On Desire (after Winckelmann)

What is the gift? To receive—she is touched,
or the scuttle of her heart is mollified by its touch.
O to be touched by the gift, like being singled out
and blessed by infirmity. The gift—
simulacrum of love—and he who gives it does so
knowing that by giving it to me nothing
could really be gained.

            Black corollary of love—
            go trouble younger hearts.

The man who wrote that phrase the breadth
of a single hair: noble simplicity and grandeur
also boasted: ‘Ich esse gut und Ich scheisse gut’.
He could articulate it, and wanting it, had that gift
of seeing that somewhere between these vivifications
of ‘consummate’ and ‘evacuate’
is the completion of desire.

Eugenics of Art—
Homer mentions no pitted face, no pox. Arcangeli,
who would disembowel the Abbé, was not
the tone-deaf Olympian Alcibaides, fondling boys
in the gymnasium, but a disfigured man of no account.
Winckelmann wrote, much before his fated friendship:
The Archangel of Concha’s face
‘glows with indignation and revenge.’


Turning over rubble in the Villa Albani,
Winckelmann observes the broad repose of time.

Gleam of white light on a stone neck, on a pedestal of bone.
Perhaps some conquest, in a preternatural hour,
had carried off her head? Or trampled her face to dust.
Either way, he is sure that finding it is beyond his office.
The absence makes her animal.
He does not note this in his catalogue.


What had Rhodopis said, all those hours, to the ugliest of men?
When she heard his fables, what love stiffened
in the folds of garments that could hook itself
to the promise of one wayward slipper?

Chewing her thumbnail through his long-winded tale,
she may have at last excoriated:
‘Enough of your riddles!’

Here is the apple and there is the tree, appearing ordinary.


Where is the tree? Despondent wife of Socrates                        
young and ancestrally equestrian.
Xantippe (meaning ‘blonde horse’) whom the old man
would not woo. He, a coquette in the world of men—
A gadfly—she could only buck. 


True art in imitation
or true propaganda?

David’s Death of Socrates alarmed the salon of 1787.

The scroll at Plato’s feet. Death warrant … or versifications of Aesop?
Wise son of a midwife, who in his final hours           
Reared like the horse of Napoleon Bonaparte.


Slave of Samos, gnarled hunchback, deformed fabulist.                       
Your animal phrase soils the footstools of Europe.
There—and also there—a fleet of eyes, each blackly identical                       
out-minister the other.

An unctuous industrialist pats his thorax.                                   

Dissolute parthenogenist,
man vis-à-vis his instincts—
we sniff our own blood.

How you have multiplied in us
like an incandescence that hauls itself
up from the dark
to colour a woman’s cheeks?


Slave-girl, Cinder-girl, Horse-of-a-Different-Colour.
The wise busts of Herculaneum
angle the torsos of headless girls.

Withdrawing the candle from his window
that opens onto the Porta Salaria
Winckelmann carries thoughts of his pupil’s contours
Down tapestried corridors to bed,
Following his moral windmill.



‘Vivien With Household Gods’
               [HB/PH/241-57: Photo Album of 57 Chester Terrace 1924-1929]

It is a matter between two wives, living and dead,
and who can guess where one ends and the other,
in shortened, enumerated breaths, begins
that loveless phrase of emptied rooms
and unpeopled letters:
yours in eternity.

One, colloidal with dust,
is powdering in upstairs rooms
by fireside lanterns of vinegar and gin,
desiccate widowhood mealing itself in air.
The other, besmattered and freaked with decay—
her face, razed by sunlight to purest whitewash,
turns towards her mantelpiece of household gods:
a silvery plate, pewter candlesticks and Hellenic vase—
its heroic scene a spear in the fist, muscular and poised to strike—
candles, a portrait of a lady in high-collars, jet beads, faraway in the eye.

V’s hands are clasped
(as if she is trying not to touch them)
Her elbow rests lightly.

There can be only one priestess
at the altar of the fair husband.
Her prayerful look is excised
en toto, clean from the ears.

Tom & Polly & Peter (the dog and cat)
invigilate the changing of the shift.

V crumbles, inverts, wanders the streets in blackshirt
repeating the childhood question up to Stoke Newington
it’s raining it’s pouring and all the King’s horses and all
in my lady’s chamber and couldn’t get up in the morning.

O O O all the King’s men in Lancashire, in Hampstead,
in Compayne Gardens ringing me thin and ransacking
the house   tedium deus    protracted life   ringing me thin
bring me gin by the fire on the lawn of Ottoline’s garden.


[A Letter dated 14 September 1939 from T. S. Eliot in London (on Criteron letterhead) to Richard Jennings: ‘Your letter arrived timely to cheer me up: I have been plunged in dust, going through and destroying old papers which ought to have been destroyed years ago: turning up unanswered letters from people who are dead, a photograph of a man who has been in an insane asylum for years, and such cemetery matter’.]




[Sandeep Parmar's first collection, The Marble Orchard, was published by Shearsman in 2012. She is Reviews Editor for The Wolf magazine and is currently writing a biography of Hope Mirrlees. Her Collected Poems of Hope Mirrlees appeared in 2011 from Carcanet, and her monograph on the modernist poet Mina Loy, Reading Mina Loy's Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern Woman was published in 2013 by Continuum. She is a Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool.]

Copyright © 2013 by Sandeep Parmar, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.