Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Double Shame - Stephen Spender

Contrast Spender's earlier poem here with this one and it's hard to believe it comes from the same person.  "Daybreak" has such an airy and romantic tone, the words so lightly-seeming and spontaneous, like lines Fredrich March or Ronald Colman could have whispered to Jean Arthur in a 1930's film, while this one is so tightly (and beautifully) written, precise, and harshly true.  The closing lines are an accusation cast even as the last spadeful is thrown over the dead relationship.  It leaves no room for any self-deception about what transpired, which is what has always made this a powerful poem: how many of us have had the courage and honesty to face the truth in those lines?  (This is another that requires reading the lines as though they were long sentences, i.e. follow the punctuation marks and not the line breaks the first time.)
The Double Shame

You must live though the time when everything hurts
When the space of the ripe, loaded afternoon
Expands to a landscape of white heat frozen
And trees are weighed down with hearts of stone
And green stares back where you stare alone,
And the walking eyes throw flinty comments,
And the words which carry most knives are the blind
Phrases searching to be kind.

Solid and usual objects are ghosts
The furniture carries cargoes of memory,
The staircase has corners which remember
As fire blows reddest in gusty embers,
And each empty dress cuts out an image
In fur and evening and summer and spring
of her who was different in each.

Pull down the blind and lie on the bed
And clasp the hour in the glass of one room
Against your mouth like a crystal doom.
Take up the book and stare at the letters
Hieroglyphs on sand and as meaningless –
Here birds crossed once and a foot once trod
In a mist where sight and sound are blurred.

The story of others who made their mistakes
And of one whose happiness pierced like a star
Eludes and evades between sentences
And the letters break into eyes which read
The story life writes now in your head
As though the characters sought for some clue
To their being transcendently living and dead
In your history, worse than theirs, but true.

Set in the mind of their poet, they compare
Their tragic sublime with your tawdry despair
And they have fingers which accuse
You of the double way of shame.
At first you did not love enough
And afterwards you loved too much
And you lacked the confidence to choose
And you have only yourself to blame.

Stephen Spender

No comments: