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August 02, 2007


macaulay.jpg "Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within, as the first traceable beginning of our love."

-- Middlemarch

    My poetry life began while my feet still hung in mid-air from the chair I was sitting on. I was staying at my grandparents' home.
    My grandmother and I were sitting alone together in the house. It was summer and hot. The afternoon sunlight turned the window panes into streams of upward shimmering air. At a certain point, and to my great disappointment, my grandmother put down her knitting, to which she had been attending, and switched the glowing TV set, to which I had been attending, off. "Enough of that", she said gently.
    She had been an Oxford undergraduate at St. Anne's at the same time as the young W. H. Auden was huddled away in his shuttered bunker at Christ Church. But, after her mother died, my grandmother had been forced to abandon her English degree in order to look after her younger brothers and sisters. Now in her early sixties, she was a quiet person, though I think that I remember her chuckling a lot. She and my grandfather were Congregationalists and ardent anti-apartheid campaigners.
    We had a cake, and then she began to read to me slowly, carefully and with a faint ironical smile, from Macaulay's bathetic Lays of Ancient Rome. She had a beautiful, gentle voice, soft but clear. (Perhaps it came from her family and the old Victorian/Edwardian habit of reading poems aloud: her brother, Robin Holmes, was a poetry-reader and an announcer on the BBC's Third Programme.) She kept her eyes on the text, as if not wanting to make any mistakes, but she knew I was shooting glances at her and as she looked down, she also letting a wide spectrum of expressive signals move across her face, like a subtle emotional variant of semaphore. "Oh, Tiber! Father Tiber! | To whom the Romans pray, | A Roman's life, a Roman's arms, | Take thou in charge this day!..." I listened, bowed in silence, staring at my floating shoes in an agony of pleasure. Macaulay's Romans and Etruscans orated like titled martinets from the Duke of Wellington's General Staff kitted out in Victorian fancy dress. But it did not matter to me. Aesthetically organized language suddenly caught fire in my head.
    Were the flames inside me ignited by my grandmother's voice? Or by the thought of a hero who defeats an army single-handed but then still has to abandon himself to the violent whims of the river he calls "Father"? The moment was so stunning and confusing that I have never had any clear idea about that issue. All I know is that my mind seethed and ran over as if it were being poured out like a ladleful of molten bronze. I thought that my eyes were failing and my tongue was paralyzed. I think I might have sighed after my grandmother finished reading, and, in answer to her question, I just about managed to mumble, "Yeah, it was good." I sat, heavy-headed, gazing at my scuffed sandals as my psyche cooled into its new shape. Then came a knocking at the front door and she noticed that it was getting late.
    My grandmother's name was Elizabeth Ursula Joy Moore and on 21 February 1977, as she was trying to release her car’s sticky handbrake before reversing out of a parking spot, she had a heart-attack and died. She was 68. She and my grandfather, who died less than a year later, both donated their remains for use in medical research. I believe parts of my grandmother's body are still preserved somewhere in Oxford. In my more complacent moments, I think of myself as another of her good deeds. And, 30 years later, I still cannot read that Imperial drivel without welling up in floods of warm tears.

Posted by njenkins at August 2, 2007 07:07 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins