Lucifer in Starlight

21 Oct

Nico on album cover of 'Chelsea Girls', certainly not to be confused with 'Made in Chelsea'

I was flicking through web pages, looking for nothing in particular, which in ordinary life tends to invoke a receptive and often interesting state of receptivity. Moreover I was tired, and therefore probably susceptible to sentiments that I might normally guard against (but probably do not).

Anyhow, I stumble across a poem by David St. John, not a poet I remember having read before, and fell straight for it: a musical poetry of desire, of neglect, of forgetting – in which nothing sounds quite right: the man at the party is actually saying he prefers Athens to Rome; the woman whose vest “belled below each breast”(?); the disconnect between what he is saying of Rome and what is dancing urgently beneath the text, tugging at memory. What is going on here, as the narrator jumps from place to place, zone to emotional zone? And who is he? Yet I read on, lulled by the easy rhythms as the lines spilled across the page through various absurdities (“it was here I’d chosen / To live when I grew tired of my ancient life / As the Underground Man”) – Velvet Underground?

And then the extraordinary fluidity of the lines that follow the arrival in his apartment at 3.00 a.m. of Nico, with her sunken eyes, Marlene Dietrich vowels, not only in her Velvets persona but more specifically as the lowing chanteuse of the Chelsea Girls album, junk-queen heroine of my adolescence, her somber drone exciting me with visions of decadent and lonely immolations in seedy hotel rooms, dark nights of impossible desire, and the soul-barren broken wanderlust which would soon become mordant reality, and who:

Pulled herself close to me, her mouth almost

            Touching my mouth, as she sighed, “Look … ,”

And deep within the pupil of her left eye,

            Almost like the mirage of a ship’s distant, hanging

Lantern rocking the waves,

I could see, at the most remote end of the receding.

            Circular hallway of her eye, there, at its doorway,

At the small aperture of the black telescope of the pupil,

                        A tiny, dangling crucifix –

Silver, lit by the ragged shards of starlight, reflecting

            In her as quietly as pain, as simply as pain …

 

So, I will copy the poem in full, after all, although I have to keep it in italics, otherwise WordPress will re-align the text. The citation is from the eponymous poem by Meredith (1828-1909) which can be found here, the opening lines of which are: ON a starr’d night Prince Lucifer uprose. / Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend / Above the rolling ball in cloud part screen’d,  / Where sinners hugg’d their spectre of repose.

 

 

Lucifer in Starlight

 

Tired of his dark dominion … 


—George Meredith

 

It was something I’d overheard

One evening at a party; a man I liked enormously

                     Saying to a mutual friend, a woman

Wearing a vest embroidered with scarlet and violet tulips   

          That belled below each breast, “Well, I’ve always   

Preferred Athens; Greece seems to me a country

                     Of the day—Rome, I’m afraid, strikes me   

As being a city of the night … ”

          Of course, I knew instantly just what he meant—   

                     Not simply because I love

Standing on the terrace of my apartment on a clear evening   

          As the constellations pulse low in the Roman sky,   

The whole mind of night that I know so well

                     Shimmering in its elaborate webs of infinite,

Almost divine irony. No, and it wasn’t only that Rome

          Was my city of the night, that it was here I’d chosen   

                     To live when I grew tired of my ancient life

As the Underground Man. And it wasn’t that Rome’s darkness   

                     Was of the kind that consoles so many

          Vacancies of the soul; my Rome, with its endless history   

Of falls … No, it was that this dark was the deep, sensual dark

                     Of the dreamer; this dark was like the violet fur   

Spread to reveal the illuminated nipples of

                     The She-Wolf—all the sequins above in sequence,   

The white buds lost in those fields of ever-deepening gentians,

          A dark like the polished back of a mirror,

                     The pool of the night scalloped and hanging   

Above me, the inverted reflection of a last,

                                                                Odd Narcissus …

                                           One night my friend Nico came by   

Close to three a.m.—As we drank a little wine, I could see

                     The black of her pupils blown wide,   

The spread ripples of the opiate night … And Nico

          Pulled herself close to me, her mouth almost

                     Touching my mouth, as she sighed, “Look … ,”

And deep within the pupil of her left eye,

          Almost like the mirage of a ship’s distant, hanging

                     Lantern rocking with the waves,

I could see, at the most remote end of the receding,

          Circular hallway of her eye, there, at its doorway,   

At the small aperture of the black telescope of the pupil,

                               A tiny, dangling crucifix—   

Silver, lit by the ragged shards of starlight, reflecting

          In her as quietly as pain, as simply as pain …

Some years later, I saw Nico on stage in New York, singing

          Inside loosed sheets of shattered light, a fluid   

Kaleidoscope washing over her—the way any naked,

                     Emerging Venus steps up along the scalloped lip

          Of her shell, innocent and raw as fate, slowly   

Obscured by a florescence that reveals her simple, deadly

                               Love of sexual sincerity …

          I didn’t bother to say hello. I decided to remember   

The way in Rome, out driving at night, she’d laugh as she let

          Her head fall back against the cracked, red leather

                               Of my old Lancia’s seats, the soft black wind   

Fanning her pale, chalky hair out along its currents,

          Ivory waves of starlight breaking above us in the leaves;   

The sad, lucent malevolence of the heavens, falling …

                     Both of us racing silently as light. Nowhere,   

Then forever …

                                           Into the mind of the Roman night.

 

 

 

 

 

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