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?
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.
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.
What are they saying?
‘A failure at fifty:
Three out of every four books
Aren’t sold to the films.’
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 . . . .
No one my age is known to die,
Except he overeat,
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.’
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
And what they idolized.
Nothing but frozen tears.
As the long sea shelves
Away for good.
So he has understood.