brutality of eloquence without thought
but as an ancestral arrow knows its one true target
comes the final result of the originating law.
I shall face death even if it kills me.
Such drollery, but then so what? There’s no hope now
to vary or revoke things done; those things
that have been our undoing.
Drink up, they’ve rung the bell for last orders.

Au revoir, mon ami, we are momentarily
parted again
by the chronological, illogical
discrepancies in time, which the hand of history
will not erase – not in my time, not until time itself
finds it timely to negate us entirely.
Something peripheral to our vision
is fatal to our lives. Merely saying so
suffices to unnerve me.
Substantial, if unsubstantiated,
you spoke to me in my own voice
and a bell sounded in me and was clear.
Satis verborum.
I do go on.


                                                     London, 2013