POEMS BY PHILIP HOBSBAUM

Time period: 1963-1972

Poet: Philip Hobsbaum

Permanent URL: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/17kz4

Source: Belfast Creative Writing Group 1963-6


Back to top

STUDY IN A MINOR KEY

Guildhall, London. November 16, 1848

The people hot from dancing who went into the room where he

played were but little in the humour to pay attention and anxious

to return to their amusement. He was in the last stages of

exhaustion, and the affair resulted in disappointment. His

playing at such a place was a well-intentioned mistake.

Poor Fritz, poor Fritzchen, Frédéric Chopin, I

Man my resources to play all the night through,

Flex my wrist as a singer might draw in breath

Pausing before her first irresolute note -

For whom shall I sing but you, old cimbalom,

Simpleton of my wanderings, confidante

Like me played out by circumstance? - slender frame

More or less sound, a few strings snapped inside

Waiting for some Pleyel to refashion them.

Play to yourself, for yourself, while the gay throng

Murmur together, impatient for the end -

It will come, it will come - yellow, shrivelled, cold,

Three layers of flannel under my clothes, still

No bigger than a boy, shrunk over the keys,

Nothing left but my longer-than-ever nose

And a third finger desperately out of play.

Dowagers, dowried debutantes, dowdy belles,

They've got their grip on me - I can't shake them off -

Introduce me all over - who knows to whom? -

Chatter while I perform and then play themselves

Soulful and inaccurate, watching their hands -

Lank dried-up green-and-yellow countesses,

Scottish ladies who whistle to the guitar,

Mrs. Grote, grotesque, with her baritone voice

Asking me up three flights of steps to her box,

We chatted like the goose and the sucking pig

For I could speak no English and she no French -

The continuous round of dinners, concerts, balls,

Surrounded by people, feeling so alone,

More bored than ever, bored, incredibly bored.

If London were not so black, its people dull,

Or if it could lose its smell of soot and fog,

I might even now dare to open my mouth

In this, your so-dear city. But I get up

Coughing myself to death, take soup in my room,

Get Daniel to dress me, gasp all day, not fit

For anything until diner. Then to stop

At table with these cattle, watching them talk,

Listening to them drink - oh, good kind souls,

So ugly and so alarming, let me breathe,

Understand what is said to me, live to greet

One or two friendly faces - those that are left.

Old-as-a-mummy, very, extremely old -

I don't know how it is but thoughts of my friends,

Witwicki and Isidore, Antonia, Jan,

Those that have died, keep coming into my head -

Poor Jan, poor Johnny, Jan Matuszynski, you

- Clay like my own, fallen to pieces now -

Cannot speak out to rouse me from my despair,

Even the tuner, Ennike, drowned himself

Leaving me not one instrument in the world

Tempered to suit my touch. Only five deaths more,

And I shall feel at home at St. Peter's gate.

The murmur spreads, the dowagers on the stairs

Glitter in diamonds, glut on the paintings, halt,

Make as if to descend - so loud strike the keys!

- How vividly do my early days rise up

When first I played this piece at Castle Posen

Hidden deep in the forests of Radziwill -

The master of the house led the polonaise

Through all his bright apartments arrayed with guests

Joining the cavalcade as it redoubled -

We danced all night, hunted all morning, and now

The Prince, his wife and his son, all, all are dead

Make them dream now as, long ago, when a boy

I humbled the bright heads to the schoolroom floor,

Lulling their master, my father Nicholas,

Or in the Chaussée d'Antin, after the play

When knots of vivid talkers decked my room, I

Tempered for reverie, not revelry, lit

The yellow candles by the piano, sat

Down at the keys, let my hands wander, now

Almost at random, now drawing out a tone

Fashioned from crystal and water, my Pleyel.

And one by one the eager voices were stilled,

My guests gathered around me in the light

Flickering over my hands, the polished wood

Reflecting the room behind me - pale chaises-longues,

Corners melted to shadow seeming to stretch

Into indefinite space, while everywhere

The darkness rippled, fluctuated, encroached.

Suddenly I crashed down chords to drive the bright

Reflections from their faces - the candles flared,

Flickered away - but before they died I saw

Caught by that blaze, deep in a fauteuil, one

Facing me out, devouring me with her eyes.

Darkness shut down on us, someone stirred, and then

Deep in my ear I heard her sibilant voice -

'Why not pluck up your courage, Fingers-of-Silk?'

On my arm the grip of an alien hand.

Dark as a gypsy with her Indian eyes,

Chocolate hair in great braids coiled round her head,

Solemn at soirées, gazing into the fire,

Refusing ices, settled with her cigar,

Set on a sofa, squat in red pantaloons,

Repelling curtly between two puffs of smoke

The double entendres of fops posing about.

Those fops! Could we escape? Wherever we went

Some lover was sure to follow - sleepy-voiced,

Clothing his lust most elegantly. To flee!

Vanish one morning - put off concerts and friends,

Retreat to some innocent isle, out of reach

Of the insolent smile, caller, rattling cane.

'Little Chop, Chippy-Chop, Chip-Chop, Chopinsky

Come with me. Why do you fear to come with me?

Can there be love without so much as a kiss?

Chastity? So you to fear to sully our love

With ecstasy? Abstain from soiling the flesh?

Play in the darkness on a dumb keyboard, then!

Why do you shirk away, poor little corpse?

The one mortal thing about you is your cough,

Though you cough with infinite grace. Dare you come?

The last embrace is the purest. Come with me.'

Mademoiselle Chopin bowed to Monsieur Sand:

I play a funeral march to celebrate.

Alone in an empty chartreuse backed by hills

Hung high on a cliff, overlooking the plain

- Here some old monk, stifling the fire in his blood,

Vowed to perpetual silence, once peeped out

To glimpse mankind crawl over the valley floor

And then retire through the cloisters to his cell,

Fasten the coffin lid, lie down on his bier -

Call as loud as he might, nobody would come.

Like that old monk I ventured out for a walk

Over the ruinous landscape, crater scarred.

She strode ahead in a masculine cape and boots,

One foot on a hill, the other in a gulch,

While I stumbled behind, stones cutting my feet.

When she was tired we turned back into the wind

Buffeting at our faces, knocking me down.

Torrents tore roads for landslides to repair,

The guide ran off in panic, we asked our way

Of goats on hind legs, truculent Majorcans -

'That river?' 'Part of the road.' 'Indeed. That hole?'

'Part of the road.' 'That thicket?' 'Part of the road.'

We got back at last, worn down, soaked through by rain.

It never stopped. Damp settled over our limbs

Like an icy cloak, swelled out the spongy walls,

But wherever could we go? Camped in our cell,

Gipsies fretting among gipsies, we hung on -

Suffered a hairy monster to bring us food

Concocted by witches - garlic, pepper, oil,

Fleas hopping over the fried-up chicken-skin,

While our good neighbour foraged our scanty stores,

A psalm in her mouth, her paw clamped in the pot.

Wretchedly coughing, blinking through icy drops

I said 'If we stay here we might as well drown,

Our very clothes are mouldering to our backs.'

She stared in my face with those great heifer eyes,

Shook her dark tresses, went off to look for food,

Leaving me by myself. Down hammered the rain,

The vast deserted cloister cracked overhead,

The wind rumbled like gunnery through the halls,

And through the halls a crazy sacristan stalked

Battering at cell after cell - seeing my light,

Beating at mine. 'Father Nicholas,' he calls,

Summoning the monk I banished. 'Will you go?'

Nicholas, Father, my father, Nicholas

Nicholas Chopin - I wept all the night through,

Shrank to the inner chamber, in self-defense

I started to play - anything, what you will,

The roof of the cells rang to my frenzied chords

Tearing into the wind and buffeting rain,

- I saw that she had been drowned, that I was drowned

Deep in the sea, but not so deep but the drops

Pelted me yet, plummeting on to my chest,

Pulsating like icy heartbeats, colder, chill -

When she crashed in at last in a gust of rain

I knew at once that she was one of the damned.

(The music improvised in my madness then

I play for dowagers' delectation now -

They hear but do not listen, cannot respond,

Talking all through my collect, collectedly.)

'Drink up your soup. I can't pour it down your throat.

Don't forget lunch. The niña could make a stew

If you only let her alone. Well, what now?'

'I am choking, love.'

'Take off your muffler, then.'

'I bore you. Do I not bore you? Tell me the truth -

Blood on my lips, tossing in fever - I call

Even at dead of night for help.'

'And I come.'

'But does it not bore you, love? All through these months

Have you not lived like a virgin with me here?

And I - I am damped down with feebleness,

Crawl, but just to some instrument, touch the keys,

Sketch out some wraiths of music, have to retire.'

'Why fret yourself?' Why not rest?'

'How can I rest?

The ghostly fathers of the chartreuse last night

Filed past my bed in a funeral cortége.

They carried a coffin which they said was mine.'

'A nightmare! The doctors come this afternoon.'

'Ah, dearest, they would kill me. When they came first

One sniffed at what I spat up, the second tapped

Where I had spat it from and the third one poked,

Listening while I spat. They said I would die,

Was dying now, was, perhaps, already dead.'

'Asses - each one greater than the last.'

'My love,

I fear that I am damaged beyond repair.'

I take one final look round the narrow cell

We meant to be so happy in - at its doors

Tall as a carriage-gateway, its vaulted roof

Vibrant in sympathy with my muted chords,

The huge box by the bed where I used to write,

The candlestick I wrote by, grandfather chair

Where I would sit but where the shadowy monk,

Kneeling to pray, would meditate on his past.

If I had a fire and blood enough I would stop,

Cloistered apart in the solace of this vault.

But no! She has found a boat to take us away,

Ready keyed for departure. A hundred swine

Grunt already on board, the swinemaster swears,

Denounces those who stand appalled by the stink,

Shuddering at the noise. Some porker slips down,

Falls to uneasy slumber - straight in he jumps

Lashing from side to side the pen while they writhe,

Scramble to their feet squealing like poor damned souls -

'Keeps them patrolling, stops them from being sick.'

Not so the wretched passengers. The boat rolled,

Pitched and juddered for thirty hours on end,

While I vomited bowl after bowl of blood,

Was handed down to the quay, a pallid ghost.

Old Chop. old Chipette, Pichon, Chopin, I think

Some inner je-ne-sais-quoi may pull me through

Dances, concerts, theatres, assembly-halls,

One noble salon after the next. I drag

This hoarsely breathing cadaver through the streets,

Or listen to pupils, cloistered in my room,

Resuming my life again, what's left of it,

Rub my aching temples with eau-de-cologne

Finger the miniature Pleyel by my side,

Essay the obvious laid flat on a couch -

Sick as I am the piano holds my life,

I play not upon strings but the human heart

For one or two friends, hushed in the dove-grey room

Fontana furnished - Isidore possibly,

Johnny of course, and possibly Madame Sand

- Once, that is, once. Had she but left me in peace

I might have, like Cherubini, lived quite long,

And written, perhaps, as badly. Better go.

Daniel found my passport the other day,

It says on the front that I am passing through -

After twenty years in Paris, still en route,

Too cold to stay, too ill to leave. But I met

The Lady herself, my cross, my serpent, here,

Bowed politely, enquired after health,

Withdrew as soon as I could into the street.

Such encounters may grow frequent. Keep withdrawn:

Paris freezes my fingers fast to the keys,

No doubt the grave will be warmer. Let me see -

Passant par Paris a Londres. Shall I go?

Poor Fritzel, Freycek, Freyderyk Chopin, play -

The busy world will never listen to you.

Think of this London, black as a nobleman's arse,

The soot coalescing in my nostrils here,

Clutching at my throat, eating away my lungs,

Think of that modish lodging with modish rent

- Take it or leave it for some similar place,

For I must live well, think of my pupils. Yes,

Think of them. Ladies who come but seldom pay,

And those who never - more thoughtfully - come at all.

'This season one must retrench,' some harpy said -

Nothing to fill my trencher, but they're entrenched.

Whatever is not boring is not English,

Strong and efficient like their turtle soup,

Orchestras and roast beef, but nothing more.

Look at these beldames, sporting ribbons and stars,

Consider their cattle, standing in the field -

Ä¢a a plus d'intelligence que les Anglais.

Some nations give annuities for great art,

These should pay me for doing no work at all,

Not here, not in this urinal of a place,

Well-washed, they tell me, but with nowhere to stay.

No, it must cease. I have no strength to play loud

And they lack sense to be silent. Why go on?

I see that cards have come out, soon there is tea,

Then dancing and flirtation. I cannot hear

Over the chattering crowd ranged on the stairs

Exactly what I am playing, and if I stop

- As now I do - no-one will notice, or care.

No, I must leave. Diffidently take no bow -

The night will reward me, and the grave, and worms,

Music speaks for itself, as well as it can -

Crawl from the stool, tell Daniel to call a cab,

Allow him to drape a cerecloth on my frame,

Find the front door for me, open it too wide,

Into shuddering darkness. Pause on the step,

Take one glance back to the light - not there, not there,

Leave the hot glitter behind me. Let it go -

Embrace the blackness, lose myself in the night.

Back to top

TEI XML