Ambitious cruel bone
But today, Cheng, when I touched your face,
I felt the urge
of the ambitious cruel bone to emerge*
A few years after he imagined bones breaking through the attractive surface of his Oxford girlfriend's face, Keith Douglas wandered quietly across a North African battlefield, examining the mess left by the shells his tank brigade had fired an hour or so earlier. One of his most famous and most pitiless poems describes the headless corpse of an Italian he found lying in the sand, still comically clutching a souvenir trinket bought in Tripoli.
After running through Douglas' morbid poem for his girlfriend, my aching brain carries me helplessly off to an eerie corner of TS Eliot's oeuvre:
Webster was much possessed by death,
and saw the skull beneath the skin...
The 'naked' bones of long-dead humans are supposed to unnerve us, and plaster impressions of them are distributed in dark corners of fairground 'horror rides' to elicit screams from teenage couples; for Douglas and Eliot, though, what was truly terrifying was the continual presence of the skeleton beneath the plush flesh of living human beings. The skeleton might be quiescent for long periods of time - might bend and stretch politely, painlessly, at the command of its owner's brain - but it would inevitably assert itself sooner or later, by aching or breaking or even by bursting right through the mask of flesh.
For all of his short adult life, Keith Douglas was obsessed by the thought that a malign creature, which he referred to as his 'beast', was living on and feeding off his body, growing stronger when he grew weaker. In a series of frustrated fragmentary poems, Douglas struggled to describe the parasite:
If at times my eyes are lenses
through which the brain explores
constellations of feeling
my ears yielding like swinging doors
admit princes to the corridors
into the mind, do not envy me.
I have a beast on my back.
Certain critics have condemned or pitied Douglas, characterising him as a 'nihilist' or a 'psychic amputee', but his terrified sense of the otherness of his own body always seems very rational to me when I'm laid up in bed feeling my bones ache.
Here, anyway, are two morbid poems I've been fiddling with: I thought I'd better post them tonight, because I'm already starting to feel better, and I might not be able to wallow in self-pity for much longer...
Two Sickbed Poems for Keith Douglas and Cheng
1. Theology in the Geriatric Ward of North Shore Hospital
We are all agnostics
on our sickbeds. Why else
would we clutch at the orderly,
at the morphine pump?
Have you ever wondered why Uncle Ken's prayers were answered
ambiguously, or else not at all?
It's because God's first and only language is Esperanto
and Ken prayed in Kiwi vernacular English.
God understood a word here, a word there,
just as he graspsed little pieces of the pleas
uttered in Lisbon and Kiev,
but he couldn't find unity,
let alone consistency,
let alone the sort of formal beauty
he admires in his angels, and in Marcel Proust.
God puzzled over 'mate', and 'shit a brick',
and couldn't connect Ken's long list of promises
with his simple
At least God gave Ken
free and legal morphine.
2. Keith Douglas in the Catacombs Of Alexandria
The skull smiled
like a crocodile.
The skull smiled
What you once were
What you will be
What you are
You shrugged your shoulders,
kicked the bone-flecked sand,
unholstered your pistol.
The kitset creature can be taken
apart. Those teeth can be eased out with pliers,
as if they were scraps of shrapnel.
The kneebone can be hacked off
and held in the hand.
The cranium can adorn a scholar's desk,
can scan his manuscripts for elisions,
for errors of taste.
The trouble begins when we attempt
molars and incisors suddenly look the same,
the jawbone has shrunk half an inch on one side,
the forelegs and hips seem to come
from different creatures.
How much easier it is to make a ghost.**
*Actually, I'm misquoting Douglas. I have a very bad habit of rewriting the lines of my favourite poets to bring them into line with my preoccupations. Here are the lines I've disfigured, which come from Douglas' 1940 poem 'The Prisoner':
Today, Cheng, I touched your face
with two fingers, as a gesture of love,
for I can never prove enough
by sight or sense your strange grace...
alas, Cheng, I cannot tell why,
today I touched a mask stretched on the stone-
hard face of death. There was the urge
to escape the bright flesh and emerge
of the ambitious cruel bone.
**Before Hamish Dewe or Richard Taylor exposes me, I should admit to ripping this last line off 'How to Kill', the Douglas poem Richard liked to read to startled guests of the Dead Poets Bookshop back in the '90s.