I lie awake: no big city white noise here.
At most a late returning cyclist contests
the claims of silence, then unexpected snow,
ticking across the window panes as softly
as the ash of Europe’s history.
Most of the folk I knew
in the volunteer work camps have died,
moved on, assumed other names. I survive
fifty years later only by
a thread of memory.
My travelling clock’s unadjusted,
Ottawa time. Here it is 2 a.m.
I turn on the bedside lamp, weigh up
my assets: memories, an eye
for classical proportion, tall eighteenth century windows,
an affection for certain trees, birds, animals,
a love for this or that composer, painter, nothing
I can pass on. If I died now, who could re-assemble
the shards of my past and how could I bequeath
the simple happiness I felt
admiring old archways, courtyards, the abbey’s carillon,
or strolling beside an elegant canal? At the end of the day,
there is only the night, so little to bequeath.
* “Douwe Eisenga was the Dutch composer who used two of my early poems, about the Dutch floods in 1953, as part of the Requiem 53 that he was commissioned to write by the government of the Province of Zeeland to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1953 floods. I first met him in February 2003 in Middleburg, Zeeland and it was his invitation to attend the first performance that resulted in my going there and not sleeping much on the night that the poem alludes to.”
Questions and Answers
What inspired “Bequest”?
This poem was written in February 1953 when I stayed for a week in the Dutch town of Middelburg. I was there to attend the first performance of Requiem 53, a musical work commissioned by the provincial government of Zeeland to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the catastrophic Dutch floods in 1953. As part of his text the composer, Douwe Eisenga, had used two poems that I had written during or shortly after that time, when I was helping to clean up Dutch villages destroyed by the floods—hence my reference to “volunteer work camps.” I had just arrived jet-lagged from Ottawa—not a huge metroplois but large enough compared to Middelburg—and was staying in a bed and breakfast place on a quiet street in the old town centre, much of which dates back to the 15th and16th centuries. Because of the six hour time difference, I awoke at 2 a.m. and began thinking of how little of my own, or indeed anyone’s, experience and sense of self that makes us what we are, rather than simply what we possess, is transferable to others.
What poetic techniques did you use in “Bequest”?
Over the past twenty years at least I have tended to write overtly first person (though not necessarily autobiographical) poems, basing them, as is the case here, on very specific places, times and situations. Obviously this poem is in free verse, my main concern being to avoid any obvious drift into iambic pentameter lines, which come too easily to someone brought up in the British literary tradition. Otherwise I think in terms of phrasing and cadence, with special attention to linebreaks.