I sit on a wooden bench in Bath Abbey Listening to the English Consort Play Bach's `Air on a G-String' And think on Mary, Queen of Arkansas. A Hetherington reiver from Cumberland Of sturdy peasant stock; She possesses a cat Apollonia, A daughter Jenny, and a taste for tequila. Mary of the Songs falls asleep on pine needles, Buys bric-a-brac at auctions, And has her head full of dreams. Earlier I sat on a bench in the Crystal Palace pub And drank a pint of Royal Oak Eager for the taste of Old Man Bach. Mary of Bernera was brought up on the harp. Poetry and personality her unseen attributes I marvel at the book of laments derived from her illiteracy. Mary MacLeod, Nurse to the MacLeods of Dunvegan, Skye. Mary, Queen of Arkansas, With your brass bedstead and roll-top desk, Your yardstick is virility, Counting your orgasms as beads. Mary of the Songs, Come to me in the dark hours of the night. Let your touch be smooth and strong, Muse of the ancient ways. The music pierces my soul, I will live forever.
Mary, the April witch, Spins words from a gossamer web Into tapestry for my ears. At five in the morning She floats from her woods in Arkansas To my window. There she taps and enters Bringing with her the goodness of sustenance. We lie in the morning light, Her touch like thistledown. We are in each other forever Until she departs for her chores. There is milking to be done, Chickens to be fed. I lie in my bed and love a dream. I pinch her bottom as she heads out the window To make her real. She is Mary, Queen of Arkansas.
I walked up the hill From my Poetry Evening Where I had recited my two little Mary-poems To great acclaim When I found her on my doorstep Clutching my cat Ludovic to her. `How did you get here? Mary', I asked. `Continental drift', she answered. So, thinking it was a long way from Arkansas, I took her in for a coffee. She floats in and out of my life like a sunbeam. It is always merrier when she is there. She has duties and is always busy, But give her ten minutes and she can gossip. She is my guiding light, She knows everything. Sitting in the wildflowers she eyes me at my computer, `It has to be done with love', she says. Let me make up a Mary-poem for her.
Mary asks about God. I explain to her that the DNA is God. Before the DNA there was no God. Nature is God. I explain about Heidegger. How we are thrown into the world, Not knowing where we come from or where we go to, With all the baggage of family and tribe. And how marvellous it is to exist. We are here to care for each other And to prepare for our death. In the clearing of the West We are the wisest of the chimpanzees. There is no stopping us in our search for truth. Mary walks in the green forest Listening to the birds call. The sun shines down through the branches And I stand in the fire-break.
`The most important thing in life Is getting your drink down you', I say. `I prefer to fuck, after champagne', says Mary. I think of Glenmorangie and peaty Bowmore. I think of the barren years after Susan. `I like to fuck', says Mary. I have been silly. `I like to fuck', say I.
`I sleep on the left hand side', I tell Mary, `You sleep beside the wall.' `When you're not on top of me', she says. I think of the prairies and the mountains and the seas. She outfits the kitchen and the bathroom in her own image. She feeds Ludovic. She takes over the house. I have to re-arrange the furniture. We buy Cornish pasties at the neighbourhood shop. We heat them up in the oven. We sit in the evening drinking little bottles of wine. We love each other.
Mary is writing sad love poems again. I tell her I am of the lucky generation, The great generation. `But I won't marry you', she says. I spin my web round her. Once she is in my bed she will never want to leave it. `I never marry those I love', she says. I think how young she is.
I post her poem to Mary. Then I turn And look back two thousand years at Catullus. `Sappho-class?', I ask. He laughs and grins at me. I am with my own people.
I explain to Mary How Heidegger was a Nazi, He rejected the Enlightenment. How I am Glasgow, A powerhouse of the West. But I love Heidegger's philosophy. It is a contradiction. Heidegger loved the poets, And wanted to be one. I am the real thing. It doesn't come very often.
`In America they call me a whore', says Mary. I say `Come on over to the Chinese And we'll get some fish and chips. We can eat it over a pint in the Trowbridge, Sue won't mind. Then we'll go up to the Englishcombe And you can talk John Clare to Bert.' `Yes', says Mary, `I'm at home here.' `Pity you have to go back', say I.
`What matters is the writing', says Bert, `A fuck is a fuck.' I nod. Mary won the Faulkner Prize. I can write at four thousand miles But can I write when she's with me? `I have broccoli and cucumber in my garden', Says Mary, `At night the thunder comes.' Mary writes alone.
I write. It's the old rugby phrase: `Get your retaliation in first!' She is coming in March and I will freeze. Mary looks out the window: `Isn't it time you pruned your creeper? This kitchen is like the Black Hole of Calcutta.' I can bring her here whenever I want. All it takes is love. The beautiful sad Irish music floats on. I am in Heaven. She is coming in March.
Mary says `The homelands, you know, The place you've got to see before you die.' I say `Stonehenge and Avebury.' She says `All I need is clean sheets and the tub scrubbed.' I say `The Pump Room Trio.' Oh my name it is nothin' My age it means less The country I come from Is called the Midwest Mary says `I am in retreat. No sex. No alcohol.' I say `Glenmorangie.' She says `Blue agave tequila.' We fuck.
I look in on Mary. She is very pretty. Breasts and belly sudsed in bubble bath, Curly auburn hair tied up. She is sliding her bottom about. I love to swim naked. I could swim in women's bodies for hours. It is in the genes. I love Mary. She knows. She is luxuriating.
Mary sends me Patsy Cline and John Prine CDs, I send her the Oxford Book of Garden Verse. She labours so hard on the farm, Picking berries and sweet corn. She is a country girl, Who grows pink dianthus for John Clare. The smoothness of Patsy Cline is like Mary's tequila, With a tang in the tail. I asked for the John Prine, My house is stocked with cultural icons. Mary will be sending me her jam soon. I am warned to open it over the sink In case it explodes. Her photograph explodes inside my head.
I explain to Mary about the Empire, How the lazy banners waved in the morning sun. How the Falklands was a gamble, As was Nelson at Trafalgar, As was my ancestor Duncan at Camperdown. I explain to Mary how we have never lost since Hastings, And even then we won at York. I am a mercenary import. I am integrated. I will be there when the sun goes down. It is nearly mid-day.
Mary says `We beat you.' I say `A British general commanding British troops Defeated the Hanoverians. No contest.' She says `Look what you lost.' I say `India.' I think of little Scotland and the Union. And how it may be time to break it. I think of Europe and the Auld Alliance. I think of Mary in Paris. `You'll have to win us some Poetry Prizes', I say. `I am in for the University of Kentucky', she says. There would have been no Kentucky without George the Third.
I say to Mary `I had one of the great professors, Rankin at the peak of his mathematical powers. After all the shenanigans he promised me a Third, So I got a First, and he had to give me a Second.' `How boring', says Mary, `I thought you were educated.' I haven't had a lesson in English since I was fifteen. I am humiliated. She won the Randall Jarrell Prize. I wrote Camelot for Bobby Kennedy's funeral.
Where are you? my love. I weep to suck your tits. Out on the skite in Memphis Whilst I am stuck at the pig roast. And where's Diane? you say. Haven't seen her in weeks. Honest. It is your body that I worship. And what's this about being artsy in Memphis. You are incorrigible. No Cynthia to my Propertius. More Lesbia you. Clodia Pulchra educated you. I adore you. My Mary.
`I want to empty my balls into you', I say, `We've got to fuck.' I grovel for her cunt. She has written a poem for me. She doesn't boast how handsome I am Or about the duration of my erections. She is far too clever for me. I am a simple happy soul; She is Mary of the Songs. I feel illiterate. To be manipulated so by a woman. Made to act a part. This I say: I am a swimmer And I swam from Skiathos to Greece. It was in another lifetime. Before Mary. I will explain to her in bed.
I explain to Mary about Jung, How there is no racial memory. She disagrees. I explain that in my schizophrenic breakdowns My unconscious mind invaded my consciousness And I saw nothing there, Just a squalid mess. She says `I know where my poems come from.' We differ. We will argue about it in bed.
`All I ever wanted was a wife', say I. Mary says `I want you for my husband.' But she won't marry me. She believes in keeping us apart so we can write. Which is nonsense. I calculate how much money we will have to live on. We will need jobs. She is expensive, with daughter Jenny. The house is too small. `I want you for my wife', say I. `I love you', she says.
Mary says `I write Nature.' I say `After Emerson you American poets Try to populate a continent with words, Replacing civilisation by Nature.' Mary says `I am not empty.' I say `There is an emptiness in America Fed by the Romantics, You have no tradition, Every European rock has a story.' Mary says `We are a new culture, We make it new.' I say `Your job is in the naming, The names of my ancestors go back a thousand years, I belong, here in Europe.' Mary says `I belong in Arkansas.'
I say `Reading Emerson Was like Keats' discovery of Burns' manner of life.' Mary says `After Keats' namby-pamby life-style!' I say `We all know that Burns' father took the Spectator. And that Burns held up well in the Edinburgh salons. I was talking about first impressions.' Mary says `Emerson was a genius.' I say `Emerson was pathetic And his Thoreau even more pathetic. He tried to make an asset out of a liability. American culture.' Mary says `I am happiest on the trail.' I say `Natty Bumppo.' We are going to watch a John Ford movie.
`Polk was my cousin', I say to Mary, `And so was McKinley, Leonidas Polk died at the head of his troops, For the South, I am related, My people have been in America since it started.' `I thought you were Scottish', says Mary. `We invented the British', I tell her, `They wouldn't have had an Empire but for us, We are everywhere.' I think of the land-grants in New Zealand And the rented farms in Australia. I think of Winnipeg and Quebec. We are everywhere.
`The emptiness of Nature, Its absence of words, Leaves a vacuum in Emerson's America', Say I. `Rilke said we are here to name things', Says Mary. `It will take many many generations To occupy America', say I, `We will never see it.' `I named Jenny', says Mary.
Mary hoes the strawberries and picks them for the freezer. She will make jam when enough are collected. I have already tasted her black raspberry jam. Lovely. Red raspberries are picked for sauce. Beefsteak tomatoes. The gooseberries are finished. She is so proud of her flowers. Red and pink and orange zinnias, with concentric rows of petals. Baby's breath. Peppermint-stick striped carnations. White marigolds. Sunflowers. Dianthus. In the orchard the nectarines are blighted. Blue plums, pears, blue grapes, concords, apples. Only one blueberry this year. The black raspberries long gone. Mary is a gardener. Jenny's treehouse is nearly finished. Five feet off the ground. Plexiglass windows with a proper door. Craftsman's work. Jenny has a new playroom too. Mary loves Jenny. I ladle Mary's raspberry jam onto my toast. I share her sweet tooth. She adores chocolate. Her heart is in Nature. She has my heart.
`As a child I was the unloved', I tell Mary, `That is why my life has been bespattered by breakdowns.' Mary isn't listening. Mary and Jenny are on holiday in Oregon. `That is why there is no money for us to get married', I say, `Only enough for my frugal life.' Mary isn't listening. Mary is headed for the beach. `I made twenty pounds from selling poems yesterday', I say. Mary isn't listening.
I say to miaowing Ludovic `You have everything a cat could want. You have biscuits. You have milk. You have meat.' Mary has nothing she wants. She has a fetish for hotel rooms in Memphis. She likes to fuck in strange beds, Show off her solitary white pubic hair. I cannot sleep the first night in a strange bed. I lie and count the hours till dawn. I prefer familiar beds. Mary has nothing she wants. Only Jenny. I say to miaowing Ludovic `You don't know when you're well off.' Ludovic has everything.
`I am one of the great ones and I love you', I say. `One of Nature's drunks', says Mary. I spend the afternoon in the pub drinking Flowers' Original, And measuring myself against Timothy Steele. There is no-one to touch me in English poetry. Mary slaves in her Admin job. I weep for her. She could come and live in Bath and be poor, But all her life has been a fight for the better. `I am one of the great ones and I have you', I say. `I look after me and Jenny', says Mary. I write her into immortality. `I am my own person', says Mary. `I love you', say I.
Douglas Clark/ Arkansas-poems/ Benjamin Press, 69 Hillcrest Drive, Bath BA2 1HD, UK/ email@example.com