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15 April 2023

The NS Poem: A Standstill

A new poem by Andrew Motion.

By Andrew Motion

im Georgina Hammick 1939-2023

1. A totalled Nissan crosswise on the interstate
straddling two lanes, and a welter of traffic
channelling sunset as it clumped and stewed:
livid metal streaming from the furnace mouth.
When it snagged me too, I checked my phone
and found the message saying you were dead.
Were dead. I turned the engine off and stared
ahead. No movement on the road, no change,
but evening clouds were setting fireships now,
sailing them among the derelicts already lost
where Earth and sky dissolved in one another,
and so ending the disaster. With that darkness
came a tow truck, and the traffic wriggled free.
By then I was long gone and home with you.

2. Your house was beautiful: falling to pieces,
a wind-tunnel in winter, but set in its place
like a mushroom. The garden even more so,
and in summer too good to be true, almost:
the Wiltshire Downs with their parliament
of smooth sage heads polished by lark song;
a chalk stream tinkering through watercress;
and a copper beech overshadowing. Driving
stop-start on the choked A303 from London
I had passed other beeches the flowing wind
kept at battle stations, every patient platoon
holding its ground as stoutly as the Romans
buried beneath. Nothing ever seemed quite
possible, then everything. Including beauty.

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3. You made me a study across the yard in an old hayshed
and I hunkered in its cube of whitewashed walls writing
the biographies of George, Constant and Kit Lambert.
It was winter suddenly, and a veil of ice distributed itself
meticulously over my window. That, along with cobwebs
fleshed out with tawny hayseeds and the corpses of flies,
some so ancient their black body armour was now silver,
made a permanent twilight that helped my concentration.
Then you came in bearing an electric heater in your arms
like a shepherd carrying home a sheep from the hillside,
and set it down beside the cavernous collapsing armchair
neither of us had previously thought we might in fact use.
Before you uncoiled the lead and plugged it in the socket
we knew how the story ended: that day we read no more.

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[See also: Rowan Williams on 110 years of the New Statesman: “I’m unrepentant about my guest-edit”]

4. Everything was last minute but so what: life always
felt worth putting on hold or rewinding. Once even
a village sign we blurred past in your rattling Polo
made you slam the brakes on, whip your lipstick out
and scrawl “Twace” between the “Up” and “Nately”.
Which is never to forget the deep-set bearskin fringe
that hid your eyes enough to see things as they were;
or your brown fingers weaving their cigarette shroud,
or your squeezed-out laughing “Yes!” Or your sadness.
When you wrote to Noël Coward, a childhood crush
that stuck, he bothered to reply – you thought because
he thought you were a boy. Well, Georgie, George,
we spent five years in one another’s arms, and truth
to tell, not choosing one or other was the best reply.

5. No longer pretending to be ourselves, but still shy
or nervous to be away alone together, we booked
into a chintzy Bed and Breakfast outside Lechlade
as Mr and Mrs Alfred Tennyson: low wood beams,
small bed, flighty gleams of Thames-light working
with the William Morris curtains. New formalities.
New silence. Then you padded from the bathroom
in your floor-length nightdress with the lacy collar,
and paused to rub your hand cream in – I thought
like someone panic-stricken, if not grieving. That
was wrong. All you meant to do was switch to Mills
and Boon, before you put one oily finger to my lips
and told me: So she took his hand in hers and closed
the bedroom door. Afterwards they both lit cigarettes.

6. Underground, unknown to us or anyone else,
obscured completely by the same thick moss
we soon tired of clearing on gardening days,
lay the lavish mosaic floor of a Roman villa.
A dolphin with a girl riding bareback; a bull
trapped in the central square of its labyrinth
with one hoof raised to pulverise the ground;
a multitude of trim green waves and no shore
for bathers a depressing distance from the sea.
Who can say what exists without our knowing,
but comes to us invisible? Now you are dead,
and the open earth has nothing more to show,
I remember, I can never forget, how we lived
while our innocence lasted. Then it was over.

Andrew Motion was the UK Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009 and is the co-founder of the online Poetry Archive. His second book of memoir, “Sleeping on Islands: A Life in Poetry”, will appear alongside “New and Selected Poems: 1977-2022” in May (Faber & Faber)

[See also: The decline of the Literary Bloke]

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This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats