In Queer Street
I ransack the pockets of my pants and jackets
for cash, find only muck plus notes for poems:
my life is measured out in pocket lint.
The exigencies of war: a soldier digs a fatigue pit,
finds a ceramic doll’s head and a lead battleship:
Hummel and dreadnaught, sturm und drang, needles and hearts.
I felt a failure with friends and girls, better at
chess and anapestic prosody than twist or tango. I feared
being taken behind the bicycle sheds and shot.
The battleship steaming past New Brighton Tower,
the brown Mersey beating against the sea wall. I show you
the Echo photo. “I can’t paint that,” you said.
Yet you painted the dinner party, a pre-Raphaelite dream,
all our friends ranged each side of the long table,
tall bottles of wine, fingers pointed, ciggies finely poised.
Adrian and Roger, Sam and Sheena, John and Paul, me and you.
Unpainted, I recall us rolling home from the Cracke,
where did we get the wherewithall for such profligacy?
Your paintings sold but my poems lay in drawers,
or in editors’ drawers. You worked in your Mersey studio
while I worked in a jelly baby factory in the Smoke.
After “The Dinner Party,” you drew but never painted. Did you
run out of ambition, or had you painted all you knew,
invested everything in the canvases you left?
The night we slept in your Mini Cooper in Wapping
before waltzing round Petticoat Lane with my Super 8
recording the hawkers pitching their veggie cutters,
you the artist and me the poet, recorders of life,
two renegades on the lam, Ronnie Biggs and pal,
Great Train Robbers without the purloined quids.
The backed up sink in your cold water flat in Gambier Terrace,
floating pieces of paper swirl across the lino:
pieces of my face, the photos you’d taken for my portrait.
You and I singing “Carrickfergus” in the Everyman Bistro,
harmonizing to your guitar: “My days are numbered,
So come all you young men and lay me down.”
Taken by drink before your time, the large heads
you painted. Etched in Auden’s face, amor and angst,
Hoover like Mount Rushmore, the young pop stars.
In the photo, your head back laughing. Behind you,
a painting of my feet on pink satin sheets,
tagged for the show, oil on canvas, signed and dated.