Prelude

 
                   To Conrad Aiken

 

And if an orange cat should follow you

Down through the roses to the garden’s end…

There, where the hollyhocks, their cup-like flowers

Spilled out to bees in August, stand, a row

Remembered from the masking years, to hide

The wall of battered brick that holds the door

Which opens on the world - what world? - still locked ...

(Although the chain is rusted and the key,

Perhaps the key that works, is on the nail

Beside the door; although the wood is thin,

With slight interstices of light between

The crumbling planks; although the wall itself

Rises above lost caves that reach beyond

The gravel and the roses - roses only

So splendid for a day or two, and gravel,

Mere stones, not jewels, ground down to - is it? - dust) ...

And if the cat, the orange cat, that lives

How many years? - if this same cat should leap

Lightly, like light itself, alighting on

The wall, and look further than you can see -

The hollyhocks and roses left behind,

The gravel and the dust no longer there,

The house, the desk, the paper, yes, the pen,

And all the little things which make it seem

So sure, so safe, so never to withdraw -

If this is what the orange cat has turned

Its back on there, up on the wall, regarding

Something you cannot see yet sometime saw,

Elsewhere, another country, by a different

Sea, time out of reckoning, how you cannot say,

Yet clearly at moments in the garden, or

At night, when leaning from a window to

Compute the number of the passing stars,

Or later, plunged in dreams, that favourite place

For lingering, once more brought back to when

You would accept the vision granted to

The orange cat asleep upon the garden

Wall, furred with gold, because the sun surrounds

It there, as it surrounds the gravel and

The roses, the house and all its holds; if this

No longer has a meaning to the cat

That followed you, then soared into the air

To look beyond the garden, and, consoled,

At peace, returned to sleep, there in the sunlight,

Leaving you by yourself, the roses turned

Towards death, the hollyhocks forsaken by

The August bees, and dust between the house

And all the walls enclosing it ...

                                                If this

Is true - and to deny supposes it

Is there to be denied; if you, the cat,

The hollyhocks and roses, all are as

I may remember them when I began

To write this poem these many summers past,

But now complete other than I intended

Then, who had thoughts of making it somewhat

As though it had been written by you; if

There is something here or there or somewhere,

Something you saw but do not see, something

You held to like a toy in childhood, then

Let go, supposing you were grown, and it

Unreal like life, unreal like love, unreal

Like you yourself; if all of this, the cat

The orange cat, which must be dead, the house,

Where someone lives who is not you yourself,

The poem, this poem, my poem, which now is yours;

If all of this has happened - (Can you say

It has not happened?) ... . Why? What reason? How

Was it arranged that I should come to you

To learn - however much I failed - what you,

What you alone could teach? The cat could answer;

The roses and the hollyhocks, the dust;

Your poems could answer should you read them right;

And life, and love, and you yourself. The dreams

Suppose the dreamer, and the stars suppose

Their artisan. You suppose . . . . But there you must

Open that door yourself, and look, and see

The orange cat beyond the wall, yourself

Beyond the wall, which, once you pass, is gone,

Leaving the house, and all it holds, to give

On gardens by the sea, where no walls are,

No doors, no locks, no dust, no death, and where

The roses reign forever ...

                                      Strange that this

Is the poem I thought to write by following

Your style, which led me further than I knew.

Strange that the fame you should have had has been

Denied, who have more poetry in your slightest line

Than many of the much-praised in their best.

Strange, strange, how those remote yet instant years

Are there and here, although I do not think

A bridge across them can be flung on lines

Of poetry only. Still it is my right

To praise a hidden master for his work.

Vale! - but someday certainly, always, Salve!