Saturday, 17 October 2015

A Crumpled Rainbow

Mortality: on the library-shelf of our lives, after education, adventure, war, romance, childcare, politics, hobbies, maybe a bit of noir, it stands immovable as book-end to our final volume.

I can still remember the stark terror I felt as a six or seven year old upon first realising that one day I wouldn't be here anymore - and that the world would go on for a very long time without me!

It was a curious and deeply unsettling sensation, one that I would have struggled to put into words at that age - fright? despair? a sense of being cheated? -  and it affected me for weeks. Behind it lay an indomitable will to live (forever, if only that were possible). I characterised it later as a mixture of existential angst, premature regret and not a little righteous anger. I guess I'd stared into the dark abyss of my own inevitable not-being. Of course I came to terms with it, as most people do, and figured it wasn't something I needed to worry about for a few decades at least. Life was there to be lived.

Apparently there are individuals who don't make that adjustment. Unfortunately for them, they are permanently oppressed by a sense of their own mortality. There is, of course, a Greek word for it: thanatophobia.

Then there are those who seek to somehow take the sting out of their eventual demise by attaining lasting fame or by bequeathing a legacy of value to the world; Achilles, Attila the Hun, Agatha Christie, Apollinaire and Albert Einstein spring to mind - I'll leave you to categorise them.

For the rest of us, it's enough to keep on keeping on. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's not.

Today's poem, not written by me for a change - though I'd be delighted if it had been - seems to encapsulate so many wise, witty and compassionate observations on the theme of mortality and the human condition that I just had to share it with you. It is among my all-time favourite pieces - and has been ever since I discovered the poetry of Adrian Mitchell in my teens. I hope you'll be as moved by it as I am still, every time I read it.




The Clown is Dead
Children must learn that fairy tales are lies,
Faces are masks, and peace is out of reach.
I stare into the clown's unwinking eyes
Discovering the child they could not teach.

Though he rode out of childhood cheerfully
He left that forest for the open lands
In fear of other men. He could not see
If they held knives or flowers in their hands.

Seeing the animals, he learnt to speak
Solemnly to them, and at length remove
Their simple terrors; for if he was weak
In anything, it was not in his love.

Death came to him when he was young
And he stuck out his scarlet tongue.
He went to death when he was old:
'Take me,' he said, 'it's turning cold.'

The bearded lady and the tattooed man
Played cards inside his caravan.
We sat around his tousled bed,
Shivered with him till he was dead.

That was a quiet way, to fade,
For him, who loved to sit astride
The high giraffe in the parade,
With blare and bang of brass and hide.

It was a quiet way to fall.
Into the ring he used to come
With a high tragic caterwaul -
And he always fell upon his bum.

What was the colour of his mind?
It was a prism, casting lights,
Changing, revolving in the wind
Of roaring days and storming nights.

Our elephants of laughter strode
Across his earthy doubletalk.
He goaded them to a stampede
And shot them with a popping cork.

He met tired walkers every day,
They were ill with travelling.
His songs enchanted them to stay:
They learned to sing.

What's left? A clown of empty cloth,
A crumpled rainbow on the floor
Of a black cupboard. The destroying moth
Nests in the shapeless hat he wore.

What remains with any man?
There is no answer.
In this circus no one can
Dance, but he was a dancer.

He had no children, but I would
Stand as his son, to keep his name
And watch his footsteps take the road
Of prancing beyond praise or blame.

The gentle unicorn has gone away.
The dodo, poker-faced and knockabout
Saw that its tail was turning grey,
Ate up the door and waddled out.

In his good time he followed these
Moonstruck and happy monsters. All
His laughter has gone with him, and like these
He is extinct or mythical.

And he is fabulously still;
The greasepaint grin wiped off his face
By lightly sliding hands, until
The naked lips grin in its place.

In his hands put an apple from a tree,
Bury him deep so no one can see,
For a dead man's smile tears the whole heart down.
The clown is dead. Long live the clown.

                                                         Adrian Mitchell (Poems, 1964)

Thanks for reading. Have a good week, S;-)
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