The Man of Letters

 
Walking and walking on the deck, they say:

‘We find no meaning in this dark today.’

But he walks further.

 

Where am I going? Up, up, up?

Or down, down, down in the fishy waters?

No answer.

 

At dinner with the Captain he consoles

The diamantée lady on his left,

But nothing that he says, no name he may invoke,

Saint Moritz or Saint Jean de Luz,

Can staunch the waters from the bilge that soak

Up through the cushions of the cabined Rolls.

And later in the lift

Those new-found friends, the Plebs, young Jock and dear Darlene,

Suggest a hand or two of bridge, the Three False Wives

Convention; and he loses, but the loss is borne

By General Usage, married to an Argentine:

‘No question but a chap pays when he’s taken by surprise.’

The Loser of the Battle of Manchu Treaty sips

His rum and lemon pirate-wise

And asks to be instructed in the way to write about

A life made up of pleasure trips.

And the stewards come in and the stewards go out;

And the chicken sandwiches attract the stowaway flies;

And the bow dips.

 

Later

In bed in the best stateroom

On that deck

At that price

And considering the reduction

Because of fame,

He wonders if he could not have been greater,

Had an even better stateroom

And not felt sick.

Oh, well, you shake the dice

And out comes election

To the French Academy

Or some similar shame.

 

Sleeps uneasily;

Dreams unpleasantly.

What are they saying?

‘A failure at fifty:

Three out of every four books

Aren’t sold to the films.’

Strange.

They bought all of his.

Or had they?

Perhaps they’d only told him that;

Keep the old boy quiet;

Brighten up his last years on the high seas

I’m ruined, he thought, waking up;

Not even enough to tip the bath steward.

 

Sleeps some more.

 

At dawn the sky distempered with a sullen glow

Casts down the heart.

How far, he asks himself, am I from shore?

And rings for breakfast.

But orange rind and eggshell start

Blank meditations on mortality.

 

If I should die at sea . . . .

 

Nonsense.

No one my age is known to die,

Except he overeat,

Or overdrink;

Or could it be, he overlive?

 

The long white trousers and the long white shoes;

A casual elegance at quoits;

And later, laughter with the soup.

- Yes, let there be no question there, the news

Had reached the saints in steerage, and the troop

Of charming children howling in the bar:

‘That sad old man with the distinguished face,

You know, the one whose grey eyes seem to see so far,

Well, him, no less, why, he’s been every place,

Told me so himself, the famous writer.’

 

‘Waiter!

I mean. Steward!

How many knots have we untied today?

Good of you to laugh, a thread-bare joke.

And what do you call that iceberg there to leeward?

A frozen ship?

A sister ship?

The snow that tops the funnels might be smoke.

If I am wanted, will you say

That I have gone to write another book?’

 

Writing and writing, he begins to sense

A last suspense:

The ice-encrusted lifeworks sway

Over the long avoided deeps;

And what he would not say

In his usual shallow-hearted way

Now comes unbidden to his lips,

And he is heard to pray

For himself and others like lavish ships

Afloat a moment more;

And as his aged world keels over in the morning,

In the hour before the almonds and the olives,

Before the never-to-be-tasted pale potato chips,

He is happy to implore

For everyone the self-same warning

The sudden startled vision of their lives

Capsized,

And what they idolized.

Themselves,

Nothing but frozen tears.

As the long sea shelves

Away for good.

 

So he has understood.